skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Gaston de Saporta1   2 September 1876

Aix-en | Provence (B. du Rh.)

2 Sept. 76

Monsieur et très-illustre confrère,

J’ai reçu les quelques mots que vous avez bien voulu m’adresser, a l’occasion de l’envoi que je vous ai fait de mon mémoire sur Meximieux—2 Je me permets à propos de l’espèce végétale soit vivante soit fossile, et surtout des arbres et arbustes, que j’ai étudiés dans ces derniers temps de vous communiquer et de soumettre à votre jugement les observations suivantes qui me paraissent résumer les allures, c’est à dire la manière de se comporter des végétaux supérieurs, dans le passé comme dans le présent.

Les formes végétales sont d’une valeur trés-inégales— On distingue, selon les cas, des espèces, des sous-espèces, des races et de simples variétés à divers degrés de permanence et d’hérédité.

Dans l’intérieur de chacune de ces espèces, sous-espèces et races, surtout lorsqu’elles occupent de grands espaces non discontinus, se produisent ou du moins peuvent se produire toutes sortes de diversités, flottantes et susceptibles dans beaucoup de cas de reproduire dans une espèce ou une race des répétitions de formes semblables à celles qui caracterisent une espèce ou une race voisines—

C’est ainsi que j’ai sous les yeux une variété de Quercus pubescens Wild. sous espèce ou race depondant du Q. sessiliflora, qui retrace presque absolument le Quercus toza sauf l’absence de Stolons, et la couleur du tomentum qui est grise au lieu d’être roussatre.3 Tout le reste est conforme.

Malgré cette diversité ou polymorphie possible, facile à observer dans les chênes européeans ou américains, les poiriers etc. ... les races, ses sous-espèces, et les types spécifiques de divers rangs peuvent remonter à une haute antiquité relative— Il est facile de le prouver par de nombreux exemples— le Q. pubescens Wild. n’est qu’une race; il existait sous les mêmes traits que maintenant dans l’âge de l’Elephas antiquus— Le Q. farnetto n’est qu’une sous-espéce et je viens de le retrouver avec l’Elephas meridionalis.4 Je crois avoir prouvé la haute antiquité de certains races d’Alnus, d’Acer opulifolium, de Pistacia etc.5 La permanence de la race, sa persistance dans une région dèterminée ne fait pas obstacle à sa tendance à la variation, qui peut et doit selon les cas, ou s’exercer sans changement appréciable pour l’ensemble du type qui demeure variable, mais conserve son invidualité, ou donner lieu à des sous-races, latéralement sortées de la race mère— C’est votre théorie et la mienne.

J’insiste sur ce point que l’hérédité peut rendre permanente et douer d’une durée plus ou moin longue, quelque fois très longue, non seulement l’espèce ou ce que l’on décore communément de ce nom, mais encore la sous-espèce, la race et même la simple diversité locale.

Je connais maintenant des types vegétaux qui déjà fixés au commencement de la période tertiaire, n’ont plus donné lieu dans tous le cours de cette periode qu’a des variations très-insignifiantes et ne dépassant guères la limite des différences qui distinguent sous nos yeux deux formes congénères alliées de gris; comme le sont le laurus nobilis et celui des Canaries comparés— Je vais bientôt décrire un chêne de l’extrême base de l’éocène, qui l’on a peine à distinguer de notre Q. pseudo-suber de Gibraltar—6 Les genres actuels à une seule, ou à un petit nombre d’espèces: Laurus, Nerium7 etc. fournissent souvent des exemples de cette longue permanence de caractères identiques ou peu variables à travers une très longue suite de siècles ou de milliers d’années.

Deplus, s’il est des sous-espèces qui se groupent en grand nombre autour de certains types specifiques ou des races secondaires qui gravitent autour d’une race principales, il existe aussi, j’en suis convaincu maintenant, entre les espèces, même distinctes et trés distinctes, de même qu’entre les sous-espèces et les races, des hybrides et des hybrides visiblement féconds qui doivent jouer un rôle dans la façon de se comporter et de se constituer des sous-espèces et des races— De puisque j’observe dans mon pays les espèces d’arbres et d’arbustes, J’en découvre à chaque instant— Dans les chênes il y a des intermédiaires de tous les degres entre le Quercus ilex (Lepidobalanus) et le Q. coccifera (Cerris) qui n’appartiennent pas a la même Section ou sous-genre— Je viens d’observer un hybride de Q. pubescens et pedunculata— ce dernier ayant été introduit ici par la culture—8 Tous ces hybrides paraissent féconds et celui que j’ai signalé entre le térébinthe et le Lentisque,9 se retrouve partout où les deux espèces, si éloignées l’une de l’autre sont en contact— cependant je n’ai pu constater la fécondité chez ce dernier, non plus que chez un pied hybride de Quercus ilex et pubescens que je connais, mais qui ne fructifie pas— Ces sortes d’hybrides, comme le Populus canescens qui rejoint les Populus alba et tremula peuvent reconstruire une forme ancienne et primitive, dans les deux autres seraient originairement sortées.10 Effectivement on observe à l’état fossile le Populus canescens dans le pliocène inferieur; et même auparavant dans le miocène ancien à Coumi, un Populus Signalé par M. Unger reproduit tout à fait ce même type.11 Il semble donc qu’il faudrait distinguer l’hybridité fortuité et accidentelle de celle qui ne fait, pour ainsi dire qu’opérer un retour vers la forme mère en la reproduisant, et la fécondité se trouverait l’apanage fort naturel de cette sorte d’hybridité, qui rentrerait dans l’atavisme.

Je veux avant de terminer vous faire incorporer de deux observations: l’une c’est que le passage graduel des formes tertiaires aux nôtres s’observes très facilement dans les floras pliocènes des Cinerites de l’Auvergne,12 que je viens d’ètudier sur place et cela pour une foule de nos espèces arborescentes les plus caractéristiques, la seconde c’est que l’évolution d’où les Dicotylédones sont sorties au milieu de la craie (Cénomanien)—a dû se faire très rapidement, et qu’il faut sans doute tenir compte d’un mouvement organique d’où les types de principales familles seraient issues promptement constituées, les genres actuels s’étaient les espèces originaires de cet ensemble primitif promptement fini. Vers l’éocène, tout parait achevée; et il n’y a plus que des changements d’espèce et des extinctions ensuite.

Je termins un peu brusquement et suis bien tout à vous Cte G. de Saporta

Footnotes

For a translation of this letter, see Appendix I.
See letter to Gaston de Saporta, 12 August 1876. Saporta had sent a copy of Recherches sur les végétaux fossiles de Meximieux (Research on the fossil plants of Meximieux; Saporta and Marion 1876). CD’s copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Quercus pubescens is the downy oak. Quercus sessiliflora is a synonym of Q. petraea (sessile oak); Saporta had mentioned the relationship between these species in a letter to CD of 6 September 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16), and later wrote on the subject in Saporta 1888, pp. 179–80. For a recent differentiation between Q. pubescens and Q. petraea, see Bruschi et al. 2000. Quercus toza is a synonym of Q. pyrenaica, the Pyrenean oak; it is characterised by the presence of stolons, horizontal above-ground shoots that produce roots and shoots at the nodes. The tomentum is the soft dense hair covering leaves or branches.
Elephas antiquus (straight-tusked elephant) was found across Eurasia in the middle and late Pleistocene. Quercus farnetto , a synonym of Q. frainetto, is the Hungarian oak. Elephas meridionalis, a synonym of Mammuthus meridionalis (southern mammoth), inhabited Europe and central Asia in the early Pleistocene.
Alnus is the genus of alders; Acer opulifolium, a synonym of A. opalus, is the Italian maple; Pistacia is a genus of trees of the family Anacardiaceae (cashew or sumac).
Laurus nobilis (bay laurel) is a native of the Mediterranean region; the related Laurus azorica (Azores laurel) is found in the Canary Islands. Saporta described an ancient oak with similarities to Quercus pseudo-suber as Q. subcrenata in ‘Préliminaires d’une étude des chênes européens vivants et fossiles comparés’ (Preliminary study of living and fossil European oaks; Saporta 1877, p. 288).
Nerium is the monospecific genus of oleander.
Oaks are generally divided into two subgenera, Quercus (red and white oaks) and Cyclobalanopsis (ring-cupped oaks), and further divided into sections. Within the subgenus Quercus are the sections Lepidobalanus and Cerris. Quercus ilex is the holm-oak or holly-oak; Q. coccifera is the kermes oak (see Saporta 1877, p. 246). Quercus pedunculata, a synonym of Q. robur, is the pedunculate or English oak.
In his letter of 6 September 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16), Saporta had drawn CD’s attention to his discovery of a tree that seemed halfway between Pistacia terebinthus (turpentine tree) and P. lentiscus (mastic tree). The tree, Pistacia miocenica, was described in Saporta 1867–8, pp. 52–4 (vol. 9).
Populus canescens (a synonym of P. × canescens) is the grey poplar; P. alba is the white poplar; P. tremula is the aspen.
Franz Unger, in his monograph ‘Die fossile Flora von Kumi auf der Insel Euboea’ (Fossil flora of Koumi on the island of Euboea; Unger 1867, pp. 53–4) had described Populus attenuata as closely related to P. nigra (black poplar) and P. canadensis (now P. × canadensis, Canadian poplar), a hybrid of P. nigra and P. deltoides (eastern cottonwood). Coumi (English: Koumi; German: Kumi) is now Kími, a town on the Greek island of Euboea.
Cinerites are sedimentary rocks composed mostly of volcanic ash; Saporta had described the flora of the cinerites of Cantal in the Auvergne in Saporta 1873.

Bibliography

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1867–8. Études sur la végétation du sud-est de la France. Annales des sciences naturelles (botanique) 5th ser. 8 (1867): 5–136; 9 (1868): 5–62.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1873a. Sur les caractères propres a la végétation pliocène, a propos des découvertes de M. J. Rames, dans le Cantal. [Read 17 February 1873.] Bulletin de la Société géologique de France 3d ser. 1 (1872–3): 212–32.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1888. Origine paléontologique des arbres cultivés ou utilisés par l’homme. Paris: J. B. Bailliere & Fils.

Unger, Franz. 1867. Die fossile Flora von Kumi auf der Insel Euboea. Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Classe. 27 (1): 27–90.

Translation

From Gaston de Saporta1   2 September 1876

Aix-en | Provence (B. du Rh.)

2 Sept. 76

Sir and very renowned colleague,

I received the few lines that you kindly sent me on the occasion of my sending my memoir on Meximieux—2 In regard to plants whether living or fossil, and above all the trees and shrubs that I have recently studied, please allow me to communicate and submit to your judgment the following observations that appear to me to summarise the aspects, that is to say, the way in which higher plants behave in the past as well as the present.

Plant forms have widely differing value— Depending on the case, species, subspecies, races and simple varieties are distinguished by varying degrees of permanence and heredity.

Within each of these species, subspecies and races, especially when they occupy a large continuous area, all kinds of diversity is produced or at least can be produced, fluctuating and liable in many cases to reproduce in one species or race repetitions of similar forms to those which characterise a neighbouring species or race—

This is how I come to observe a variety of Quercus pubescens Wild., a subspecies or dependent race of Q. sessiliflora, which recalls almost perfectly Quercus toza except for the absence of stolons, and the colour of the tomentum which is gray instead of russet.3 Everything else is the same.

In spite of this diversity or possible polymorphism, easily observed in European or American oaks, in pear trees etc. ... the races, subspecies, and specific types of various ranks could date back to a relatively early age— It is easy to show this by numerous examples— Q. pubescens Wild. is only a race; it had the same traits in the age of Elephas antiquus as now— Q. farnetto is only a subspecies and I have just rediscovered it with Elephas meridionalis.4 I believe I have proved the great age of certain races of Alnus, Acer opulifolium, Pistacia etc.5 The permanence of the race, its persistence in a given region is no obstacle to its tendency to variation, which can and should, as the case may be, either be exerted without appreciable change for the whole of the type which remains variable, but keeps its individuality, or give rise to subraces, which emerge as side branches of the mother race— This is your theory and mine.

I stress this point that heredity can make permanent and endow with a greater or lesser duration, sometimes very long, not only the species or that which is commonly meant by the term, but also the subspecies, the race and even simple local variation.

I now know the plant types that were already established at the beginning of the Tertiary period, not giving rise over the course of this time to any but very insignificant variations and hardly exceeding the limit of differences that distinguish in our view two allied congeneric grey forms; like laurus nobilis and that of the Canaries— I am about to describe an oak from the lowest point in the Eocene, which is hard to distinguish from our Q. pseudo-suber of Gibraltar—6 Current genera with a single, or a small number of species: Laurus, Nerium7 etc. often provide examples of this long persistence of identical or slightly varying characters throughout a very long sequence of centuries or thousands of years.

Moreover, whether it is subspecies that group together in great number around certain specific types, or secondary races that gravitate around a main race, there are also, I am now convinced, between species, both distinct and very distinct, the same as between subspecies and races, hybrids and visibly fertile hybrids that must play a role by acting as and making up subspecies and races— Since I see in my country species of trees and shrubs, I am finding these all the time— In oaks there are intermediates of all degrees between Quercus ilex (Lepidobalanus) and Q. coccifera (Cerris), which do not belong to the same section or subspecies— I have just observed a hybrid of Q. pubescens and pedunculata— this last having been introduced here by cultivation—8 All these hybrids appear fertile and the one I drew to your attention, between the terebinth and the lentiscus,9 is found everywhere that the two species, so distant from each other, are in contact— however, I was not able to attest to the fertility of the last, nor that of a hybrid sapling of Quercus ilex and pubescens that I know, but that does not bear fruit— These kinds of hybrids, like Populus canescens, which reunites Populus alba and tremula, might restore an ancient and primitive form, from which the two others originally emerged.10 Indeed, the fossil state of Populus canescens can be seen in the lower Pliocene; and even earlier, in the early Miocene at Koumi, a Populus pointed out by M. Unger replicates precisely the same type.11 It seems therefore that chance and accidental hybridity ought to be distinguished from that which, so to speak, only operates as a reversion to the parent form in its reproduction, and fertility would be the quite natural privilege of this kind of hybridity, which would return to atavism.

Before closing, I want to add two observations: one is that the gradual transition of Tertiary forms to ours is very easily seen in the Pliocene floras of the cinerites of Auvergne,12 which I have just been studying on site, and this for a host of our most characteristic tree species, the second is that evolution from where the Dicotyledons have emerged in the middle of the chalk (Cenomanian)—had to have happened very rapidly, and without doubt an organic movement from where the types of the main families would be rapidly formed must be taken into account, the current species were the original species of this original group quickly finished.13 By the Eocene, everything seems complete; and there are no further modifications of the species and extinctions then.

I close rather hastily and I am very truly yours Cte G. de Saporta

Footnotes

For a transcription of this letter in its original French, see pp. 253–5.
See letter to Gaston de Saporta, 12 August 1876. Saporta had sent a copy of Recherches sur les végétaux fossiles de Meximieux (Research on the fossil plants of Meximieux; Saporta and Marion 1876). CD’s copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Quercus pubescens is the downy oak. Quercus sessiliflora is a synonym of Q. petraea (sessile oak); Saporta had mentioned the relationship between these species in a letter to CD of 6 September 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16), and later wrote on the subject in Saporta 1888, pp. 179–80. For a recent differentiation between Q. pubescens and Q. petraea, see Bruschi et al. 2000. Quercus toza is a synonym of Q. pyrenaica, the Pyrenean oak; it is characterised by the presence of stolons, horizontal above-ground shoots that produce roots and shoots at the nodes. The tomentum is the soft dense hair covering leaves or branches.
Elephas antiquus (straight-tusked elephant) was found across Eurasia in the middle and late Pleistocene. Quercus farnetto , a synonym of Q. frainetto, is the Hungarian oak. Elephas meridionalis, a synonym of Mammuthus meridionalis (southern mammoth), inhabited Europe and central Asia in the early Pleistocene.
Alnus is the genus of alders; Acer opulifolium, a synonym of A. opalus, is the Italian maple; Pistacia is a genus of trees of the family Anacardiaceae (cashew or sumac).
Laurus nobilis (bay laurel) is a native of the Mediterranean region; the related Laurus azorica (Azores laurel) is found in the Canary Islands. Saporta described an ancient oak with similarities to Quercus pseudo-suber as Q. subcrenata in ‘Préliminaires d’une étude des chênes européens vivants et fossiles comparés’ (Preliminary study of living and fossil European oaks; Saporta 1877, p. 288).
Nerium is the monospecific genus of oleander.
Oaks are generally divided into two subgenera, Quercus (red and white oaks) and Cyclobalanopsis (ring-cupped oaks), and further divided into sections. Within the subgenus Quercus are the sections Lepidobalanus and Cerris. Quercus ilex is the holm-oak or holly-oak; Q. coccifera is the kermes oak (see Saporta 1877, p. 246). Quercus pedunculata, a synonym of Q. robur, is the pedunculate or English oak.
In his letter of 6 September 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16), Saporta had drawn CD’s attention to his discovery of a tree that seemed halfway between Pistacia terebinthus (turpentine tree) and P. lentiscus (mastic tree). The tree, Pistacia miocenica, was described in Saporta 1867–8, pp. 52–4 (vol. 9).
Populus canescens (a synonym of P. × canescens) is the grey poplar; P. alba is the white poplar; P. tremula is the aspen.
Franz Unger, in his monograph ‘Die fossile Flora von Kumi auf der Insel Euboea’ (Fossil flora of Koumi on the island of Euboea; Unger 1867, pp. 53–4) had described Populus attenuata as closely related to P. nigra (black poplar) and P. canadensis (now P. × canadensis, Canadian poplar), a hybrid of P. nigra and P. deltoides (eastern cottonwood). Coumi (English: Koumi; German: Kumi) is now Kími, a town on the Greek island of Euboea.
Cinerites are sedimentary rocks composed mostly of volcanic ash; Saporta had described the flora of the cinerites of Cantal in the Auvergne in Saporta 1873.
The Cenomanian is a subdivision of the Upper Cretaceous period, corresponding to the Lower Chalk and Upper Greensand of British geologists (OED). Dicotyledons are flowering seed-plants or angiosperms characterised by the presence of two embryonic seed-leaves or cotyledons; CD had remarked that the sudden appearance of so many dicotyledons was ‘most perplexing’, and conjectured that the plants had first developed in an isolated region and then spread quickly when geographical conditions became favourable (Correspondence vol. 23, letter to Oswald Heer, 8 March [1875]).

Bibliography

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1867–8. Études sur la végétation du sud-est de la France. Annales des sciences naturelles (botanique) 5th ser. 8 (1867): 5–136; 9 (1868): 5–62.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1873a. Sur les caractères propres a la végétation pliocène, a propos des découvertes de M. J. Rames, dans le Cantal. [Read 17 February 1873.] Bulletin de la Société géologique de France 3d ser. 1 (1872–3): 212–32.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1888. Origine paléontologique des arbres cultivés ou utilisés par l’homme. Paris: J. B. Bailliere & Fils.

Unger, Franz. 1867. Die fossile Flora von Kumi auf der Insel Euboea. Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Classe. 27 (1): 27–90.

Summary

Claims to have proved the great antiquity of several plant races. But this does not contradict the tendency to vary. Insists that heredity can make permanent varieties of sufficient duration to occur as fossils.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-10587
From
Louis Charles Joseph Gaston (Gaston) de Saporta, comte de Saporta
To
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Aix
Source of text
DAR 177: 33
Physical description
6pp (French)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10587,” accessed on 13 June 2021, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-10587.xml

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 24

letter