No term is more difficult to define than "species," and on no point are zoologists more divided than as to what should be understood by this word. Naturalists, in fact, are not yet agreed as to whether the term species expresses a real and permanent distinction, or whether it is to be regarded merely as a convenient, but not immutable, abstraction, the employment of which is necessitated by the requirements of classification.
By Buffon "species" is defined as "a constant succession of individuals * similar to and capable of reproducing each other."
De Candolle defines species as an assemblage of all those individuals which resemble each other more than they do others; and are able to reproduce their like, doing so by the generative process, and in such a manner that they may be supposed by analogy to have all descended from a single being or a single pair.
M. de Quatrefages defines species as "an assemblage of individuals, more or less resembling one another, which are descended, or may be regarded as being descended, from a single primitive pair by an uninterrupted succession of families."
Muller defines species as "a living form, represented by individual beings, which reappears in the product of generation with certain invariable characters, and is constantly reproduced by the generative act of similar individuals."
According to Pritchard, a species is constituted by "separate origin, and distinctness of race, evinced by a constant transmission of some characteristic peculiarity of organisation."
According to Woodward, "all the specimens, or individuals, which are so much alike that we may reasonably believe them to have descended from a common stock, constitute a species."
* In using the term "individual," it must be borne in mind that the "zoological individual" is meant; that is to say, the total result of the development of a single ovum, as will hereafter be explained at greater length.
From the above definitions it will be at once evident that there are two leading ideas in the minds of zoologists when they employ the term species; one of these being a certain amount of resemblance between individuals, and the other being the proof that the individuals so resembling each other have descended from a single pair, or from pairs exactly similar to one another. The characters in which individuals must resemble one another in order to entitle them to be grouped in a separate species, according to Agassiz, "are only those determining size, proportion, colour, habits, and relations to surrounding circumstances and external objects."
On a closer examination, however, it will be found that these two leading ideas in the definition of species - external resemblance and community of descent - are both defective, and liable to break down if rigidly applied. Thus, there are in nature no assemblages of plants or animals usually grouped together into a single species, the individuals of which exactly resemble one another in every point Every naturalist is compelled to admit that the individuals which compose any so-called species, whether of plants or animals, differ from one another to a greater or less extent, and in respects which may be regarded as more or less important. The existence of such individual differences is attested by the universal employment of the terms "varieties * and "races.* Thus a "variety" comprises all those individuals which possess some distinctive peculiarity in common, but do not differ in other respects from another set of individuals sufficiently to entitle them to take rank as a separate species. A "race," again, is simply a permanent or "perpetuated" variety. The question, however, is this - How far may these differences amongst individuals obtain without necessitating their being placed in a separate species ? In other words: How great is the amount of individual difference which is to be considered as merely "varietal." and at what exact point do these differences become of "specific" value? To this question no answer can be given, since it depends entirely upon the weight which different naturalists would attach to any given individual difference.* Distinctions which appear to one observer as sufficiently great to entitle the individuals possessing them to be grouped as a distinct species, by another are looked upon as simply 01 varietal value; and, in the nature of the case, it seems impos sible to lay down any definite rules. To such an extent do individual differences sometimes exist in particular genera-termed "protean" or "polymorphic" genera - that the deter-mination of the different species and varieties becomes an almost hopeless task.
* As an example of this, it is sufficient to allude to the fact that hardly any two botanists agree as to the number of species of Willows and Brambles in the British Isles. What one observer classes as mere varieties, another regards as good and distinct species.
Besides the individual differences which ordinarily occur in all species, other cases occur in which a species consists normally and regularly of two or even three distinct forms, which cannot be said to be mere varieties, since no intermediate forms can be discovered. When two such distinct forms exist, the species is said to be "dimorphic," and when three are present, it is called "trimorphic" Thus, in dimorphic plants a single species is composed of two distinct forms, similar to one another in all respects except in their reproductive organs, the one form having a long pistil and short stamens, the other a short pistil with long stamens. In trimorphic plants, the species is composed of three such distinct forms, which differ in like manner in the conformation of their reproductive organs, though they are otherwise undistinguish-able (Darwin). Similar cases are known in animals, but in them the differences, though apparently connected with reproduction, are not confined to the reproductive organs. Thus the females of certain butterflies normally appear under two or three entirely different forms, not connected by any intermediate links; and the same thing occurs in some of the Crustacea.
As regards, therefore, the first point in the definition of species - namely, the external resemblance of assemblages of individuals - we are forced to conclude that no two individuals are exactly alike; and that the amount and kind of external resemblance which constitutes a species is not a precise and invariable quantity, but depends upon the value attached to particular characters by any given observer.
The second point in the definition of species - namely, community of descent - is hardly in a more satisfactory condition, since the descent of any given series of individuals from a single pair, or from pairs exactly similar to one another, is at best but a probability, and is in no case capable of proof In the case of the higher animals, it can doubtless be shown that certain assemblages of individuals possess amongst themselves the power of fecundation and of producing fertile progeny, and that this power does not extend to the fecundation of individuals belonging to another different assemblage. Amongst the higher animals, "crosses" or "hybrids" can only be produced between closely-allied species, and when produced they are sterile, and are not capable of reproducing their like. In these cases, therefore, we may take this as a most satisfactory element in the definition of "species." The sterility, however, of hybrids is not universal, even amongst the higher animals ; and amongst plants no doubt can be entertained but that the individuals of species universally admitted to be distinct are capable of mutual fertilisation; the hybrid progeny thus produced being likewise fertile, and capable of reproducing similar individuals. That this fertility is often irregular, and may be destroyed in a few generations, admits of explanation, and hardly alters the significance of these undoubted facts.
Upon the whole, then, it seems in the meanwhile safest to adopt a definition of species which implies no theory, and does not include the belief that the term necessarily expresses a fixed and permanent quantity. Species, therefore, may be defined as an assemblage of individuals which resemble each other in their essential characters, are able, directly or indirectly, to produce fertile individuals, and which do not (as far as human observation goes) give rise to individuals which vary from the general type through more than certain definite limits. The production of occasional monstrosities does not, of course, invalidate this definition.
Genus is a term applied to groups of species which possess a community of essential details of structure. A genus may include a single species only, in cases where the combination of characters which make up the species are so peculiar that no other species exhibits similar structural characters; or, on the other hand, it may contain many hundreds of species.
Families are groups of genera which agree in their general characters. According to Agassiz, they are divisions founded upon peculiarities of "form as determined by structure."
Orders are groups of families related to one another by structural characters common to all.
Classes are larger divisions, comprising animals which are formed upon the same fundamental plan of structure, but differ in the method in which the plan is executed (Agassiz).
Sub-kingdoms are the primary divisions of the animal kingdom, which include all those animals which are formed upon the same structural or morphological type, irrespective of the degree to which specialisation of function may be carried.