Influence of white colors.

The Galaxy 1, 1877

Prof. Wallace gave at Glasgow some curious speculations based upon the peculiarities observable in white animals. He had been discussing at great length and with rare knowledge the distribution of butterflies, remarking that some of the island groups were noticeably light-colored, and endeavored to connect their color with their environment as follows:

Some very curious physiological facts, bearing upon the presence or absence of white colors in the higher animals, have lately been adduced by Dr. Ogle. It has been found that a colored or dark pigment in the olfactory region of the nostrils is essential to perfect smell, and this pigment is rarely deficient except when the whole animal is pure white. In these cases the creature is almost without smell or taste. This, Dr. Ogle believes, explains the curious case of the pigs in Virginia adduced by Mr. Darwin, white pigs being poisoned by a poisonous root, which does not affect black pigs. Mr. Darwin imputed this to a constitutional difference accompanying the dark color, which rendered what was poisonous to the white-colored animals quite innocuous to the black. Dr. Ogle, however, observes, that there is no proof that the black pigs eat the root, and he believes the more probable explanation to be that it is distasteful to them, while the white pigs, being deficient in smell and taste, eat it, and are killed. Analogous facts occur in several distinct families. White sheep are killed in the Tarentino by eating Hypericum Criscum, while black sheep escape: white rhinoceroses are said to perish from eating Euphorbia Candelabrum; and white horses are said to suffer from poisonous food, where colored ones escape. Now it is very improbable that a constitutional immunity from poisoning by so many distinct plants should in the case of such widely different animals be always correlated with the same difference of color; but the facts are readily understood if the senses of smell and taste are dependent on the presence of a pigment which is deficient in wholly white animals. The explanation has, however, been carried a step further, by experiments showing that the absorption of odors by dead matter, such as clothing, is greatly affected by color, black being the most powerful absorbent, then blue, red, yellow, and lastly white. We have here a physical cause for the sense inferiority of totally white animals which may account for their rarity in nature. For few, if any, wild animals are wholly white. The head, the face, or at least the muzzle or the nose, are generally black. The ears and eyes are also often black; and there is reason to believe that dark pigment is essential to good hearing, as it certainly is to perfect vision. We can therefore understand why white cats with blue eyes are so often deaf; a peculiarity we notice more readily than their deficiency of smell or taste.

If then the prevalence of white-coloration is generally accompanied with some deficiency in the acuteness of the most important senses, this color becomes doubly dangerous, for it not only renders its possessor more conspicuous to its enemies, but at the same time makes it less ready in detecting the presence of danger. Hence, perhaps, the reason why white appears more frequently in islands where competition is less severe and enemies less numerous and varied. Hence, also, a reason why albinoism, although freely occurring in captivity, never maintains itself in a wild state, while melanism does. The peculiarity of some islands in having all their inhabitants of dusky colors — as the Galapagos — may also perhaps be explained on the same principles; for poisonous fruits or seeds may there abound, which weed out all white or light-colored varieties, owing to their deficiency of smell and taste. We can hardly believe, however, that this would apply to whitecolored butterflies, and this may be a reason why the effect of an insular habitat is more marked in these insects than in birds or mammals. But though inapplicable to the lower animals, this curious relation of sense acuteness with colors may have had some influence on the development of the higher human races. If light tints of the skin were generally accompanied by some deficiency in the senses of smell, hearing, and vision, the white could never compete with the darker races, so long as man was in a very low and savage condition, and wholly dependent for existence on the acuteness of his senses. But as the mental faculties become more fully developed and more important to his welfare than mere sense acuteness, the lighter tints of skin, and hair, and eyes, would cease to be disadvantageous whenever they were accompanied by superior brain power. Such variations would then be preserved; and thus may have arisen the Xanthochroic race of mankind, in which we find a high development of intellect accompanied by a slight deficiency in the acuteness of the senses as compared with the darker forms.

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