"The pistil in many cases looks almost like a stamen without anthers, and the relationship between the formation of the two is much closer than between the other parts. In retrograde fashion nature often produces cases where the style and stigma (Narben) become retransformed into petals--that is, the Ranunculus Asiaticus becomes double by transforming the stigma and style of the fruit-receptacle into real petals, while the stamens are often found unchanged immediately behind the corolla.
"In the seed receptacles, in spite of their formation, of their special object, and of their method of being joined together, we cannot fail to recognize the leaf form. Thus, for instance, the pod would be a simple leaf folded and grown together on its margin; the siliqua would consist of more leaves folded over another; the compound receptacles would be explained as being several leaves which, being united above one centre, keep their inward parts separate and are joined on their margins. We can convince ourselves of this by actual sight when such composite capsules fall apart after becoming ripe, because then every part displays an opened pod."
The theory thus elaborated of the metamorphosis of parts was presently given greater generality through extension to the animal kingdom, in the doctrine which Goethe and Oken advanced independently, that the vertebrate skull is essentially a modified and developed vertebra. These were conceptions worthy of a poet--impossible, indeed, for any mind that had not the poetic faculty of correlation. But in this case the poet's vision was prophetic of a future view of the most prosaic science. The doctrine of metamorphosis of parts soon came to be regarded as of fundamental importance.
But the doctrine had implications that few of its early advocates realized. If all the parts of a flower--sepal, petal, stamen, pistil, with their countless deviations of contour and color--are but modifications of the leaf, such modification implies a marvellous differentiation and development. To assert that a stamen is a metamorphosed leaf means, if it means anything, that in the long sweep of time the leaf has by slow or sudden gradations changed its character through successive generations, until the offspring, so to speak, of a true leaf has become a stamen. But if such a metamorphosis as this is possible--if the seemingly wide gap between leaf and stamen may be spanned by the modification of a line of organisms--where does the possibility of modification of organic type find its bounds? Why may not the modification of parts go on along devious lines until the remote descendants of an organism are utterly unlike that organism? Why may we not thus account for the development of various species of beings all sprung from one parent stock? That, too, is a poet's dream; but is it only a dream? Goethe thought not. Out of his studies of metamorphosis of parts there grew in his mind the belief that the multitudinous species of plants and animals about us have been evolved from fewer and fewer earlier parent types, like twigs of a giant tree drawing their nurture from the same primal root. It was a bold and revolutionary thought, and the world regarded it as but the vagary of a poet.
Just at the time when this thought was taking form in Goethe's brain, the same idea was germinating in the mind of another philosopher, an Englishman of international fame, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who, while he lived, enjoyed the widest popularity as a poet, the rhymed couplets of his Botanic Garden being quoted everywhere with admiration. And posterity repudiating the verse which makes the body of the book, yet grants permanent value to the book itself, because, forsooth, its copious explanatory foot-notes furnish an outline of the status of almost every department of science of the time.
But even though he lacked the highest art of the versifier, Darwin had, beyond peradventure, the imagination of a poet coupled with profound scientific knowledge; and it was his poetic insight, correlating organisms seemingly diverse in structure and imbuing the lowliest flower with a vital personality, which led him to suspect that there are no lines of demarcation in nature. "Can it be," he queries, "that one form of organism has developed from another; that different species are really but modified descendants of one parent stock?" The alluring thought nestled in his mind and was nurtured there, and grew in a fixed belief, which was given fuller expression in his Zoonomia and in the posthumous Temple of Nature.
Here is his rendering of the idea as versified in the Temple of Nature:
"Organic life beneath the shoreless waves Was born, and nursed in Ocean's pearly caves; First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass; These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire and larger limbs assume; Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.