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by Samuel Butler


Darwin on the Origin of Species
A Dialogue
Letter: 21 Feb 1863
Letter: 14 Mar 1863
Letter: 18 Mar 1863
Letter: 11 Apr 1863
Letter: 22 June 1863
Darwin Among the Machines
Lucubratio Ebria
A note on "The Tempest"
The English Cricketers


Prefatory Note

As the following dialogue embodies the earliest fruits of Butler's
study of the works of Charles Darwin, with whose name his own was
destined in later years to be so closely connected, and thus
possesses an interest apart from its intrinsic merit, a few words as
to the circumstances in which it was published will not be out of

Butler arrived in New Zealand in October, 1859, and about the same
time Charles Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published. Shortly
afterwards the book came into Butler's hands. He seems to have read
it carefully, and meditated upon it. The result of his meditations
took the shape of the following dialogue, which was published on 20
December, 1862, in the PRESS which had been started in the town of
Christ Church in May, 1861. The dialogue did not by any means pass
unnoticed. On the 17th of January, 1863, a leading article (of
course unsigned) appeared in the PRESS, under the title "Barrel-
Organs," discussing Darwin's theories, and incidentally referring to
Butler's dialogue. A reply to this article, signed A .M., appeared
on the 21st of February, and the correspondence was continued until
the 22nd of June, 1863. The dialogue itself, which was unearthed
from the early files of the PRESS, mainly owing to the exertions of
Mr. Henry Festing Jones, was reprinted, together with the
correspondence that followed its publication, in the PRESS of June 8
and 15, 1912. Soon after the original appearance of Butler's
dialogue a copy of it fell into the hands of Charles Darwin, possibly
sent to him by a friend in New Zealand. Darwin was sufficiently
struck by it to forward it to the editor of some magazine, which has
not been identified, with the following letter:-

Down, Bromley, Kent, S.E.
March 24 [1863].


Mr. Darwin takes the liberty to send by this post to the Editor a New
Zealand newspaper for the very improbable chance of the Editor having
some spare space to reprint a Dialogue on Species. This Dialogue,
written by some [sic] quite unknown to Mr. Darwin, is remarkable from
its spirit and from giving so clear and accurate a view of Mr. D.
[sic] theory. It is also remarkable from being published in a colony
exactly 12 years old, in which it might have [sic] thought only
material interests would have been regarded.

The autograph of this letter was purchased from Mr. Tregaskis by Mr.
Festing Jones, and subsequently presented by him to the Museum at
Christ Church. The letter cannot be dated with certainty, but since
Butler's dialogue was published in December, 1862, and it is at least
probable that the copy of the PRESS which contained it was sent to
Darwin shortly after it appeared, we may conclude with tolerable
certainty that the letter was written in March, 1863. Further light
is thrown on the controversy by a correspondence which took place
between Butler and Darwin in 1865, shortly after Butler's return to
England. During that year Butler had published a pamphlet entitled
incorporated the substance into THE FAIR HAVEN. Butler sent a copy
of this pamphlet to Darwin, and in due course received the following

Down, Bromley, Kent.
September 30 [1865].

My dear Sir, - I am much obliged to you for so kindly sending me your
Evidences, etc. We have read it with much interest. It seems to me
written with much force, vigour, and clearness; and the main argument
to me is quite new. I particularly agree with all you say in your

I do not know whether you intend to return to New Zealand, and, if
you are inclined to write, I should much like to know what your
future plans are.

My health has been so bad during the last five months that I have
been confined to my bedroom. Had it been otherwise I would have
asked you if you could have spared the time to have paid us a visit;
but this at present is impossible, and I fear will be so for some

With my best thanks for your present,

I remain,
My dear Sir,
Yours very faithfully,
Charles Darwin.

To this letter Butler replied as follows:-

15 Clifford's Inn, E.C.
October 1st, 1865.

Dear Sir, - I knew you were ill and I never meant to give you the
fatigue of writing to me. Please do not trouble yourself to do so
again. As you kindly ask my plans I may say that, though I very
probably may return to New Zealand in three or four years, I have no
intention of doing so before that time. My study is art, and
anything else I may indulge in is only by-play; it may cause you some
little wonder that at my age I should have started as an art student,
and I may perhaps be permitted to explain that this was always my
wish for years, that I had begun six years ago, as soon as ever I
found that I could not conscientiously take orders; my father so
strongly disapproved of the idea that I gave it up and went out to
New Zealand, stayed there for five years, worked like a common
servant, though on a run of my own, and sold out little more than a
year ago, thinking that prices were going to fall - which they have
since done. Being then rather at a loss what to do and my capital
being all locked up, I took the opportunity to return to my old plan,
and have been studying for the last ten years unremittingly. I hope
that in three or four years more I shall be able to go on very well
by myself, and then I may go back to New Zealand or no as
circumstances shall seem to render advisable. I must apologise for
so much detail, but hardly knew how to explain myself without it.

I always delighted in your ORIGIN OF SPECIES as soon as I saw it out
in New Zealand - not as knowing anything whatsoever of natural
history, but it enters into so many deeply interesting questions, or
rather it suggests so many, that it thoroughly fascinated me. I
therefore feel all the greater pleasure that my pamphlet should
please you, however full of errors.

The first dialogue on the ORIGIN which I wrote in the PRESS called
forth a contemptuous rejoinder from (I believe) the Bishop of
Wellington - (please do not mention the name, though I think that at
this distance of space and time I might mention it to yourself) I
answered it with the enclosed, which may amuse you. I assumed
another character because my dialogue was in my hearing very severely
criticised by two or three whose opinion I thought worth having, and
I deferred to their judgment in my next. I do not think I should do
so now. I fear you will be shocked at an appeal to the periodicals
mentioned in my letter, but they form a very staple article of bush
diet, and we used to get a good deal of superficial knowledge out of
them. I feared to go in too heavy on the side of the ORIGIN, because
I thought that, having said my say as well as I could, I had better
now take a less impassioned tone; but I was really exceedingly angry.

Please do not trouble yourself to answer this, and believe me,

Yours most sincerely,
S. Butler.

This elicited a second letter from Darwin:-

Down, Bromley, Kent.
October 6.

My dear Sir, - I thank you sincerely for your kind and frank letter,
which has interested me greatly. What a singular and varied career
you have already run. Did you keep any journal or notes in New
Zealand? For it strikes me that with your rare powers of writing you
might make a very interesting work descriptive of a colonist's life
in New Zealand.

I return your printed letter, which you might like to keep. It has
amused me, especially the part in which you criticise yourself. To
appreciate the letter fully I ought to have read the bishop's letter,
which seems to have been very rich.

You tell me not to answer your note, but I could not resist the wish
to thank you for your letter.

With every good wish, believe me, my dear Sir,

Yours sincerely,
Ch. Darwin.

It is curious that in this correspondence Darwin makes no reference
to the fact that he had already had in his possession a copy of
Butler's dialogue and had endeavoured to induce the editor of an
English periodical to reprint it. It is possible that we have not
here the whole of the correspondence which passed between Darwin and
Butler at this period, and this theory is supported by the fact that
Butler seems to take for granted that Darwin knew all about the
appearance of the original dialogue on the ORIGIN OF SPECIES in the

Enough, however, has been given to explain the correspondence which
the publication of the dialogue occasioned. I do not know what
authority Butler had for supposing that Charles John Abraham, Bishop
of Wellington, was the author of the article entitled "Barrel-
Organs," and the "Savoyard" of the subsequent controversy. However,
at that time Butler was deep in the counsels of the PRESS, and he may
have received private information on the subject. Butler's own
reappearance over the initials A. M. is sufficiently explained in his
letter to Darwin.

It is worth observing that Butler appears in the dialogue and ensuing
correspondence in a character very different from that which he was
later to assume. Here we have him as an ardent supporter of Charles
Darwin, and adopting a contemptuous tone with regard to the claims of
Erasmus Darwin to have sown the seed which was afterwards raised to
maturity by his grandson. It would be interesting to know if it was
this correspondence that first turned Butler's attention seriously to
the works of the older evolutionists and ultimately led to the
production of EVOLUTION, OLD AND NEW, in which the indebtedness of
Charles Darwin to Erasmus Darwin, Buffon and Lamarck is demonstrated
with such compelling force.

[From the Press, 20 December, 1862.]

F. So you have finished Darwin? Well, how did you like him?

C. You cannot expect me to like him. He is so hard and logical, and
he treats his subject with such an intensity of dry reasoning without
giving himself the loose rein for a single moment from one end of the
book to the other, that I must confess I have found it a great effort
to read him through.

F. But I fancy that, if you are to be candid, you will admit that
the fault lies rather with yourself than with the book. Your
knowledge of natural history is so superficial that you are
constantly baffled by terms of which you do not understand the
meaning, and in which you consequently lose all interest. I admit,
however, that the book is hard and laborious reading; and, moreover,
that the writer appears to have predetermined from the commencement
to reject all ornament, and simply to argue from beginning to end,
from point to point, till he conceived that he had made his case
sufficiently clear.

C. I agree with you, and I do not like his book partly on that very
account. He seems to have no eye but for the single point at which
he is aiming.

F. But is not that a great virtue in a writer?

C. A great virtue, but a cold and hard one.

F. In my opinion it is a grave and wise one. Moreover, I conceive
that the judicial calmness which so strongly characterises the whole
book, the absence of all passion, the air of extreme and anxious
caution which pervades it throughout, are rather the result of
training and artificially acquired self-restraint than symptoms of a
cold and unimpassioned nature; at any rate, whether the lawyer-like
faculty of swearing both sides of a question and attaching the full
value to both is acquired or natural in Darwin's case, you will admit
that such a habit of mind is essential for any really valuable and
scientific investigation.

C. I admit it. Science is all head - she has no heart at all.

F. You are right. But a man of science may be a man of other things
besides science, and though he may have, and ought to have no heart
during a scientific investigation, yet when he has once come to a
conclusion he may be hearty enough in support of it, and in his other
capacities may be of as warm a temperament as even you can desire.

C. I tell you I do not like the book.

F. May I catechise you a little upon it?

C. To your heart's content.

F. Firstly, then, I will ask you what is the one great impression
that you have derived from reading it; or, rather, what do you think
to be the main impression that Darwin wanted you to derive?

C. Why, I should say some such thing as the following - that men are
descended from monkeys, and monkeys from something else, and so on
back to dogs and horses and hedge-sparrows and pigeons and cinipedes
(what is a cinipede?) and cheesemites, and then through the plants
down to duckweed.

F. You express the prevalent idea concerning the book, which as you
express it appears nonsensical enough.

C. How, then, should you express it yourself?

F. Hand me the book and I will read it to you through from beginning
to end, for to express it more briefly than Darwin himself has done
is almost impossible.

C. That is nonsense; as you asked me what impression I derived from
the book, so now I ask you, and I charge you to answer me.

F. Well, I assent to the justice of your demand, but I shall comply
with it by requiring your assent to a few principal statements
deducible from the work.

C. So be it.

F. You will grant then, firstly, that all plants and animals
increase very rapidly, and that unless they were in some manner
checked, the world would soon be overstocked. Take cats, for
instance; see with what rapidity they breed on the different runs in
this province where there is little or nothing to check them; or even
take the more slowly breeding sheep, and see how soon 500 ewes become
5000 sheep under favourable circumstances. Suppose this sort of
thing to go on for a hundred million years or so, and where would be
the standing room for all the different plants and animals that would
be now existing, did they not materially check each other's increase,
or were they not liable in some way to be checked by other causes?
Remember the quail; how plentiful they were until the cats came with
the settlers from Europe. Why were they so abundant? Simply because
they had plenty to eat, and could get sufficient shelter from the
hawks to multiply freely. The cats came, and tussocks stood the poor
little creatures in but poor stead. The cats increased and
multiplied because they had plenty of food and no natural enemy to
check them. Let them wait a year or two, till they have materially
reduced the larks also, as they have long since reduced the quail,
and let them have to depend solely upon occasional dead lambs and
sheep, and they will find a certain rather formidable natural enemy
called Famine rise slowly but inexorably against them and slaughter
them wholesale. The first proposition then to which I demand your
assent is that all plants and animals tend to increase in a high
geometrical ratio; that they all endeavour to get that which is
necessary for their own welfare; that, as unfortunately there are
conflicting interests in Nature, collisions constantly occur between
different animals and plants, whereby the rate of increase of each
species is very materially checked. Do you admit this?

C. Of course; it is obvious.

F. You admit then that there is in Nature a perpetual warfare of
plant, of bird, of beast, of fish, of reptile; that each is striving
selfishly for its own advantage, and will get what it wants if it

C. If what?

F. If it can. How comes it then that sometimes it cannot? Simply
because all are not of equal strength, and the weaker must go to the

C. You seem to gloat over your devilish statement.

F. Gloat or no gloat, is it true or no? I am not one of those

"Who would unnaturally better Nature
By making out that that which is, is not."

If the law of Nature is "struggle," it is better to look the matter
in the face and adapt yourself to the conditions of your existence.
Nature will not bow to you, neither will you mend matters by patting
her on the back and telling her that she is not so black as she is
painted. My dear fellow, my dear sentimental friend, do you eat
roast beef or roast mutton?

C. Drop that chaff and go back to the matter in hand.

F. To continue then with the cats. Famine comes and tests them, so
to speak; the weaker, the less active, the less cunning, and the less
enduring cats get killed off, and only the strongest and smartest
cats survive; there will be no favouritism shown to animals in a
state of Nature; they will be weighed in the balance, and the weight
of a hair will sometimes decide whether they shall be found wanting
or no. This being the case, the cats having been thus naturally
culled and the stronger having been preserved, there will be a
gradual tendency to improve manifested among the cats, even as among
our own mobs of sheep careful culling tends to improve the flock.

C. This, too, is obvious.

F. Extend this to all animals and plants, and the same thing will
hold good concerning them all. I shall now change the ground and
demand assent to another statement. You know that though the
offspring of all plants and animals is in the main like the parent,
yet that in almost every instance slight deviations occur, and that
sometimes there is even considerable divergence from the parent type.
It must also be admitted that these slight variations are often, or
at least sometimes, capable of being perpetuated by inheritance.
Indeed, it is only in consequence of this fact that our sheep and
cattle have been capable of so much improvement.

C. I admit this.

F. Then the whole matter lies in a nutshell. Suppose that hundreds
of millions of years ago there existed upon this earth a single
primordial form of the very lowest life, or suppose that three or
four such primordial forms existed. Change of climate, of food, of
any of the circumstances which surrounded any member of this first
and lowest class of life would tend to alter it in some slight
manner, and the alteration would have a tendency to perpetuate itself
by inheritance. Many failures would doubtless occur, but with the
lapse of time slight deviations would undoubtedly become permanent
and inheritable, those alone being perpetuated which were beneficial
to individuals in whom they appeared. Repeat the process with each
deviation and we shall again obtain divergences (in the course of
ages) differing more strongly from the ancestral form, and again
those that enable their possessor to struggle for existence most
efficiently will be preserved. Repeat this process for millions and
millions of years, and, as it is impossible to assign any limit to
variability, it would seem as though the present diversities of
species must certainly have come about sooner or later, and that
other divergences will continue to come about to the end of time.
The great agent in this development of life has been competition.
This has culled species after species, and secured that those alone
should survive which were best fitted for the conditions by which
they found themselves surrounded. Endeavour to take a bird's-eye
view of the whole matter. See battle after battle, first in one part
of the world, then in another, sometimes raging more fiercely and
sometimes less; even as in human affairs war has always existed in
some part of the world from the earliest known periods, and probably
always will exist. While a species is conquering in one part of the
world it is being subdued in another, and while its conquerors are
indulging in their triumph down comes the fiat for their being culled
and drafted out, some to life and some to death, and so forth ad

C. It is very horrid.

F. No more horrid than that you should eat roast mutton or boiled

C. But it is utterly subversive of Christianity; for if this theory
is true the fall of man is entirely fabulous; and if the fall, then
the redemption, these two being inseparably bound together.

F. My dear friend, there I am not bound to follow you. I believe in
Christianity, and I believe in Darwin. The two appear
irreconcilable. My answer to those who accuse me of inconsistency
is, that both being undoubtedly true, the one must be reconcilable
with the other, and that the impossibility of reconciling them must
be only apparent and temporary, not real. The reconciliation will
never be effected by planing a little off the one and a little off
the other and then gluing them together with glue. People will not
stand this sort of dealing, and the rejection of the one truth or of
the other is sure to follow upon any such attempt being persisted in.
The true course is to use the freest candour in the acknowledgment of
the difficulty; to estimate precisely its real value, and obtain a
correct knowledge of its precise form. Then and then only is there a
chance of any satisfactory result being obtained. For unless the
exact nature of the difficulty be known first, who can attempt to
remove it? Let me re-state the matter once again. All animals and
plants in a state of Nature are undergoing constant competition for
the necessaries of life. Those that can hold their ground hold it;
those that cannot hold it are destroyed. But as it also happens that
slight changes of food, of habit, of climate, of circumjacent
accident, and so forth, produce a slight tendency to vary in the
offspring of any plant or animal, it follows that among these slight
variations some may be favourable to the individual in whom they
appear, and may place him in a better position than his fellows as
regards the enemies with whom his interests come into collision. In
this case he will have a better chance of surviving than his fellows;
he will thus stand also a better chance of continuing the species,
and in his offspring his own slight divergence from the parent type
will be apt to appear. However slight the divergence, if it be
beneficial to the individual it is likely to preserve the individual
and to reappear in his offspring, and this process may be repeated ad
infinitum. Once grant these two things, and the rest is a mere
matter of time and degree. That the immense differences between the
camel and the pig should have come about in six thousand years is not
believable; but in six hundred million years it is not incredible,
more especially when we consider that by the assistance of geology a
very perfect chain has been formed between the two. Let this
instance suffice. Once grant the principles, once grant that
competition is a great power in Nature, and that changes of
circumstances and habits produce a tendency to variation in the
offspring (no matter how slight such variation may be), and unless
you can define the possible limit of such variation during an
infinite series of generations, unless you can show that there is a
limit, and that Darwin's theory over-steps it, you have no right to
reject his conclusions. As for the objections to the theory, Darwin
has treated them with admirable candour, and our time is too brief to
enter into them here. My recommendation to you is that you should
read the book again.

C. Thank you, but for my own part I confess to caring very little
whether my millionth ancestor was a gorilla or no; and as Darwin's
book does not please me, I shall not trouble myself further about the

BARREL-ORGANS: [From the Press, 17 January, 1863.]

Dugald Stewart in his Dissertation on the Progress of Metaphysics
says: "On reflecting on the repeated reproduction of ancient
paradoxes by modern authors one is almost tempted to suppose that
human invention is limited, like a barrel-organ, to a specific number
of tunes."

It would be a very amusing and instructive task for a man of reading
and reflection to note down the instances he meets with of these old
tunes coming up again and again in regular succession with hardly any
change of note, and with all the old hitches and involuntary squeaks
that the barrel-organ had played in days gone by. It is most amusing
to see the old quotations repeated year after year and volume after
volume, till at last some more careful enquirer turns to the passage

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