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Since Samuel Butler published "Life and Habit" thirty-three {1} years
have elapsed - years fruitful in change and discovery, during which
many of the mighty have been put down from their seat and many of the
humble have been exalted. I do not know that Butler can truthfully
be called humble, indeed, I think he had very few misgivings as to
his ultimate triumph, but he has certainly been exalted with a
rapidity that he himself can scarcely have foreseen. During his
lifetime he was a literary pariah, the victim of an organized
conspiracy of silence. He is now, I think it may be said without
exaggeration, universally accepted as one of the most remarkable
English writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century. I will
not weary my readers by quoting the numerous tributes paid by
distinguished contemporary writers to Butler's originality and force
of mind, but I cannot refrain from illustrating the changed attitude
of the scientific world to Butler and his theories by a reference to
"Darwin and Modern Science," the collection of essays published in
1909 by the University of Cambridge, in commemoration of the Darwin
centenary. In that work Professor Bateson, while referring
repeatedly to Butler's biological works, speaks of him as "the most
brilliant and by far the most interesting of Darwin's opponents,
whose works are at length emerging from oblivion." With the growth
of Butler's reputation "Life and Habit" has had much to do. It was
the first and is undoubtedly the most important of his writings on
evolution. From its loins, as it were, sprang his three later books,
"Evolution Old and New," "Unconscious Memory," and "Luck or Cunning",
which carried its arguments further afield. It will perhaps interest
Butler's readers if I here quote a passage from his note-books,
lately published in the "New Quarterly Review" (Vol. III. No. 9), in
which he summarizes his work in biology:

"To me it seems that my contributions to the theory of evolution have
been mainly these

"1. The identification of heredity and memory, and the corollaries
relating to sports, the reversion to remote ancestors, the phenomena
of old age, the causes of the sterility of hybrids, and the
principles underlying longevity - all of which follow as a matter of
course. This was 'Life and Habit' [1877].

"2. The re-introduction of teleology into organic life, which to me
seems hardly, if at all, less important than the 'Life and Habit'
theory. This was 'Evolution Old and New' [1879].

"3. An attempt to suggest an explanation of the physics of memory.
This was Unconscious Memory' [1880]. I was alarmed by the suggestion
and fathered it upon Professor Hering, who never, that I can see,
meant to say anything of the kind, but I forced my view upon him, as
it were, by taking hold of a sentence or two in his lecture, 'On
Memory as a Universal Function of Organised Matter,' and thus
connected memory with vibrations.

"What I want to do now (1885) is to connect vibrations not only with
memory but with the physical constitution of that body in which the
memory resides, thus adopting Newland's law (sometimes called
Mendelejeff's law) that there is only one substance, and that the
characteristics of the vibrations going on within it at any given
time will determine whether it will appear to us as, we will say,
hydrogen, or sodium, or chicken doing this, or chicken doing the
other." [This is touched upon in the concluding chapter of "Luck or
Cunning?" 1887].

The present edition of "Life and Habit" is practically a re-issue of
that of 1878. I find that about the year 1890, although the original
edition was far from being exhausted, Butler began to make
corrections of the text of "Life and Habit," presumably with the
intention of publishing a revised edition. The copy of the book so
corrected is now in my possession. In the first five chapters there
are numerous emendations, very few of which, however, affect the
meaning to any appreciable extent, being mainly concerned with the
excision of redundancies and the simplification of style. I imagine
that by the time he had reached the end of the fifth chapter Butler
realised that the corrections he had made were not of sufficient
importance to warrant a new edition, and determined to let the book
stand as it was. I believe, therefore, that I am carrying out his
wishes in reprinting the present edition from the original plates. I
have found, however, among his papers three entirely new passages,
which he probably wrote during the period of correction and no doubt
intended to incorporate into the revised edition. Mr. Henry Festing
Jones has also given me a copy of a passage which Butler wrote and
gummed into Mr. Jones's copy of "Life and Habit." These four
passages I have printed as an appendix at the end of the present

One more point deserves notice. Butler often refers in "Life and
Habit" to Darwin's "Variations of Animals and Plants under
Domestication." When he does so it is always under the name "Plants
and Animals." More often still he refers to Darwin's "Origin of
Species by means Natural Selection," terming it at one time "Origin
of Species" and at another "Natural Selection," sometimes, as on p.
278, using both names within a few lines of each other. Butler was
as a rule scrupulously careful about quotations, and I can offer no
explanation of this curious confusion of titles.

November, 1910.


The Italics in the passages quoted in this book are generally mine,
but I found it almost impossible to call the reader's attention to
this upon every occasion. I have done so once or twice, as thinking
it necessary in these cases that there should be no mistake; on the
whole, however, I thought it better to content myself with calling
attention in a preface to the fact that the author quoted is not, as
a general rule, responsible for the Italics.

November 13, 1877.


It will be our business in the following chapters to consider whether
the unconsciousness, or quasi-unconsciousness, with which we perform
certain acquired actions, would seem to throw any light upon
Embryology and inherited instincts, and otherwise to follow the train
of thought which the class of actions above-mentioned would suggest;
more especially in so far as they appear to bear upon the origin of
species and the continuation of life by successive generations,
whether in the animal or vegetable kingdoms.

In the outset, however, I would wish most distinctly to disclaim for
these pages the smallest pretension to scientific value, originality,
or even to accuracy of more than a very rough and ready kind - for
unless a matter be true enough to stand a good deal of
misrepresentation, its truth is not of a very robust order, and the
blame will rather lie with its own delicacy if it be crushed, than
with the carelessness of the crusher. I have no wish to instruct,
and not much to be instructed; my aim is simply to entertain and
interest the numerous class of people who, like myself, know nothing
of science, but who enjoy speculating and reflecting (not too deeply)
upon the phenomena around them. I have therefore allowed myself a
loose rein, to run on with whatever came uppermost, without regard to
whether it was new or old; feeling sure that if true, it must be very
old or it never could have occurred to one so little versed in
science as myself; and knowing that it is sometimes pleasanter to
meet the old under slightly changed conditions, than to go through
the formalities and uncertainties of making new acquaintance. At the
same time, I should say that whatever I have knowingly taken from any
one else, I have always acknowledged.

It is plain, therefore, that my book cannot be intended for the
perusal of scientific people; it is intended for the general public
only, with whom I believe myself to be in harmony, as knowing neither
much more nor much less than they do.

Taking then, the art of playing the piano as an example of the kind
of action we are in search of, we observe that a practised player
will perform very difficult pieces apparently without effort, often,
indeed, while thinking and talking of something quite other than his
music; yet he will play accurately and, possibly, with much
expression. If he has been playing a fugue, say in four parts, he
will have kept each part well distinct, in such a manner as to prove
that his mind was not prevented, by its other occupations, from
consciously or unconsciously following four distinct trains of
musical thought at the same time, nor from making his fingers act in
exactly the required manner as regards each note of each part.

It commonly happens that in the course of four or five minutes a
player may have struck four or five thousand notes. If we take into
consideration the rests, dotted notes, accidentals, variations of
time, &c., we shall find his attention must have been exercised on
many more occasions than when he was actually striking notes: so
that it may not be too much to say that the attention of a first-rate
player may have been exercised - to an infinitesimally small extent -
but still truly exercised - on as many as ten thousand occasions
within the space of five minutes, for no note can be struck nor point
attended to without a certain amount of attention, no matter how
rapidly or unconsciously given.

Moreover, each act of attention has been followed by an act of
volition, and each act of volition by a muscular action, which is
composed of many minor actions; some so small that we can no more
follow them than the player himself can perceive them; nevertheless,
it may have been perfectly plain that the player was not attending to
what he was doing, but was listening to conversation on some other
subject, not to say joining in it himself. If he has been playing
the violin, he may have done all the above, and may also have been
walking about. Herr Joachim would unquestionably be able to do all
that has here been described.

So complete would the player's unconsciousness of the attention he is
giving, and the brain power he is exerting appear to be, that we
shall find it difficult to awaken his attention to any particular
part of his performance without putting him out. Indeed we cannot do
so. We shall observe that he finds it hardly less difficult to
compass a voluntary consciousness of what he has once learnt so
thoroughly that it has passed, so to speak, into the domain of
unconsciousness, than he found it to learn the note or passage in the
first instance. The effort after a second consciousness of detail
baffles him - compels him to turn to his music or play slowly. In
fact it seems as though he knew the piece too well to be able to know
that he knows it, and is only conscious of knowing those passages
which he does not know so thoroughly.

At the end of his performance, his memory would appear to be no less
annihilated than was his consciousness of attention and volition.
For of the thousands of acts requiring the exercise of both the one
and the other, which he has done during the five minutes, we will
say, of his performance, he will remember hardly one when it is over.
If he calls to mind anything beyond the main fact that he has played
such and such a piece, it will probably be some passage which he has
found more difficult than the others, and with the like of which he
has not been so long familiar. All the rest he will forget as
completely as the breath which he has drawn while playing.

He finds it difficult to remember even the difficulties he
experienced in learning to play. A few may have so impressed him
that they remain with him, but the greater part will have escaped him
as completely as the remembrance of what he ate, or how he put on his
clothes, this day ten years ago; nevertheless, it is plain he
remembers more than he remembers remembering, for he avoids mistakes
which he made at one time, and his performance proves that all the
notes are in his memory, though if called upon to play such and such
a bar at random from the middle of the piece, and neither more nor
less, he will probably say that he cannot remember it unless he
begins from the beginning of the phrase which leads to it. Very
commonly he will be obliged to begin from the beginning of the
movement itself, and be unable to start at any other point unless he
have the music before him; and if disturbed, as we have seen above,
he will have to start de novo from an accustomed starting-point.

Yet nothing can be more obvious than that there must have been a time
when what is now so easy as to be done without conscious effort of
the brain was only done by means of brain work which was very keenly
perceived, even to fatigue and positive distress. Even now, if the
player is playing something the like of which he has not met before,
we observe he pauses and becomes immediately conscious of attention.

We draw the inference, therefore, as regards pianoforte or violin
playing, that the more the familiarity or knowledge of the art, the
less is there consciousness of such knowledge; even so far as that
there should seem to be almost as much difficulty in awakening
consciousness which has become, so to speak, latent, - a consciousness
of that which is known too well to admit of recognised self-analysis
while the knowledge is being exercised - as in creating a
consciousness of that which is not yet well enough known to be
properly designated as known at all. On the other hand, we observe
that the less the familiarly or knowledge, the greater the
consciousness of whatever knowledge there is.

Considering other like instances of the habitual exercise of
intelligence and volition, which, from long familiarity with the
method of procedure, escape the notice of the person exercising them,
we naturally think of writing. The formation of each letter requires
attention and volition, yet in a few minutes a practised writer will
form several hundred letters, and be able to think and talk of
something else all the time he is doing so. It will not probably
remember the formation of a single character in any page that he has
written; nor will he be able to give more than the substance of his
writing if asked to do so. He knows how to form each letter so well,
and he knows so well each word that he is about to write, that he has
ceased to be conscious of his knowledge or to notice his acts of
volition, each one of which is, nevertheless, followed by a
corresponding muscular action. Yet the uniformity of our
handwriting, and the manner in which we almost invariably adhere to
one method of forming the same character, would seem to suggest that
during the momentary formation of each letter our memories must
revert (with an intensity too rapid for our perception) to many if
not to all the occasions on which we have ever written the same
letter previously - the memory of these occasions dwelling in our
minds as what has been called a residuum - an unconsciously struck
balance or average of them all - a fused mass of individual
reminiscences of which no trace can be found in our consciousness,
and of which the only effect would seem to lie in the gradual changes
of handwriting which are perceptible in most people till they have
reached middle-age, and sometimes even later. So far are we from
consciously remembering any one of the occasions on which we have
written such and such a letter, that we are not even conscious of
exercising our memory at all, any more than we are in health
conscious of the action of our heart. But, if we are writing in some
unfamiliar way, as when printing our letters instead of writing them
in our usual running hand, our memory is so far awakened that we
become conscious of every character we form; sometimes it is even
perceptible as memory to ourselves, as when we try to remember how to
print some letter, for example a g, and cannot call to mind on which
side of the upper half of the letter we ought to put the link which
connects it with the lower, and are successful in remembering; but if
we become very conscious of remembering, it shows that we are on the
brink of only trying to remember, - that is to say, of not remembering
at all.

As a general rule, we remember for a time the substance of what we
have written, for the subject is generally new to us; but if we are
writing what we have often written before, we lose consciousness of
this too, as fully as we do of the characters necessary to convey the
substance to another person, and we shall find ourselves writing on
as it were mechanically while thinking and talking of something else.
So a paid copyist, to whom the subject of what he is writing is of no
importance, does not even notice it. He deals only with familiar
words and familiar characters without caring to go behind them, and
thereupon writes on in a quasi-unconscious manner; but if he comes to
a word or to characters with which he is but little acquainted, he
becomes immediately awakened to the consciousness of either
remembering or trying to remember. His consciousness of his own
knowledge or memory would seem to belong to a period, so to speak, of
twilight between the thick darkness of ignorance and the brilliancy
of perfect knowledge; as colour which vanishes with extremes of light
or of shade. Perfect ignorance and perfect knowledge are alike

The above holds good even more noticeably in respect of reading. How
many thousands of individual letters do our eyes run over every
morning in the "Times" newspaper, how few of them do we notice, or
remember having noticed? Yet there was a time when we had such
difficulty in reading even the simplest words, that we had to take
great pains to impress them upon our memory so as to know them when
we came to then again. Now, not even a single word of all we have
seen will remain with us, unless it is a new one, or an old one used
in an unfamiliar sense, in which case we notice, and may very likely
remember it. Our memory retains the substance only, the substance
only being unfamiliar. Nevertheless, although we do not perceive
more than the general result of our perception, there can be no doubt
of our having perceived every letter in every word that we have read
at all, for if we come upon a word misspelt our attention is at once
aroused; unless, indeed, we have actually corrected the misspelling,
as well as noticed it, unconsciously, through exceeding familiarity
with the way in which it ought to be spelt. Not only do we perceive
the letters we have seen without noticing that we have perceived
them, but we find it almost impossible to notice that we notice them
when we have once learnt to read fluently. To try to do so puts us
out, and prevents our being able to read. We may even go so far as
to say that if a man can attend to the individual characters, it is a
sign that he cannot yet read fluently. If we know how to read well,
we are as unconscious of the means and processes whereby we attain
the desired result as we are about the growth of our hair or the
circulation of our blood. So that here again it would seem that we
only know what we know still to some extent imperfectly, and that
what we know thoroughly escapes our conscious perception though none
the less actually perceived. Our perception in fact passes into a
latent stage, as also our memory and volition.

Walking is another example of the rapid exercise of volition with but
little perception of each individual act of exercise. We notice any
obstacle in our path, but it is plain we do not notice that we
perceive much that we have nevertheless been perceiving; for if a man
goes down a lane by night he will stumble over many things which he
would have avoided by day, although he would not have noticed them.
Yet time was when walking was to each one of us a new and arduous
task - as arduous as we should now find it to wheel a wheelbarrow on a
tight-rope; whereas, at present, though we can think of our steps to
a certain extent without checking our power to walk, we certainly
cannot consider our muscular action in detail without having to come
to a dead stop.

Talking - especially in one's mother tongue - may serve as a last
example. We find it impossible to follow the muscular action of the
mouth and tongue in framing every letter or syllable we utter. We
have probably spoken for years and years before we became aware that
the letter h is a labial sound, and until we have to utter a word
which is difficult from its unfamiliarity we speak "trippingly on the
tongue" with no attention except to the substance of what we wish to
say. Yet talking was not always the easy matter to us which it is at
present - as we perceive more readily when we are learning a new
language which it may take us months to master. Nevertheless, when
we have once mastered it we speak it without further consciousness of
knowledge or memory, as regards the more common words, and without
even noticing our consciousness. Here, as in the other instances
already given, as long as we did not know perfectly, we were
conscious of our acts of perception, volition, and reflection, but
when our knowledge has become perfect we no longer notice our
consciousness, nor our volition; nor can we awaken a second
artificial consciousness without some effort, and disturbance of the
process of which we are endeavouring to become conscious. We are no
longer, so to speak, under the law, but under grace.

An ascending scale may be perceived in the above instances.

In playing, we have an action acquired long after birth, difficult of
acquisition, and never thoroughly familiarised to the power of
absolutely unconscious performance, except in the case of those who
have either an exceptional genius for music, or who have devoted the
greater part of their time to practising. Except in the case of
these persons it is generally found easy to become more or less
conscious of any passage without disturbing the performance, and our
action remains so completely within our control that we can stop
playing at any moment we please.

In writing, we have an action generally acquired earlier, done for
the most part with great unconsciousness of detail, fairly well
within our control to stop at any moment; though not so completely as
would be imagined by those who have not made the experiment of trying
to stop in the middle of a given character when writing at fit speed.
Also, we can notice our formation of any individual character without
our writing being materially hindered.

Reading is usually acquired earlier still. We read with more
unconsciousness of attention than we write. We find it more
difficult to become conscious of any character without discomfiture,
and we cannot arrest ourselves in the middle of a word, for example,
and hardly before the end of a sentence; nevertheless it is on the
whole well within our control.

Walking is so early an acquisition that we cannot remember having
acquired it. In running fast over average ground we find it very
difficult to become conscious of each individual step, and should
possibly find it more difficult still, if the inequalities and
roughness of uncultured land had not perhaps caused the development
of a power to create a second consciousness of our steps without
hindrance to our running or walking. Pursuit and flight, whether in
the chase or in war, must for many generations have played a much
more prominent part in the lives of our ancestors than they do in our
own. If the ground over which they had to travel had been generally
as free from obstruction as our modern cultivated lands, it is
possible that we might not find it as easy to notice our several
steps as we do at present. Even as it is, if while we are running we
would consider the action of our muscles, we come to a dead stop, and
should probably fall if we tried to observe too suddenly; for we must
stop to do this, and running, when we have once committed ourselves
to it beyond a certain point, is not controllable to a step or two
without loss of equilibrium.

We learn to talk, much about the same time that we learn to walk, but
talking requires less muscular effort than walking, and makes
generally less demand upon our powers. A man may talk a long while
before he has done the equivalent of a five-mile walk; it is natural,
therefore, that we should have had more practice in talking than in
walking, and hence that we should find it harder to pay attention to

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