Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 10 of 23)
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kind of work, but who now worked almost as it might be said automatically
and without consciousness, and found it difficult to depart from a
habitual method of procedure.

We turn, then, on Paley, and say to him: "We have admitted your design
and your designer. Where is he? Show him to us. If you cannot show him
to us as flesh and blood, show him as flesh and sap; show him as a living
cell; show him as protoplasm. Lower than this we should not fairly go;
it is not in the bond or _nexus_ of our ideas that something utterly
inanimate and inorganic should scheme, design, contrive, and elaborate
structures which can make mistakes: it may elaborate low unerring things,
like crystals, but it cannot elaborate those which have the power to err.
Nevertheless, we will commit such abuse with our understandings as to
waive this point, and we will ask you to show him to us as air which, if
it cannot be seen yet can be felt, weighed, handled, transferred from
place to place, be judged by its effects, and so forth; or if this may
not be, give us half a grain of hydrogen, diffused through all space and
invested with some of the minor attributes of matter; or if you cannot do
this, give us an imponderable like electricity, or even the higher
mathematics, but give us something or throw off the mask and tell us
fairly out that it is your paid profession to hoodwink us on this matter
if you can, and that you are but doing your best to earn an honest

We may fancy Paley as turning the tables upon us and as saying; "But you
too have admitted a designer - you too then must mean a designer with a
body and soul, who must be somewhere to be found in space, and who must
live in time. Where is this your designer? Can you show him more than I
can? Can you lay your finger on him and demonstrate him so that a child
shall see him and know him, and find what was heretofore an isolated idea
concerning him, combine itself instantaneously with the idea of the
designer, we will say, of the human foot, so that no power on earth shall
henceforth tear those two ideas asunder? Surely if you cannot do this,
you too are trifling with words, and abusing your own mind and that of
your reader. Where, then, is your designer of man? Who made him? And
where, again, is your designer of beasts and birds, of fishes and of

Our answer is simple enough; it is that we can and do point to a living
tangible person with flesh, blood, eyes, nose, ears, organs, senses,
dimensions, who did of his own cunning after infinite proof of every kind
of hazard and experiment scheme out and fashion each organ of the human
body. This is the person whom we claim as the designer and artificer of
that body, and he is the one of all others the best fitted for the task
by his antecedents, and his practical knowledge of the requirements of
the case - for he is man himself.

Not man, the individual of any given generation, but man in the entirety
of his existence from the dawn of life onwards to the present moment. In
like manner we say that the designer of all organisms is so incorporate
with the organisms themselves - so lives, moves, and has its being in
those organisms, and is so one with them - they in it, and it in them - that
it is more consistent with reason and the common use of words to see the
designer of each living form in the living form itself, than to look for
its designer in some other place or person.

Thus we have a third alternative presented to us.

Mr. Charles Darwin and his followers deny design, as having any
appreciable share in the formation of organism at all.

Paley and the theologians insist on design, but upon a designer outside
the universe and the organism.

The third opinion is that suggested in the first instance and carried out
to a very high degree of development by Buffon. It was improved, and
indeed, made almost perfect by Dr. Erasmus Darwin, but too much neglected
by him after he had put it forward. It was borrowed, as I think we may
say with some confidence, from Dr. Darwin by Lamarck, and was followed up
by him ardently thenceforth, during the remainder of his life, though
somewhat less perfectly comprehended by him than it had been by Dr.
Darwin. It is that the design which has designed organisms, has resided
within, and been embodied in, the organisms themselves.


It follows from the doctrine of Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, if not
from that of Buffon himself, that the majority of organs are as purposive
to the evolutionist as to the theologian, and far more intelligibly so.
Circumstances, however, prevented these writers from acknowledging this
fact to the world, and perhaps even to themselves. Their _crux_ was, as
it still is to so many evolutionists, the presence of rudimentary organs,
and the processes of embryological development. They would not admit
that rudimentary and therefore useless organs were designed by a Creator
to take their place once and for ever as part of a scheme whose main idea
was, that every animal structure was to serve some useful end in
connection with its possessor.

This was the doctrine of final causes as then commonly held; in the face
of rudimentary organs it was absurd. Buffon was above all things else a
plain matter of fact thinker, who refused to go far beyond the obvious.
Like all other profound writers, he was, if I may say so, profoundly
superficial. He felt that the aim of research does not consist in the
knowing this or that, but in the easing of the desire to know or
understand more completely - in the peace of mind which passeth all
understanding. His was the perfection of a healthy mental organism by
which over effort is felt to be as vicious and contemptible as indolence.
He knew this too well to know the grounds of his knowledge, but we
smaller people who know it less completely, can see that such felicitous
instinctive tempering together of the two great contradictory principles,
love of effort and love of ease, has underlain every healthy step of all
healthy growth, whether of vegetable or animal, from the earliest
conceivable time to the present moment. Nothing is worth looking at
which is seen either too obviously or with too much difficulty. Nothing
is worth doing or well done which is not done fairly easily, and some
little deficiency of effort is more pardonable than any very perceptible
excess, for virtue has ever erred on the side of self-indulgence rather
than of asceticism.

According to Buffon, then - as also according to Dr. Darwin, who was just
such another practical and genial thinker, and who was distinctly a pupil
of Buffon, though a most intelligent and original one - if an organ after
a reasonable amount of inspection appeared to be useless, it was to be
called useless without more ado, and theories were to be ordered out of
court if they were troublesome. In like manner, if animals breed freely
_inter se_ before our eyes, as for example the horse and ass, the fact
was to be noted, but no animals were to be classed as capable of
interbreeding until they had asserted their right to such classification
by breeding with tolerable certainty. If, again, an animal looked as if
it felt, that is to say, if it moved about pretty quickly or made a
noise, it must be held to feel; if it did neither of these things it did
not look as if it felt, and therefore it must be said not to feel. _De
non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est lex_ was one of the chief
axioms of their philosophy; no writers have had a greater horror of
mystery or of ideas that have not become so mastered as to be, or to have
been, superficial. Lamarck was one of those men of whom I believe it has
been said that they have brain upon the brain. He had his theory that an
animal could not feel unless it had a nervous system, and at least a
spinal marrow - and that it could not think at all without a brain - all
his facts, therefore, have to be made to square with this. With Buffon
and Dr. Darwin we feel safe that however wrong they may sometimes be,
their conclusions have always been arrived at on that fairly superficial
view of things in which, as I have elsewhere said, our nature alone
permits us to be comforted.

To these writers, then, the doctrine of final causes for rudimentary
organs was a piece of mystification and an absurdity; no less fatal to
any such doctrine were the processes of embryological development. It
was plain that the commonly received teleology must be given up; but the
idea of design or purpose was so associated in their minds with
theological design that they avoided it altogether. They seem to have
forgotten that an internal purpose is as much purpose as an external one;
hence, unfortunately, though their whole theory of development is
intensely purposive, it is the fact rather than the name of teleology
which has hitherto been insisted upon, even by the greatest writers on
evolution - the name having been most persistently denied even by those
who were most insisting on the thing itself.

It is easy to understand the difficulty felt by the fathers of evolution
when we remember how much had to be seen before the facts could lie well
before them. It was necessary to attain, firstly, to a perception of the
unity of person between parents and offspring in successive generations;
secondly, it must be seen that an organism's memory (within the
limitations to which all memory is subject) goes back for generations
beyond its birth, to the first beginnings in fact, of which we know
anything whatever; thirdly, the latency of that memory, as of memory
generally, till the associated ideas are reproduced, must be brought to
bear upon the facts of heredity; and lastly, the unconsciousness with
which habitual actions come to be performed, must be assigned as the
explanation of the unconsciousness with which we grow and discharge most
of our natural functions.

Buffon was too busy with the fact that animals descended with
modification at all, to go beyond the development and illustration of
this great truth. I doubt whether he ever saw more than the first, and
that dimly, of the four considerations above stated.

Dr. Darwin was the first to point out the first two considerations; he
did so with some clearness, but can hardly be said to have understood
their full importance: the two latter ideas do not appear to have
occurred to him.

Lamarck had little if any perception of any one of the four. When,
however, they are firmly seized and brought into their due bearings one
upon another, the facts of heredity become as simple as those of a man
making a tobacco pipe, and rudimentary organs are seen to be essentially
of the same character as the little rudimentary protuberance at the
bottom of the pipe to which I referred in 'Erewhon.' {141}

These organs are now no longer useful, but they once were so, and were
therefore once purposive, though not so now. They are the expressions of
a bygone usefulness; sayings, as it were, about which there was at one
time infinite wrangling, as to what both the meaning and the expression
should best be, so that they then had living significance in the mouths
of those who used them, though they have become such mere shibboleths and
cant formulae to ourselves that we think no more of their meaning than we
do of Julius Caesar in the month of July. They continue to be reproduced
through the force of habit, and through indisposition to get out of any
familiar groove of action until it becomes too unpleasant for us to
remain in it any longer. It has long been felt that embryology and
rudimentary structures indicated community of descent. Dr. Darwin and
Lamarck insisted on this, as have all subsequent writers on evolution;
but the explanation why and how the structures come to be
repeated - namely, that they are simply examples of the force of habit - can
only be perceived intelligently by those who admit such unity between
parents and offspring as that the self-development of the latter can be
properly called habitual (as being a repetition of an act by one and the
same individual), and can only be fully sympathised with by those who
recognise that if habit be admitted as the key to the fact at all, the
unconscious manner in which the habit comes to be repeated is only of a
piece with all our other observations concerning habit. For the fuller
development of the foregoing, I must refer the reader to my work "Life
and Habit."

The purposiveness, which even Dr. Darwin (and Lamarck still less) seems
never to have quite recognised in spite of their having insisted so much
on what amounts to the same thing, now comes into full view. It is seen
that the organs external to the body, and those internal to it, are the
second as much as the first, things which we have made for our own
convenience, and with a prevision that we shall have need of them; the
main difference between the manufacture of these two classes of organs
being, that we have made the one kind so often that we can no longer
follow the processes whereby we make them, while the others are new
things which we must make introspectively or not at all, and which are
not yet so incorporate with our vitality as that we should think they
grow instead of being manufactured. The manufacture of the tool, and the
manufacture of the living organ prove therefore to be but two species of
the same genus, which, though widely differentiated, have descended as it
were from one common filament of desire and inventive faculty. The
greater or less complexity of the organs goes for very little. It is
only a question of the amount of intelligence and voluntary
self-adaptation which we must admit, and this must be settled rather by
an appeal to what we find in organism, and observe concerning it, than by
what we may have imagined _a priori_.

Given a small speck of jelly with some power of slightly varying its
actions in accordance with slightly varying circumstances and
desires - given such a jelly-speck with a power of assimilating other
matter, and thus of reproducing itself, given also that it should be
possessed of a memory and a reproductive system, and we can show how the
whole animal world can have descended it may be from an _amoeba_ without
interference from without, and how every organ in every creature is
designed at first roughly and tentatively but finally fashioned with the
most consummate perfection, by the creature which has had need of that
organ, which best knew what it wanted, and was never satisfied till it
had got that which was the best suited to its varying circumstances in
their entirety. We can even show how, if it becomes worth the
Ethiopian's while to try and change his skin, or the leopard's to change
his spots, they can assuredly change them within a not unreasonable time
and adapt their covering to their own will and convenience, and to that
of none other; thus what is commonly conceived of as direct creation by
God is moved back to a time and space inconceivable in their remoteness,
while the aim and design so obvious in nature are shown to be still at
work around us, growing ever busier and busier, and advancing from day to
day both in knowledge and power.

It was reserved for Mr. Charles Darwin and for those who have too rashly
followed him to deny purpose as having had any share in the development
of animal and vegetable organs; to see no evidence of design in those
wonderful provisions which have been the marvel and delight of observers
in all ages. The one who has drawn our attention more than perhaps any
other living writer to those very marvels of co-adaptation, is the
foremost to maintain that they are the result not of desire and design,
either within the creature or without it, but of blind chance, working no
whither, and due but to the accumulation of innumerable lucky accidents.

"There are men," writes Professor Tyndal in the _Nineteenth Century_ for
last November, {144} "and by no means the minority, who, however wealthy
in regard to facts, can never rise into the region of principles; and
they are sometimes intolerant of those that can. They are formed to plod
meritoriously on in the lower levels of thought; unpossessed of the
pinions necessary to reach the heights, they cannot realise the mental
act - the act of inspiration it might well be called - by which a man of
genius, after long pondering and proving, reaches a theoretic conception
which unravels and illuminates the tangle of centuries of observation and
experiment. There are minds, it may be said in passing, who, at the
present moment, stand in this relation to Mr. Darwin."

The more rhapsodical parts of the above must go for what they are worth,
but I should be sorry to think that what remains conveyed a censure which
might fall justly on myself. As I read the earlier part of the passage I
confess that I imagined the conclusion was going to be very different
from what it proved to be. Fresh from the study of the older men and
also of Mr. Darwin himself, I failed to see that Mr. Darwin had
"unravelled and illuminated" a tangled skein, but believed him, on the
contrary, to have tangled and obscured what his predecessors had made in
great part, if not wholly, plain. With the older writers, I had felt as
though in the hands of men who wished to understand themselves and to
make their reader understand them with the smallest possible exertion.
The older men, if not in full daylight, at any rate saw in what quarter
of the sky the dawn was breaking, and were looking steadily towards it.
It is not they who have put their hands over their own eyes and ours, and
who are crying out that there is no light, but chance and blindness


I have stated the foregoing in what I take to be an extreme logical
development, in order that the reader may more easily perceive the
consequences of those premises which I am endeavouring to re-establish.
But it must not be supposed that an animal or plant has ever conceived
the idea of some organ widely different from any it was yet possessed of,
and has set itself to design it in detail and grow towards it.

The small jelly-speck, which we call the amoeba, has no organs save what
it can extemporise as occasion arises. If it wants to get at anything,
it thrusts out part of its jelly, which thus serves it as an arm or hand:
when the arm has served its purpose, it is absorbed into the rest of the
jelly, and has now to do the duty of a stomach by helping to wrap up what
it has just purveyed. The small round jelly-speck spreads itself out and
envelops its food, so that the whole creature is now a stomach, and
nothing but a stomach. Having digested its food, it again becomes a
jelly-speck, and is again ready to turn part of itself into hand or foot
as its next convenience may dictate. It is not to be believed that such
a creature as this, which is probably just sensitive to light and nothing
more, should be able to form any conception of an eye and set itself to
work to grow one, any more than it is believable that he who first
observed the magnifying power of a dew-drop, or even he who first
constructed a rude lens, should have had any idea in his mind of Lord
Rosse's telescope with all its parts and appliances. Nothing could be
well conceived more foreign to experience and common sense. Animals and
plants have travelled to their present forms as a man has travelled to
any one of his own most complicated inventions. Slowly, step by step,
through many blunders and mischances which have worked together for good
to those that have persevered in elasticity. They have travelled as man
has travelled, with but little perception of a want till there was also
some perception of a power, and with but little perception of a power
till there was a dim sense of want; want stimulating power, and power
stimulating want; and both so based upon each other that no one can say
which is the true foundation, but rather that they must be both baseless
and, as it were, meteoric in mid air. They have seen very little ahead
of a present power or need, and have been then most moral, when most
inclined to pierce a little into futurity, but also when most obstinately
declining to pierce too far, and busy mainly with the present. They have
been so far blindfolded that they could see but for a few steps in front
of them, yet so far free to see that those steps were taken with aim and
definitely, and not in the dark.

"Plus il a su," says Buffon, speaking of man, "plus il a pu, mais aussi
moins il a fait, moins il a su." This holds good wherever life holds
good. Wherever there is life there is a moral government of rewards and
punishments understood by the amoeba neither better nor worse than by
man. The history of organic development is the history of a moral

As for the origin of a creature able to feel want and power and as to
what want and power spring from, we know nothing as yet, nor does it seem
worth while to go into this question until an understanding has been come
to as to whether the interaction of want and power in some low form or
forms of life which could assimilate matter, reproduce themselves, vary
their actions, and be capable of remembering, will or will not suffice to
explain the development of the varied organs and desires which we see in
the higher vertebrates and man. When this question has been settled,
then it will be time to push our inquiries farther back.

But given such a low form of life as here postulated, and there is no
force in Paley's pretended objection to the Darwinism of his time.

"Give our philosopher," he says, "appetencies; give him a portion of
living irritable matter (a nerve or the clipping of a nerve) to work
upon; give also to his incipient or progressive forms the power of
propagating their like in every stage of their alteration; and if he is
to be believed, he could replenish the world with all the vegetable and
animal productions which we now see in it." {148}

After meeting this theory with answers which need not detain us, he
continues: -

"The senses of animals appear to me quite incapable of receiving the
explanation of their origin which this theory affords. Including under
the word 'sense' the organ and the perception, we have no account of
either. How will our philosopher get at vision or make an eye? Or,
suppose the eye formed, would the perception follow? The same of the
other senses. And this objection holds its force, ascribe what you will
to the hand of time, to the power of habit, to changes too slow to be
observed by man, or brought within any comparison which he is able to
make of past things with the present. Concede what you please to these
arbitrary and unattested superstitions, how will they help you? Here is
no inception. No laws, no course, no powers of nature which prevail at
present, nor any analogous to these would give commencement to a new
sense; and it is in vain to inquire how that might proceed which would
never _begin_."

In answer to this, let us suppose that some inhabitants of another world
were to see a modern philosopher so using a microscope that they should
believe it to be a part of the philosopher's own person, which he could
cut off from and join again to himself at pleasure, and suppose there
were a controversy as to how this microscope had originated, and that one
party maintained the man had made it little by little because he wanted
it, while the other declared this to be absurd and impossible; I ask,
would this latter party be justified in arguing that microscopes could
never have been perfected by degrees through the preservation of and
accumulation of small successive improvements inasmuch as men could not
have begun to want to use microscopes until they had had a microscope
which should show them that such an instrument would be useful to them,
and that hence there is nothing to account for the _beginning_ of
microscopes, which might indeed make some progress when once originated,
but which could never originate?

It might be pointed out to such a reasoner, firstly, that as regards any
acquired power the various stages in the acquisition of which he might be
supposed able to remember, he would find that logic notwithstanding, the
wish did originate the power, and yet was originated by it, both coming
up gradually out of something which was not recognisable as either power
or wish, and advancing through vain beating of the air, to a vague

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 10 of 23)