Samuel Butler.

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

. (page 11 of 23)
Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 11 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

effort, and from this to definite effort with failure, and from this to
definite effort with success, and from this to success with little
consciousness of effort, and from this to success with such complete
absence of effort that he now acts unconsciously and without power of
introspection, and that, do what he will, he can rarely or never draw a
sharp dividing line whereat anything shall be said to begin, though none
less certain that there has been a continuity in discontinuity, and a
discontinuity in continuity between it and certain other past things;
moreover, that his opponents postulated so much beginning of the
microscope as that there should be a dew-drop, even as our evolutionists
start with a sense of touch, of which sense all the others are
modifications, so that not one of them, but is resolvable into touch by
more or less easy stages; and secondly, that the question is one of fact
and of the more evident deductions therefrom, and should not be carried
back to those remote beginnings where the nature of the facts is so
purely a matter of conjecture and inference.

No plant or animal, then, according to our view, would be able to
conceive more than a very slight improvement on its organisation at a
given time, so clearly as to make the efforts towards it that would
result in growth of the required modification; nor would these efforts be
made with any far-sighted perception of what next and next and after, but
only of what next; while many of the happiest thoughts would come like
all other happy thoughts - thoughtlessly; by a chain of reasoning too
swift and subtle for conscious analysis by the individual. Some of these
modifications would be noticeable, but the majority would involve no more
noticeable difference that can be detected between the length of the
shortest day, and that of the shortest but one.

Thus a bird whose toes were not webbed, but who had under force of
circumstances little by little in the course of many generations learned
to swim, either from having lived near a lake, and having learnt the art
owing to its fishing habits, or from wading about in shallow pools by the
sea-side at low water and finding itself sometimes a little out of its
depth and just managing to scramble over the intermediate yard or so
between it and safety - such a bird did not probably conceive the idea of
swimming on the water and set itself to learn to do so, and then conceive
the idea of webbed feet and set itself to get webbed feet. The bird
found itself in some small difficulty, out of which it either saw, or at
any rate found that it could extricate itself by striking out vigorously
with its feet and extending its toes as far as ever it could; it thus
began to learn the art of swimming and conceived the idea of swimming
synchronously, or nearly so; or perhaps wishing to get over a yard or two
of deep water, and trying to do so without being at the trouble of rising
to fly, it would splash and struggle its way over the water, and thus
practically swim, though without much perception of what it had been
doing. Finding that no harm had come to it, the bird would do the same
again and again; it would thus presently lose fear, and would be able to
act more calmly; then it would begin to find out that it could swim a
little, and if its food lay much in the water so that it would be of
great advantage to it to be able to alight and rest without being forced
to return to land, it would begin to make a practice of swimming. It
would now discover that it could swim the more easily according as its
feet presented a more extended surface to the water; it would therefore
keep its toes extended wherever it swam, and as far as in it lay, would
make the most of whatever skin was already at the base of its toes. After
many generations it would become web-footed, if doing as above described
should have been found continuously convenient, so that the bird should
have continuously used the skin about its toes as much as possible in
this direction.

For there is a margin in every organic structure (and perhaps more than
we imagine in things inorganic also), which will admit of references, as
it were, side notes, and glosses upon the original text. It is on this
margin that we may err or wander - the greatness of a mistake depending
rather upon the extent of the departure from the original text, than on
the direction that the departure takes. A little error on the bad side
is more pardonable, and less likely to hurt the organism than a too great
departure upon the right one. This is a fundamental proposition in any
true system of ethics, the question what is too much or too sudden being
decided by much the same higgling as settles the price of butter in a
country market, and being as invisible as the link which connects the
last moment of desire with the first of power and performance, and with
the material result achieved.

It is on this margin that the fulcrum is to be found, whereby we obtain
the little purchase over our structure, that enables us to achieve great
results if we use it steadily, with judgment, and with neither too little
effort nor too much. It is by employing this that those who have a fancy
to move their ears or toes without moving other organs learn to do so.
There is a man at the Agricultural Hall now {153a} playing the violin
with his toes, and playing it, as I am told, sufficiently well. The eye
of the sailor, the wrist of the conjuror, the toe of the professional
medium, are all found capable of development to an astonishing degree,
even in a single lifetime; but in every case success has been attained by
the simple process of making the best of whatever power a man has had at
any given time, and by being on the look-out to take advantage of
accident, and even of misfortune. If a man would learn to paint, he must
not theorise concerning art, nor think much what he would do beforehand,
but he must do _something_ - whatever under the circumstances will come
handiest and easiest to him; and he must do that something as well as he
can. This will presently open the door for something else, and a way
will show itself which no conceivable amount of searching would have
discovered, but which yet could never have been discovered by sitting
still and taking no pains at all. "Dans l'animal," says Buffon, "il y a
moins de jugement que de sentiment." {153b}

It may appear as though this were blowing hot and cold with the same
breath, inasmuch as I am insisting that important modifications of
structure have been always purposive; and at the same time am denying
that the creature modified has had any far-seeing purpose in the greater
part of all those actions which have at length modified both structure
and instinct. Thus I say that a bird learns to swim without having any
purpose of learning to swim before it set itself to make those movements
which have resulted in its being able to do so. At the same time I
maintain that it has only learned to swim by trying to swim, and this
involves the very purpose which I have just denied. The reconciliation
of these two apparently irreconcilable contentions must be found in the
consideration that the bird was not the less trying to swim, merely
because it did not know the name we have chosen to give to the art which
it was trying to master, nor yet how great were the resources of that
art. A person, who knew all about swimming, if from some bank he could
watch our supposed bird's first attempt to scramble over a short space of
deep water, would at once declare that the bird was trying to swim - if
not actually swimming. Provided then that there is a very little
perception of, and prescience concerning, the means whereby the next
desired end may be attained, it matters not how little in advance that
end may be of present desire or faculties; it is still reached through
purpose, and must be called purposive. Again, no matter how many of
these small steps be taken, nor how absolute was the want of purpose or
prescience concerning any but the one being actually taken at any given
moment, this does not bar the result from having been arrived at through
design and purpose. If each one of the small steps is purposive the
result is purposive, though there was never purpose extended over more
than one, two, or perhaps at most three steps at a time.

Returning to the art of painting for an example, are we to say that the
proficiency which such a student as was supposed above will certainly
attain, is not due to design, merely because it was not until he had
already become three parts excellent that he knew the full purport of all
that he had been doing? When he began he had but vague notions of what
he would do. He had a wish to learn to represent nature, but the line
into which he has settled down has probably proved very different from
that which he proposed to himself originally. Because he has taken
advantage of his accidents, is it, therefore, one whit the less true that
his success is the result of his desires and his design? The _Times_
pointed out some time ago that the theory which now associates meteors
and comets in the most unmistakable manner, was suggested by one
accident, and confirmed by another. But the writer added well that "such
accidents happen only to the zealous student of nature's secrets." In
the same way the bird that is taking to the habit of swimming, and of
making the most of whatever skin it already has between its toes, will
have doubtless to thank accidents for no small part of its progress; but
they will be such accidents as could never have happened to or been taken
advantage of by any creature which was not zealously trying to make the
most of itself - and between such accidents as this, and design, the line
is hard to draw; for if we go deep enough we shall find that most of our
design resolves itself into as it were a shaking of the bag to see what
will come out that will suit our purpose, and yet at the same time that
most of our shaking of the bag resolves itself into a design that the bag
shall contain only such and such things, or thereabouts.

Again, the fact that animals are no longer conscious of design and
purpose in much that they do, but act unreflectingly, and as we sometimes
say concerning ourselves "automatically" or "mechanically" - that they
have no idea whatever of the steps, whereby they have travelled to their
present state, and show no sign of doubt about what must have been at one
time the subject of all manner of doubts, difficulties, and
discussions - that whatever sign of reflection they now exhibit is to be
found only in case of some novel feature or difficulty presenting itself;
these facts do not bar that the results achieved should be attributed to
an inception in reason, design and purpose, no matter how rapidly and as
we call it instinctively, the creatures may now act.

For if we look closely at such an invention as the steam engine in its
latest and most complicated developments, about which there can be no
dispute but that they are achievements of reason, purpose and design, we
shall find them present us with examples of all those features the
presence of which in the handiwork of animals is too often held to bar
reason and purpose from having had any share therein.

Assuredly such men as the Marquis of Worcester and Captain Savery had
very imperfect ideas as to the upshot of their own action. The simplest
steam engine now in use in England is probably a marvel of ingenuity as
compared with the highest development which appeared possible to these
two great men, while our newest and most highly complicated engines would
seem to them more like living beings than machines. Many, again, of the
steps leading to the present development have been due to action which
had but little heed of the steam engine, being the inventions of
attendants whose desire was to save themselves the trouble of turning
this or that cock, and who were indifferent to any other end than their
own immediate convenience. No step in fact along the whole route was
ever taken with much perception of what would be the next step after the
one being taken at any given moment.

Nor do we find that an engine made after any old and well-known pattern
is now made with much more consciousness of design than we can suppose a
bird's nest to be built with. The greater number of the parts of any
such engine, are made by the gross as it were like screw and nuts, which
are turned out by machinery and in respect of which the labour of design
is now no more felt than is the design of him who first invented the
wheel. It is only when circumstances require any modification in the
article to be manufactured that thought and design will come into play
again; but I take it few will deny that if circumstances compel a bird
either to give up a nest three-parts built altogether, or to make some
trifling deviation from its ordinary practice, it will in nine cases out
of ten make such deviation as shall show that it had thought the matter
over, and had on the whole concluded to take such and such a course, that
is to say, that it had reasoned and had acted with such purpose as its
reason had dictated.

And I imagine that this is the utmost that any one can claim even for
man's own boasted powers. Set the man who has been accustomed to make
engines of one type, to make engines of another type without any
intermediate course of training or instruction, and he will make no
better figure with his engines than a thrush would do if commanded by her
mate to make a nest like a blackbird. It is vain then to contend that
the ease and certainty with which an action is performed, even though it
may have now become matter of such fixed habit that it cannot be suddenly
and seriously modified without rendering the whole performance abortive,
is any argument against that action having been an achievement of design
and reason in respect of each one of the steps that have led to it; and
if in respect of each one of the steps then as regards the entire action;
for we see our own most reasoned actions become no less easy, unerring,
automatic, and unconscious, than the actions which we call instinctive
when they have been repeated a sufficient number of times.

* * * * *

If the foregoing be granted, and it be admitted that the unconsciousness
and seeming automatism with which any action may be performed is no bar
to its having a foundation in memory, reason, and at one time consciously
recognised effort - and this I believe to be the chief addition which I
have ventured to make to the theory of Buffon and Dr. Erasmus Darwin - then
the wideness of the difference between the Darwinism of eighty years ago
and the Darwinism of to-day becomes immediately apparent, and it also
becomes apparent, how important and interesting is the issue which is
raised between them.

According to the older Darwinism the lungs are just as purposive as the
corkscrew. They, no less than the corkscrew, are a piece of mechanism
designed and gradually improved upon and perfected by an intelligent
creature for the gratification of its own needs. True there are many
important differences between mechanism which is part of the body, and
mechanism which is no such part, but the differences are such as do not
affect the fact that in each case the result, whether, for example, lungs
or corkscrew, is due to desire, invention, and design.

And now I will ask one more question, which may seem, perhaps, to have
but little importance, but which I find personally interesting. I have
been told by a reviewer, of whom upon the whole I have little reason to
complain, that the theory I put forward in "Life and Habit," and which I
am now again insisting on, is pessimism - pure and simple. I have a very
vague idea what pessimism means, but I should be sorry to believe that I
am a pessimist. Which, I would ask, is the pessimist? He who sees love
of beauty, design, steadfastness of purpose, intelligence, courage, and
every quality to which success has assigned the name of "worth" as having
drawn the pattern of every leaf and organ now and in all past time, or he
who sees nothing in the world of nature but a chapter of accidents and of
forces interacting blindly?


Buffon, says M. Flourens, was born at Montbar, on the 7th of September
1707; he died in Paris, at the Jardin du Roi, on the 16th of April 1788,
aged 81 years. More than fifty of these years, as he used himself to
say, he had passed at his writing-desk. His father was a councillor of
the parliament of Burgundy. His mother was celebrated for her wit, and
Buffon cherished her memory.

He studied at Dijon with much _eclat_, and shortly after leaving became
accidentally acquainted with the Duke of Kingston, a young Englishman of
his own age, who was travelling abroad with a tutor. The three travelled
together in France and Italy, and Buffon then passed some months in

Returning to France, he translated Hales's Vegetable Statics and Newton's
Treatise on Fluxions. He refers to several English writers on natural
history in the course of his work, but I see he repeated spells the
English name Willoughby, "Willulghby." He was appointed superintendent
of the Jardin du Roi in 1739, and from thenceforth devoted himself to

In 1752 Buffon married Mdlle de Saint Belin, whose beauty and charm of
manner were extolled by all her contemporaries. One son was born to him,
who entered the army, became a colonel, and I grieve to say, was
guillotined at the age of twenty-nine, a few days only before the
extinction of the Reign of Terror.

Of this youth, who inherited the personal comeliness and ability of his
father, little is recorded except the following story. Having fallen
into the water and been nearly drowned when he was about twelve years
old, he was afterwards accused of having been afraid: "I was so little
afraid," he answered, "that though I had been offered the hundred years
which my grandfather lived, I would have died then and there, if I could
have added one year to the life of my father;" then thinking for a
minute, a flush suffused his face and he added, "but I should petition
for one quarter of an hour in which to exult over the thought of what I
was about to do."

On the scaffold he showed much composure, smiling half proudly, half
reproachfully, yet wholly kindly upon the crowd in front of him.
"Citoyens," he said, "Je me nomine Buffon," and laid his head upon the

The noblest outcome of the old and decaying order, overwhelmed in the
most hateful birth frenzy of the new. So in those cataclysms and
revolutions which take place in our own bodies during their development,
when we seem studying in order to become fishes and suddenly make, as it
were, different arrangements and resolve on becoming men - so, doubtless,
many good cells must go, and their united death cry comes up, it may be,
in the pain which an infant feels on teething. But to return. The man
who could be father of such a son, and who could retain that son's
affection, as it is well known that Buffon retained it, may not perhaps
always be strictly accurate, but it will be as well to pay attention to
whatever he may think fit to tell us. These are the only people whom it
is worth while to look to and study from.

"Glory," said Buffon, after speaking of the hours during which he had
laboured, "glory comes always after labour if she can - _and she generally
can_." But in his case she could not well help herself. "He was
conspicuous," says M. Flourens, "for elevation and force of character,
for a love of greatness and true magnificence in all he did. His great
wealth, his handsome person, and graceful manners seemed in
correspondence with the splendour of his genius, so that of all the gifts
which Fortune has in it her power to bestow she had denied him nothing."

Many of his epigrammatic sayings have passed into proverbs: for example,
that "genius is but a supreme capacity for taking pains." Another and
still more celebrated passage shall be given in its entirety and with its
original setting.

"Style," says Buffon, "is the only passport to posterity. It is not
range of information, nor mastery of some little known branch of science,
nor yet novelty of matter that will ensure immortality. Works that can
claim all this will yet die if they are conversant about trivial objects
only, or written without taste, genius, and true nobility of mind; for
range of information, knowledge of details, novelty of discovery are of a
volatile essence and fly off readily into other hands that know better
how to treat them. The matter is foreign to the man, and is not of him;
the manner is the man himself." {162}

"Le style, c'est l'homme memo." Elsewhere he tells us what true style
is, but I quote from memory and cannot be sure of the passage. "Le
style," he says "est comme le bonheur; il vient de la douceur de l'ame."

Is it possible not to think of the following? -

"But whether there be prophecies they shall fail; whether there be
tongues they shall cease; whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away
. . . and now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the
greatest of these is charity." {163}


Buffon's idea of a method amounts almost to the denial of the possibility
of method at all. "The true method," he writes, "is the complete
description and exact history of each particular object," {164a} and
later on he asks, "is it not more simple, more natural and more true to
call an ass an ass, and a cat a cat, than to say, without knowing why,
that an ass is a horse, and a cat a lynx?" {164b}

He admits such divisions as between animals and vegetables, or between
vegetables and minerals, but that done, he rejects all others that can be
founded on the nature of things themselves. He concludes that one who
could see living forms as a whole and without preconceived opinions,
would classify animals according to the relations in which he found
himself standing towards them: -

"Those which he finds most necessary and useful to him will occupy the
first rank; thus he will give the precedence among the lower animals
to the dog and the horse; he will next concern himself with those
which without being domesticated, nevertheless occupy the same country
and climate as himself, as for example stags, hares, and all wild
animals; nor will it be till after he has familiarised himself with
all these that curiosity will lead him to inquire what inhabitants
there may be in foreign climates, such as elephants, dromedaries, &c.
The same will hold good for fishes, birds, insects, shells, and for
all nature's other productions; he will study them in proportion to
the profit which he can draw from them; he will consider them in that
order in which they enter into his daily life; he will arrange them in
his head according to this order, which is in fact that in which he
has become acquainted with them, and in which it concerns him to think
about them, This order - the most natural of all - is the one which I
have thought it well to follow in this volume. My classification has
no more mystery in it than the reader has just seen . . . it is
preferable to the most profound and ingenious that can be conceived,
for there is none of all the classifications which ever have been made
or ever can be, which has not more of an arbitrary character than this
has. Take it for all in all," he concludes, "it is more easy, more
agreeable, and more useful, to consider things in their relation to
ourselves than from any other standpoint." {165}

"Has it not a better effect not only in a treatise on natural history,
but in a picture or any work of art to arrange objects in the order
and place in which they are commonly found, than to force them into
association in virtue of some theory of our own? Is it not better to
let the dog which has toes, come after the horse which has a single
hoof, in the same way as we see him follow the horse in daily life,
than to follow up the horse by the zebra, an animal which is little
known to us, and which has no other connection with the horse than the
fact that it has a single hoof?" {166a}

Can we suppose that Buffon really saw no more connection than this? The
writer whom we shall presently find {166b} declining to admit any

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 11 of 23)