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 12 of 23)
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essential difference between the skeletons of man and of the horse, can
here see no resemblance between the zebra and the horse, except that they
each have a single hoof. Is he to be taken at his word?

It is perhaps necessary to tell the reader that Buffon carried the
foregoing scheme into practice as nearly as he could in the first fifteen
volumes of his Natural History. He begins with man - and then goes on to
the horse, the ass, the cow, sheep, goat, pig, dog, &c. One would be
glad to know whether he found it always more easy to know in what order
of familiarity this or that animal would stand to the majority of his
readers than other classifiers have found it to know whether an
individual more resembles one species or another; probably he never gave
the matter a thought after he had gone through the first dozen most
familiar animals, but settled generally down into a classification which
becomes more and more specific - as when he treats of the apes and
monkeys - till he reaches the birds, when he openly abandons his original
idea, in deference, as he says, to the opinion of "le peuple des

Perhaps the key to this piece of apparent extravagance is to be found in
the word "mysterieuse." {166c} Buffon wished to raise a standing protest
against mystery mongering. Or perhaps more probably, he wished at once
to turn to animals under domestication, so as to insist early on the main
object of his work - the plasticity of animal forms.

I am inclined to think that a vein of irony pervades the whole or much
the greater part of Buffon's work, and that he intended to convey one
meaning to one set of readers, and another to another; indeed, it is
often impossible to believe that he is not writing between his lines for
the discerning, what the undiscerning were not intended to see. It must
be remembered that his Natural History has two sides, - a scientific and a
popular one. May we not imagine that Buffon would be unwilling to debar
himself from speaking to those who could understand him, and yet would
wish like Handel and Shakespeare to address the many, as well as the few?
But the only manner in which these seemingly irreconcilable ends could be
attained, would be by the use of language which should be self-adjusting
to the capacity of the reader. So keen an observer can hardly have been
blind to the signs of the times which were already close at hand. Free-
thinker though he was, he was also a powerful member of the aristocracy,
and little likely to demean himself - for so he would doubtless hold it - by
playing the part of Voltaire or Rousseau. He would help those who could
see to see still further, but he would not dazzle eyes that were yet
imperfect with a light brighter than they could stand. He would
therefore impose upon people, as much as he thought was for their good;
but, on the other hand, he would not allow inferior men to mystify them.

"In the private character of Buffon," says Sir William Jardine in a
characteristic passage, "we regret there is not much to praise; his
disposition was kind and benevolent, and he was generally beloved by his
inferiors, followers, and dependants, which were numerous over his
extensive property; he was strictly honourable, and was an affectionate
parent. In early youth he had entered into the pleasures and
dissipations of life, and licentious habits seem to have been retained to
the end. But the great blemish in such a mind was his declared
infidelity; it presents one of those exceptions among the persons who
have been devoted to the study of nature; and it is not easy to imagine a
mind apparently with such powers, scarcely acknowledging a Creator, and
when noticed, only by an arraignment for what appeared wanting or
defective in His great works. So openly, indeed, was the freedom of his
religious opinions expressed, that the indignation of the Sorbonne was
provoked. He had to enter into an explanation which he in some way
rendered satisfactory; and while he afterwards attended to the outward
ordinances of religion, he considered them as a system of faith for the
multitude, and regarded those most impolitic who most opposed them."

This is partly correct and partly not. Buffon was a free-thinker, and as
I have sufficiently explained, a decided opponent of the doctrine that
rudimentary and therefore useless organs were designed by a Creator in
order to serve some useful end throughout all time to the creature in
which they are found.

He was not, surely, to hide the magnificent conceptions which he had been
the first to grasp, from those who were worthy to receive them; on the
other hand he would not tell the uninstructed what they would interpret
as a licence to do whatever they pleased, inasmuch as there was no God.
What he did was to point so irresistibly in the right direction, that a
reader of any intelligence should be in no doubt as to the road he ought
to take, and then to contradict himself so flatly as to reassure those
who would be shocked by a truth for which they were not yet ready. If I
am right in the view which I have taken of Buffon's work, it is not easy
to see how he could have formed a finer scheme, nor have carried it out
more finely.

I should, however, warn the reader to be on his guard against accepting
my view too hastily. So far as I know I stand alone in taking it.
Neither Dr. Darwin, nor Flourens, nor Isidore Geoffroy, nor Mr. Charles
Darwin see any subrisive humour in Buffon's pages; but it must be
remembered that Flourens was a strong opponent of mutability, and
probably paid but little heed to what Buffon said on this question;
Isidore Geoffroy is not a safe guide, few men indeed less so. Mr.
Charles Darwin seems to have adopted the one half of Isidore Geoffrey's
conclusions without verifying either; and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who has no
small share of a very pleasant conscious humour, yet sometimes rises to
such heights of unconscious humour, that Buffon's puny labour may well
have been invisible to him. Dr. Darwin wrote a great deal of poetry,
some of which was about the common pump. Miss Seward tells us, that he
"illustrated this familiar object with a picture of Maternal Beauty
administering sustenance to her infant." Buffon could not have done
anything like this.

Buffon never, then, "arraigned the Creator for what was wanting or
defective in His works;" on the contrary, whenever he was led up by an
irresistible chain of reasoning to conclusions which should make men
recast their ideas concerning the Deity, he invariably retreats under
cover of an appeal to revelation. Naturally enough, the Sorbonne
objected to an artifice which even Buffon could not conceal completely.
They did not like being undermined; like Buffon himself, they preferred
imposing upon the people, to seeing others do so. Buffon made his peace
with the Sorbonne immediately, and, perhaps, from that time forward,
contradicted himself a little more impudently than heretofore.

It is probably for the reasons above suggested that Buffon did not
propound a connected scheme of evolution or descent with modification,
but scattered his theory in fragments up and down his work in the
prefatory remarks with which he introduces the more striking animals or
classes of animals. He never wastes evolutionary matter in the preface
to an uninteresting animal; and the more interesting the animal, the more
evolution will there be commonly found. When he comes to describe the
animal more familiarly - and he generally begins a fresh chapter or half
chapter when he does so - he writes no more about evolution, but gives an
admirable description, which no one can fail to enjoy, and which I cannot
think is nearly so inaccurate as is commonly supposed. These
descriptions are the parts which Buffon intended for the general reader,
expecting, doubtless, and desiring that such a reader should skip the dry
parts he had been addressing to the more studious. It is true the
descriptions are written _ad captandum_, as are all great works, but they
succeed in captivating, having been composed with all the pains a man of
genius and of great perseverance could bestow upon them. If I am not
mistaken, he looked to these parts of his work to keep the whole alive
till the time should come when the philosophical side of his writings
should be understood and appreciated.

Thus the goat breeds with the sheep, and may therefore serve as the text
for a dissertation on hybridism, which is accordingly given in the
preface to this animal. The presence of rudimentary organs under a pig's
hoof suggests an attack upon the doctrine of final causes in so far as it
is pretended that every part of every animal or plant was specially
designed with a view to the wants of the animal or plant itself, once and
forever throughout all time. The dog with his great variety of breeds
gives an opportunity for an article on the formation of breeds and sub-
breeds by man's artificial selection. The cat is not honoured with any
philosophical reflection, and comes in for nothing but abuse. The hare
suggests the rabbit, and the rabbit is a rapid breeder, although the hare
is an unusually slow one; but this is near enough, so the hare shall
serve us for the theme of a discourse on the geometrical ratio of
increase and the balance of power which may be observed in nature. When
we come to the carnivora, additional reflections follow upon the
necessity for death, and even for violent death; this leads to the
question whether the creatures that are killed suffer pain; here, then,
will be the proper place for considering the sensations of animals

Perhaps the most pregnant passage concerning evolution is to be found in
the preface to the ass, which is so near the beginning of the work as to
be only the second animal of which Buffon treats after having described
man himself. It points strongly in the direction of his having believed
all animal forms to have been descended from one single common ancestral
type. Buffon did not probably choose to take his very first opportunity
in order to insist upon matter that should point in this direction; but
the considerations were too important to be deferred long, and are
accordingly put forward under cover of the ass, his second animal.

When we consider the force with which Buffon's conclusion is led up to;
the obviousness of the conclusion itself when the premises are once
admitted; the impossibility that such a conclusion should be again lost
sight of if the reasonableness of its being drawn had been once admitted;
the position in his scheme which is assigned to it by its propounder; the
persistency with which he demonstrates during forty years thereafter that
the premises, which he has declared should establish the conclusion in
question, are indisputable; - when we consider, too, that we are dealing
with a man of unquestionable genius, and that the times and circumstances
of his life were such as would go far to explain reserve and irony - is
it, I would ask, reasonable to suppose that Buffon did not in his own
mind, and from the first, draw the inference to which he leads his
reader, merely because from time to time he tells the reader, with a
shrug of the shoulders, that _he_ draws no inferences opposed to the Book
of Genesis? Is it not more likely that Buffon intended his reader to
draw his inferences for himself, and perhaps to value them all the more
highly on that account?

The passage to which I am alluding is as follows: -

"If from the boundless variety which animated nature presents to us,
we choose the body of some animal or even that of man himself to serve
as a model with which to compare the bodies of other organised beings,
we shall find that though all these beings have an individuality of
their own, and are distinguished from one another by differences of
which the gradations are infinitely subtle, there exists at the same
time a primitive and general design which we can follow for a long
way, and the departures from which (_degenerations_) are far more
gentle than those from mere outward resemblance. For not to mention
organs of digestion, circulation, and generation, which are common to
all animals, and without which the animal would cease to be an animal,
and could neither continue to exist nor reproduce itself - there is
none the less even in those very parts which constitute the main
difference in outward appearance, a striking resemblance which carries
with it irresistibly the idea of a single pattern after which all
would appear to have been conceived. The horse, for example - what can
at first sight seem more unlike mankind? Yet when we compare man and
horse point by point and detail by detail, is not our wonder excited
rather by the points of resemblance than of difference that are to be
found between them? Take the skeleton of a man; bend forward the
bones in the region of the pelvis, shorten the thigh bones, and those
of the leg and arm, lengthen those of the feet and hands, run the
joints together, lengthen the jaws, and shorten the frontal bone,
finally, lengthen the spine, and the skeleton will now be that of a
man no longer, but will have become that of a horse - for it is easy to
imagine that in lengthening the spine and the jaws we shall at the
same time have increased the number of the vertebrae, ribs, and teeth.
It is but in the number of these bones, which may be considered
accessory, and by the lengthening, shortening, or mode of attachment
of others, that the skeleton of the horse differs from that of the
human body. . . . We find ribs in man, in all the quadrupeds, in
birds, in fishes, and we may find traces of them as far down as the
turtle, in which they seem still to be sketched out by means of
furrows that are to be found beneath the shell. Let it be remembered
that the foot of the horse, which seems so different from a man's
hand, is, nevertheless, as M. Daubenton has pointed out, composed of
the same bones, and that we have at the end of each of our fingers a
nail corresponding to the hoof of a horse's foot. Judge, then,
whether this hidden resemblance is not more marvellous than any
outward differences - whether this constancy to a single plan of
structure which we may follow from man to the quadrupeds, from the
quadrupeds to the cetacea, from the cetacea to birds, from birds to
reptiles, from reptiles to fishes - in which all such essential parts
as heart, intestines, spine are invariably found - whether, I say, this
does not seem to indicate that the Creator when He made them would use
but a single main idea, though at the same time varying it in every
conceivable way, so that man might admire equally the magnificence of
the execution and the simplicity of the design." {174}

"If we regard the matter thus, not only the ass and the horse, _but
even man himself_, _the apes_, _the quadrupeds_, _and all animals
might be regarded but as forming members of one and the same family_.
But are we to conclude that within this vast family which the Creator
has called into existence out of nothing, there are other and smaller
families, projected as it were by Nature, and brought forth by her in
the natural course of events and after a long time, of which some
contain but two members, as the ass and the horse, others many
members, as the weasel, martin, stoat, ferret, &c., and that on the
same principle there are families of vegetables, containing ten,
twenty, or thirty plants, as the case may be? If such families had
any real existence they could have been formed only by crossing, by
the accumulation of successive variations (_variation successive_),
and by degeneration from an original type; but if we once admit that
there are families of plants and animals, so that the ass may be of
the family of the horse, and that the one may only differ from the
other through degeneration from a common ancestor, we might be driven
to admit that the ape is of the family of man, that he is but a
degenerate man, and that he and man have had a common ancestor, even
as the ass and horse have had. It would follow then that every
family, whether animal or vegetable, had sprung from a single stock,
which after a succession of generations had become higher in the case
of some of its descendants and lower in that of others."

What inference could be more aptly drawn? But it was not one which
Buffon was going to put before the general public. He had said enough
for the discerning, and continues with what is intended to make the
conclusions they should draw even plainer to them, while it conceals them
still more carefully from the general reader.

"The naturalists who are so ready to establish families among animals and
vegetables, do not seem to have sufficiently considered the consequences
which should follow from their premises, for these would limit direct
creation to as small a number of forms as any one might think fit
(reduisoient le produit immediat de la creation, aun nombre d'individus
aussi petit que l'on voudroit). _For if it were once shown that we had
right grounds for establishing these families_; _if the point were once
gained that among animals and vegetables there had been_, _I do not say
several species_, _but even a single one_, _which had been produced in
the course of direct descent from another species_; _if for example it
could be once shown that the ass was but a degeneration from the
horse_ - _then there is no further limit to be set to the power of
nature_, _and we should not be wrong in supposing that with sufficient
time she could have evolved all other organised forms from one primordial
type_ (_et l'on n'auroit pas tort de supposer_, _que d'un seul etre elle
a su tirer avec le temps tous les autres etres organises_)."

Buffon now felt that he had sailed as near the wind as was desirable. His
next sentence is as follows: -

"But no! It is certain _from revelation_ that all animals have alike
been favoured with the grace of an act of direct creation, and that the
first pair of every species issued full formed from the hands of the
Creator." {176}

This might be taken as _bona fide_, if it had been written by Bonnet, but
it is impossible to accept it from Buffon. It is only those who judge
him at second hand, or by isolated passages, who can hold that he failed
to see the consequences of his own premises. No one could have seen more
clearly, nor have said more lucidly, what should suffice to show a
sympathetic reader the conclusion he ought to come to. Even when
ironical, his irony is not the ill-natured irony of one who is merely
amusing himself at other people's expense, but the serious and legitimate
irony of one who must either limit the circle of those to whom he
appeals, or must know how to make the same language appeal differently to
the different capacities of his readers, and who trusts to the good sense
of the discerning to understand the difficulty of his position and make
due allowance for it.

The compromise which he thought fit to put before the public was that
"Each species has a type of which the principal features are engraved in
indelible and eternally permanent characters, while all accessory touches
vary." {177a} It would be satisfactory to know where an accessory touch
is supposed to begin and end.

And again: -

"The essential characteristics of every animal have been conserved
without alteration in their most important parts. . . . The
individuals of each genus still represent the same forms as they did
in the earliest ages, especially in the case of the larger animals"
(so that the generic forms even of the larger animals prove not to be
the same, but only "especially" the same as in the earliest ages).

This transparently illogical position is maintained ostensibly from first
to last, much in the same spirit as in the two foregoing passages,
written at intervals of thirteen years. But they are to be read by the
light of the earlier one - placed as a lantern to the wary upon the
threshold of his work in 1753 - to the effect that a single,
well-substantiated case of degeneration would make it conceivable that
all living beings were descended from but one common ancestor. If after
having led up to this by a remorseless logic, a man is found five-and-
twenty years later still substantiating cases of degeneration, as he has
been substantiating them unceasingly in thirty quartos during the whole
interval, there should be little question how seriously we are to take
him when he wishes us to stop short of the conclusions he has told us we
ought to draw from the premises that he has made it the business of his
life to establish - especially when we know that he has a Sorbonne to keep
a sharp eye upon him.

I believe that if the reader will bear in mind the twofold, serious and
ironical, character of Buffon's work he will understand it, and feel an
admiration for it which will grow continually greater and greater the
more he studies it, otherwise he will miss the whole point.

Buffon on one of the early pages of his first volume protested against
the introduction of either "_plaisanterie_" or "_equivoque_" (p. 25) into
a serious work. But I have observed that there is an unconscious irony
in most disclaimers of this nature. When a writer begins by saying that
he has "an ineradicable tendency to make things clear," we may infer that
we are going to be puzzled; so when he shows that he is haunted by a
sense of the impropriety of allowing humour to intrude into his work, we
may hope to be amused as well as interested. As showing how far the
objection to humour which he expressed upon his twenty-fifth page
succeeded in carrying him safely over his twenty-sixth and
twenty-seventh, I will quote the following, which begins on page twenty-
six: -

"Aldrovandus is the most learned and laborious of all naturalists;
after sixty years of work he has left an immense number of volumes
behind him, which have been printed at various times, the greater
number of them after his death. It would be possible to reduce them
to a tenth part if we could rid them of all useless and foreign
matter, and of a prolixity which I find almost overwhelming; were this
only done, his books should be regarded as among the best we have on
the subject of natural history in its entirety. The plan of his work
is good, his classification distinguished for its good sense, his
dividing lines well marked, his descriptions sufficiently
accurate - monotonous it is true, but painstaking; the historical part
of his work is less good; it is often confused and fabulous, and the
author shows too manifestly the credulous tendencies of his mind.

"While going over his work, I have been struck with that defect, or
rather excess, which we find in almost all the books of a hundred or a
couple of hundred years ago, and which prevails still among the
Germans - I mean with that quantity of useless erudition with which
they intentionally swell out their works, and the result of which is
that their subject is overlaid with a mass of extraneous matter on
which they enlarge with great complacency, but with no consideration
whatever for their readers. They seem, in fact, to have forgotten
what they have to say in their endeavour to tell us what has been said
by other people.

"I picture to myself a man like Aldrovandus, after he has once
conceived the design of writing a complete natural history. I see him
in his library reading, one after the other, ancients, moderns,
philosophers, theologians, jurisconsults, historians, travellers,
poets, and reading with no other end than with that of catching at all
words and phrases which can be forced from far or near into some kind
of relation with his subject. I see him copying all these passages,
or getting them copied for him, and arranging them in alphabetical
order. He fills many portfolios with all manner of notes, often taken
without either discrimination or research, and at last sets himself to
write with a resolve that not one of all these notes shall remain
unused. The result is that when he comes to his account of the cow or
of the hen, he will tell us all that has ever yet been said about cows
or hens; all that the ancients ever thought about them; all that has
ever been imagined concerning their virtues, characters, and courage;

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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 12 of 23)