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 13 of 23)
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every purpose to which they have ever yet been put; every story of
every old woman that he can lay hold of; all the miracles which
certain religions have ascribed to them; all the superstitions they
have given rise to; all the metaphors and allegories which poets have
drawn from them; the attributes that have been assigned to them; the
representations that have been made of them in hieroglyphics and
armorial bearings, in a word all the histories and all fables in which
there was ever yet any mention either of a cow or hen. How much
natural history is likely to be found in such a lumber-room? and how
is one to lay one's hand upon the little that there may actually be?"

It is hoped that the reader will see Buffon, much as Buffon saw the
learned Aldrovandus. He should see him going into his library, &c., and
quietly chuckling to himself as he wrote such a passage as the one in
which we lately found him saying that the larger animals had "especially"
the same generic forms as they had always had. And the reader should
probably see Daubenton chuckling also.


MEMORY.) {181a}

The true theory of unconscious action is that of Professor Hering, from
whose lecture {181b} it is no strained conclusion to gather that he holds
the action of all living beings, from the moment of conception to that of
fullest development, to be founded in volition and design, though these
have been so long lost sight of that the work is now carried on, as it
were, departmentally and in due course according to an official routine
which can hardly be departed from.

This involves the older "Darwinism" and the theory of Lamarck, according
to which the modification of living forms has been effected mainly
through the needs of the living forms themselves, which vary with varying
conditions - the survival of the fittest (which, as I see Mr. H. B.
Baildon has just said, "sometimes comes to mean merely the survival of
the survivors" {181c}) being taken as a matter of course. According to
this view of evolution, there is a remarkable analogy between the
development of living organs, or tools, and that of those organs or tools
external to the body which has been so rapid during the last few thousand

Animals and plants, according to Professor Hering, are guided throughout
their development, and preserve the due order in each step they take,
through memory of the course they took on past occasions when in the
persons of their ancestors. I am afraid I have already too often said
that if this memory remains for long periods together latent and without
effect, it is because the vibrations of the molecular substance of the
body which are its supposed explanation are during these periods too
feeble to generate action, until they are augmented in force through an
accession of similar vibrations issuing from exterior objects; or, in
other words, until recollection is stimulated by a return of the
associated ideas. On this the internal agitation becomes so much
enhanced, that equilibrium is visibly disturbed, and the action ensues
which is proper to the vibrations of the particular substance under the
particular conditions. This, at least, is what I suppose Professor
Hering to intend.

Leaving the explanation of memory on one side, and confining ourselves to
the fact of memory only, a caterpillar on being just hatched is supposed,
according to this theory, to lose its memory of the time it was in the
egg, and to be stimulated by an intense but unconscious recollection of
the action taken by its ancestors when they were first hatched. It is
guided in the course it takes by the experience it can thus command. Each
step it takes recalls a new recollection, and thus it goes through a
development as a performer performs a piece of music, each bar leading
his recollection to the bar that should next follow.

In Life and Habit will be found examples of the manner in which this view
solves a number of difficulties for the explanation of which the leading
men of science express themselves at a loss. The following from
Professor Huxley's recent work upon the crayfish may serve for an
example. Professor Huxley writes: -

"It is a widely received notion that the energies of living matter
have a tendency to decline and finally disappear, and that the death
of the body as a whole is a necessary correlate of its life. That all
living beings sooner or later perish needs no demonstration, but it
would be difficult to find satisfactory grounds for the belief that
they needs must do so. The analogy of a machine, that sooner or later
must be brought to a standstill by the wear and tear of its parts,
does not hold, inasmuch as the animal mechanism is continually renewed
and repaired; and though it is true that individual components of the
body are constantly dying, yet their places are taken by vigorous
successors. A city remains notwithstanding the constant death-rate of
its inhabitants; and such an organism as a crayfish is only a
corporate unity, made up of innumerable partially independent
individualities." - _The Crayfish_, p. 127.

Surely the theory which I have indicated above makes the reason plain why
no organism can permanently outlive its experience of past lives. The
death of such a body corporate as the crayfish is due to the social
condition becoming more complex than there is memory of past experience
to deal with. Hence social disruption, insubordination, and decay. The
crayfish dies as a state dies, and all states that we have heard of die
sooner or later. There are some savages who have not yet arrived at the
conception that death is the necessary end of all living beings, and who
consider even the gentlest death from old age as violent and abnormal; so
Professor Huxley seems to find a difficulty in seeing that though a city
commonly outlives many generations of its citizens, yet cities and states
are in the end no less mortal than individuals. "The _city_," he says,
"remains." Yes, but not for ever. When Professor Huxley can find a city
that will last for ever, he may wonder that a crayfish does not last for

I have already here and elsewhere said all that I can yet bring forward
in support of Professor Hering's theory; it now remains for me to meet
the most troublesome objection to it that I have been able to think of - an
objection which I had before me when I wrote Life and Habit, but which
then as now I believe to be unsound. Seeing, however, that a plausible
case can be made out for it, I will state it and refute it here. When I
say refute it, I do not mean that I shall have done with it - for it is
plain that it opens up a vaster question in the relations between the so-
called organic and inorganic worlds - but that I will refute the
supposition that it any way militates against Professor Hering's theory.

"Why," it may be asked, "should we go out of our way to invent
unconscious memory - the existence of which must at the best remain an
inference {184} - when the observed fact that like antecedents are
invariably followed by like consequents should be sufficient for our
purpose? Why should the fact that a given kind of chrysalis in a given
condition will always become a butterfly within a certain time be
connected with memory when it is not pretended that memory has anything
to do with the invariableness with which oxygen and hydrogen when mixed
in certain proportions make water?"

We assume confidently that if a drop of water were decomposed into its
component parts, and if these were brought together again, and again
decomposed and again brought together any number of times over, the
results would be invariably the same, whether decomposition or
combination, yet no one will refer the invariableness of the action
during each repetition, to recollection by the gaseous molecules of the
course taken when the process was last repeated. On the contrary, we are
assured that molecules in some distant part of the world which had never
entered into such and such a known combination themselves, nor held
concert with other molecules that had been so combined, and which,
therefore, could have had no experience and no memory, would none the
less act upon one another in that one way in which other like
combinations of atoms have acted under like circumstances, as readily as
though they had been combined and separated and recombined again a
hundred or a hundred thousand times. It is this assumption, tacitly made
by every man, beast, and plant in the universe, throughout all time and
in every action of their lives, that has made any improvement in action
possible - for it is this which lies at the root of the power to profit by
experience. I do not exactly know _why_ we make this assumption, and I
cannot find out that any one else knows much better than myself, but I do
not recommend any one to dispute it.

As we admit of no doubt concerning the main result, so we do not suppose
an alternative to lie before any atom of any molecule at any moment
during the process of combination. This process is, in all probability,
an exceedingly complicated one, involving a multitude of actions and
subordinate processes, which follow one upon the other, and each one of
which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, though they all come to pass
in what appears to be an instant of time. Yet at no point do we conceive
of any atom as swerving ever such a little to right or left of a
determined course, but invest each one of them with so much of the divine
attributes as that with it there shall be no variableness neither shadow
of turning.

We attribute this regularity of action to what we call the necessity of
things, as determined by the nature of the atoms and the circumstances in
which they are placed. We say that only one proximate result can ever
arise from any given combination. If, then, so great uniformity of
action as nothing can exceed is manifested by atoms to which no one will
impute memory, why this desire for memory, as though it were the only way
of accounting for regularity of action in living beings? Sameness of
action may be seen abundantly where there is no room for anything that we
can consistently call memory. In these cases we say that it is due to
sameness of substance in same circumstances.

The most cursory reflection upon our actions will show us that it is no
more possible for living action to have more than one set of proximate
consequents at any given time than for oxygen and hydrogen when mixed in
the proportions proper for the formation of water. Why then not
recognise this fact, and ascribe repeated similarity of living action to
the reproduction of the necessary antecedents, with no more sense of
connection between the steps in the action, or memory of similar action
taken before, than we suppose on the part of oxygen and hydrogen
molecules between the several occasions on which they may have been
disunited and reunited?

A boy catches the measles not because he remembers having caught them in
the persons of his father and mother, but because he is a fit soil for a
certain kind of seed to grow upon. In like manner he should be said to
grow his nose because he is a fit combination for a nose to spring from.
Dr. X - -'s father died of _angina pectoris_ at the age of forty-nine; so
did Dr. X - -. Can it be pretended that Dr. X - - remembered having died
of _angina pectoris_ at the age of forty-nine when in the person of his
father, and accordingly, when he came to be forty-nine years old himself,
died also? For this to hold, Dr. X - -'s father must have begotten him
after he was dead; for the son could not remember the father's death
before it happened.

As for the diseases of old age, so very commonly inherited, they are
developed for the most part not only long after the average age of
reproduction, but at a time when no appreciable amount of memory of any
previous existence can remain; for a man will not have many male
ancestors who become parents at over sixty years old, nor female
ancestors who did so at over forty. By our own showing, therefore,
recollection can have nothing to do with the matter. Yet who can doubt
that gout is due to inheritance as much as eyes and noses? In what
respects do the two things differ so that we should refer the inheritance
of eyes and noses to memory, while denying any connection between memory
and gout? We may have a ghost of a pretence for saying that a man grows
a nose by rote, or even that he catches the measles or whooping-cough by
rote; but do we mean to say that he develops the gout by rote in his old
age if he comes of a gouty family? If, then, rote and red-tape have
nothing to do with the one, why should they with the other?

Remember also the cases in which aged females develop male
characteristics. Here are growths, often of not inconsiderable extent,
which make their appearance during the decay of the body, and grow with
greater and greater vigour in the extreme of old age, and even for days
after death itself. It can hardly be doubted that an especial tendency
to develop these characteristics runs as an inheritance in certain
families; here then is perhaps the best case that can be found of a
development strictly inherited, but having clearly nothing whatever to do
with memory. Why should not all development stand upon the same footing?

A friend who had been arguing with me for some time as above, concluded
with the following words: -

"If you cannot be content with the similar action of similar substances
(living or non-living) under similar circumstances - if you cannot accept
this as an ultimate fact, but consider it necessary to connect repetition
of similar action with memory before you can rest in it and be
thankful - be consistent, and introduce this memory which you find so
necessary into the inorganic world also. Either say that a chrysalis
becomes a butterfly because it is the thing that it is, and, being that
kind of thing, must act in such and such a manner and in such a manner
only, so that the act of one generation has no more to do with the act of
the next than the fact of cream being churned into butter in a dairy one
day has to do with other cream being churnable into butter in the
following week - either say this or else develop some mental
condition - which I have no doubt you will be very well able to do if you
feel the want of it - in which you can make out a case for saying that
oxygen and hydrogen on being brought together, and cream on being
churned, are in some way acquainted with, and mindful of, action taken by
other cream, and other oxygen and hydrogen on past occasions."

I felt inclined to reply that my friend need not twit me with being able
to develop a mental organism if I felt the need of it, for his own
ingenious attack on my position, and indeed every action of his life, was
but an example of this omnipresent principle.

When he was gone, however, I thought over what he had been saying. I
endeavoured to see how far I could get on without volition and memory,
and reasoned as follows: - A repetition of like antecedents will be
certainly followed by a repetition of like consequents, whether the
agents be men and women or chemical substances. "If there be two cowards
perfectly similar in every respect, and if they be subjected in a
perfectly similar way to two terrifying agents, which are themselves
perfectly similar, there are few who will not expect a perfect similarity
in the running away, even though ten thousand years intervene between the
original combination and its repetition." {189} Here certainly there is
no coming into play of memory, more than in the pan of cream on two
successive churning days, yet the action is similar.

A clerk in an office has an hour in the middle of the day for dinner.
About half-past twelve he begins to feel hungry; at one he takes down his
hat and leaves the office. He does not yet know the neighbourhood, and
on getting down into the street asks a policeman at the corner which is
the best eating-house within easy distance. The policeman tells him of
three houses, one of which is a little farther off than the other two,
but is cheaper. Money being a greater object to him than time, the clerk
decides on going to the cheaper house. He goes, is satisfied, and

Next day he wants his dinner at the same hour, and - it will be
said - remembering his satisfaction of yesterday, will go to the same
place as before. But what has his memory to do with it? Suppose him to
have forgotten all the circumstances of the preceding day from the moment
of his beginning to feel hungry onward, though in other respects sound in
mind and body, and unchanged generally. At half-past twelve he would
begin to be hungry; but his beginning to be hungry cannot be connected
with his remembering having begun to be hungry yesterday. He would begin
to be hungry just as much whether he remembered or no. At one o'clock he
again takes down his hat and leaves the office, not because he remembers
having done so yesterday, but because he wants his hat to go out with.
Being again in the street, and again ignorant of the neighbourhood (for
he remembers nothing of yesterday), he sees the same policeman at the
corner of the street, and asks him the same question as before; the
policeman gives him the same answer, and money being still an object to
him, the cheapest eating-house is again selected; he goes there, finds
the same _menu_, makes the same choice for the same reasons, eats, is
satisfied, and returns.

What similarity of action can be greater than this, and at the same time
more incontrovertible? But it has nothing to do with memory; on the
contrary, it is just because the clerk has no memory that his action of
the second day so exactly resembles that of the first. As long as he has
no power of recollecting, he will day after day repeat the same actions
in exactly the same way, until some external circumstances, such as his
being sent away, modify the situation. Till this or some other
modification occurs, he will day after day go down into the street
without knowing where to go; day after day he will see the same policeman
at the corner of the same street, and (for we may as well suppose that
the policeman has no memory too) he will ask and be answered, and ask and
be answered, till he and the policeman die of old age. This similarity
of action is plainly due to that - whatever it is - which ensures that like
persons or things when placed in like circumstances shall behave in a
like manner.

Allow the clerk ever such a little memory, and the similarity of action
will disappear; for the fact of remembering what happened to him on the
first day he went out in search of dinner will be a modification in him
in regard to his then condition when he next goes out to get his dinner.
He had no such memory on the first day, and he has upon the second. Some
modification of action must ensue upon this modification of the actor,
and this is immediately observable. He wants his dinner, indeed, goes
down into the street, and sees the policeman as yesterday, but he does
not ask the policeman; he remembers what the policeman told him and what
he did, and therefore goes straight to the eating-house without wasting
time: nor does he dine off the same dish two days running, for he
remembers what he had yesterday and likes variety. If, then, similarity
of action is rather hindered than promoted by memory, why introduce it
into such cases as the repetition of the embryonic processes by
successive generations? The embryos of a well-fixed breed, such as the
goose, are almost as much alike as water is to water, and by consequence
one goose comes to be almost as like another as water to water. Why
should it not be supposed to become so upon the same grounds - namely,
that it is made of the same stuffs, and put together in like proportions
in the same manner?


The one faith on which all normal living beings consciously or
unconsciously act, is that like antecedents will be followed by like
consequents. This is the one true and catholic faith, undemonstrable,
but except a living being believe which, without doubt it shall perish
everlastingly. In the assurance of this all action is taken. But if
this fundamental article is admitted, it follows that if ever a complete
cycle were formed, so that the whole universe of one instant were to
repeat itself absolutely in a subsequent one, no matter after what
interval of time, then the course of the events between these two moments
would go on repeating itself for ever and ever afterwards in due order,
down to the minutest detail, in an endless series of cycles like a
circulating decimal. For the universe comprises everything; there could
therefore be no disturbance from without. Once a cycle, always a cycle.

Let us suppose the earth of given weight, moving with given momentum in a
given path, and under given conditions in every respect, to find itself
at any one time conditioned in all these respects as it was conditioned
at some past moment; then it must move exactly in the same path as the
one it took when at the beginning of the cycle it has just completed, and
must therefore in the course of time fulfil a second cycle, and therefore
a third, and so on for ever and ever, with no more chance of escape than
a circulating decimal has, if the circumstances have been reproduced with
perfect accuracy as to draw it into such a whirlpool.

We see something very like this actually happen in the yearly revolutions
of the planets round the sun. But the relations between, we will say,
the earth and the sun are not reproduced absolutely. These relations
deal only with a small part of the universe, and even in this small part
the relation of the parts _inter se_ has never yet been reproduced with
the perfection of accuracy necessary for our argument. They are liable,
moreover, to disturbance from events which may or may not actually occur
(as, for example, our being struck by a comet, or the sun's coming within
a certain distance of another sun), but of which, if they do occur, no
one can foresee the effects. Nevertheless the conditions have been so
nearly repeated that there is no appreciable difference in the relations
between the earth and sun on one New Year's Day and on another, nor is
there reason for expecting such change within any reasonable time.

If there is to be an eternal series of cycles involving the whole
universe, it is plain that not one single atom must be excluded. Exclude
a single molecule of hydrogen from the ring, or vary the relative
positions of two molecules only, and the charm is broken; an element of
disturbance has been introduced, of which the utmost that can be said is
that it may not prevent the ensuing of a long series of very nearly
perfect cycles before similarity in recurrence is destroyed, but which
must inevitably prevent absolute identity of repetition. The movement of
the series becomes no longer a cycle, but spiral, and convergent or
divergent at a greater or less rate according to circumstances.

We cannot conceive of all the atoms in the universe standing twice over
in absolutely the same relation each one of them to every other. There
are too many of them, and they are too much mixed; but, as has been just
said, in the planets and their satellites we do see large groups of atoms
whose movements recur with some approach to precision. The same holds
good also with certain comets and with the sun himself. The result is
that our days and nights and seasons follow one another with nearly
perfect regularity from year to year, and have done so for as long time
as we know anything for certain. A vast preponderance of all the action
that takes place around us is cyclical action. Within the great cycle of
the planetary revolution of our own earth, and as a consequence thereof,
we have the minor cycle of the seasons; these generate atmospheric
cycles. Water is evaporated from the ocean and conveyed to
mountain-ranges, where it is cooled, and whence it returns again to the
sea. This cycle of events is being repeated again and again with little
appreciable variation. The tides, and winds in certain latitudes, go
round and round the world with what amounts to continuous regularity.
There are storms of wind and rain called cyclones. In the case of these,

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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 13 of 23)