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 14 of 23)
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the cycle is not very complete, the movement, therefore, is spiral, and
the tendency to recur is comparatively soon lost. It is a common saying
that history repeats itself, so that anarchy will lead to despotism and
despotism to anarchy; every nation can point to instances of men's minds
having gone round and round so nearly in a perfect cycle that many
revolutions have occurred before the cessation of a tendency to recur.
Lastly, in the generation of plants and animals we have, perhaps, the
most striking and common example of the inevitable tendency of all action
to repeat itself when it has once proximately done so. Let only one
living being have once succeeded in producing a being like itself, and
thus have returned, so to speak, upon itself, and a series of generations
must follow of necessity, unless some matter interfere which had no part
in the original combination, and, as it may happen, kill the first
reproductive creature or all its descendants within a few generations. If
no such mishap occurs as this, and if the recurrence of the conditions is
sufficiently perfect, a series of generations follows with as much
certainty as a series of seasons follows upon the cycle of the relations
between the earth and sun.

Let the first periodically recurring substance - we will say A - be able to
recur or reproduce itself, not once only, but many times over, as A1, A2,
&c.; let A also have consciousness and a sense of self-interest, which
qualities must, _ex hypothesi_, be reproduced in each one of its
offspring; let these get placed in circumstances which differ
sufficiently to destroy the cycle in theory without doing so
practically - that is to say, to reduce the rotation to a spiral, but to a
spiral with so little deviation from perfect cycularity as for each
revolution to appear practically a cycle, though after many revolutions
the deviation becomes perceptible; then some such differentiations of
animal and vegetable life as we actually see follow as matters of course.
A1 and A2 have a sense of self-interest as A had, but they are not
precisely in circumstances similar to A's, nor, it may be, to each
other's; they will therefore act somewhat differently, and every living
being is modified by a change of action. Having become modified, they
follow the spirit of A's action more essentially in begetting a creature
like themselves than in begetting one like A; for the essence of A's act
was not the reproduction of A, but the reproduction of a creature like
the one from which it sprung - that is to say, a creature bearing traces
in its body of the main influences that have worked upon its parent.

Within the cycle of reproduction there are cycles upon cycles in the life
of each individual, whether animal or plant. Observe the action of our
lungs and heart, how regular it is, and how a cycle having been once
established, it is repeated many millions of times in an individual of
average health and longevity. Remember also that it is this
periodicity - this inevitable tendency of all atoms in combination to
repeat any combination which they have once repeated, unless forcibly
prevented from doing so - which alone renders nine-tenths of our
mechanical inventions of practical use to us. There is not internal
periodicity about a hammer or a saw, but there is in the steam-engine or
watermill when once set in motion. The actions of these machines recur
in a regular series, at regular intervals, with the unerringness of
circulating decimals.

When we bear in mind, then, the omnipresence of this tendency in the
world around us, the absolute freedom from exception which attends its
action, the manner in which it holds equally good upon the vastest and
the smallest scale, and the completeness of its accord with our ideas of
what must inevitably happen when a like combination is placed in
circumstances like those in which it was placed before - when we bear in
mind all this, is it possible not to connect the facts together, and to
refer cycles of living generations to the same unalterableness in the
action of like matter under like circumstances which makes Jupiter and
Saturn revolve round the sun, or the piston of a steam-engine move up and
down as long as the steam acts upon it?

But who will attribute memory to the hands of a clock, to a piston-rod,
to air or water in a storm or in course of evaporation, to the earth and
planets in their circuits round the sun, or to the atoms of the universe,
if they too be moving in a cycle vaster than we can take account of?
{198a} And if not, why introduce it into the embryonic development of
living beings, when there is not a particle of evidence in support of its
actual presence, when regularity of action can be ensured just as well
without it as with it, and when at the best it is considered as existing
under circumstances which it baffles us to conceive, inasmuch as it is
supposed to be exercised without any conscious recollection? Surely a
memory which is exercised without any consciousness of recollecting is
only a periphrasis for the absence of any memory at all. {198b}


To meet the objections in the two foregoing chapters, I need do little
more than show that the fact of certain often inherited diseases and
developments, whether of youth or old age, being obviously not due to a
memory on the part of offspring of like diseases and developments in the
parents, does not militate against supposing that embryonic and youthful
development generally is due to memory.

This is the main part of the objection; the rest resolves itself into an
assertion that there is no evidence in support of instinct and embryonic
development being due to memory, and a contention that the necessity of
each particular moment in each particular case is sufficient to account
for the facts without the introduction of memory.

I will deal with these two last points briefly first. As regards the
evidence in support of the theory that instinct and growth are due to a
rapid unconscious memory of past experiences and developments in the
persons of the ancestors of the living form in which they appear, I must
refer my readers to Life and Habit, and to the translation of Professor
Hering's lecture given in Chapter VI. of Unconscious Memory. I will only
repeat here that a chrysalis, we will say, is as much one and the same
person with the chrysalis of its preceding generation, as this last is
one and the same person with the egg or caterpillar from which it sprang.
You cannot deny personal identity between two successive generations
without sooner or later denying it during the successive stages in the
single life of what we call one individual; nor can you admit personal
identity through the stages of a long and varied life (embryonic and post-
natal) without admitting it to endure through an endless series of

The personal identity of successive generations being admitted, the
possibility of the second of two generations remembering what happened to
it in the first is obvious. The _a priori_ objection, therefore, is
removed, and the question becomes one of fact - does the offspring act as
if it remembered?

The answer to this question is not only that it does so act, but that it
is not possible to account for either its development or its early
instinctive actions upon any other hypothesis than that of its
remembering, and remembering exceedingly well.

The only alternative is to declare with Von Hartmann that a living being
may display a vast and varied information concerning all manner of
details, and be able to perform most intricate operations, independently
of experience and practice. Once admit knowledge independent of
experience, and farewell to sober sense and reason from that moment.

Firstly, then, we show that offspring has had every facility for
remembering; secondly, that it shows every appearance of having
remembered; thirdly, that no other hypothesis except memory can be
brought forward, so as to account for the phenomena of instinct and
heredity generally, which is not easily reducible to an absurdity. Beyond
this we do not care to go, and must allow those to differ from us who
require further evidence.

As regards the argument that the necessity of each moment will account
for likeness of result, without there being any need for introducing
memory, I admit that likeness of consequents is due to likeness of
antecedents, and I grant this will hold as good with embryos as with
oxygen and hydrogen gas; what will cover the one will cover the other,
for the writs of the laws common to all matter run within the womb as
freely as elsewhere; but admitting that there are combinations into which
living beings enter with a faculty called memory which has its effects
upon their conduct, and admitting that such combinations are from time to
time repeated (as we observe in the case of a practised performer playing
a piece of music which he has committed to memory), then I maintain that
though, indeed, the likeness of one performance to its immediate
predecessor is due to likeness of the combinations immediately preceding
the two performances, yet memory plays so important a part in both these
combinations as to make it a distinguishing feature in them, and
therefore proper to be insisted upon. We do not, for example, say that
Herr Joachim played such and such a sonata without the music, because he
was such and such an arrangement of matter in such and such
circumstances, resembling those under which he played without music on
some past occasion. This goes without saying; we say only that he played
the music by heart or by memory, as he had often played it before.

To the objector that a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis not because it
remembers and takes the action taken by its fathers and mothers in due
course before it, but because when matter is in such a physical and
mental state as to be called caterpillar, it must perforce assume
presently such another physical and mental state as to be called
chrysalis, and that therefore there is no memory in the case - to this
objector I rejoin that the offspring caterpillar would not have become so
like the parent as to make the next or chrysalis stage a matter of
necessity, unless both parent and offspring had been influenced by
something that we usually call memory. For it is this very possession of
a common memory which has guided the offspring into the path taken by,
and hence to a virtually same condition with, the parent, and which
guided the parent in its turn to a state virtually identical with a
corresponding state in the existence of its own parent. To memory,
therefore, the most prominent place in the transaction is assigned

To deny that will guided by memory has anything to do with the
development of embryos seems like denying that a desire to obstruct has
anything to do with the recent conduct of certain members in the House of
Commons. What should we think of one who said that the action of these
gentlemen had nothing to do with a desire to embarrass the Government,
but was simply the necessary outcome of the chemical and mechanical
forces at work, which being such and such, the action which we see is
inevitable, and has therefore nothing to do with wilful obstruction? We
should answer that there was doubtless a great deal of chemical and
mechanical action in the matter; perhaps, for aught we knew or cared, it
was all chemical and mechanical; but if so, then a desire to obstruct
parliamentary business is involved in certain kinds of chemical and
mechanical action, and that the kinds involving this had preceded the
recent proceedings of the members in question. If asked to prove this,
we can get no further than that such action as has been taken has never
been seen except as following after and in consequence of a desire to
obstruct; that this is our nomenclature, and that we can no more be
expected to change it than to change our mother tongue at the bidding of
a foreigner.

A little reflection will convince the reader that he will be unable to
deny will and memory to the embryo without at the same time denying their
existence everywhere, and maintaining that they have no place in the
acquisition of a habit, nor indeed in any human action. He will feel
that the actions, and the relation of one action to another which he
observes in embryos is such as is never seen except in association with
and as a consequence of will and memory. He will therefore say that it
is due to will and memory. To say that these are the necessary outcome
of certain antecedents is not to destroy them: granted that they are - a
man does not cease to be a man when we reflect that he has had a father
and mother, neither do will and memory cease to be will and memory on the
ground that they cannot come causeless. They are manifest minute by
minute to the perception of all people who can keep out of lunatic
asylums, and this tribunal, though not infallible, is nevertheless our
ultimate court of appeal - the final arbitrator in all disputed cases.

We must remember that there is no action, however original or peculiar,
which is not in respect of far the greater number of its details founded
upon memory. If a desperate man blows his brains out - an action which he
can do once in a lifetime only, and which none of his ancestors can have
done before leaving offspring - still nine hundred and ninety-nine
thousandths of the movements necessary to achieve his end consist of
habitual movements - movements, that is to say, which were once difficult,
but which have been practised and practised by the help of memory until
they are now performed automatically. We can no more have an action than
a creative effort of the imagination cut off from memory. Ideas and
actions seem almost to resemble matter and force in respect of the
impossibility of originating or destroying them; nearly all that are, are
memories of other ideas and actions, transmitted but not created,
disappearing but not perishing.

It appears, then, that when in Chapter X. we supposed the clerk who
wanted his dinner to forget on a second day the action he had taken the
day before, we still, without perhaps perceiving it, supposed him to be
guided by memory in all the details of his action, such as his taking
down his hat and going out into the street. We could not, indeed,
deprive him of all memory without absolutely paralysing his action.

Nevertheless new ideas, new faiths, and new actions do in the course of
time come about, the living expressions of which we may see in the new
forms of life which from time to time have arisen and are still arising,
and in the increase of our own knowledge and mechanical inventions. But
it is only a very little new that is added at a time, and that little is
generally due to the desire to attain an end which cannot be attained by
any of the means for which there exists a perceived precedent in the
memory. When this is the case, either the memory is further ransacked
for any forgotten shreds of details a combination of which may serve the
desired purpose; or action is taken in the dark, which sometimes succeeds
and becomes a fertile source of further combinations; or we are brought
to a dead stop. All action is random in respect of any of the minute
actions which compose it that are not done in consequence of memory, real
or supposed. So that random, or action taken in the dark, or illusion,
lies at the very root of progress.

I will now consider the objection that the phenomena of instinct and
embryonic development ought not to be ascribed to memory, inasmuch as
certain other phenomena of heredity, such as gout, cannot be ascribed to

Those who object in this way forget that our actions fall into two main
classes: those which we have often repeated before by means of a regular
series of subordinate actions beginning and ending at a certain tolerably
well-defined point - as when Herr Joachim plays a sonata in public, or
when we dress or undress ourselves; and actions the details of which are
indeed guided by memory, but which in their general scope and purpose are
new - as when we are being married, or presented at court.

At each point in any action of the first of the two kinds above referred
to there is a memory (conscious or unconscious according to the less or
greater number of times the action has been repeated), not only of the
steps in the present and previous performances which have led up to the
particular point that may be selected, _but also of the particular point
itself_; there is therefore, at each point in a habitual performance, a
memory at once of like antecedents _and of a like present_.

If the memory, whether of the antecedent or the present, were absolutely
perfect; that is to say, if the vibrations in the nervous system (or, if
the reader likes it better, if the molecular change in the particular
nerves affected - for molecular change is only a change in the character
of the vibrations going on within the molecules - it is nothing else than
this) - it the vibrations in the particular nerves affected by any
occurrence continued on each fresh repetition of the occurrence in their
full original strength and without having been interfered with by any
other vibrations; and if, again, the new waves running into the faint old
ones from exterior objects and restoring the lapsed molecular state of
the nerves to a pristine condition were absolutely identical in character
on each repetition of the occurrence with the waves that ran in upon the
last occasion, then there would be no change in the action, and no
modification or improvement could take place. For though indeed the
latest performance would always have one memory more than the latest but
one to guide it, yet the memories being identical, it would not matter
how many or how few they were.

On any repetition, however, the circumstances, external or internal, or
both, never are absolutely identical: there is some slight variation in
each individual case, and some part of this variation is remembered, with
approbation or disapprobation as the case may be.

The fact, therefore, that on each repetition of the action there is one
memory more than on the last but one, and that this memory is slightly
different from its predecessor, is seen to be an inherent and, _ex
hypothesi_, necessarily disturbing factor in all habitual action - and the
life of an organism should, as has been sufficiently insisted on, be
regarded as the habitual action of a single individual, namely, of the
organism itself, and of its ancestors. This is the key to accumulation
of improvement, whether in the arts which we assiduously practise during
our single life, or in the structures and instincts of successive
generations. The memory does not complete a true circle, but is, as it
were, a spiral slightly divergent therefrom. It is no longer a perfectly
circulating decimal. Where, on the other hand, there is no memory of a
like present, where, in fact, the memory is not, so to speak, spiral,
there is no accumulation of improvement. The effect of any variation is
not transmitted, and is not thus pregnant of still further change.

As regards the second of the two classes of actions above referred
to - those, namely which are not recurrent or habitual, _and at no point
of which is there a memory of a past present like the one which is
present now_ - there will have been no accumulation of strong and well-
knit memory as regards the action as a whole, but action, if taken at
all, will be taken upon disjointed fragments of individual actions (our
own and those of other people) pieced together with a result more or less
satisfactory according to circumstances.

But it does not follow that the action of two people who have had
tolerably similar antecedents and are placed in tolerably similar
circumstances should be more unlike each other in this second case than
in the first. On the contrary, nothing is more common than to observe
the same kind of people making the same kind of mistake when placed for
the first time in the same kind of new circumstances. I did not say that
there would be no sameness of action without memory of a like present.
There may be sameness of action proceeding from a memory, conscious or
unconscious, of like antecedents, and _a presence only of like presents
without recollection of the same_.

The sameness of action of like persons placed under like circumstances
for the first time, resembles the sameness of action of inorganic matter
under the same combinations. Let us for a moment suppose what we call
non-living substances to be capable of remembering their antecedents, and
that the changes they undergo are the expressions of their recollections.
Then I admit, of course, that there is not memory in any cream, we will
say, that is about to be churned of the cream of the preceding week, but
the common absence of such memory from each week's cream is an element of
sameness between the two. And though no cream can remember having been
churned before, yet all cream in all time has had nearly identical
antecedents, and has therefore nearly the same memories and nearly the
same proclivities. Thus, in fact, the cream of one week is as truly the
same as the cream of another; week from the same cow, pasture, &c., as
anything is ever the same with anything; for the having been subjected to
like antecedents engenders the closest similarity that we can conceive
of, if the substances were like to start with. Same is as same does.

The manifest absence of any connecting memory (or memory of like
presents) from certain of the phenomena of heredity, such as, for
example, the diseases of old age, is now seen to be no valid reason for
saying that such other and far more numerous and important phenomena as
those of embryonic development are not phenomena of memory. Growth and
the diseases of old age do indeed, at first sight, appear to stand on the
same footing. The question, however, whether certain results are due to
memory or no must be settled not by showing that two combinations,
neither of which can remember the other (as between each other), may yet
generate like results, and therefore, considering the memory theory
disposed of for all other cases, but by the evidence we may be able to
adduce in any particular case that the second agent has actually
remembered the conduct of the first. Such evidence must show firstly
that the second agent cannot be supposed able to do what it is plain he
can do, except under the guidance of memory or experience, and secondly,
that the second agent has had every opportunity of remembering. When the
first of these tests fails, similarity of action on the part of two
agents need not be connected with memory of a like present as well as of
like antecedents; when both fail, similarity of action should be referred
to memory of like antecedents only.

Returning to a parenthesis a few pages back, in which I said that
consciousness of memory would be less or greater according to the greater
or fewer number of times that the act had been repeated, it may be
observed as a corollary to this, that the less consciousness of memory
the greater the uniformity of action, and _vice versa_. For the less
consciousness involves the memory's being more perfect, through a larger
number (generally) of repetitions of the act that is remembered; there is
therefore a less proportionate difference in respect of the number of
recollections of this particular act between the most recent actor and
the most recent but one. This is why very old civilisations, as those of
many insects, and the greater number of now living organisms, appear to
the eye not to change at all.

For example, if an action has been performed only ten times, we will say
by A, B, C, &c, who are similar in all respects, except that A acts
without recollection, B with recollection of A's action, C with
recollection of both B's and A's, while J remembers the course taken by
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, and I - the possession of a memory by B will
indeed so change his action, as compared with A's, that it may well be
hardly recognisable. We saw this in our example of the clerk who asked
the policeman the way to the eating-house on one day, but did not ask him
the next, because he remembered; but C's action will not be so different
from B's as B's from A's, for though C will act with a memory of two
occasions on which the action has been performed, while B recollects only

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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 14 of 23)