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 9 of 23)
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ignorance or want of consciousness. Intelligence is not yet thoroughly
up to its business.

"Instinct advances with a mechanical certainty, hence comes its
unconscious character. It knows nothing either of ends, or of the means
of attaining them: it implies no comparison, judgment, or choice."

This is assumption. What is certain is that instinct does not betray
signs of self-consciousness as to its own knowledge. It has dismissed
reference to first principles, and is no longer under the law, but under
the grace of a settled conviction.

"All seems directed by thought."

Yes; because all _has been_ in earlier existences directed by thought.

"Without ever arriving at thought."

Because it has _got past thought_, and though "directed by thought"
originally, is now travelling in exactly the opposite direction. It is
not likely to reach thought again, till people get to know worse and
worse how to do things, the oftener they practise them.

"And if this phenomenon appear strange, it must be observed that
analogous states occur in ourselves. _All that we do from
habit_ - _walking_, _writing_, _or practising a mechanical act_, _for
instance_ - _all these and many other very complex acts are performed
without consciousness_.

"Instinct appears stationary. It does not, like intelligence, seem to
grow and decay, to gain and to lose. It does not improve."

Naturally. For improvement can only as a general rule be looked for
along the line of latest development, that is to say, in matters
concerning which the creature is being still consciously exercised. Older
questions are settled, and the solution must be accepted as final, for
the question of living at all would be reduced to an absurdity, if
everything decided upon one day was to be undecided again the next; as
with painting or music, so with life and politics, let every man be fully
persuaded in his own mind, for decision with wrong will be commonly a
better policy than indecision - I had almost added with right; and a firm
purpose with risk will be better than an infirm one with temporary
exemption from disaster. Every race has made its great blunders, to
which it has nevertheless adhered, inasmuch as the corresponding
modification of other structures and instincts was found preferable to
the revolution which would be caused by a radical change of structure,
with consequent havoc among a legion of vested interests. Rudimentary
organs are, as has been often said, the survivals of these interests - the
signs of their peaceful and gradual extinction as living faiths; they are
also instances of the difficulty of breaking through any cant or trick
which we have long practised, and which is not sufficiently troublesome
to make it a serious object with us to cure ourselves of the habit.

"If it does not remain perfectly invariable, at least it only varies
within very narrow limits; and though this question has been warmly
debated in our day and is yet unsettled, we may yet say that in instinct
immutability is the law, variation the exception."

This is quite as it should be. Genius will occasionally rise a little
above convention, but with an old convention immutability will be the

"Such," continues M. Ribot, "are the admitted characters of instinct."

Yes; but are they not also the admitted characters of habitual actions
that are due to memory?

* * * * *

M. Ribot says a little further on: "Originally man had considerable
trouble in taming the animals which are now domesticated; and his work
would have been in vain had not heredity" (memory) "come to his aid. It
may be said that after man has modified a wild animal to his will, there
goes on in its progeny a silent conflict between two heredities"
(memories), "the one tending to fix the acquired modifications and the
other to preserve the primitive instincts. The latter often get the
mastery, and only after several generations is training sure of victory.
But we may see that in either case heredity" (memory) "always asserts its

How marvellously is the above passage elucidated and made to fit in with
the results of our recognised experience, by the simple substitution of
the word "memory" for heredity.

* * * * *

I cannot refrain from bringing forward a few more instances of what I
think must be considered by every reader as hereditary memory. Sydney
Smith writes: -

"Sir James Hall hatched some chickens in an oven. Within a few minutes
after the shell was broken, a spider was turned loose before this very
youthful brood; the destroyer of flies had hardly proceeded more than a
few inches, before he was descried by one of these oven-born chickens,
and, at one peck of his bill, immediately devoured. This certainly was
not imitation. A female goat very near delivery died; Galen cut out the
young kid, and placed before it a bundle of hay, a bunch of fruit, and a
pan of milk; the young kid smelt to them all very attentively, and then
began to lap the milk. This was not imitation. And what is commonly and
rightly called instinct, cannot be explained away under the notion of its
being imitation." (Lecture xvii. on Moral Philosophy.)

It cannot, indeed, be explained away under the notion of its being
imitation, but I think it may well be so under that of its being memory.

Again, a little further on in the same lecture as that above quoted from,
we find: -

"Ants and beavers lay up magazines. Where do they get their knowledge
that it will not be so easy to collect food in rainy weather as it is in
summer? Men and women know these things, because their grandpapas and
grandmammas have told them so. Ants hatched from the egg artificially,
or birds hatched in this manner, have all this knowledge by intuition,
without the smallest communication with any of their relations. Now
observe what the solitary wasp does; she digs several holes in the sand,
in each of which she deposits an egg, though she certainly knows not (?)
that an animal is deposited in that egg, and still less that this animal
must be nourished with other animals. She collects a few green flies,
rolls them up neatly in several parcels (like Bologna sausages), and
stuffs one parcel into each hole where an egg is deposited. When the
wasp worm is hatched, it finds a store of provision ready made; and what
is most curious, the quantity allotted to each is exactly sufficient to
support it, till it attains the period of wasphood, and can provide for
itself. This instinct of the parent wasp is the more remarkable as it
does not feed upon flesh itself. Here the little creature has never seen
its parent; for by the time it is born, the parent is always eaten by
sparrows; and yet, without the slightest education, or previous
experience, it does everything that the parent did before it. Now the
objectors to the doctrine of instinct may say what they please, but young
tailors have no intuitive method of making pantaloons; a new-born mercer
cannot measure diaper; nature teaches a cook's daughter nothing about
sippets. All these things require with us seven years' apprenticeship;
but insects are like Moliere's persons of quality - they know everything
(as Moliere says) without having learnt anything. 'Les gens de qualite
savent tout, sans avoir rien appris.'"

How completely all difficulty vanishes from the facts so pleasantly told
in this passage when we bear in mind the true nature of personal
identity, the ordinary working of memory, and the vanishing tendency of
consciousness concerning what we know exceedingly well.

My last instance I take from M. Ribot, who writes: - "Gratiolet, in his
_Anatomie Comparee du Systems Nerveux_, states that an old piece of
wolf's skin, with the hair all worn away, when set before a little dog,
threw the animal into convulsions of fear by the slight scent attaching
to it. The dog had never seen a wolf, and we can only explain this alarm
by the hereditary transmission of certain sentiments, coupled with a
certain perception of the sense of smell." ("Heredity," p. 43.)

I should prefer to say "we can only explain the alarm by supposing that
the smell of the wolf's skin" - the sense of smell being, as we all know,
more powerful to recall the ideas that have been associated with it than
any other sense - "brought up the ideas with which it had been associated
in the dog's mind during many previous existences" - he on smelling the
wolf's skin remembering all about wolves perfectly well.


Here, then, I leave my case, though well aware that I have crossed the
threshold only of my subject. My work is of a tentative character, put
before the public as a sketch or design for a, possibly, further
endeavour, in which I hope to derive assistance from the criticisms which
this present volume may elicit. {125} Such as it is, however, for the
present I must leave it.

We have seen that we cannot do anything thoroughly till we can do it
unconsciously, and that we cannot do anything unconsciously till we can
do it thoroughly; this at first seems illogical; but logic and
consistency are luxuries for the gods, and the lower animals, only. Thus
a boy cannot really know how to swim till he can swim, but he cannot swim
till he knows how to swim. Conscious effort is but the process of
rubbing off the rough corners from these two contradictory statements,
till they eventually fit into one another so closely that it is
impossible to disjoin them.

Whenever we see any creature able to go through any complicated and
difficult process with little or no effort - whether it be a bird building
her nest, or a hen's egg making itself into a chicken, or an ovum turning
itself into a baby - we may conclude that the creature has done the same
thing on a very great number of past occasions.

We found the phenomena exhibited by heredity to be so like those of
memory, and to be so inexplicable on any other supposition than that they
were modes of memory, that it was easier to suppose them due to memory in
spite of the fact that we cannot remember having recollected, than to
believe that because we cannot so remember, therefore the phenomena
cannot be due to memory.

We were thus led to consider "personal identity," in order to see whether
there was sufficient reason for denying that the experience, which we
must have clearly gained somewhere, was gained by us when we were in the
persons of our forefathers; we found, not without surprise, that unless
we admitted that it might be so gained, in so far as that we once
_actually were_ our remotest ancestor, we must change our ideas
concerning personality altogether.

We therefore assumed that the phenomena of heredity, whether as regards
instinct or structure, were due to memory of past experiences,
accumulated and fused till they had become automatic, or quasi automatic,
much in the same way as after a long life -

. . . "Old experience doth attain
To something like prophetic strain."

After dealing with certain phenomena of memory, but more especially with
its abeyance and revival, we inquired what the principal corresponding
phenomena of life and species should be, on the hypothesis that they were
mainly due to memory.

I think I may say that we found the hypothesis fit in with actual facts
in a sufficiently satisfactory manner. We found not a few matters, as,
for example, the sterility of hybrids, the principle underlying
longevity, the phenomena of old age, and puberty as generally near the
end of development, explain themselves with more completeness than I have
yet heard of their being explained on any other hypothesis. Most indeed
of these phenomena have been left hitherto without even an attempt at an

We considered the most important difficulty in the way of instinct as
hereditary habit, namely, the structure and instincts of neuter insects;
these are very unlike those of their parents, and cannot, apparently, be
transmitted to offspring by individuals of the previous generation, in
whom such structure and instincts appeared, inasmuch as these creatures
are sterile. I do not say that the difficulty is wholly removed,
inasmuch as some obscurity must be admitted to remain as to the manner in
which the structure of the larva is aborted; this obscurity is likely to
remain till we know more of the early history of civilisation among bees
than I can find that we know at present; but I believe the difficulty was
reduced to such proportions as to make it little likely to be felt in
comparison with that of attributing instinct to any other cause than
inherited habit, or memory on the part of offspring, of habits contracted
in the persons of its ancestors. {127}

We then inquired what was the great principle underlying variation, and
answered, with Lamarck, that it must be "sense of need;" and though not
without being haunted by suspicion of a vicious circle, and also well
aware that we were not much nearer the origin of life than when we
started, we still concluded that here was the truest origin of species,
and hence of genera; and that the accumulation of variations, which in
time amounted to specific and generic differences, was due to
intelligence and memory on the part of the creature varying, rather than
to the operation of what Mr. Darwin has called "natural selection." At
the same time we admitted that the course of nature is very much as Mr.
Darwin has represented it, in this respect, in so far as that there is a
struggle for existence, and that the weaker must go to the wall. But we
denied that this part of the course of nature would lead to much, if any,
accumulation of variation, unless the variation was directed mainly by
intelligent sense of need, with continued personality and memory.

We conclude, therefore, that the small, apparently structureless,
impregnate ovum from which we have each one of us sprung, has a potential
recollection of all that has happened to each one of its ancestors prior
to the period at which any such ancestor has issued from the bodies of
its progenitors - provided, that is to say, a sufficiently deep, or
sufficiently often-repeated, impression has been made to admit of its
being remembered at all.

Each step of normal development will lead the impregnate ovum up to, and
remind it of, its next ordinary course of action, in the same way as we,
when we recite a well-known passage, are led up to each successive
sentence by the sentence which has immediately preceded it.

And for this reason, namely, that as it takes two people "to tell" a
thing - a speaker and a comprehending listener, without which last, though
much may have been said, there has been nothing told - so also it takes
two people, as it were, to "remember" a thing - the creature remembering,
and the surroundings of the creature at the time it last remembered.
Hence, though the ovum immediately after impregnation is instinct with
all the memories of both parents, not one of these memories can normally
become active till both the ovum itself, and its surroundings, are
sufficiently like what they respectively were, when the occurrence now to
be remembered last took place. The memory will then immediately return,
and the creature will do as it did on the last occasion that it was in
like case as now. This ensures that similarity of order shall be
preserved in all the stages of development in successive generations.

Life then is the being possessed of memory. We are all the same stuff to
start with; plants and animals only differ from one another because they
remember different things; they grow up in the shapes they bear because
these shapes are the embodiments of their ideas concerning their own past
history; they are forms of faith or faiths of form whichever the reader

Hence the term "Natural History," as applied to the different plants and
animals around us. For surely the study of natural history means only
the study of plants and animals themselves, which, at the moment of using
the words "Natural History," we assume to be the most important part of

A living creature well supported by a mass of healthy ancestral memory is
a young and growing creature, free from ache or pain, and thoroughly
acquainted with its business so far, but with much yet to be reminded of.
A creature which finds itself and its surroundings not so unlike those of
its parents about the time of their begetting it, as to be compelled to
recognise that it never yet was in any such position, is a creature in
the heyday of life. A creature which begins to be aware of itself is one
which is beginning to recognise that the situation is a new one.

It is the young and fair, then, who are the truly old and truly
experienced; it is they who alone have a trustworthy memory to guide
them; they alone know things as they are, and it is from them that, as we
grow older, we must study if we would still cling to truth. The whole
charm of youth lies in its advantage over age in respect of experience,
and where this has for some reason failed, or been misapplied, the charm
is broken. When we say that we are getting old, we should say rather
that we are getting new or young, and are suffering from inexperience,
which drives us into doing things which we do not understand, and lands
us, eventually, in the utter impotence of death. The kingdom of heaven
is the kingdom of little children.



If we conceive of ourselves as looking simultaneously upon a real foot,
and upon an admirably constructed artificial one, placed by the side of
it, the idea of design, and design by an intelligent living being with a
body and soul (without which, the use of the word design is delusive),
will present itself strongly to our minds in connection both with the
true foot and with the model; but we find another idea asserting itself
with even greater strength, namely, that the design of the true foot is
infinitely more intricate, and yet is carried into execution in far more
masterly manner than that of the model. We not only feel that there is a
wider difference between the ability, time, and care which have been
lavished on the real foot and upon the model, than there is between the
skill and the time taken to produce Westminster Abbey, and that bestowed
upon a gingerbread cake stuck with sugar plums so as to represent it, but
also that these two objects must have been manufactured on different
principles. We do not for a moment doubt that the real foot was
designed, but we are so astonished at the dexterity of the designer that
we are at a loss for some time to think who could have designed it, where
he can live, in what manner he studied, for how long, and by what
processes he carried out his design, when matured, into actual practice.
Until recently it was thought that there was no answer to many of these
questions, more especially to those which bear upon the mode of
manufacture. For the last hundred years, however, the importance of a
study has been recognised which does actually reveal to us in no small
degree the processes by which the human foot is manufactured, so that in
our endeavour to lay our hands upon the points of difference between the
kind of design with which the foot itself is designed, and the design of
the model, we turn naturally to the guidance of those who have made this
study their specialty; and a very wide difference does this study,
embryology, at once reveal to us.

Writing of the successive changes through which each embryo is forced to
pass, the late Mr. G. H. Lewes says that "none of these phases have any
adaptation to the future state of the animal, but are in positive
contradiction to it or are simply purposeless; whereas all show stamped
on them the unmistakable characters of _ancestral_ adaptation, and the
progressions of organic evolution. What does the fact imply? There is
not a single known example of a complex organism which is not developed
out of simpler forms. Before it can attain the complex structure which
distinguishes it, there must be an evolution of forms similar to those
which distinguish the structure of organisms lower in the series. On the
hypothesis of a plan which prearranged the organic world, nothing could
be more unworthy of a supreme intelligence than this inability to
construct an organism at once, without making several previous tentative
efforts, undoing to-day what was so carefully done yesterday, and
_repeating for centuries the same tentatives in the same succession_. Do
not let us blink this consideration. There is a traditional phrase much
in vogue among the anthropomorphists, which arose naturally enough from a
tendency to take human methods as an explanation of the Divine - a phrase
which becomes a sort of argument - 'The Great Architect.' But if we are
to admit the human point of view, a glance at the facts of embryology
must produce very uncomfortable reflections. For what should we say to
an architect who was unable, or being able was obstinately unwilling, to
erect a palace except by first using his materials in the shape of a hut,
then pulling them down and rebuilding them as a cottage, then adding
story to story and room to room, _not_ with any reference to the ultimate
purposes of the palace, but wholly with reference to the way in which
houses were constructed in ancient times? What should we say to the
architect who could not form a museum out of bricks and mortar, but was
forced to begin as if going to construct a mansion, and after proceeding
some way in this direction, altered his plan into a palace, and that
again into a museum? Yet this is the sort of succession on which
organisms are constructed. The fact has long been familiar; how has it
been reconciled with infinite wisdom? Let the following passage answer
for a thousand: - 'The embryo is nothing like the miniature of the adult.
For a long while the body in its entirety and in its details, presents
the strangest of spectacles. Day by day and hour by hour, the aspect of
the scene changes, and this instability is exhibited by the most
essential parts no less than by the accessory parts. One would say that
nature feels her way, and only reaches the goal after many times missing
the path' (on dirait que la nature tatonne et ne conduit son oeuvre a bon
fin, qu'apres s'etre souvent trompee)." {134a}

The above passage does not, I think, affect the evidence for design which
we adduced in the preceding chapter. {134b} However strange the process
of manufacture may appear, when the work comes to be turned out the
design is too manifest to be doubted.

If the reader were to come upon some lawyer's deed which dealt with
matters of such unspeakable intricacy that it baffled his imagination to
conceive how it could ever have been drafted, and if in spite of this he
were to find the intricacy of the provisions to be made, exceeded only by
the ease and simplicity with which the deed providing for them was found
to work in practice; and after this, if he were to discover that the
deed, by whomsoever drawn, had nevertheless been drafted upon principles
which at first seemed very foreign to any according to which he was in
the habit of drafting deeds himself, as for example, that the draftsman
had begun to draft a will as a marriage settlement, and so forth - yet an
observer would not, I take it, do either of two things. He would not in
the face of the result deny the design, making himself judge rather of
the method of procedure than of the achievement. Nor yet after insisting
in the manner of Paley, on the wonderful proofs of intention and on the
exquisite provisions which were to be found in every syllable - thus
leading us up to the highest pitch of expectation - would he present us
with such an impotent conclusion as that the designer, though a living
person and a true designer, was yet immaterial and intangible, a
something, in fact, which proves to be a nothing; an omniscient and
omnipotent vacuum.

Our observer would feel he need not have been at such pains to establish
his design if this was to be the upshot of his reasoning. He would
therefore admit the design, and by consequence the designer, but would
probably ask a little time for reflection before he ventured to say who,
or what, or where the designer was. Then gaining some insight into the
manner in which the deed had been drawn, he would conclude that the
draftsman was a specialist who had had long practice in this particular

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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 9 of 23)