Butler’s Battle

Living in New Zealand as a sheepfarmer at the time of publication of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” was a well-educated, artistically-talented Englishman called Samuel Butler (1835-1902), whose grandfather had been Darwin’s headmaster at school. He had ‘dropped out’ to New Zealand in order to get away from the career expectations of his clergyman father. He read Darwin’s book and became an immediate convert to evolution, but not to the emphasis on Natural Selection. Like Spencer, he was antipathetic to the insistence on randomness and luck. He returned to England in 1864 and became a successful satirical novelist, but his real interest was evolution, about which he thought a good deal more. He naturally became a Lamarckist, without at the time having heard of Lamarck, but he was also a Vitalist. He believed that the Life Force had memory and that consequently living organisms repeated ancestral habits, which were originally intelligent responses to environmental circumstances. Furthermore, according to Butler, life makes choices and strives, so evolution is a creative process. What any descendent sequence of living organisms strive for gradually becomes second nature, and instinctive, for their descendants. For example, at some point in evolutionary history, in Butler’s view, animals might have had to breathe deliberately, just as they eat now, but habitual practice turned that process into a sub-conscious instinct.

Before Darwin’s death in 1882, Butler published three books for a general readership, which not only expounded his own developing views but also mirrored his growing antagonism towards Darwin. In his 1877 book, “Life and Habit”, he apologetically begged to differ with Darwin over the importance of Natural Selection:

The history of a man prior to his birth is more important as far as his success and failure goes than his surroundings after birth, important though those may indeed be. The able man rises in spite of a thousand hindrances, the fool fails in spite of every advantage. “Natural selection,” however, does not make either the able man or the fool. It only deals with him after other causes have made him, and it would seem in the end to amount to little more than a statement of the fact that when variations have arisen they will accumulate. One cannot look, as has already been said, for the origin of species in that part of the course of nature which settles the preservation or extinction of variations which have already arisen from some unknown cause, but one must look for it in the causes that have led to variation at all. These causes must get, as it were, behind the back of “natural selection,” which is rather a shield and hindrance to our perception of our own ignorance than an explanation of what these causes are.

I should point out that, in using the word ‘history’, Butler means far longer than 9 months. With regard to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or habits, Butler took the logical view that since, as Darwin admitted, it did happen, there could be no limit to its applicability and importance. As a consequence of writing “Life and Habit”, Butler was made aware of Lamarck, and he also read the Historical Sketch in the later editions of “The Origin of Species”. During 1878, he researched into some of the earlier evolutionists mentioned therein and was amazed to discover that their views were more harmonious with his own than Darwin’s were. In his own words:

I accordingly wrote “Evolution, Old and New,” which was prominently announced in the leading literary periodicals at the end of February, or on the very first days of March 1879, as “a comparison of the theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, with that of Mr. Charles Darwin, with copious extracts from the works of the three first-named writers.” In this book I was hardly able to conceal the fact that, in spite of the obligations under which we must always remain to Mr. Darwin, I had lost my respect for him and for his work.

I should point out that this announcement, coupled with what I had written in “Life and Habit,” would enable Mr. Darwin and his friends to form a pretty shrewd guess as to what I was likely to say, and to quote from Dr. Erasmus Darwin in my forthcoming book. The announcement, indeed, would tell almost as much as the book itself to those who knew the works of Erasmus Darwin.

As indicated, Butler fully anticipated that Darwin would become aware of his forthcoming book from the announcement, and it is indeed difficult to believe that no-one in Darwin’s circle of family and friends would have alerted him to the announcement, if he didn’t see it himself.

I am now going to take a break from Butler in order to speculate as to what Darwin’s reaction to that announcement probably was. It is of course unprovable, but it fits in with Darwin’s provable course of action. Darwin probably feared that Butler’s book would accuse him of plagiarism. As corroborative evidence for that accusation, based on heritability, Butler might point out that, in her 1804 “Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin”, Anna Sewell had accused Erasmus Darwin of plagiarism of her poems. That book, and the plagiarism allegation, had presumably been forgotten by 1879.

The chronology of events in 1879 is of considerable importance to an objective understanding of the issue. I will now present some key facts before looking again at the issue as Butler wrote about it. Butler knew nothing about the following correspondence.

In early February 1879, a German scientific journal, Kosmos, contained a biographical article about Dr Erasmus Darwin written by Dr Ernst Krause, who sent a copy of the magazine to Charles Darwin. Darwin wrote to thank Krause for Kosmos on February 12th, which was his 70th birthday. He may not have read it thoroughly, since his German was not good. Then came the announcement of Butler’s book.

On March 9th, Darwin wrote to Krause to ask for permission to publish his article in English (though it is worth noting that he hadn’t done so on February 12th). Krause replied in the affirmative, but said he was intending to expand the article.

On March 12th, Darwin wrote to William Sweetland Dallas to ask him to translate Krause’s article for English publication. Dallas replied in the affirmative (in two letters a day apart).

On March 27th, Darwin wrote to his cousin, Reginald Darwin, telling him that he was intending to publish a biography of their mutual grandfather in order “to contradict flatly some calumnies by Miss Seward”. No doubt, Darwin thought those ‘calumnies’ were about to get some unwelcome publicity.

On May 3rd, Butler’s “Evolution, Old and New, or the Theories of Buffon, Dr. Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck compared with that of Mr. Charles Darwin” was published. It contained extensive quotes from Seward’s “Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin”, though none of them were concerned with plagiarism allegations.

On May 9th, Dallas wrote to Darwin, having seen “Evolution, Old and New” advertised, asking Darwin if he still intended to go ahead with the translation project.

Darwin wrote to tell Krause about “Evolution, Old and New” on May 13th, saying he nonetheless wanted to go ahead with the project.

Krause wrote to Darwin on May 15th, having ordered “Evolution, Old and New”, and again on May 23rd, having read it.

Darwin wrote to Krause on June 9th, saying he hoped he would “not expend much powder and shot on Mr. Butler, for he really is not worthy of it. His work is merely ephemeral.”

There were a very large number of letters between Darwin and Krause during the following months, often concerned with cuts that Darwin wished to make to Krause’s expanded article.

As shown above, “Evolution, Old and New” was published and advertised in May 1879. It accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors. From Butler’s perspective, Darwin and his followers perpetuated the idea that Darwin was the originator of evolution theory:

Few know that there are other great works upon descent with modification besides Mr.Darwin’s. Not one person in ten thousand has any distinct idea of what Buffon, Dr.(Erasmus) Darwin and Lamarck propounded. Their names have been discredited by the very authors who have been most indebted to them; there is hardly a writer on evolution who does not think it incumbent upon him to warn Lamarck off the ground which he at any rate made his own, and to cast a stone at what he will call the “shallow speculations” or “crude theories” or the “well-known doctrine” of the foremost exponent of Buffon…..Buffon is a great name, Dr.Darwin is no longer even this, and Lamarck has been so systematically laughed at that it amounts to little less than philosophical suicide for anyone to stand up on his behalf.

The row became personal and bitter after the publication of the biography of Darwin’s grandfather, “Erasmus Darwin, by Ernst Krause, translated from the German by W. S. Dallas, with a preliminary notice by Charles Darwin”. Published in November 1879, it comprised a Preface by Darwin, a Preliminary Notice by Darwin (with personal details of Erasmus Darwin’s life) and then an ‘accurate’ translation of the German article (about Erasmus Darwin’s scientific views), which had been published in the February (1879) edition of a German scientific journal, Kosmos. Butler purchased a copy of the biography and immediately suspected, on several counts, that the translated German article had been written in the light of “Evolution, Old and New”, even though, according to Darwin’s Preface, that was not possible. What caused him a personal sense of injury was the final sentence in the book:

Erasmus Darwin’s system was in itself a most significant first step in the path of knowledge which his grandson has opened up for us, but to wish to revive it at the present day, as has actually been seriously attempted, shows a weakness of thought and a mental anachronism which no man can envy.

He correctly inferred that it referred to him. He sent for the February issue of Kosmos, and even learnt German in order to translate the original article, which confirmed his suspicions. He wrote a letter to Darwin, asking for an explanation for the discrepancy between the Preface stating that Krause’s section of the book was an accurate translation of the February article and the actual content of Krause’s section. He did not accuse Darwin of having arranged for publication of the biography in the light of “Evolution, Old and New”, nor did he mention the announcement of that book in February. The following is Darwin’s answer:

January 3, 1880.

My Dear Sir,
Dr. Krause, soon after the appearance of his article in Kosmos told me that he intended to publish it separately and to alter it considerably, and the altered MS. was sent to Mr. Dallas for translation. This is so common a practice that it never occurred to me to state that the article had been modified; but now I much regret that I did not do so. The original will soon appear in German, and I believe will be a much larger book than the English one; for, with Dr. Krause’s consent, many long extracts from Miss Seward were omitted (as well as much other matter), from being in my opinion superfluous for the English reader. I believe that the omitted parts will appear as notes in the German edition. Should there be a reprint of the English Life I will state that the original as it appeared in Kosmos was modified by Dr. Krause before it was translated. I may add that I had obtained Dr. Krause’s consent for a translation, and had arranged with Mr. Dallas before your book was announced. I remember this because Mr. Dallas wrote to tell me of the advertisement.

I remain, yours faithfully,


As Butler himself conceded, Darwin may not be using the word ‘announced’ in the same way Butler did. If he is, that statement is a lie, since, unknown to Butler and as shown above, Darwin actually wrote to Krause, asking for permission to publish an English translation of his article, on March 9th. In the light of all that evidence, I am not prepared to make the concession Butler made, so the statement is a lie. Even if it isn’t, Darwin is choosing to defend himself against an accusation that Butler had not even made. Butler could not accept that reply. He wrote a letter to the Athenaeum, which was published on January 31st, 1880. It gave a factual account of the events, as Butler knew them, and concluded as follows:

It is doubtless a common practice for writers to take an opportunity of revising their works, but it is not common when a covert condemnation of an opponent has been interpolated into a revised edition, the revision of which has been concealed, to declare with every circumstance of distinctness that the condemnation was written prior to the book which might appear to have called it forth, and thus lead readers to suppose that it must be an unbiased opinion.

As far as Butler was concerned, that letter met with silence, which he interpreted as an acknowledgement of guilt and a decision to ignore him. Unbeknownst to him, Darwin did prepare two replies for the Athenaeum, claiming that the omission from the Preface was accidental, but was dissuaded from sending either by some members of his family and T.H.Huxley. Later in 1880, Butler devoted a whole chapter of his third evolution book, “Unconscious Memory”, to the issue, and included the following passages:

By far the most important notice of “Evolution, Old and New,” was that taken by Mr. Darwin himself; for I can hardly be mistaken in believing that Dr. Krause’s article would have been allowed to repose unaltered in the pages of the well-known German scientific journal, Kosmos, unless something had happened to make Mr. Darwin feel that his reticence concerning his grandfather must now be ended.

Mr. Darwin, indeed, gives me the impression of wishing me to understand that this is not the case. At the beginning of this year he wrote to me, in a letter which I will presently give in full, that he had obtained Dr. Krause’s consent for a translation, and had arranged with Mr. Dallas, before my book was “announced.” “I remember this,” he continues, “because Mr. Dallas wrote to tell me of the advertisement.” But Mr. Darwin is not a clear writer, and it is impossible to say whether he is referring to the announcement of “Evolution, Old and New”–in which case he means that the arrangements for the translation of Dr. Krause’s article were made before the end of February 1879, and before any public intimation could have reached him as to the substance of the book on which I was then engaged–or to the advertisements of its being now published, which appeared at the beginning of May; in which case, as I have said above, Mr. Darwin and his friends had for some time had full opportunity of knowing what I was about. I believe, however, Mr. Darwin to intend that he remembered the arrangements having been made before the beginning of May–his use of the word “announced,” instead of “advertised,” being an accident; but let this pass. 

If Mr. Darwin had said that by some inadvertence, which he was unable to excuse or account for, a blunder had been made which he would at once correct so far as was in his power by a letter to The Times or The Athenaeum, and that a notice of the erratum should be printed on a fly leaf and pasted into all unsold copies of Life of Erasmus Darwin, there would have been no more heard of this matter from me; but when Mr. Darwin maintained that it was common practice to take advantage of an opportunity of revising a work to incorporate a covert attack on an opponent, and at the same time to misdate the interpolated matter by expressly stating that it appeared months earlier than it actually did, and prior to the work it attacked; when he maintained that what was being done was “so common a practice that it never occurred” to him – the writer of some twenty volumes – to do what all literary men must know to be inexorably requisite, I thought that was going far beyond what was permissible in honourable warfare and that it was time, in the interests of literary and scientific morality, even more than in my own, to appeal to public opinion.

Following publication of “Unconscious Memory”, the person who had actually caused Butler’s sense of injury, Ernst Krause, put pen to paper in the form of a letter to Nature, published in January 1881. It poured scorn on Butler’s insinuation that Darwin had arranged for English publication of his article in the light of “Evolution, Old and New”, claiming – correctly but irrelevantly – that Darwin had written to him two months before the appearance of Butler’s book. However, Krause admitted to having taken a passage from Butler’s book in the revision of his article, and to having written the final sentence about Butler, but excused himself from any wrongdoing on the grounds that he didn’t name him. He also admitted that Darwin had requested many cuts from his expanded article. Finally, with regard to Butler’s implication that Darwin’s omission from the Preface was deliberate, Krause added insult to injury by saying, “it is clear, as even a child could not fail to see, that this is not due to design, but is simply the result of an oversight.” That was the first indication Butler received that Darwin’s omission was accidental, but Butler remained convinced that it was deliberate, simply because Darwin had made no attempt to deny it. The issue of deliberateness was also at the heart of their evolutionary differences. After Darwin’s death, Butler continued the battle by publishing another book in 1887, “Luck or Cunning?”, in which he accused Darwin of the very guile that his theory disputed:

Buffon planted, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck watered, but it was Mr. Darwin who said “That fruit is ripe” and shook it into his lap.

To conclude, with regard to Butler’s three main contentions:
1. Though denied by both Darwin and Krause, complete with falsifiable details in both their accounts, the chronology of events makes it entirely likely that Darwin’s decision to publish an English version of Krause’s article was made in the light of the announcement of Butler’s “Evolution, Old and New”.
2. By letting it remain whilst requesting other cuts, Darwin must have approved of Krause’s final sentence in the expanded article, knowing that it referred to Butler and was injurious to him.
3. In the light of those two factors, the issue of the deliberateness of the omission from the Preface of any mention of the expansion of the article has to be open to question. We only have Darwin’s unprinted word for it that the omission was accidental.

Just ask yourself what might have happened if Darwin had said in the Preface, “Samuel Butler’s book, Evolution, Old and New, had appeared since the publication of Dr. Krause’s original article, which was altered in the light of it”, or Krause’s final sentence had said, “Erasmus Darwin’s system was in itself a most significant first step in the path of knowledge which his grandson has opened up for us, but to wish to revive it at the present day, as Mr. Samuel Butler has actually seriously attempted, shows a weakness of thought and a mental anachronism which no man can envy.” If your answer involves the words ‘libel’ and ‘law courts’, you have the reasons why Darwin and Krause behaved as they did.

By virtue of being a much more popularist writer than Spencer, Butler attracted a lot of attention and caused much embarrassment to Darwinists, even though his evolution books were not best-sellers. Butler managed to unite scientists against him and behind Darwin; to cast such aspersions about their hero was beyond the pale. The words vile, abusive, odious, malicious, insane, unwarranted, unjustifiable and ungentlemanly were used by Darwin and his friends to describe Butler’s ‘attack’. Those adjectives apply far more appropriately to Krause’s behaviour and Darwin’s approval of it.

Though Butler did not consider himself to be an atheist, his attacks on orthodox religion, and especially the incarnation and resurrection, also united the Church against him. Vitalism was seen by scientists as letting God in through the back door and by religious people as reducing God to an emergent, powerless, responsive, experimenting entity, interested only in self-perpetuation. All in all, Butler became a heretic. One of Butler’s most fanatical supporters was a famous idiosyncratic Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), who espoused the cause of Lamarckism with pugnacious determination, most notably in the preface to his play “Back to Methuselah”, even though he knew little about science. Between them, they took Lamarckism into a world of Purpose and Will which Lamarck himself would not have countenanced.

If you want to see what I originally wrote about Butler in “Lamarck’s Due, Darwin’s Luck” in 1997, see here.