Samuel Butler (written in 1997)

Living in New Zealand as a sheepfarmer at the time of publication of “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 learned and thought a good deal more. He naturally became a Lamarckist 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 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.

In his next book, “Evolution, Old and New”, Butler accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors. From Butler’s perspective, Darwin and his followers perpetrated 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 Darwin subsequently published a biography of his grandfather which comprised a translation of a German article about Erasmus Darwin which pre-dated Butler’s book. The expanded translation included material from, and criticism of, Butler’s “Evolution, Old and New”, without acknowledgement to Butler, his book or of the expansion. What riled Butler most was the following sentence in “Life of Erasmus Darwin”:

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

On being challenged, Darwin privately replied that “This is so common a practice that it never occurred to me to state that the article had been modified.” Butler wasn’t satisfied, feeling that Darwin and his followers were deliberately ignoring him and his views. He wrote to the press and later included the following passage in his third evolution book, “Unconscious Memory”:

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.

On advice, Darwin maintained a dignified silence, though he did draft two unsent letters to The Athenaeum which claim that the acknowledgement that the original article had been expanded was accidentally omitted. Those letters did not come to light until after Butler’s death. There is little doubt either that Darwin was technically in error or that Butler blew the matter out of all proportion, but Butler was convinced that the omission was deliberate. 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.

By virtue of being a much more popularist writer than Spencer, Butler attracted a lot of attention and caused much embarrassment to Darwinists. Though his evolution books were not best-sellers, he managed to unite scientists against him and behind Darwin; to openly attack their hero was beyond the pale, and Butler inadvertently brought Lamarckism into disrepute, as well as to public attention. 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. He never married, though, according to at least one biographer, he was a frequent user of prostitutes, having a voracious sexual appetite which he thought it would be unfair to inflict on a wife.