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Chapter 1


Of all the questions now engaging the attention of those whose destiny has commanded them to take more or less exercise of mind, I know of none more interesting than that which deals with what is called teleology--that is to say, with design or purpose, as evidenced by the different parts of animals and plants.

The question may be briefly stated thus:--

Can we or can we not see signs in the structure of animals and plants, of something which carries with it the idea of contrivance so strongly that it is impossible for us to think of the structure, without at the same time thinking of contrivance, or design, in connection with it?

It is my object in the present work to answer this question in the affirmative, and to lead my reader to agree with me, perhaps mainly, by following the history of that opinion which is now supposed to be fatal to a purposive view of animal and vegetable organs. I refer to the theory of evolution or descent with modification.

Let me state the question more at large.

When we see organs, or living tools--for there is no well-developed organ of any living being which is not used by its possessor as an instrument or tool for the effecting of some purpose which he considers or has considered for his advantage--when we see living tools which are as admirably fitted for the work required of them, as is the carpenter's plane for planing, or the blacksmith's hammer and anvil for the hammering of iron, or the tailor's needle for sewing, what conclusion shall we adopt concerning them?

Shall we hold that they must have been designed or contrived, not perhaps by mental processes indistinguishable from those by which the carpenter's saw or the watch has been designed, but still by processes so closely resembling these that no word can be found to express the facts of the case so nearly as the word "design"? That is to say, shall we imagine that they were arrived at by a living mind as the result of scheming and contriving, and thinking (not without occasional mistakes) which of the courses open to it seemed best fitted for the occasion, or are we to regard the apparent connection between such an organ, we will say, as the eye, and the sight which is affected by it, as in no way due to the design or plan of a living intelligent being, but as caused simply by the accumulation, one upon another, of an almost infinite series of small pieces of good fortune?

In other words, shall we see something for which, as Professor Mivart has well said, "to us the word 'mind' is the least inadequate and misleading symbol," as having given to the eagle an eyesight which can pierce the sun, but which, in the night is powerless; while to the owl it has given eyes which shun even the full moon, but find a soft brilliancy in darkness? Or shall we deny that there has been any purpose or design in the fashioning of these different kinds of eyes, and see nothing to make us believe that any living being made the eagle's eye out of something which was not an eye nor anything like one, or that this living being implanted this particular eye of all others in the eagle's head, as being most in accordance with the habits of the creature, and as therefore most likely to enable it to live contentedly and leave plenitude of offspring? And shall we then go on to maintain that the eagle's eye was formed little by little by a series of accidental variations, each one of which was thrown for, as it were, with dice?

We shall most of us feel that there must have been a little cheating somewhere with these accidental variations before the eagle could have become so great a winner.

I believe I have now stated the question at issue so plainly that there can be no mistake about its nature, I will therefore proceed to show as briefly as possible what have been the positions taken in regard to it by our forefathers, by the leaders of opinion now living, and what I believe will be the next conclusion that will be adopted for any length of time by any considerable number of people.

In the times of the ancients the preponderance of opinion was in favour of teleology, though impugners were not wanting. Aristotle[1] leant towards a denial of purpose, while Plato[2] was a firm believer in design. From the days of Plato to our own times, there have been but few objectors to the teleological or purposive view of nature. If an animal had an eye, that eye was regarded as something which had been designed in order to enable its owner to see after such fashion as should be most to its advantage.

This, however, is now no longer the prevailing opinion either in this country or in Germany.

Professor Haeckel holds a high place among the leaders of German philosophy at the present day. He declares a belief in evolution and in purposiveness to be incompatible, and denies purpose in language which holds out little prospect of a compromise.

"As soon, in fact," he writes, "as we acknowledge the exclusive activity of the physico-chemical causes in living (organic) bodies as well as in so-called inanimate (inorganic) nature,"--and this is what Professor Haeckel holds we are bound to do if we accept the theory of descent with modification--"we concede exclusive dominion to that view of the universe, which we may designate as mechanical, and which is opposed to the teleological conception. If we compare all the ideas of the universe prevalent among different nations at different times, we can divide them all into two sharply contrasted groups--a causal or mechanical, and a teleological or vitalistic. The latter has prevailed generally in biology until now, and accordingly the animal and vegetable kingdoms have been considered as the products of a creative power, acting for a definite purpose. In the contemplation of every organism, the unavoidable conviction seemed to press itself upon us, that such a wonderful machine, so complicated an apparatus for motion as exists in the organism, could only be produced by a power analogous to, but infinitely more powerful than the power of man in the construction of his machines."[3]

A little lower down he continues:--

"I maintain with regard to" this "much talked of 'purpose in nature' that it has no existence but for those persons who observe phenomena in plants and animals in the most superficial manner. Without going more deeply into the matter, we can see at once that the rudimentary organs are a formidable obstacle to this theory. And, indeed, anyone who makes a really close study of the organization and mode of life of the various animals and plants, ... must necessarily come to the conclusion, that this 'purposiveness' no more exists than the much talked of 'beneficence' of the Creator."[4]

Professor Haeckel justly sees no alternative between, upon the one hand, the creation of independent species by a Personal God--by a "Creator," in fact, who "becomes an organism, who designs a plan, reflects upon and varies this plan, and finally forms creatures according to it, as a human architect would construct his building,"[5]--and the denial of all plan or purpose whatever. There can be no question but that he is right here. To talk of a "designer" who has no tangible existence, no organism with which to think, no bodily mechanism with which to carry his purposes into effect; whose design is not design inasmuch as it has to contend with no impediments from ignorance or impotence, and who thus contrives but by a sort of make-believe in which there is no contrivance; who has a familiar name, but nothing beyond a name which any human sense has ever been able to perceive--this is an abuse of words--an attempt to palm off a shadow upon our understandings as though it were a substance. It is plain therefore that there must either be a designer who "becomes an organism, designs a plan, &c.," or that there can be no designer at all and hence no design.

We have seen which of these alternatives Professor Haeckel has adopted. He holds that those who accept evolution are bound to reject all "purposiveness." And here, as I have intimated, I differ from him, for reasons which will appear presently. I believe in an organic and tangible designer of every complex structure, for so long a time past, as that reasonable people will be incurious about all that occurred at any earlier time.

Professor Clifford, again, is a fair representative of opinions which are finding favour with the majority of our own thinkers. He writes:--

"There are here some words, however, which require careful definition. And first the word purpose. A thing serves a purpose when it is adapted for some end; thus a corkscrew is adapted to the end of extracting corks from bottles, and our lungs are adapted to the end of respiration. We may say that the extraction of corks is the purpose of the corkscrew, and that respiration is the purpose of the lungs, but here we shall have used the word in two different senses. A man made the corkscrew with a purpose in his mind, and he knew and intended that it should be used for pulling out corks. But nobody made our lungs with a purpose in his mind and intended that they should be used for breathing. The respiratory apparatus was adapted to its purpose by natural selection, namely, by the gradual preservation of better and better adaptations, and by the killing-off of the worse and imperfect adaptations."[6]

No denial of anything like design could be more explicit. For Professor Clifford is well aware that the very essence of the "Natural Selection" theory, is that the variations shall have been mainly accidental and without design of any sort, but that the adaptations of structure to need shall have come about by the accumulation, through natural selection, of any variation that happened to be favourable.

It will be my business on a later page not only to show that the lungs are as purposive as the corkscrew, but furthermore that if drawing corks had been a matter of as much importance to us as breathing is, the list of our organs would have been found to comprise one corkscrew at the least, and possibly two, twenty, or ten thousand; even as we see that the trowel without which the beaver cannot plaster its habitation in such fashion as alone satisfies it, is incorporate into the beaver's own body by way of a tail, the like of which is to be found in no other animal.

To take a name which carries with it a far greater authority, that of Mr. Charles Darwin. He writes:--

"It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye with a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to declare that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?"[7]

Here purposiveness is not indeed denied point-blank, but the intention of the author is unmistakable, it is to refer the wonderful result to the gradual accumulation of small accidental improvements which were not due as a rule, if at all, to anything "analogous" to design.

"Variation," he says, "will cause the slight alterations;" that is to say, the slight successive variations whose accumulation results in such a marvellous structure as the eye, are caused by--variation; or in other words, they are indefinite, due to nothing that we can lay our hands upon, and therefore certainly not due to design. "Generation," continues Mr. Darwin, "will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions of years, and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might be thus formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?"[8]

The reader will observe that the only skill--and this involves design--supposed by Mr. Darwin to be exercised in the foregoing process, is the "unerring skill" of natural selection. Natural selection, however, is, as he himself tells us, a synonym for the survival of the fittest, which last he declares to be the "more accurate" expression, and to be "sometimes" equally convenient.[9] It is clear then that he only speaks metaphorically when he here assigns "unerring skill" to the fact that the fittest individuals commonly live longest and transmit most offspring, and that he sees no evidence of design in the numerous slight successive "alterations"--or variations--which are "caused by variation."

It were easy to multiply quotations which should prove that the denial of "purposiveness" is commonly conceived to be the inevitable accompaniment of a belief in evolution. I will, however, content myself with but one more--from Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire.

"Whoever," says this author, "holds the doctrine of final causes, will, if he is consistent, hold also that of the immutability of species; and again, the opponent of the one doctrine will oppose the other also."[10]

Nothing can be plainer; I believe, however, that even without quotation the reader would have recognized the accuracy of my contention that a belief in the purposiveness or design of animal and vegetable organs is commonly held to be incompatible with the belief that they have all been evolved from one, or at any rate, from not many original, and low, forms of life. Generally, however, as this incompatibility is accepted, it is not unchallenged. From time to time a voice is uplifted in protest, whose tones cannot be disregarded.

"I have always felt," says Sir William Thomson, in his address to the British Association, 1871, "that this hypothesis" (natural selection) "does not contain the true theory of evolution, if indeed evolution there has been, in biology. Sir John Herschel, in expressing a favourable judgment on the hypothesis of zoological evolution (with however some reservation in respect to the origin of man), objected to the doctrine of natural selection on the ground that it was too like the Laputan method of making books, and that it did not sufficiently take into account a continually guiding and controlling intelligence. This seems to me a most valuable and instructive criticism. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations. Reaction against the frivolities of teleology such as are to be found in the notes of the learned commentators on Paley's 'Natural Theology,' has, I believe, had a temporary effect in turning attention from the solid and irrefragable argument so well put forward in that excellent old book. But overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us,"[11] &c. Sir William Thomson goes on to infer that all living beings depend on an ever-acting Creator and Ruler--meaning, I am afraid, a Creator who is not an organism. Here I cannot follow him, but while gladly accepting his testimony to the omnipresence of intelligent design in almost every structure, whether of animal or plant, I shall content myself with observing the manner in which plants and animals act and with the consequences that are legitimately deducible from their action.


[1] See note to Mr. Darwin, Historical Sketch, &c., 'Origin of Species, p. xiii. ed. 1876, and Arist. 'Physicæ Auscultationes,' lib. ii. cap. viii. s. 2.

[2] See Phædo and Timæus.

[3] 'History of Creation,' vol. i. p. 18 (H. S. King and Co., 1876).

[4] Ibid. p. 19.

[5] 'History of Creation,' vol. i. p. 73 (H. S. King and Co., 1876).

[6] 'Fortnightly Review,' new series, vol. xviii. p. 795.

[7] 'Origin of Species,' p. 146, ed. 1876.

[8] 'Origin of Species,' p. 146, ed. 1876.

[9] Page 49.

[10] 'Vie et Doctrine scientifique d'Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire,' by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire. Paris, 1847, p. 344.

[11] Address to the British Association, 1871.

Samuel Butler

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