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Chapter 5


I have stated the foregoing in what I take to be an extreme logical development, in order that the reader may more easily perceive the consequences of those premises which I am endeavouring to re-establish. But it must not be supposed that an animal or plant has ever conceived the idea of some organ widely different from any it was yet possessed of, and has set itself to design it in detail and grow towards it.

The small jelly-speck, which we call the amoeba, has no organs save what it can extemporize as occasion arises. If it wants to get at anything, it thrusts out part of its jelly, which thus serves it as an arm or hand: when the arm has served its purpose, it is absorbed into the rest of the jelly, and has now to do the duty of a stomach by helping to wrap up what it has just purveyed. The small round jelly-speck spreads itself out and envelops its food, so that the whole creature is now a stomach, and nothing but a stomach. Having digested its food, it again becomes a jelly-speck, and is again ready to turn part of itself into hand or foot as its next convenience may dictate. It is not to be believed that such a creature as this, which is probably just sensitive to light and nothing more, should be able to form a conception of an eye and set itself to work to grow one, any more than it is believable that he who first observed the magnifying power of a dew drop, or even he who first constructed a rude lens, should have had any idea in his mind of Lord Rosse's telescope with all its parts and appliances. Nothing could be well conceived more foreign to experience and common sense. Animals and plants have travelled to their present forms as man has travelled to any one of his own most complicated inventions. Slowly, step by step, through many blunders and mischances which have worked together for good to those that have persevered in elasticity. They have travelled as man has travelled, with but little perception of a want till there was also some perception of a power, and with but little perception of a power till there was a dim sense of want; want stimulating power, and power stimulating want; and both so based upon each other that no one can say which is the true foundation, but rather that they must be both baseless and, as it were, meteoric in mid air. They have seen very little ahead of a present power or need, and have been then most moral, when most inclined to pierce a little into futurity, but also when most obstinately declining to pierce too far, and busy mainly with the present. They have been so far blindfolded that they could see but for a few steps in front of them, yet so far free to see that those steps were taken with aim and definitely, and not in the dark.

"Plus il a su," says Buffon, speaking of man, "plus il a pu, mais aussi moins il a fait, moins il a su." This holds good wherever life holds good. Wherever there is life there is a moral government of rewards and punishments understood by the amoeba neither better nor worse than by man. The history of organic development is the history of a moral struggle.

We know nothing as yet about the origin of a creature able to feel want and power, nor yet what want and power spring from. It does not seem worth while to go into these questions until an understanding has been come to as to whether the interaction of want and power in some low form or forms of life which could assimilate matter, reproduce themselves, vary their actions, and be capable of remembering, will or will not suffice to explain the development of the varied organs and desires which we see in the higher vertebrates and man. When this question has been settled, then it will be time to push our inquiries farther back.

But given such a low form of life as here postulated, and there is no force in Paley's pretended objection to the Darwinism of his time.

"Give our philosopher," he says, "appetencies; give him a portion of living irritable matter (a nerve or the clipping of a nerve) to work upon; give also to his incipient or progressive forms the power of propagating their like in every stage of their alteration; and if he is to be believed, he could replenish the world with all the vegetable and animal productions which we now see in it."[24]

After meeting this theory with answers which need not detain us, he continues:--

"The senses of animals appear to me quite incapable of receiving the explanation of their origin which this theory affords. Including under the word 'sense' the organ and the perception, we have no account of either. How will our philosopher get at vision or make an eye? Or, suppose the eye formed, would the perception follow? The same of the other senses. And this objection holds its force, ascribe what you will to the hand of time, to the power of habit, to changes too slow to be observed by man, or brought within any comparison which he is able to make of past things with the present. Concede what you please to these arbitrary and unattested superstitions, how will they help you? Here is no inception. No laws, no course, no powers of nature which prevail at present, nor any analogous to these would give commencement to a new sense; and it is in vain to inquire how that might proceed which would never begin."

In answer to this, let us suppose that some inhabitants of another world were to see a modern philosopher so using a microscope that they should believe it to be a part of the philosopher's own person, which he could cut off from and join again to himself at pleasure, and suppose there were a controversy as to how this microscope had originated, and that one party maintained the man had made it little by little because he wanted it, while the other declared this to be absurd and impossible; I ask, would this latter party be justified in arguing that microscopes could never have been perfected by degrees through the preservation of and accumulation of small successive improvements, inasmuch as men could not have begun to want to use microscopes until they had had a microscope which should show them that such an instrument would be useful to them, and that hence there is nothing to account for the beginning of microscopes, which might indeed make some progress when once originated, but which could never originate?

It might be pointed out to such a reasoner, firstly, that as regards any acquired power the various stages in the acquisition of which he might be supposed able to remember, he would find that, logic notwithstanding, the wish did originate the power, and yet was originated by it, both coming up gradually out of something which was not recognisable as either power or wish, and advancing through vain beating of the air, to a vague effort, and from this to definite effort with failure, and from this to definite effort with success, and from this to success with little consciousness of effort, and from this to success with such complete absence of effort that he now acts unconsciously and without power of introspection, and that, do what he will, he can rarely or never draw a sharp dividing line whereat anything shall be said to begin, though none less certain that there has been a continuity in discontinuity, and a discontinuity in continuity between it and certain other past things; moreover, that his opponents postulated so much beginning of the microscope as that there should be a dew drop, even as our evolutionists start with a sense of touch, of which sense all the others are modifications, so that not one of them but is resolvable into touch by more or less easy stages; and secondly, that the question is one of fact and of the more evident deductions therefrom, and should not be carried back to those remote beginnings where the nature of the facts is so purely a matter of conjecture and inference.

No plant or animal, then, according to our view, would be able to conceive more than a very slight improvement on its organization at a given time, so clearly as to make the efforts towards it that would result in growth of the required modification; nor would these efforts be made with any far-sighted perception of what next and next and after, but only of what next; while many of the happiest thoughts would come like all other happy thoughts--thoughtlessly; by a chain of reasoning too swift and subtle for conscious analysis by the individual, as will be more fully insisted on hereafter. Some of these modifications would be noticeable, but the majority would involve no more noticeable difference than can be detected between the length of the shortest day, and that of the shortest but one.

Thus a bird whose toes were not webbed, but who had under force of circumstances little by little in the course of many generations learned to swim, either from having lived near a lake, and having learnt the art owing to its fishing habits, or from wading about in shallow pools by the sea-side at low water, and finding itself sometimes a little out of its depth and just managing to scramble over the intermediate yard or so between it and safety--such a bird did not probably conceive the idea of swimming on the water and set itself to learn to do so, and then conceive the idea of webbed feet and set itself to get webbed feet. The bird found itself in some small difficulty, out of which it either saw, or at any rate found that it could extricate itself by striking out vigorously with its feet and extending its toes as far as ever it could; it thus began to learn the art of swimming and conceived the idea of swimming synchronously, or nearly so; or perhaps wishing to get over a yard or two of deep water, and trying to do so without being at the trouble of rising to fly, it would splash and struggle its way over the water, and thus practically swim, though without much perception of what it had been doing. Finding that no harm had come to it, the bird would do the same again, and again; it would thus presently lose fear, and would be able to act more calmly; then it would begin to find out that it could swim a little, and if its food lay much in the water so that it would be of great advantage to it to be able to alight and rest without being forced to return to land, it would begin to make a practice of swimming. It would now discover that it could swim the more easily according as its feet presented a more extended surface to the water; it would therefore keep its toes extended whenever it swam, and as far as in it lay, would make the most of whatever skin was already at the base of its toes. After very many generations it would become web-footed, if doing as above described should have been found continuously convenient, so that the bird should have continuously used the skin about its toes as much as possible in this direction.

For there is a margin in every organic structure (and perhaps more than we imagine in things inorganic also), which will admit of references, as it were, side notes, and glosses upon the original text. It is on this margin that we may err or wander--the greatness of a mistake depending rather upon the extent of the departure from the original text, than on the direction that the departure takes. A little error on the bad side is more pardonable, and less likely to hurt the organism than a too great departure upon the right one. This is a fundamental proposition in any true system of ethics, the question what is too much or too sudden being decided by much the same higgling as settles the price of butter in a country market, and being as invisible as the link which connects the last moment of desire with the first of power and performance, and with the material result achieved.

It is on this margin that the fulcrum is to be found, whereby we obtain the little purchase over our structure, that enables us to achieve great results if we use it steadily, with judgment, and with neither too little effort nor too much. It is by employing this that those who have a fancy to move their ears or toes without moving other organs learn to do so. There is a man at the Agricultural Hall now playing the violin with his toes, and playing it, as I am told, sufficiently well. The eye of the sailor, the wrist of the conjuror, the toe of the professional medium, are all found capable of development to an astonishing degree, even in a single lifetime; but in every case success has been attained by the simple process of making the best of whatever power a man has had at any given time, and by being on the look out to take advantage of accident, and even of misfortune. If a man would learn to paint, he must not theorize concerning art, nor think much what he would do beforehand, but he must do something--it does not matter what, except that it should be whatever at the moment will come handiest and easiest to him; and he must do that something as well as he can. This will presently open the door for something else, and a way will show itself which no conceivable amount of searching would have discovered, but which yet could never have been discovered by sitting still and taking no pains at all. "Dans l'animal," says Buffon, "il y a moins de jugement que de sentiment."[25]

It may appear as though this were blowing hot and cold with the same breath, inasmuch as I am insisting that important modifications of structure have been always purposive; and at the same time am denying that the creature modified has had any purpose in the greater part of all those actions which have at length modified both structure and instinct. Thus I say that a bird learns to swim without having any purpose of learning to swim before it set itself to make those movements which have resulted in its being able to do so. At the same time I maintain that it has only learned to swim by trying to swim, and this involves the very purpose which I have just denied. The reconciliation of these two apparently irreconcilable contentions must be found in the consideration that the bird was not the less trying to swim, merely because it did not know the name we have chosen to give to the art which it was trying to master, nor yet how great were the resources of that art. A person, who knew all about swimming, if from some bank he could watch our supposed bird's first attempt to scramble over a short space of deep water, would at once declare that the bird was trying to swim--if not actually swimming. Provided then that there is a very little perception of, and prescience concerning, the means whereby the next desired end may be attained, it matters not how little in advance that end may be of present desires or faculties; it is still reached through purpose, and must be called purposive. Again, no matter how many of these small steps be taken, nor how absolute was the want of purpose or prescience concerning any but the one being actually taken at any given moment, this does not bar the result from having been arrived at through design and purpose. If each one of the small steps is purposive the result is purposive, though there was never purpose extended over more than one, two, or perhaps at most three, steps at a time.

Returning to the art of painting for an example, are we to say that the proficiency which such a student as was supposed above will certainly attain, is not due to design, merely because it was not until he had already become three parts excellent that he knew the full purport of all that he had been doing? When he began he had but vague notions of what he would do. He had a wish to learn to represent nature, but the line into which he has settled down has probably proved very different from that which he proposed to himself originally. Because he has taken advantage of his accidents, is it, therefore, one whit the less true that his success is the result of his desires and his design? The 'Times' pointed out not long ago that the theory which now associates meteors and comets in the most unmistakable manner, was suggested by one accident, and confirmed by another. But the writer added well that "such accidents happen only to the zealous student of nature's secrets." In the same way the bird that is taking to the habit of swimming, and of making the most of whatever skin it already has between its toes, will have doubtless to thank accidents for no small part of its progress; but they will be such accidents as could never have happened to, or been taken advantage of by any creature which was not zealously trying to make the most of itself--and between such accidents as this, and design, the line is hard to draw; for if we go deep enough we shall find that most of our design resolves itself into as it were a shaking of the bag to see what will come out that will suit our purpose, and yet at the same time that most of our shaking of the bag resolves itself into a design that the bag shall contain only such and such things, or thereabouts.

Again, the fact that animals are no longer conscious of design and purpose in much that they do, but act unreflectingly, and as we sometimes say concerning ourselves "automatically" or "mechanically"--that they have no idea whatever of the steps whereby they have travelled to their present state, and show no sign of doubt about what must have been at one time the subject of all manner of doubts, difficulties, and discussions--that whatever sign of reflection they now exhibit is to be found only in case of some novel feature or difficulty presenting itself; these facts do not bar that the results achieved should be attributed to an inception in reason, design, and purpose, no matter how rapidly and as we call it instinctively, the creatures may now act.

For if we look closely at such an invention as the steam engine in its latest and most complicated developments, about which there can be no dispute but that they are achievements of reason, purpose, and design, we shall find them present us with examples of all those features the presence of which in the handiwork of animals is too often held to bar reason and purpose from having had any share therein.

Assuredly such men as the Marquis of Worcester and Captain Savery had very imperfect ideas as to the upshot of their own action. The simplest steam engine now in use in England is probably a marvel of ingenuity as compared with the highest development which appeared possible to these two great men, while our newest and most highly complicated engines would seem to them more like living beings than machines. Many, again, of the steps leading to the present development have been due to action which had but little heed of the steam engine, being the inventions of attendants whose desire was to save themselves the trouble of turning this or that cock, and who were indifferent to any other end than their own immediate convenience. No step in fact along the whole route was ever taken with much perception of what would be the next step after the one being taken at any given moment.

Nor do we find that an engine made after any old and well-known pattern is now made with much more consciousness of design than we can suppose a bird's nest to be built with. The greater number of the parts of any such engine, are made by the gross as it were like screws and nuts, which are turned out by machinery and in respect of which the labour of design is now no more felt than is the design of him who first invented the wheel. It is only when circumstances require any modification in the article to be manufactured that thought and design will come into play again; but I take it few will deny that if circumstances compel a bird either to give up a nest three-parts built altogether, or to make some trifling deviation from its ordinary practice, it will in nine cases out of ten make such deviation as shall show that it had thought the matter over, and had on the whole concluded to take such and such a course, that is to say, that it had reasoned and had acted with such purpose as its reason had dictated.

And I imagine that this is the utmost that anyone can claim even for man's own boasted powers. Set the man who has been accustomed to make engines of one type, to make engines of another type without any intermediate course of training or instruction, and he will make no better figure with his engines than a thrush would do if commanded by her mate to make a nest like a blackbird. It is vain then to contend that the ease and certainty with which an action is performed, even though it may have now become matter of such fixed habit that it cannot be suddenly and seriously modified without rendering the whole performance abortive, is any argument against that action having been an achievement of design and reason in respect of each one of the steps that have led to it; and if in respect of each one of the steps then as regards the entire action; for we see our own most reasoned actions become no less easy, unerring, automatic, and unconscious, than the actions which we call instinctive when they have been repeated a sufficient number of times.

This has been often pointed out, but I insisted upon it and developed it in 'Life and Habit,' more I believe than has been done hitherto, at the same time making it the key to many phenomena of growth and heredity which without such key seem explained by words rather than by any corresponding peace of mind in our ideas concerning them. Seeing that I dwelt much on the importance of bearing in mind the vanishing tendency of consciousness, volition, and memory upon their becoming intense, a tendency which no one after five minutes' reflection will venture to deny, some reviewers have imagined that I am advocating the same views as have been put forward by Von Hartmann under the title of 'the Philosophy of the Unconscious.' Unless, however, I am much mistaken, their opinion is without foundation. For so far as I can gather, Von Hartmann personifies the unconscious and makes it act and think--in fact deifies it--whereas I only infer a certain history for certain of our growths and actions in consequence of observing that often repeated actions come in time to be performed unconsciously. I cannot think I have done more than note a fact which all must acknowledge, and drawn from it an inference which may or may not be true, but which is at any rate perfectly intelligible, whereas if Von Hartmann's meaning is anything like what Mr. Sully says it is,[26] I can only say that it has not been given to me to form any definite conception whatever as to what that meaning may be. I am encouraged moreover to hope that I am not in the same condemnation with Von Hartmann--if, indeed, Von Hartmann is to be condemned, about which I know nothing--by the following extract from a German Review of 'Life and Habit.'

"Der erste dieser beiden Erklärungsversuche, ist eine wahre 'Philosophie des Unbewussten' nicht des Hartmann'schen Unbewussten welches hellsehend und wunderthätig von aussen in die natürliche Entwickelung der Organismen eingreift, sondern eines Unbewussten welches wie der Verfasser zeigt, in allen organischen Wesen anzunehmen unsere eigene Erfahrung und die Stufenfolge der Organismen von den Moneren und Amoeben bis zu den höchsten Pflanzen und Thieren und uns selbst aufwärts--uns gestattet, wenn nicht uns nöthigt. Der Gedankengang dieser neuen oder wenigstens in diesem Sinne wohl zum ersten Male consequent im Einzelnen durchgeführten Philosophie des Unbewussten ist, seinen Hauptzügen nach kurz angedeutet, folgender."[27]

Even here I am made to personify more than I like; I do not wish to say that the unconscious does this or that, but that when we have done this or that sufficiently often we do it unconsciously.

If the foregoing be granted, and it be admitted that the unconsciousness and seeming automatism with which any action may be performed is no bar to its having a foundation in memory, reason, and at one time consciously recognized effort--and this I believe to be the chief addition which I have ventured to make to the theory of Buffon and Dr. Erasmus Darwin--then the wideness of the difference between the Darwinism of eighty years ago and the Darwinism of to-day becomes immediately apparent, and it also becomes apparent, how important and interesting is the issue which is raised between them.

According to the older Darwinism the lungs are just as purposive as the corkscrew. They, no less than the corkscrew, are a piece of mechanism designed and gradually improved upon and perfected by an intelligent creature for the gratification of its own needs. True there are many important differences between mechanism which is part of the body, and mechanism which is no such part, but the differences are such as do not affect the fact that in each case the result, whether, for example, lungs or corkscrew, is due to desire, invention, and design.

And now I will ask one more question, which may seem, perhaps, to have but little importance, but which I find personally interesting. I have been told by a reviewer, of whom upon the whole I have little reason to complain, that the theory I put forward in 'Life and Habit,' and which I am now again insisting on, is pessimism--pure and simple. I have a very vague idea what pessimism means, but I should be sorry to believe that I am a pessimist. Which, I would ask, is the pessimist? He who sees love of beauty, design, steadfastness of purpose, intelligence, courage, and every quality to which success has assigned the name of "worth," as having drawn the pattern of every leaf and organ now and in all past time, or he who sees nothing in the world of nature but a chapter of accidents and of forces interacting blindly?


[24] 'Nat. Theol.,' ch. xxiii.

[25] 'Oiseaux,' vol. i. p. 5.

[26] 'Westminster Review,' vol. xlix. p. 124.

[27] Translation: "The first of these two attempts is a true 'philosophy of the unconscious,' not Hartmann's unconscious, which influences the natural evolution of organism from without as though by Providence and miracle, but of an unconscious, which, as the author shows, our own experience and the progressive succession of organisms from the monads and amoebæ up to the highest plants and animals, including ourselves, allows, if it does not compel us to assume [as obtaining] in all organic beings. This philosophy of the unconscious is new, or at any rate now for the first time carried out consequentially in detail; its main features, briefly stated are as follows."

Samuel Butler

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