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Chapter 10

Recapitulation and statement of an objection.


The true theory of unconscious action, then, is that of Professor Hering, from whose lecture it is no strained conclusion to gather that he holds the action of all living beings, from the moment of their conception to that of their fullest development, to be founded in volition and design, though these have been so long lost sight of that the work is now carried on, as it were, departmentally and in due course according to an official routine which can hardly now be departed from.

This involves the older "Darwinism" and the theory of Lamarck, according to which the modification of living forms has been effected mainly through the needs of the living forms themselves, which vary with varying conditions, the survival of the fittest (which, as I see Mr. H. B. Baildon has just said, "sometimes comes to mean merely the survival of the survivors" [146]) being taken almost as a matter of course. According to this view of evolution, there is a remarkable analogy between the development of living organs or tools and that of those organs or tools external to the body which has been so rapid during the last few thousand years.

Animals and plants, according to Professor Hering, are guided throughout their development, and preserve the due order in each step which they take, through memory of the course they took on past occasions when in the persons of their ancestors. I am afraid I have already too often said that if this memory remains for long periods together latent and without effect, it is because the undulations of the molecular substance of the body which are its supposed explanation are during these periods too feeble to generate action, until they are augmented in force through an accession of suitable undulations issuing from exterior objects; or, in other words, until recollection is stimulated by a return of the associated ideas. On this the eternal agitation becomes so much enhanced, that equilibrium is visibly disturbed, and the action ensues which is proper to the vibration of the particular substance under the particular conditions. This, at least, is what I suppose Professor Hering to intend.

Leaving the explanation of memory on one side, and confining ourselves to the fact of memory only, a caterpillar on being just hatched is supposed, according to this theory, to lose its memory of the time it was in the egg, and to be stimulated by an intense but unconscious recollection of the action taken by its ancestors when they were first hatched. It is guided in the course it takes by the experience it can thus command. Each step it takes recalls a new recollection, and thus it goes through its development as a performer performs a piece of music, each bar leading his recollection to the bar that should next follow.

In "Life and Habit" will be found examples of the manner in which this view solves a number of difficulties for the explanation of which the leading men of science express themselves at a loss. The following from Professor Huxley's recent work upon the crayfish may serve for an example. Professor Huxley writes:-

"It is a widely received notion that the energies of living matter have a tendency to decline and finally disappear, and that the death of the body as a whole is a necessary correlate of its life. That all living beings sooner or later perish needs no demonstration, but it would be difficult to find satisfactory grounds for the belief that they needs must do so. The analogy of a machine, that sooner or later must be brought to a standstill by the wear and tear of its parts, does not hold, inasmuch as the animal mechanism is continually renewed and repaired; and though it is true that individual components of the body are constantly dying, yet their places are taken by vigorous successors. A city remains notwithstanding the constant death-rate of its inhabitants; and such an organism as a crayfish is only a corporate unity, made up of innumerable partially independent individualities."--The Crayfish, p. 127.

Surely the theory which I have indicated above makes the reason plain why no organism can permanently outlive its experience of past lives. The death of such a body corporate as the crayfish is due to the social condition becoming more complex than there is memory of past experience to deal with. Hence social disruption, insubordination, and decay. The crayfish dies as a state dies, and all states that we have heard of die sooner or later. There are some savages who have not yet arrived at the conception that death is the necessary end of all living beings, and who consider even the gentlest death from old age as violent and abnormal; so Professor Huxley seems to find a difficulty in seeing that though a city commonly outlives many generations of its citizens, yet cities and states are in the end no less mortal than individuals. "The city," he says, "remains." Yes, but not for ever. When Professor Huxley can find a city that will last for ever, he may wonder that a crayfish does not last for ever.

I have already here and elsewhere said all that I can yet bring forward in support of Professor Hering's theory; it now remains for me to meet the most troublesome objection to it that I have been able to think of--an objection which I had before me when I wrote "Life and Habit," but which then as now I believe to be unsound. Seeing, however, as I have pointed out at the end of the preceding chapter, that Von Hartmann has touched upon it, and being aware that a plausible case can be made out for it, I will state it and refute it here. When I say refute it, I do not mean that I shall have done with it--for it is plain that it opens up a vaster question in the relations between the so-called organic and inorganic worlds--but that I will refute the supposition that it any way militates against Professor Hering's theory.

Why, it may be asked, should we go out of our way to invent unconscious memory--the existence of which must at the best remain an inference [149]--when the observed fact that like antecedents are invariably followed by like consequents should be sufficient for our purpose? Why should the fact that a given kind of chrysalis in a given condition will always become a butterfly within a certain time be connected with memory, when it is not pretended that memory has anything to do with the invariableness with which oxygen and hydrogen when mixed in certain proportions make water?

We assume confidently that if a drop of water were decomposed into its component parts, and if these were brought together again, and again decomposed and again brought together any number of times over, the results would be invariably the same, whether decomposition or combination, yet no one will refer the invariableness of the action during each repetition, to recollection by the gaseous molecules of the course taken when the process was last repeated. On the contrary, we are assured that molecules in some distant part of the world, which had never entered into such and such a known combination themselves, nor held concert with other molecules that had been so combined, and which, therefore, could have had no experience and no memory, would none the less act upon one another in that one way in which other like combinations of atoms have acted under like circumstances, as readily as though they had been combined and separated and recombined again a hundred or a hundred thousand times. It is this assumption, tacitly made by every man, beast, and plant in the universe, throughout all time and in every action of their lives, that has made any action possible, lying, as it does, at the root of all experience.

As we admit of no doubt concerning the main result, so we do not suppose an alternative to lie before any atom of any molecule at any moment during the process of their combination. This process is, in all probability, an exceedingly complicated one, involving a multitude of actions and subordinate processes, which follow one upon the other, and each one of which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, though they all come to pass in what appears to be an instant of time. Yet at no point do we conceive of any atom as swerving ever such a little to right or left of a determined course, but invest each one of them with so much of the divine attributes as that with it there shall be no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

We attribute this regularity of action to what we call the necessity of things, as determined by the nature of the atoms and the circumstances in which they are placed. We say that only one proximate result can ever arise from any given combination. If, then, so great uniformity of action as nothing can exceed is manifested by atoms to which no one will impute memory, why this desire for memory, as though it were the only way of accounting for regularity of action in living beings? Sameness of action may be seen abundantly where there is no room for anything that we can consistently call memory. In these cases we say that it is due to sameness of substance in same circumstances.

The most cursory reflection upon our actions will show us that it is no more possible for living action to have more than one set of proximate consequents at any given time than for oxygen and hydrogen when mixed in the proportions proper for the formation of water. Why, then, not recognise this fact, and ascribe repeated similarity of living action to the reproduction of the necessary antecedents, with no more sense of connection between the steps in the action, or memory of similar action taken before, than we suppose on the part of oxygen and hydrogen molecules between the several occasions on which they may have been disunited and reunited?

A boy catches the measles not because he remembers having caught them in the persons of his father and mother, but because he is a fit soil for a certain kind of seed to grow upon. In like manner he should be said to grow his nose because he is a fit combination for a nose to spring from. Dr. X---'s father died of angina pectoris at the age of forty-nine; so did Dr. X---. Can it be pretended that Dr. X--- remembered having died of angina pectoris at the age of forty-nine when in the person of his father, and accordingly, when he came to be forty-nine years old himself, died also? For this to hold, Dr. X--- 's father must have begotten him after he was dead; for the son could not remember the father's death before it happened.

As for the diseases of old age, so very commonly inherited, they are developed for the most part not only long after the average age of reproduction, but at a time when no appreciable amount of memory of any previous existence can remain; for a man will not have many male ancestors who become parents at over sixty years old, nor female ancestors who did so at over forty. By our own showing, therefore, recollection can have nothing to do with the matter. Yet who can doubt that gout is due to inheritance as much as eyes and noses? In what respects do the two things differ so that we should refer the inheritance of eyes and noses to memory, while denying any connection between memory and gout? We may have a ghost of a pretence for saying that a man grew a nose by rote, or even that he catches the measles or whooping-cough by rote during his boyhood; but do we mean to say that he develops the gout by rote in his old age if he comes of a gouty family? If, then, rote and red-tape have nothing to do with the one, why should they with the other?

Remember also the cases in which aged females develop male characteristics. Here are growths, often of not inconsiderable extent, which make their appearance during the decay of the body, and grow with greater and greater vigour in the extreme of old age, and even for days after death itself. It can hardly be doubted that an especial tendency to develop these characteristics runs as an inheritance in certain families; here then is perhaps the best case that can be found of a development strictly inherited, but having clearly nothing whatever to do with memory. Why should not all development stand upon the same footing?

A friend who had been arguing with me for some time as above, concluded with the following words:-

"If you cannot be content with the similar action of similar substances (living or non-living) under similar circumstances--if you cannot accept this as an ultimate fact, but consider it necessary to connect repetition of similar action with memory before you can rest in it and be thankful--be consistent, and introduce this memory which you find so necessary into the inorganic world also. Either say that a chrysalis becomes a butterfly because it is the thing that it is, and, being that kind of thing, must act in such and such a manner and in such a manner only, so that the act of one generation has no more to do with the act of the next than the fact of cream being churned into butter in a dairy one day has to do with other cream being churnable into butter in the following week--either say this, or else develop some mental condition--which I have no doubt you will be very well able to do if you feel the want of it--in which you can make out a case for saying that oxygen and hydrogen on being brought together, and cream on being churned, are in some way acquainted with, and mindful of, action taken by other cream and other oxygen and hydrogen on past occasions."

I felt inclined to reply that my friend need not twit me with being able to develop a mental organism if I felt the need of it, for his own ingenious attack on my position, and indeed every action of his life was but an example of this omnipresent principle.

When he was gone, however, I thought over what he had been saying. I endeavoured to see how far I could get on without volition and memory, and reasoned as follows:- A repetition of like antecedents will be certainly followed by a repetition of like consequents, whether the agents be men and women or chemical substances. "If there be two cowards perfectly similar in every respect, and if they be subjected in a perfectly similar way to two terrifying agents, which are themselves perfectly similar, there are few who will not expect a perfect similarity in the running away, even though ten thousand years intervene between the original combination and its repetition." [153] Here certainly there is no coming into play of memory, more than in the pan of cream on two successive churning days, yet the action is similar.

A clerk in an office has an hour in the middle of the day for dinner. About half-past twelve he begins to feel hungry; at once he takes down his hat and leaves the office. He does not yet know the neighbourhood, and on getting down into the street asks a policeman at the corner which is the best eating-house within easy distance. The policeman tells him of three houses, one of which is a little farther off than the other two, but is cheaper. Money being a greater object to him than time, the clerk decides on going to the cheaper house. He goes, is satisfied, and returns.

Next day he wants his dinner at the same hour, and--it will be said--remembering his satisfaction of yesterday, will go to the same place as before. But what has his memory to do with it? Suppose him to have entirely forgotten all the circumstances of the preceding day from the moment of his beginning to feel hungry onward, though in other respects sound in mind and body, and unchanged generally. At half-past twelve he would begin to be hungry; but his beginning to be hungry cannot be connected with his remembering having begun to be hungry yesterday. He would begin to be hungry just as much whether he remembered or no. At one o'clock he again takes down his hat and leaves the office, not because he remembers having done so yesterday, but because he wants his hat to go out with. Being again in the street, and again ignorant of the neighbourhood (for he remembers nothing of yesterday), he sees the same policeman at the corner of the street, and asks him the same question as before; the policeman gives him the same answer, and money being still an object to him, the cheapest eating-house is again selected; he goes there, finds the same menu, makes the same choice for the same reasons, eats, is satisfied, and returns.

What similarity of action can be greater than this, and at the same time more incontrovertible? But it has nothing to do with memory; on the contrary, it is just because the clerk has no memory that his action of the second day so exactly resembles that of the first. As long as he has no power of recollecting, he will day after day repeat the same actions in exactly the same way, until some external circumstances, such as his being sent away, modify the situation. Till this or some other modification occurs, he will day after day go down into the street without knowing where to go; day after day he will see the same policeman at the corner of the same street, and (for we may as well suppose that the policeman has no memory too) he will ask and be answered, and ask and be answered, till he and the policeman die of old age. This similarity of action is plainly due to that--whatever it is--which ensures that like persons or things when placed in like circumstances shall behave in like manner.

Allow the clerk ever such a little memory, and the similarity of action will disappear; for the fact of remembering what happened to him on the first day he went out in search of dinner will be a modification in him in regard to his then condition when he next goes out to get his dinner. He had no such memory on the first day, and he has upon the second. Some modification of action must ensue upon this modification of the actor, and this is immediately observable. He wants his dinner, indeed, goes down into the street, and sees the policeman as yesterday, but he does not ask the policeman; he remembers what the policeman told him and what he did, and therefore goes straight to the eating-house without wasting time: nor does he dine off the same dish two days running, for he remembers what he had yesterday and likes variety. If, then, similarity of action is rather hindered than promoted by memory, why introduce it into such cases as the repetition of the embryonic processes by successive generations? The embryos of a well-fixed breed, such as the goose, are almost as much alike as water is to water, and by consequence one goose comes to be almost as like another as water to water. Why should it not be supposed to become so upon the same grounds--namely, that it is made of the same stuffs, and put together in like proportions in the same manner?


Footnotes:

[146] The Spirit of Nature. J. A. Churchill & Co., 1880, p. 39.

[149] I have put these words into the mouth of my supposed objector, and shall put others like them, because they are characteristic; but nothing can become so well known as to escape being an inference.

[153] Erewhon, chap. xxiii.


Samuel Butler

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