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Chapter 12

Refutation--Memory at once a promoter and a disturber of uniformity of action and structure.


To meet the objections in the two foregoing chapters, I need do little more than show that the fact of certain often inherited diseases and developments, whether of youth or old age, being obviously not due to a memory on the part of offspring of like diseases and developments in the parents, does not militate against supposing that embryonic and youthful development generally is due to memory.

This is the main part of the objection; the rest resolves itself into an assertion that there is no evidence in support of instinct and embryonic development being due to memory, and a contention that the necessity of each particular moment in each particular case is sufficient to account for the facts without the introduction of memory.

I will deal with these two last points briefly first. As regards the evidence in support of the theory that instinct and growth are due to a rapid unconscious memory of past experiences and developments in the persons of the ancestors of the living form in which they appear, I must refer my readers to "Life and Habit," and to the translation of Professor Hering's lecture given in this volume. I will only repeat here that a chrysalis, we will say, is as much one and the same person with the chrysalis of its preceding generation, as this last is one and the same person with the egg or caterpillar from which it sprang. You cannot deny personal identity between two successive generations without sooner or later denying it during the successive stages in the single life of what we call one individual; nor can you admit personal identity through the stages of a long and varied life (embryonic and postnatal) without admitting it to endure through an endless series of generations.

The personal identity of successive generations being admitted, the possibility of the second of two generations remembering what happened to it in the first is obvious. The a priori objection, therefore, is removed, and the question becomes one of fact--does the offspring act as if it remembered?

The answer to this question is not only that it does so act, but that it is not possible to account for either its development or its early instinctive actions upon any other hypothesis than that of its remembering, and remembering exceedingly well.

The only alternative is to declare with Von Hartmann that a living being may display a vast and varied information concerning all manner of details, and be able to perform most intricate operations, independently of experience and practice. Once admit knowledge independent of experience, and farewell to sober sense and reason from that moment.

Firstly, then, we show that offspring has had every facility for remembering; secondly, that it shows every appearance of having remembered; thirdly, that no other hypothesis except memory can be brought forward, so as to account for the phenomena of instinct and heredity generally, which is not easily reducible to an absurdity. Beyond this we do not care to go, and must allow those to differ from us who require further evidence.

As regards the argument that the necessity of each moment will account for likeness of result, without there being any need for introducing memory, I admit that likeness of consequents is due to likeness of antecedents, and I grant this will hold as good with embryos as with oxygen and hydrogen gas; what will cover the one will cover the other, for time writs of the laws common to all matter run within the womb as freely as elsewhere; but admitting that there are combinations into which living beings enter with a faculty called memory which has its effect upon their conduct, and admitting that such combinations are from time to time repeated (as we observe in the case of a practised performer playing a piece of music which he has committed to memory), then I maintain that though, indeed, the likeness of one performance to its immediate predecessor is due to likeness of the combinations immediately preceding the two performances, yet memory plays so important a part in both these combinations as to make it a distinguishing feature in them, and therefore proper to be insisted upon. We do not, for example, say that Herr Joachim played such and such a sonata without the music, because he was such and such an arrangement of matter in such and such circumstances, resembling those under which he played without music on some past occasion. This goes without saying; we say only that he played the music by heart or by memory, as he had often played it before.

To the objector that a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis not because it remembers and takes the action taken by its fathers and mothers in due course before it, but because when matter is in such a physical and mental state as to be called caterpillar, it must perforce assume presently such another physical and mental state as to be called chrysalis, and that therefore there is no memory in the case--to this objector I rejoin that the offspring caterpillar would not have become so like the parent as to make the next or chrysalis stage a matter of necessity, unless both parent and offspring had been influenced by something that we usually call memory. For it is this very possession of a common memory which has guided the offspring into the path taken by, and hence to a virtually same condition with, the parent, and which guided the parent in its turn to a state virtually identical with a corresponding state in the existence of its own parent. To memory, therefore, the most prominent place in the transaction is assigned rightly.

To deny that will guided by memory has anything to do with the development of embryos seems like denying that a desire to obstruct has anything to do with the recent conduct of certain members in the House of Commons. What should we think of one who said that the action of these gentlemen had nothing to do with a desire to embarrass the Government, but was simply the necessary outcome of the chemical and mechanical forces at work, which being such and such, the action which we see is inevitable, and has therefore nothing to do with wilful obstruction? We should answer that there was doubtless a great deal of chemical and mechanical action in the matter; perhaps, for aught we knew or cared, it was all chemical and mechanical; but if so, then a desire to obstruct parliamentary business is involved in certain kinds of chemical and mechanical action, and that the kinds involving this had preceded the recent proceedings of the members in question. If asked to prove this, we can get no further than that such action as has been taken has never yet been seen except as following after and in consequence of a desire to obstruct; that this is our nomenclature, and that we can no more be expected to change it than to change our mother tongue at the bidding of a foreigner.

A little reflection will convince the reader that he will be unable to deny will and memory to the embryo without at the same time denying their existence everywhere, and maintaining that they have no place in the acquisition of a habit, nor indeed in any human action. He will feel that the actions, and the relation of one action to another which he observes in embryos is such as is never seen except in association with and as a consequence of will and memory. He will therefore say that it is due to will and memory. To say that these are the necessary outcome of certain antecedents is not to destroy them: granted that they are--a man does not cease to be a man when we reflect that he has had a father and mother, nor do will and memory cease to be will and memory on the ground that they cannot come causeless. They are manifest minute by minute to the perception of all sane people, and this tribunal, though not infallible, is nevertheless our ultimate court of appeal--the final arbitrator in all disputed cases.

We must remember that there is no action, however original or peculiar, which is not in respect of far the greater number of its details founded upon memory. If a desperate man blows his brains out--an action which he can do once in a lifetime only, and which none of his ancestors can have done before leaving offspring--still nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of the movements necessary to achieve his end consist of habitual movements--movements, that is to say, which were once difficult, but which have been practised and practised by the help of memory until they are now performed automatically. We can no more have an action than a creative effort of the imagination cut off from memory. Ideas and actions seem almost to resemble matter and force in respect of the impossibility of originating or destroying them; nearly all that are, are memories of other ideas and actions, transmitted but not created, disappearing but not perishing.

It appears, then, that when in Chapter X. we supposed the clerk who wanted his dinner to forget on a second day the action he had taken the day before, we still, without perhaps perceiving it, supposed him to be guided by memory in all the details of his action, such as his taking down his hat and going out into the street. We could not, indeed, deprive him of all memory without absolutely paralysing his action.

Nevertheless new ideas, new faiths, and new actions do in the course of time come about, the living expressions of which we may see in the new forms of life which from time to time have arisen and are still arising, and in the increase of our own knowledge and mechanical inventions. But it is only a very little new that is added at a time, and that little is generally due to the desire to attain an end which cannot be attained by any of the means for which there exists a perceived precedent in the memory. When this is the case, either the memory is further ransacked for any forgotten shreds of details, a combination of which may serve the desired purpose; or action is taken in the dark, which sometimes succeeds and becomes a fertile source of further combinations; or we are brought to a dead stop. All action is random in respect of any of the minute actions which compose it that are not done in consequence of memory, real or supposed. So that random, or action taken in the dark, or illusion, lies at the very root of progress.

I will now consider the objection that the phenomena of instinct and embryonic development ought not to be ascribed to memory, inasmuch as certain other phenomena of heredity, such as gout, cannot be ascribed to it.

Those who object in this way forget that our actions fall into two main classes: those which we have often repeated before by means of a regular series of subordinate actions beginning and ending at a certain tolerably well-defined point--as when Herr Joachim plays a sonata in public, or when we dress or undress ourselves; and actions the details of which are indeed guided by memory, but which in their general scope and purpose are new--as when we are being married or presented at court.

At each point in any action of the first of the two kinds above referred to there is a memory (conscious or unconscious according to the less or greater number of times the action has been repeated), not only of the steps in the present and previous performances which have led up to the particular point that may be selected, but also of the particular point itself; there is, therefore, at each point in a habitual performance a memory at once of like antecedents and of a like present.

If the memory, whether of the antecedent or the present, were absolutely perfect; if the vibration (according to Professor Hering) on each repetition existed in its full original strength and without having been interfered with by any other vibration; and if, again, the new wave running into it from exterior objects on each repetition of the action were absolutely identical in character with the wave that ran in upon the last occasion, then there would be no change in the action and no modification or improvement could take place. For though indeed the latest performance would always have one memory more than the latest but one to guide it, yet the memories being identical, it would not matter how many or how few they were.

On any repetition, however, the circumstances, external or internal, or both, never are absolutely identical: there is some slight variation in each individual case, and some part of this variation is remembered, with approbation or disapprobation as the case may be.

The fact, therefore, that on each repetition of the action there is one memory more than on the last but one, and that this memory is slightly different from its predecessor, is seen to be an inherent and, ex hypothesi, necessarily disturbing factor in all habitual action--and the life of an organism should be regarded as the habitual action of a single individual, namely, of the organism itself, and of its ancestors. This is the key to accumulation of improvement, whether in the arts which we assiduously practise during our single life, or in the structures and instincts of successive generations. The memory does not complete a true circle, but is, as it were, a spiral slightly divergent therefrom. It is no longer a perfectly circulating decimal. Where, on the other hand, there is no memory of a like present, where, in fact, the memory is not, so to speak, spiral, there is no accumulation of improvement. The effect of any variation is not transmitted, and is not thus pregnant of still further change.

As regards the second of the two classes of actions above referred to--those, namely, which are not recurrent or habitual, AND AT NO POINT OF WHICH IS THERE A MEMORY OF A PAST PRESENT LIKE THE ONE WHICH IS PRESENT NOW--there will have been no accumulation of strong and well-knit memory as regards the action as a whole, but action, if taken at all, will be taken upon disjointed fragments of individual actions (our own and those of other people) pieced together with a result more or less satisfactory according to circumstances.

But it does not follow that the action of two people who have had tolerably similar antecedents and are placed in tolerably similar circumstances should be more unlike each other in this second case than in the first. On the contrary, nothing is more common than to observe the same kind of people making the same kind of mistake when placed for the first time in the same kind of new circumstances. I did not say that there would be no sameness of action without memory of a like present. There may be sameness of action proceeding from a memory, conscious or unconscious, of like antecedents, and A PRESENCE ONLY OF LIKE PRESENTS WITHOUT RECOLLECTION OF THE SAME.

The sameness of action of like persons placed under like circumstances for the first time, resembles the sameness of action of inorganic matter under the same combinations. Let us for the moment suppose what we call non-living substances to be capable of remembering their antecedents, and that the changes they undergo are the expressions of their recollections. Then I admit, of course, that there is not memory in any cream, we will say, that is about to be churned of the cream of the preceding week, but the common absence of such memory from each week's cream is an element of sameness between the two. And though no cream can remember having been churned before, yet all cream in all time has had nearly identical antecedents, and has therefore nearly the same memories, and nearly the same proclivities. Thus, in fact, the cream of one week is as truly the same as the cream of another week from the same cow, pasture, &c., as anything is ever the same with anything; for the having been subjected to like antecedents engenders the closest similarity that we can conceive of, if the substances were like to start with.

The manifest absence of any connecting memory (or memory of like presents) from certain of the phenomena of heredity, such as, for example, the diseases of old age, is now seen to be no valid reason for saying that such other and far more numerous and important phenomena as those of embryonic development are not phenomena of memory. Growth and the diseases of old age do indeed, at first sight, appear to stand on the same footing, but reflection shows us that the question whether a certain result is due to memory or no must be settled not by showing that combinations into which memory does not certainly enter may yet generate like results, and therefore considering the memory theory disposed of, but by the evidence we may be able to adduce in support of the fact that the second agent has actually remembered the conduct of the first, inasmuch as he cannot be supposed able to do what it is plain he can do, except under the guidance of memory or experience, and can also be shown to have had every opportunity of remembering. When either of these tests fails, similarity of action on the part of two agents need not be connected with memory of a like present as well as of like antecedents, but must, or at any rate may, be referred to memory of like antecedents only.

Returning to a parenthesis a few pages back, in which I said that consciousness of memory would be less or greater according to the greater or fewer number of times that the act had been repeated, it may be observed as a corollary to this, that the less consciousness of memory the greater the uniformity of action, and vice versa. For the less consciousness involves the memory's being more perfect, through a larger number (generally) of repetitions of the act that is remembered; there is therefore a less proportionate difference in respect of the number of recollections of this particular act between the most recent actor and the most recent but one. This is why very old civilisations, as those of many insects, and the greater number of now living organisms, appear to the eye not to change at all.

For example, if an action has been performed only ten times, we will say by A, B, C, &c., who are similar in all respects, except that A acts without recollection, B with recollection of A's action, C with recollection of both B's and A's, while J remembers the course taken by A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, and I--the possession of a memory by B will indeed so change his action, as compared with A's, that it may well be hardly recognisable. We saw this in our example of the clerk who asked the policeman the way to the eating-house on one day, but did not ask him the next, because he remembered; but C's action will not be so different from B's as B's from A's, for though C will act with a memory of two occasions on which the action has been performed, while B recollects only the original performance by A, yet B and C both act with the guidance of a memory and experience of some kind, while A acted without any. Thus the clerk referred to in Chapter X. will act on the third day much as he acted on the second-- that is to say, he will see the policeman at the corner of the street, but will not question him.

When the action is repeated by J for the tenth time, the difference between J's repetition of it and I's will be due solely to the difference between a recollection of nine past performances by J against only eight by I, and this is so much proportionately less than the difference between a recollection of two performances and of only one, that a less modification of action should be expected. At the same time consciousness concerning an action repeated for the tenth time should be less acute than on the first repetition. Memory, therefore, though tending to disturb similarity of action less and less continually, must always cause some disturbance. At the same time the possession of a memory on the successive repetitions of an action after the first, and, perhaps, the first two or three, during which the recollection may be supposed still imperfect, will tend to ensure uniformity, for it will be one of the elements of sameness in the agents--they both acting by the light of experience and memory.

During the embryonic stages and in childhood we are almost entirely under the guidance of a practised and powerful memory of circumstances which have been often repeated, not only in detail and piecemeal, but as a whole, and under many slightly varying conditions; thus the performance has become well averaged and matured in its arrangements, so as to meet all ordinary emergencies. We therefore act with great unconsciousness and vary our performances little. Babies are much more alike than persons of middle age.

Up to the average age at which our ancestors have had children during many generations, we are still guided in great measure by memory; but the variations in external circumstances begin to make themselves perceptible in our characters. In middle life we live more and more continually upon the piecing together of details of memory drawn from our personal experience, that is to say, upon the memory of our own antecedents; and this resembles the kind of memory we hypothetically attached to cream a little time ago. It is not surprising, then, that a son who has inherited his father's tastes and constitution, and who lives much as his father had done, should make the same mistakes as his father did when he reaches his father's age--we will say of seventy--though he cannot possibly remember his father's having made the mistakes. It were to be wished we could, for then we might know better how to avoid gout, cancer, or what not. And it is to be noticed that the developments of old age are generally things we should be glad enough to avoid if we knew how to do so.


Samuel Butler

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