Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 13


If we observed the resemblance between successive generations to be as close as that between distilled water and distilled water through all time, and if we observed that perfect unchangeableness in the action of living beings which we see in what we call chemical and mechanical combinations, we might indeed suspect that memory had as little place among the causes of their action as it can have in anything, and that each repetition, whether of a habit or the practice of art, or of an embryonic process in successive generations, was an original performance, for all that memory had to do with it. I submit, however, that in the case of the reproductive forms of life we see just so much variety, in spite of uniformity, as is consistent with a repetition involving not only a nearly perfect similarity in the agents and their circumstances, but also the little departure therefrom that is inevitably involved in the supposition that a memory of like presents as well as of like antecedents (as distinguished from a memory of like antecedents only) has played a part in their development--a cyclonic memory, if the expression may be pardoned.

There is life infinitely lower and more minute than any which our most powerful microscopes reveal to us, but let us leave this upon one side and begin with the amoeba. Let us suppose that this structureless morsel of protoplasm is, for all its structurelessness, composed of an infinite number of living molecules, each one of them with hopes and fears of its own, and all dwelling together like Tekke Turcomans, of whom we read that they live for plunder only, and that each man of them is entirely independent, acknowledging no constituted authority, but that some among them exercise a tacit and undefined influence over the others. Let us suppose these molecules capable of memory, both in their capacity as individuals, and as societies, and able to transmit their memories to their descendants, from the traditions of the dimmest past to the experiences of their own lifetime. Some of these societies will remain simple, as having had no history, but to the greater number unfamiliar, and therefore striking, incidents will from time to time occur, which, when they do not disturb memory so greatly as to kill, will leave their impression upon it. The body or society will remember these incidents, and be modified by them in its conduct, and therefore more or less in its internal arrangements, which will tend inevitably to specialisation. This memory of the most striking events of varied lifetimes I maintain, with Professor Hering, to be the differentiating cause, which, accumulated in countless generations, has led up from the amoeba to man. If there had been no such memory, the amoeba of one generation would have exactly resembled time amoeba of the preceding, and a perfect cycle would have been established; the modifying effects of an additional memory in each generation have made the cycle into a spiral, and into a spiral whose eccentricity, in the outset hardly perceptible, is becoming greater and greater with increasing longevity and more complex social and mechanical inventions.

We say that the chicken grows the horny tip to its beak with which it ultimately pecks its way out of its shell, because it remembers having grown it before, and the use it made of it. We say that it made it on the same principles as a man makes a spade or a hammer, that is to say, as the joint result both of desire and experience. When I say experience, I mean experience not only of what will be wanted, but also of the details of all the means that must be taken in order to effect this. Memory, therefore, is supposed to guide the chicken not only in respect of the main design, but in respect also of every atomic action, so to speak, which goes to make up the execution of this design. It is not only the suggestion of a plan which is due to memory, but, as Professor Hering has so well said, it is the binding power of memory which alone renders any consolidation or coherence of action possible, inasmuch as without this no action could have parts subordinate one to another, yet bearing upon a common end; no part of an action, great or small, could have reference to any other part, much less to a combination of all the parts; nothing, in fact, but ultimate atoms of actions could ever happen--these bearing the same relation to such an action, we will say, as a railway journey from London to Edinburgh as a single molecule of hydrogen to a gallon of water. If asked how it is that the chicken shows no sign of consciousness concerning this design, nor yet of the steps it is taking to carry it out, we reply that such unconsciousness is usual in all cases where an action, and the design which prompts it, have been repeated exceedingly often. If, again, we are asked how we account for the regularity with which each step is taken in its due order, we answer that this too is characteristic of actions that are done habitually--they being very rarely misplaced in respect of any part.

When I wrote "Life and Habit," I had arrived at the conclusion that memory was the most essential characteristic of life, and went so far as to say, "Life is that property of matter whereby it can remember--matter which can remember is living." I should perhaps have written, "Life is the being possessed of a memory--the life of a thing at any moment is the memories which at that moment it retains"; and I would modify the words that immediately follow, namely, "Matter which cannot remember is dead"; for they imply that there is such a thing as matter which cannot remember anything at all, and this on fuller consideration I do not believe to be the case; I can conceive of no matter which is not able to remember a little, and which is not living in respect of what it can remember. I do not see how action of any kind is conceivable without the supposition that every atom retains a memory of certain antecedents. I cannot, however, at this point, enter upon the reasons which have compelled me to this conclusion. Whether these would be deemed sufficient or no, at any rate we cannot believe that a system of self-reproducing associations should develop from the simplicity of the amoeba to the complexity of the human body without the presence of that memory which can alone account at once for the resemblances and the differences between successive generations, for the arising and the accumulation of divergences--for the tendency to differ and the tendency not to differ.

At parting, therefore, I would recommend the reader to see every atom in the universe as living and able to feel and to remember, but in a humble way. He must have life eternal, as well as matter eternal; and the life and the matter must be joined together inseparably as body and soul to one another. Thus he will see God everywhere, not as those who repeat phrases conventionally, but as people who would have their words taken according to their most natural and legitimate meaning; and he will feel that the main difference between him and many of those who oppose him lies in the fact that whereas both he and they use the same language, his opponents only half mean what they say, while he means it entirely.

The attempt to get a higher form of a life from a lower one is in accordance with our observation and experience. It is therefore proper to be believed. The attempt to get it from that which has absolutely no life is like trying to get something out of nothing. The millionth part of a farthing put out to interest at ten per cent, will in five hundred years become over a million pounds, and so long as we have any millionth of a millionth of the farthing to start with, our getting as many million pounds as we have a fancy for is only a question of time, but without the initial millionth of a millionth of a millionth part, we shall get no increment whatever. A little leaven will leaven the whole lump, but there must be SOME leaven.

I will here quote two passages from an article already quoted from on page 55 of this book. They run:-

"We are growing conscious that our earnest and most determined efforts to make motion produce sensation and volition have proved a failure, and now we want to rest a little in the opposite, much less laborious conjecture, and allow any kind of motion to start into existence, or at least to receive its specific direction from psychical sources; sensation and volition being for the purpose quietly insinuated into the constitution of the ultimately moving particles." [177a]


"In this light it can remain no longer surprising that we actually find motility and sensibility so intimately interblended in nature." [177b]

We should endeavour to see the so-called inorganic as living, in respect of the qualities it has in common with the organic, rather than the organic as non-living in respect of the qualities it has in common with the inorganic. True, it would be hard to place one's self on the same moral platform as a stone, but this is not necessary; it is enough that we should feel the stone to have a moral platform of its own, though that platform embraces little more than a profound respect for the laws of gravitation, chemical affinity, &c. As for the difficulty of conceiving a body as living that has not got a reproductive system--we should remember that neuter insects are living but are believed to have no reproductive system. Again, we should bear in mind that mere assimilation involves all the essentials of reproduction, and that both air and water possess this power in a very high degree. The essence of a reproductive system, then, is found low down in the scheme of nature.

At present our leading men of science are in this difficulty; on the one hand their experiments and their theories alike teach them that spontaneous generation ought not to be accepted; on the other, they must have an origin for the life of the living forms, which, by their own theory, have been evolved, and they can at present get this origin in no other way than by the Deus ex machina method, which they reject as unproved, or a spontaneous generation of living from non- living matter, which is no less foreign to their experience. As a general rule, they prefer the latter alternative. So Professor Tyndall, in his celebrated article (Nineteenth Century, November 1878), wrote:-

"It is generally conceded (and seems to be a necessary inference from the lessons of science) that SPONTANEOUS GENERATION MUST AT ONE TIME HAVE TAKEN PLACE" (italics mine).

No inference can well be more unnecessary or unscientific. I suppose spontaneous generation ceases to be objectionable if it was "only a very little one," and came off a long time ago in a foreign country. The proper inference is, that there is a low kind of livingness in every atom of matter. Life eternal is as inevitable a conclusion as matter eternal.

It should not be doubted that wherever there is vibration or motion there is life and memory, and that there is vibration and motion at all times in all things.

The reader who takes the above position will find that he can explain the entry of what he calls death among what he calls the living, whereas he could by no means introduce life into his system if he started without it. Death is deducible; life is not deducible. Death is a change of memories; it is not the destruction of all memory. It is as the liquidation of one company, each member of which will presently join a new one, and retain a trifle even of the old cancelled memory, by way of greater aptitude for working in concert with other molecules. This is why animals feed on grass and on each other, and cannot proselytise or convert the rude ground before it has been tutored in the first principles of the higher kinds of association.

Again, I would recommend the reader to beware of believing anything in this book unless he either likes it, or feels angry at being told it. If required belief in this or that makes a man angry, I suppose he should, as a general rule, swallow it whole then and there upon the spot, otherwise he may take it or leave it as he likes. I have not gone far for my facts, nor yet far from them; all on which I rest are as open to the reader as to me. If I have sometimes used hard terms, the probability is that I have not understood them, but have done so by a slip, as one who has caught a bad habit from the company he has been lately keeping. They should be skipped.

Do not let him be too much cast down by the bad language with which professional scientists obscure the issue, nor by their seeming to make it their business to fog us under the pretext of removing our difficulties. It is not the ratcatcher's interest to catch all the rats; and, as Handel observed so sensibly, "Every professional gentleman must do his best for to live." The art of some of our philosophers, however, is sufficiently transparent, and consists too often in saying "organism which must be classified among fishes," instead of "fish," [179a] and then proclaiming that they have "an ineradicable tendency to try to make things clear." [179b]

If another example is required, here is the following from an article than which I have seen few with which I more completely agree, or which have given me greater pleasure. If our men of science would take to writing in this way, we should be glad enough to follow them. The passage I refer to runs thus:-

"Professor Huxley speaks of a 'verbal fog by which the question at issue may be hidden'; is there no verbal fog in the statement that THE AETIOLOGY OF CRAYFISHES RESOLVES ITSELF INTO A GRADUAL EVOLUTION IN THE COURSE OF THE MESOSOIC AND SUBSEQUENT EPOCHS OF THE WORLD'S HISTORY OF THESE ANIMALS FROM A PRIMITIVE ASTACOMORPHOUS FORM? Would it be fog or light that would envelop the history of man if we said that the existence of man was explained by the hypothesis of his gradual evolution from a primitive anthropomorphous form? I should call this fog, not light." [180]

Especially let him mistrust those who are holding forth about protoplasm, and maintaining that this is the only living substance. Protoplasm may be, and perhaps is, the MOST living part of an organism, as the most capable of retaining vibrations, but this is the utmost that can be claimed for it.

Having mentioned protoplasm, I may ask the reader to note the breakdown of that school of philosophy which divided the ego from the non ego. The protoplasmists, on the one hand, are whittling away at the ego, till they have reduced it to a little jelly in certain parts of the body, and they will whittle away this too presently, if they go on as they are doing now.

Others, again, are so unifying the ego and the non ego, that with them there will soon be as little of the non ego left as there is of the ego with their opponents. Both, however, are so far agreed as that we know not where to draw the line between the two, and this renders nugatory any system which is founded upon a distinction between them.

The truth is, that all classification whatever, when we examine its raison d'etre closely, is found to be arbitrary--to depend on our sense of our own convenience, and not on any inherent distinction in the nature of the things themselves. Strictly speaking, there is only one thing and one action. The universe, or God, and the action of the universe as a whole.

Lastly, I may predict with some certainty that before long we shall find the original Darwinism of Dr. Erasmus Darwin (with an infusion of Professor Hering into the bargain) generally accepted instead of the neo-Darwinism of to-day, and that the variations whose accumulation results in species will be recognised as due to the wants and endeavours of the living forms in which they appear, instead of being ascribed to chance, or, in other words, to unknown causes, as by Mr. Charles Darwin's system. We shall have some idyllic young naturalist bringing up Dr. Erasmus Darwin's note on Trapa natans, [181a] and Lamarck's kindred passage on the descent of Ranunculus hederaceus from Ranunculus aquatilis [181b] as fresh discoveries, and be told, with much happy simplicity, that those animals and plants which have felt the need of such or such a structure have developed it, while those which have not wanted it have gone without it. Thus, it will be declared, every leaf we see around us, every structure of the minutest insect, will bear witness to the truth of the "great guess" of the greatest of naturalists concerning the memory of living matter.

I dare say the public will not object to this, and am very sure that none of the admirers of Mr. Charles Darwin or Mr. Wallace will protest against it; but it may be as well to point out that this was not the view of the matter taken by Mr. Wallace in 1858 when he and Mr. Darwin first came forward as preachers of natural selection. At that time Mr. Wallace saw clearly enough the difference between the theory of "natural selection" and that of Lamarck. He wrote:-

"The hypothesis of Lamarck--that progressive changes in species have been produced by the attempts of animals to increase the development of their own organs, and thus modify their structure and habits--has been repeatedly and easily refuted by all writers on the subject of varieties and species, . . . but the view here developed tenders such an hypothesis quite unnecessary. . . . The powerful retractile talons of the falcon and the cat tribes have not been produced or increased by the volition of those animals, neither did the giraffe acquire its long neck by desiring to reach the foliage of the more lofty shrubs, and constantly stretching its neck for this purpose, but because any varieties which occurred among its antitypes with a longer neck than usual AT ONCE SECURED A FRESH RANGE OF PASTURE OVER THE SAME GROUND AS THEIR SHORTER-NECKED COMPANIONS, AND ON THE FIRST SCARCITY OF FOOD WERE THEREBY ENABLED TO OUTLIVE THEM" (italics in original). [182a]

This is absolutely the neo-Darwinian doctrine, and a denial of the mainly fortuitous character of the variations in animal and vegetable forms cuts at its root. That Mr. Wallace, after years of reflection, still adhered to this view, is proved by his heading a reprint of the paragraph just quoted from [182b] with the words "Lamarck's hypothesis very different from that now advanced"; nor do any of his more recent works show that he has modified his opinion. It should be noted that Mr. Wallace does not call his work "Contributions to the Theory of Evolution," but to that of "Natural Selection."

Mr. Darwin, with characteristic caution, only commits himself to saying that Mr. Wallace has arrived at ALMOST (italics mine) the same general conclusions as he, Mr. Darwin, has done; [182c] but he still, as in 1859, declares that it would be "a serious error to suppose that the greater number of instincts have been acquired by habit in one generation, and then transmitted by inheritance to succeeding generations," [183a] and he still comprehensively condemns the "well- known doctrine of inherited habit, as advanced by Lamarck." [183b]

As for the statement in the passage quoted from Mr. Wallace, to the effect that Lamarck's hypothesis "has been repeatedly and easily refuted by all writers on the subject of varieties and species," it is a very surprising one. I have searched Evolution literature in vain for any refutation of the Erasmus Darwinian system (for this is what Lamarck's hypothesis really is) which need make the defenders of that system at all uneasy. The best attempt at an answer to Erasmus Darwin that has yet been made is "Paley's Natural Theology," which was throughout obviously written to meet Buffon and the "Zoonomia." It is the manner of theologians to say that such and such an objection "has been refuted over and over again," without at the same time telling us when and where; it is to be regretted that Mr. Wallace has here taken a leaf out of the theologians' book. His statement is one which will not pass muster with those whom public opinion is sure in the end to follow.

Did Mr. Herbert Spencer, for example, "repeatedly and easily refute" Lamarck's hypothesis in his brilliant article in the Leader, March 20, 1852? On the contrary, that article is expressly directed against those "who cavalierly reject the hypothesis of Lamarck and his followers." This article was written six years before the words last quoted from Mr. Wallace; how absolutely, however, does the word "cavalierly" apply to them!

Does Isidore Geoffroy, again, bear Mr. Wallace's assertion out better? In 1859--that is to say, but a short time after Mr. Wallace had written--he wrote as follows:-

"Such was the language which Lamarck heard during his protracted old age, saddened alike by the weight of years and blindness; this was what people did not hesitate to utter over his grave yet barely closed, and what indeed they are still saying--commonly too without any knowledge of what Lamarck maintained, but merely repeating at secondhand bad caricatures of his teaching.

"When will the time come when we may see Lamarck's theory discussed--and, I may as well at once say, refuted in some important points [184a]--with at any rate the respect due to one of the most illustrious masters of our science? And when will this theory, the hardihood of which has been greatly exaggerated, become freed from the interpretations and commentaries by the false light of which so many naturalists have formed their opinion concerning it? If its author is to be condemned, let it be, at any rate, not before he has been heard." [184b]

In 1873 M. Martin published his edition of Lamarck's "Philosophie Zoologique." He was still able to say, with, I believe, perfect truth, that Lamarck's theory has "never yet had the honour of being discussed seriously." [184c]

Professor Huxley in his article on Evolution is no less cavalier than Mr. Wallace. He writes:- [184d]

"Lamarck introduced the conception of the action of an animal on itself as a factor in producing modification."

[Lamarck did nothing of the kind. It was Buffon and Dr. Darwin who introduced this, but more especially Dr. Darwin.]

"But A LITTLE CONSIDERATION SHOWED" (italics mine) "that though Lamarck had seized what, as far as it goes, is a true cause of modification, it is a cause the actual effects of which are wholly inadequate to account for any considerable modification in animals, and which can have no influence whatever in the vegetable world, &c."

I should be very glad to come across some of the "little consideration" which will show this. I have searched for it far and wide, and have never been able to find it.

I think Professor Huxley has been exercising some of his ineradicable tendency to try to make things clear in the article on Evolution, already so often quoted from. We find him (p. 750) pooh-poohing Lamarck, yet on the next page he says, "How far 'natural selection' suffices for the production of species remains to be seen." And this when "natural selection" was already so nearly of age! Why, to those who know how to read between a philosopher's lines, the sentence comes to very nearly the same as a declaration that the writer has no great opinion of "natural selection." Professor Huxley continues, "Few can doubt that, if not the whole cause, it is a very important factor in that operation." A philosopher's words should be weighed carefully, and when Professor Huxley says "few can doubt," we must remember that he may be including himself among the few whom he considers to have the power of doubting on this matter. He does not say "few will," but "few can" doubt, as though it were only the enlightened who would have the power of doing so. Certainly "nature,"--for this is what "natural selection" comes to,--is rather an important factor in the operation, but we do not gain much by being told so. If, however, Professor Huxley neither believes in the origin of species, through sense of need on the part of animals themselves, nor yet in "natural selection," we should be glad to know what he does believe in.

The battle is one of greater importance than appears at first sight. It is a battle between teleology and non-teleology, between the purposiveness and the non-purposiveness of the organs in animal and vegetable bodies. According to Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and Paley, organs are purposive; according to Mr. Darwin and his followers, they are not purposive. But the main arguments against the system of Dr. Erasmus Darwin are arguments which, so far as they have any weight, tell against evolution generally. Now that these have been disposed of, and the prejudice against evolution has been overcome, it will be seen that there is nothing to be said against the system of Dr. Darwin and Lamarck which does not tell with far greater force against that of Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Wallace.


[177a] "The Unity of the Organic Individual," by Edward Montgomery. Mind, October 1880, p. 477.

[177b] Ibid., p. 483.

[179a] Professor Huxley, Encycl. Brit., 9th ed., art. Evolution, p. 750.

[179b] "Hume," by Professor Huxley, p. 45.

[180] "The Philosophy of Crayfishes," by the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Carlisle. Nineteenth Century for October 1880, p. 636.

[181a] Les Amours des Plantes, p. 360. Paris, 1800.

[181b] Philosophie Zoologique, tom. i. p. 231. Ed. M. Martin. Paris, 1873.

[182a] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. Williams & Norgate, 1858, p. 61.

[182b] Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, 2d ed., 1871, p. 41.

[182c] Origin of Species, p. 1, ed. 1872.

[183a] Origin of Species, 6th ed., p. 206. I ought in fairness to Mr. Darwin to say that he does not hold the error to be quite as serious as he once did. It is now "a serious error" only; in 1859 it was "the most serious error."--Origin of Species, 1st ed., p. 209.

[183b] Origin of Species, 1st ed., p. 242; 6th ed., p. 233.

[184a] I never could find what these particular points were.

[184b] Isidore Geoffroy, Hist. Nat. Gen., tom. ii. p. 407, 1859.

[184c] M. Martin's edition of the "Philosophie Zoologique" (Paris, 1873), Introduction, p. vi.

[184d] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed., p. 750.


       *      *      *      *      *      *      *       *       *       *       *       *

Samuel Butler

Sorry, no summary available yet.