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Chapter 2

How I came to write "Life and Habit," and the circumstances of its completion.


It was impossible, however, for Mr. Darwin's readers to leave the matter as Mr. Darwin had left it. We wanted to know whence came that germ or those germs of life which, if Mr. Darwin was right, were once the world's only inhabitants. They could hardly have come hither from some other world; they could not in their wet, cold, slimy state have travelled through the dry ethereal medium which we call space, and yet remained alive. If they travelled slowly, they would die; if fast, they would catch fire, as meteors do on entering the earth's atmosphere. The idea, again, of their having been created by a quasi-anthropomorphic being out of the matter upon the earth was at variance with the whole spirit of evolution, which indicated that no such being could exist except as himself the result, and not the cause, of evolution. Having got back from ourselves to the monad, we were suddenly to begin again with something which was either unthinkable, or was only ourselves again upon a larger scale--to return to the same point as that from which we had started, only made harder for us to stand upon.

There was only one other conception possible, namely, that the germs had been developed in the course of time from some thing or things that were not what we called living at all; that they had grown up, in fact, out of the material substances and forces of the world in some manner more or less analogous to that in which man had been developed from themselves.

I first asked myself whether life might not, after all, resolve itself into the complexity of arrangement of an inconceivably intricate mechanism. Kittens think our shoe-strings are alive when they see us lacing them, because they see the tag at the end jump about without understanding all the ins and outs of how it comes to do so. "Of course," they argue, "if we cannot understand how a thing comes to move, it must move of itself, for there can be no motion beyond our comprehension but what is spontaneous; if the motion is spontaneous, the thing moving must he alive, for nothing can move of itself or without our understanding why unless it is alive. Everything that is alive and not too large can be tortured, and perhaps eaten; let us therefore spring upon the tag" and they spring upon it. Cats are above this; yet give the cat something which presents a few more of those appearances which she is accustomed to see whenever she sees life, and she will fall as easy a prey to the power which association exercises over all that lives as the kitten itself. Show her a toy-mouse that can run a few yards after being wound up; the form, colour, and action of a mouse being here, there is no good cat which will not conclude that so many of the appearances of mousehood could not be present at the same time without the presence also of the remainder. She will, therefore, spring upon the toy as eagerly as the kitten upon the tag.

Suppose the toy more complex still, so that it might run a few yards, stop, and run on again without an additional winding up; and suppose it so constructed that it could imitate eating and drinking, and could make as though the mouse were cleaning its face with its paws. Should we not at first be taken in ourselves, and assume the presence of the remaining facts of life, though in reality they were not there? Query, therefore, whether a machine so complex as to be prepared with a corresponding manner of action for each one of the successive emergencies of life as it arose, would not take us in for good and all, and look so much as if it were alive that, whether we liked it or not, we should be compelled to think it and call it so; and whether the being alive was not simply the being an exceedingly complicated machine, whose parts were set in motion by the action upon them of exterior circumstances; whether, in fact, man was not a kind of toy-mouse in the shape of a man, only capable of going for seventy or eighty years, instead of half as many seconds, and as much more versatile as he is more durable? Of course I had an uneasy feeling that if I thus made all plants and men into machines, these machines must have what all other machines have if they are machines at all--a designer, and some one to wind them up and work them; but I thought this might wait for the present, and was perfectly ready then, as now, to accept a designer from without, if the facts upon examination rendered such a belief reasonable.

If, then, men were not really alive after all, but were only machines of so complicated a make that it was less trouble to us to cut the difficulty and say that that kind of mechanism was "being alive," why should not machines ultimately become as complicated as we are, or at any rate complicated enough to be called living, and to be indeed as living as it was in the nature of anything at all to be? If it was only a case of their becoming more complicated, we were certainly doing our best to make them so.

I do not suppose I at that time saw that this view comes to much the same as denying that there are such qualities as life and consciousness at all, and that this, again, works round to the assertion of their omnipresence in every molecule of matter, inasmuch as it destroys the separation between the organic and inorganic, and maintains that whatever the organic is the inorganic is also. Deny it in theory as much as we please, we shall still always feel that an organic body, unless dead, is living and conscious to a greater or less degree. Therefore, if we once break down the wall of partition between the organic and inorganic, the inorganic must be living and conscious also, up to a certain point.

I have been at work on this subject now for nearly twenty years, what I have published being only a small part of what I have written and destroyed. I cannot, therefore, remember exactly how I stood in 1863. Nor can I pretend to see far into the matter even now; for when I think of life, I find it so difficult, that I take refuge in death or mechanism; and when I think of death or mechanism, I find it so inconceivable, that it is easier to call it life again. The only thing of which I am sure is, that the distinction between the organic and inorganic is arbitrary; that it is more coherent with our other ideas, and therefore more acceptable, to start with every molecule as a living thing, and then deduce death as the breaking up of an association or corporation, than to start with inanimate molecules and smuggle life into them; and that, therefore, what we call the inorganic world must be regarded as up to a certain point living, and instinct, within certain limits, with consciousness, volition, and power of concerted action. It is only of late, however, that I have come to this opinion.

One must start with a hypothesis, no matter how much one distrusts it; so I started with man as a mechanism, this being the strand of the knot that I could then pick at most easily. Having worked upon it a certain time, I drew the inference about machines becoming animate, and in 1862 or 1863 wrote the sketch of the chapter on machines which I afterwards rewrote in "Erewhon." This sketch appeared in the Press, Canterbury, N.Z., June 13, 1863; a copy of it is in the British Museum.

I soon felt that though there was plenty of amusement to be got out of this line, it was one that I should have to leave sooner or later; I therefore left it at once for the view that machines were limbs which we had made, and carried outside our bodies instead of incorporating them with ourselves. A few days or weeks later than June 13, 1863, I published a second letter in the Press putting this view forward. Of this letter I have lost the only copy I had; I have not seen it for years. The first was certainly not good; the second, if I remember rightly, was a good deal worse, though I believed more in the views it put forward than in those of the first letter. I had lost my copy before I wrote "Erewhon," and therefore only gave a couple of pages to it in that book; besides, there was more amusement in the other view. I should perhaps say there was an intermediate extension of the first letter which appeared in the Reasoner, July 1, 1865.

In 1870 and 1871, when I was writing "Erewhon," I thought the best way of looking at machines was to see them as limbs which we had made and carried about with us or left at home at pleasure. I was not, however, satisfied, and should have gone on with the subject at once if I had not been anxious to write "The Fair Haven," a book which is a development of a pamphlet I wrote in New Zealand and published in London in 1865.

As soon as I had finished this, I returned to the old subject, on which I had already been engaged for nearly a dozen years as continuously as other business would allow, and proposed to myself to see not only machines as limbs, but also limbs as machines. I felt immediately that I was upon firmer ground. The use of the word "organ" for a limb told its own story; the word could not have become so current under this meaning unless the idea of a limb as a tool or machine had been agreeable to common sense. What would follow, then, if we regarded our limbs and organs as things that we had ourselves manufactured for our convenience?

The first question that suggested itself was, how did we come to make them without knowing anything about it? And this raised another, namely, how comes anybody to do anything unconsciously? The answer "habit" was not far to seek. But can a person be said to do a thing by force of habit or routine when it is his ancestors, and not he, that has done it hitherto? Not unless he and his ancestors are one and the same person. Perhaps, then, they ARE the same person after all. What is sameness? I remembered Bishop Butler's sermon on "Personal Identity," read it again, and saw very plainly that if a man of eighty may consider himself identical with the baby from whom he has developed, so that he may say, "I am the person who at six months old did this or that," then the baby may just as fairly claim identity with its father and mother, and say to its parents on being born, "I was you only a few months ago." By parity of reasoning each living form now on the earth must be able to claim identity with each generation of its ancestors up to the primordial cell inclusive.

Again, if the octogenarian may claim personal identity with the infant, the infant may certainly do so with the impregnate ovum from which it has developed. If so, the octogenarian will prove to have been a fish once in this his present life. This is as certain as that he was living yesterday, and stands on exactly the same foundation.

I am aware that Professor Huxley maintains otherwise. He writes: "It is not true, for example, . . . that a reptile was ever a fish, but it is true that the reptile embryo" (and what is said here of the reptile holds good also for the human embryo), "at one stage of its development, is an organism, which, if it had an independent existence, must be classified among fishes." [17]

This is like saying, "It is not true that such and such a picture was rejected for the Academy, but it is true that it was submitted to the President and Council of the Royal Academy, with a view to acceptance at their next forthcoming annual exhibition, and that the President and Council regretted they were unable through want of space, &c., &c." --and as much more as the reader chooses. I shall venture, therefore, to stick to it that the octogenarian was once a fish, or if Professor Huxley prefers it, "an organism which must be classified among fishes."

But if a man was a fish once, he may have been a fish a million times over, for aught he knows; for he must admit that his conscious recollection is at fault, and has nothing whatever to do with the matter, which must be decided, not, as it were, upon his own evidence as to what deeds he may or may not recollect having executed, but by the production of his signatures in court, with satisfactory proof that he has delivered each document as his act and deed.

This made things very much simpler. The processes of embryonic development, and instinctive actions, might be now seen as repetitions of the same kind of action by the same individual in successive generations. It was natural, therefore, that they should come in the course of time to be done unconsciously, and a consideration of the most obvious facts of memory removed all further doubt that habit--which is based on memory--was at the bottom of all the phenomena of heredity.

I had got to this point about the spring of 1874, and had begun to write, when I was compelled to go to Canada, and for the next year and a half did hardly any writing. The first passage in "Life and Habit" which I can date with certainty is the one on page 52, which runs as follows:-

"It is one against legion when a man tries to differ from his own past selves. He must yield or die if he wants to differ widely, so as to lack natural instincts, such as hunger or thirst, and not to gratify them. It is more righteous in a man that he should 'eat strange food,' and that his cheek should 'so much as lank not,' than that he should starve if the strange food be at his command. His past selves are living in him at this moment with the accumulated life of centuries. 'Do this, this, this, which we too have done, and found out profit in it,' cry the souls of his forefathers within him. Faint are the far ones, coming and going as the sound of bells wafted on to a high mountain; loud and clear are the near ones, urgent as an alarm of fire."

This was written a few days after my arrival in Canada, June 1874. I was on Montreal mountain for the first time, and was struck with its extreme beauty. It was a magnificent Summer's evening; the noble St. Lawrence flowed almost immediately beneath, and the vast expanse of country beyond it was suffused with a colour which even Italy cannot surpass. Sitting down for a while, I began making notes for "Life and Habit," of which I was then continually thinking, and had written the first few lines of the above, when the bells of Notre Dame in Montreal began to ring, and their sound was carried to and fro in a remarkably beautiful manner. I took advantage of the incident to insert then and there the last lines of the piece just quoted. I kept the whole passage with hardly any alteration, and am thus able to date it accurately.

Though so occupied in Canada that writing a book was impossible, I nevertheless got many notes together for future use. I left Canada at the end of 1875, and early in 1876 began putting these notes into more coherent form. I did this in thirty pages of closely written matter, of which a pressed copy remains in my commonplace-book. I find two dates among them--the first, "Sunday, Feb. 6, 1876"; and the second, at the end of the notes, "Feb. 12, 1876."

From these notes I find that by this time I had the theory contained in "Life and Habit" completely before me, with the four main principles which it involves, namely, the oneness of personality between parents and offspring; memory on the part of offspring of certain actions which it did when in the persons of its forefathers; the latency of that memory until it is rekindled by a recurrence of the associated ideas; and the unconsciousness with which habitual actions come to be performed.

The first half-page of these notes may serve as a sample, and runs thus:-

"Those habits and functions which we have in common with the lower animals come mainly within the womb, or are done involuntarily, as our [growth of] limbs, eyes, &c., and our power of digesting food, &c. . . .

"We say of the chicken that it knows how to run about as soon as it is hatched, . . . but had it no knowledge before it was hatched?

"It knew how to make a great many things before it was hatched.

"It grew eyes and feathers and bones.

"Yet we say it knew nothing about all this.

"After it is born it grows more feathers, and makes its bones larger, and develops a reproductive system.

"Again we say it knows nothing about all this.

"What then does it know?

"Whatever it does not know so well as to be unconscious of knowing it.

"Knowledge dwells upon the confines of uncertainty.

"When we are very certain, we do not know that we know. When we will very strongly, we do not know that we will."

I then began my book, but considering myself still a painter by profession, I gave comparatively little time to writing, and got on but slowly. I left England for North Italy in the middle of May 1876 and returned early in August. It was perhaps thus that I failed to hear of the account of Professor Hering's lecture given by Professor Ray Lankester in Nature, July 13 1876; though, never at that time seeing Nature, I should probably have missed it under any circumstances. On my return I continued slowly writing. By August 1877 I considered that I had to all intents and purposes completed my book. My first proof bears date October 13, 1877.

At this time I had not been able to find that anything like what I was advancing had been said already. I asked many friends, but not one of them knew of anything more than I did; to them, as to me, it seemed an idea so new as to be almost preposterous; but knowing how things turn up after one has written, of the existence of which one had not known before, I was particularly careful to guard against being supposed to claim originality. I neither claimed it nor wished for it; for if a theory has any truth in it, it is almost sure to occur to several people much about the same time, and a reasonable person will look upon his work with great suspicion unless he can confirm it with the support of others who have gone before him. Still I knew of nothing in the least resembling it, and was so afraid of what I was doing, that though I could see no flaw in the argument, nor any loophole for escape from the conclusion it led to, yet I did not dare to put it forward with the seriousness and sobriety with which I should have treated the subject if I had not been in continual fear of a mine being sprung upon me from some unexpected quarter. I am exceedingly glad now that I knew nothing of Professor Hering's lecture, for it is much better that two people should think a thing out as far as they can independently before they become aware of each other's works but if I had seen it, I should either, as is most likely, not have written at all, or I should have pitched my book in another key.

Among the additions I intended making while the book was in the press, was a chapter on Mr. Darwin's provisional theory of Pangenesis, which I felt convinced must be right if it was Mr. Darwin's, and which I was sure, if I could once understand it, must have an important bearing on "Life and Habit." I had not as yet seen that the principle I was contending for was Darwinian, not Neo- Darwinian. My pages still teemed with allusions to "natural selection," and I sometimes allowed myself to hope that "Life and Habit" was going to be an adjunct to Darwinism which no one would welcome more gladly than Mr. Darwin himself. At this time I had a visit from a friend, who kindly called to answer a question of mine, relative, if I remember rightly, to "Pangenesis." He came, September 26, 1877. One of the first things he said was, that the theory which had pleased him more than anything he had heard of for some time was one referring all life to memory. I said that was exactly what I was doing myself, and inquired where he had met with his theory. He replied that Professor Ray Lankester had written a letter about it in Nature some time ago, but he could not remember exactly when, and had given extracts from a lecture by Professor Ewald Hering, who had originated the theory. I said I should not look at it, as I had completed that part of my work, and was on the point of going to press. I could not recast my work if, as was most likely, I should find something, when I saw what Professor Hering had said, which would make me wish to rewrite my own book; it was too late in the day and I did not feel equal to making any radical alteration; and so the matter ended with very little said upon either side. I wrote, however, afterwards to my friend asking him to tell me the number of Nature which contained the lecture if he could find it, but he was unable to do so, and I was well enough content.

A few days before this I had met another friend, and had explained to him what I was doing. He told me I ought to read Professor Mivart's "Genesis of Species," and that if I did so I should find there were two sides to "natural selection." Thinking, as so many people do-- and no wonder--that "natural selection" and evolution were much the same thing, and having found so many attacks upon evolution produce no effect upon me, I declined to read it. I had as yet no idea that a writer could attack Neo-Darwinism without attacking evolution. But my friend kindly sent me a copy; and when I read it, I found myself in the presence of arguments different from those I had met with hitherto, and did not see my way to answering them. I had, however, read only a small part of Professor Mivart's work, and was not fully awake to the position, when the friend referred to in the preceding paragraph called on me.

When I had finished the "Genesis of Species," I felt that something was certainly wanted which should give a definite aim to the variations whose accumulation was to amount ultimately to specific and generic differences, and that without this there could have been no progress in organic development. I got the latest edition of the "Origin of Species" in order to see how Mr. Darwin met Professor Mivart, and found his answers in many respects unsatisfactory. I had lost my original copy of the "Origin of Species," and had not read the book for some years. I now set about reading it again, and came to the chapter on instinct, where I was horrified to find the following passage:-

"But 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 the succeeding generations. It can be clearly shown that the most wonderful instincts with which we are acquainted, namely, those of the hive-bee and of many ants, could not possibly have been acquired by habit." [23a]

This showed that, according to Mr. Darwin, I had fallen into serious error, and my faith in him, though somewhat shaken, was far too great to be destroyed by a few days' course of Professor Mivart, the full importance of whose work I had not yet apprehended. I continued to read, and when I had finished the chapter felt sure that I must indeed have been blundering. The concluding words, "I am surprised that no one has hitherto advanced this demonstrative case of neuter insects against the well-known doctrine of inherited habit as advanced by Lamarck," [23b] were positively awful. There was a quiet consciousness of strength about them which was more convincing than any amount of more detailed explanation. This was the first I had heard of any doctrine of inherited habit as having been propounded by Lamarck (the passage stands in the first edition, "the well-known doctrine of Lamarck," p. 242); and now to find that I had been only busying myself with a stale theory of this long-since exploded charlatan--with my book three parts written and already in the press- -it was a serious scare.

On reflection, however, I was again met with the overwhelming weight of the evidence in favour of structure and habit being mainly due to memory. I accordingly gathered as much as I could second-hand of what Lamarck had said, reserving a study of his "Philosophie Zoologique" for another occasion, and read as much about ants and bees as I could find in readily accessible works. In a few days I saw my way again; and now, reading the "Origin of Species" more closely, and I may say more sceptically, the antagonism between Mr. Darwin and Lamarck became fully apparent to me, and I saw how incoherent and unworkable in practice the later view was in comparison with the earlier. Then I read Mr. Darwin's answers to miscellaneous objections, and was met, and this time brought up, by the passage beginning "In the earlier editions of this work," [24a] &c., on which I wrote very severely in "Life and Habit"; [24b] for I felt by this time that the difference of opinion between us was radical, and that the matter must be fought out according to the rules of the game. After this I went through the earlier part of my book, and cut out the expressions which I had used inadvertently, and which were inconsistent with a teleological view. This necessitated only verbal alterations; for, though I had not known it, the spirit of the book was throughout teleological.

I now saw that I had got my hands full, and abandoned my intention of touching upon "Pangenesis." I took up the words of Mr. Darwin quoted above, to the effect that it would be a serious error to ascribe the greater number of instincts to transmitted habit. I wrote chapter xi. of "Life and Habit," which is headed "Instincts as Inherited Memory"; I also wrote the four subsequent chapters, "Instincts of Neuter Insects," "Lamarck and Mr. Darwin," "Mr. Mivart and Mr. Darwin," and the concluding chapter, all of them in the month of October and the early part of November 1877, the complete book leaving the binder's hands December 4, 1877, but, according to trade custom, being dated 1878. It will be seen that these five concluding chapters were rapidly written, and this may account in part for the directness with which I said anything I had to say about Mr. Darwin; partly this, and partly I felt I was in for a penny and might as well be in for a pound. I therefore wrote about Mr. Darwin's work exactly as I should about any one else's, bearing in mind the inestimable services he had undoubtedly--and must always be counted to have-- rendered to evolution.


Footnotes:

[17] Encycl. Brit., ed. ix., art. "Evolution," p. 750.

[23a] Origin of Species, 6th ed., 1876, p. 206.

[23b] Ibid., p. 233.

[24a] Origin of Species, 6th ed., p. 171, 1876.

[24b] Pp. 258-260.


Samuel Butler

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