Today on Project Gutenberg #7

Today on Project Gutenberg we have…

Evolution, Old & New by Samuel Butler

More science! And this time, it’s some science and history that I know quite well. This should be fun.

The author of this nonfiction book, Samuel Butler, is better known as a novelist. His most famous work is his 1872 work Erewhon, a satire of utopia that Aldous Huxley would later cite as an influence on Brave New World. It would be funny if he ever butted heads with Huxley’s grandfather Thomas: considering what he writes about Charles Darwin in this book, it’s quite possible.

That’s not to say Butler wasn’t pro-evolution. He definitely believed in it; what he didn’t believe in was the theory of natural selection as put forth by Darwin.

“Hang on a minute,” you must be saying right about now. “Aren’t those just the same thing?”

Not exactly. The basics of the natural selection theory are widely accepted by today’s scientists, but before and during the nineteenth century, there was a lot of debate within the pro-evolution crowd about how exactly evolution worked. Butler, for example, describes his idea as essentially a toolmaking process guided by a higher power:

That is to say, shall we imagine that they were arrived at by a living mind as the result of scheming and contriving, and thinking (not without occasional mistakes) which of the courses open to it seemed best fitted for the occasion, or are we to regard the apparent connection between such an organ, we will say, as the eye, and the sight which is affected by it, as in no way due to the design or plan of a living intelligent being, but as caused simply by the accumulation, one upon another, of an almost infinite series of small pieces of good fortune?

Page 3

Herein lies Butler’s main issue with the theory of natural selection. It runs, according to him, on the assumption that species adapt to changing conditions without a grand design. Each new variation that sticks around is an accident that just so happens to work out in that animal’s favor.

But that’s not the only bone that Butler has to pick with Darwin. He goes into great detail about the older evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles). He claims that Darwin builds on the ideas of these earlier scientists, but in The Origin of Species he misrepresents them and downplays their influence on his work (pages 196, 248-249). I can’t help but think that there’s a bit of pot-and-kettle going on here, especially since Butler manages to attribute “survival of the fittest” to Darwin instead of Herbert Spencer while talking at length about Herbert Spencer. That takes some work.

I want to give Butler some credit by pointing out that he did know when not to be a prick. I’m looking at the second edition of the book, which was published in 1882, shortly after Darwin’s death. Because of this, Butler adds a new preface to the book which acts as a eulogy of sorts:

I have always admitted myself to be under the deepest obligations to Mr. Darwin’s works; and it was with the greatest reluctance, not to say repugnance, that I became one of his opponents. I have partaken of his hospitality, and have had too much experience of the charming simplicity of his manner not to be among the readiest to at once admire and envy it. It is unfortunately true that I believe Mr. Darwin to have behaved badly to me; this is too notorious to be denied; but at the same time I cannot be blind to the fact that no man can be judge in his own case, and that after all Mr. Darwin may have been right, and I wrong.

page viii

I wouldn’t go around using this book as a science text, but it definitely has some value as a historical one. It offers us a glimpse into what was happening in the Victorian scientific community and the kinds of debates that were going on. We might usually think of this area in terms of just “evolution vs. creationism,” but as we can see from this book, the conversation was a lot more complex than that.

That’s all for now! See you next time!

— Dana

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