Making Heredity Matter: Samuel Butler’s Idea of Unconscious Memory
Journal of the History of Biology
Making Heredity Matter: Samuel Butler's Idea of Unconscious Memory
CRISTIANO TURBIL 0
0 Department of History King's College London Strand London WC2R 2LS UK
Butler's idea of evolution was developed over the publication of four books, several articles and essays between 1863 and 1890. These publications, although never achieving the success expected by Butler, proposed a psychological elaboration of evolution (robustly enforced by Lamarck's philosophy), called 'unconscious memory'. This was strongly in contrast with the materialistic approach suggested by Darwin's natural selection. Starting with a historical introduction, this paper aspires to ascertain the logic, meaning and significance of Butler's idea of 'unconscious memory' in the postDarwinian physiological and psychological Pan-European discussion. Particular attention is devoted to demonstrating that Butler was not only a populariser of science but also an active protagonist in the late Victorian psychological debate.
Samuel Butler; Psychological evolution; Ewald Hering; Charles Darwin; Lamarckism; Unconscious memory
On the 2nd December 1882, Samuel Butler delivered a lecture entitled
‘On Memory as a Key to the Phenomena of Heredity’ at the Working
Men’s College in London. In the lecture, Butler tried to explain to his
fellow citizens the importance of rethinking evolution in a Lamarckian
way. In 1882, circumstances had led to Butler’s voice not being given
much credence within the British scientific community. Butler was,
therefore, directing his attention to the general public with the aim of
persuading the public to the revolutionary potential of his ideas
concerning Lamarckism, memory and heredity. Most significantly, the
ideas that Butler championed were topics that were being widely
discussed across Europe; however, in England where the faith in Darwin’s
theory of natural selection still remained strong, this ‘new science’ was
initially met with reserve. Lamarck’s work was well known in Britain
since the 1830s and the publication of Charles Lyell’s Principles of
Geology (1830–1833). But after the publication of Darwin’s Origin
(1859), Lamarck’s theory of evolution started to be ignored mostly
because of its emphasis on the will of the individual in the evolutionary
In his lecture, Butler sought to explain the role that memory played
in heredity. He was aware that the question of exactly how inheritance
occurred was still unanswered and he believed that an elaboration of
Lamarck’s concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics would
have provided a solution to the matter. However, to substantiate his
claims, and perhaps to detract from his audiences doubt about either the
scientific credibility of Lamarck’s ideas, or of his own credentials to
speak on this matter, Butler gave an account of his own research in the
context of the work performed by European psychologists and
neurologists. Butler insisted, in particular, in showing a similarity between
his work and that of the German physiologist Ewald Hering. In the late
nineteenth century, Hering was becoming well-known across Europe for
his research on heredity and memory, colour theory and binocular
vision. An extract from the lecture stated:
We say it is a phenomenon of heredity that chickens should be laid
as eggs in the first instance and clergymen born as babies, but,
beyond the fact that we know heredity extremely well to look at
and to do business with, we say that we know nothing about it. I
have for some years maintained this to be a mistake and have
urged, in company with Professor Hering, of Prague, and others,
that the connection between memory and heredity is so close that
there is no reason for regarding the two as generically different,
though for convenience sake it may be well to specify them by
different names (Jones, 1930, p. 57).
This highlights the central point of this article which aims to re-examine
the role of Butler in the late Victorian scientific scene: in his work Butler
was not simply popularising European science. Instead, he tried to be an
active protagonist in the debate by looking at evolution from a
Butler’s idea of evolution was developed over the publication of four
books, several articles and essays between 1863 and 1890. Although
none of these publications achieved the status or recognition that he had
hoped for, in them he proposed a psychological elaboration of evolution
(robustly enforced by Lamarck’s philosophy), called ‘unconscious
memory’. Butler’s ‘unconscious memory’ was in stark contrast to the
materialistic approach suggested by Darwin’s natural selection, and,
Butler argued, it had more scientific backing than the theory of
pangenesis that Darwin had suggested as a potential physiological
explanation of the mechanisms of heredity.
The reasons for Butler’s dismissal of Darwin’s ideas were both
personal and methodological. On the personal side, Butler had engaged
with Darwin in a bitter quarrel over different interpretations of
evolution. The quarrel started after the publication of Butler’s second
scientific book, Evolution Old and New which was published in March
1879, and it continued until Darwin’s death in 1882. The main
consequence of the quarrel was the total isolation of Butler and his ideas from
the British Darwinian community. At the heart of the quarrel lay a
simple misunderstanding created by the forgotten acknowledgment of
Butler’s Evolution Old and New. This was to be found in the English
translation of the bibliography of Erasmus Darwin by E. Krause
entitled, Life of Erasmus Darwin (1879) with a preface by Charles Darwin
(Barlow, 170). Several studies have explored the importance of the
quarrel focusing on both its public and private dimensions (Barlow,
1958, pp. 167–221; Jones, 1911; Paradis, 2004, pp. 307–331). However,
it is important to emphasise that the quarrel between Butler and Darwin
was more than an ad-hominem attack (Irvine, 1955, pp. 220–224) upon a
forgotten citation (Pauly, 1982, p. 161).
For Butler evolution was a matter of Lamarckian designed memory.
But for Darwin, there was little space for any blueprint in biology. As
Janet Brown argues, ‘pangenesis was the highly abstract notion that
every tissue, cell and living part of an organism produced minute,
unseen gemmules (or what he sometimes called granules or germs) which
carried inheritable characteristics and were transmitted to the offspring
via the reproductive process’ (Browne, 2002, p. 275). In 1868, Darwin,
in The variation of animals and plants under domestication, was careful to
explain that each part of an organism produced only gemmules about
itself and not about the organism as a whole (Darwin, 1868, p. 374).
Individual gemmules did not have the complete designed (biological)
map of the whole creature.
Butler used the word ‘unconscious’ in relation to evolution for the
first time in 1872 in the novel Erewhon. This term subsequently became
the label adopted by the writer to describe his evolutionary idea.
Butler’s main books on science, Life and Habit (1878) and Unconscious
Memory (1881), hypothesised that there was a substantial overlap
between the concept of memory and heredity to reintroduce causality into
the evolutionary process. Butler’s idea of ‘unconscious memory’, rested
on a process of biological reproduction and preservation of information
from one generation to the other.
This was explained as a substantial chemical continuity between
memory and heredity. This continuity was conceived in Butler’s Luck or
Cunning? (1886) by employing a new interpretation of the Lamarckian
concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics in relation to Dmitri
Mendeleev’s law. A similar hypothesis was developed independently in
France by Th e´odule Ribot and also in Germany by Ewald Hering.
Samuel Butler has historically been considered by academics as a
novelist with an interest in science. Butler was a novelist, yes, but he also
spent more than thirty years of his life fighting against the orthodoxy of
Victorian science in order to explain to his fellow countrymen his vision
of evolution. The place of Butler’s science in contemporary Victorian
studies is still very complex. Literary scholars such as Gillian Beer and
Sally Shuttleworth consider Butler’s work predominately as a form of
‘literature and science’ without any relevant influence upon the scientific
debate (Beer, 2007; Shuttleworth, 2007). As an example, Shuttleworth’s
‘Evolutionary Psychology and The way of all Flesh’ explores the
psychological meaning of Butler’s most well-known novel looking at
questions regarding personal identity and continuity of personality
(Shuttleworth, 2007, pp. 147–148). Shuttleworth’s essay emphasises the
importance of looking at the theory presented in Life and Habit only
through Butler’s fiction, because fiction is the only place where Butler’s
science can be taken seriously (Shuttleworth, 2007, pp. 151–155). A
similar reading of Butler’s work is proposed by Beer in the essay ‘Butler,
Memory and the future’. Here, Butler’s final novel Erewhon Revisited is
used to demonstrate the importance of Butler’s theory of memory and
heredity (Beer, 2007, pp. 51–55).
Historians of science are slowly starting to show Butler’s place in the
Victorian scientific scene. The works of Paradis (2007), Fyfe and
Lightman (2007) and Forsdyke (2006, 2009) exemplified the importance
of Butler’s scientific view of evolution. Moreover, the scientific work of
Butler is now becoming increasingly recognised as forming a
contribution to the Victorian marketplace of science although only in the
form of a popularisation (Lightman, 2007b, pp. 113–143). Lightman, in
the essay ‘A conspiracy of One: Butler, Natural Theology, and
Victorian Popularization’ illustrates Butler’s importance as a populariser but
mostly limits his influence to the popular sphere (Lightman, 2007b, pp.
118–120). Lightman’s essay also does not place much significance in
Butler’s scientific idea. He suggests that Butler’s Lamarckism was used
to exercise criticism over Darwin and other Darwinian professionals
(Lightman, 2007b, pp. 131–133) and ‘represented a threat to the
emerging scientific professionalization of Darwin’s era’ (Lightman,
2007b, p. 138).
This argument has been expanded upon by David Gillott’s recent
book: Samuel Butler Against the Professionals (2015). Gillott offers an
overview of the problematic relationship between Butler and other
professionals by tracing the history of Butler’s life through an analysis
of the evolution of Butler’s epistemological knowledge. Gillott uses the
Darwin-Butler relationship and associated quarrel in order to show how
Butler moved from believing in the professional objectivity of
knowledge to considering professionals as individuals interested only in their
personal careers (Gillott, 2015, pp. 49–81).
A different reading of Butler’s science is provided by the introduction
of Laura Otis’s Organic Memory (1994), where Butler’s work is
discussed alongside that of European psychologists and physiologists
including Ewald Hering and Th e´odule Ribot. Otis’s work confirms the
link between Butler and other European scientists. The same argument
is also, again, marginally suggested by Schacter’s history of psychology
where Butler and Hering are presented as forgotten pioneers of the
history of discipline (Schacter, 2001, pp 110–112).
The central aim of this article is to re-examine the role of Butler in
the late Victorian scientific scene. Butler was not simply a populariser of
European science. Instead, he tried to be an active protagonist in the
debate by looking at evolution from a psychological perspective. A
reevaluation of Butler’s scientific writing then becomes necessary. In
particular, Butler’s scientific writings need to be taken seriously as they
can also help us to understand the science of the mind. Influenced by
Lamarck, Hering and Ribot, Butler sought to bring these important
ideas, which were influential and widely accepted in Europe, to Britain.
However his complex relationship with Darwin and other Victorian
scientists undermined his attempt to do so.
The analysis of Butler’s work will be examined in relation to the
existing critical scholarship on the history of nineteenth century
European psychology. Psychology was a branch of philosophy until the
1870s, when it started to develop as an independent scientific discipline
in Europe. Thus far, this has mostly been treated as a consequence of
Darwin’s hypothesis of evolution (Richards, 1989, 1993, 2002; Otis,
1994). Although frequently linked with natural selection, psychology
also developed along other scientific paths in both theory and practice
across Europe. In respect of the practical aspect of the rise of
psychology, the history of science offers an extensive literature. For
instance, Laura Otis’ recent publication Muller’s Lab (2007), Simon
Schaffer’s pamphlet From Physics to Anthropology and Back Again
(1994) and Mandler’s A History of Modern Experimental Psychology
(2007) offer an historical view of the rise of nineteenth century
laboratories, although limiting their analyses to national cases. The work of
Kurt Danziger, including ‘The positivist repudiation of Wundt’ (1979)
and Constructing the Subject (1994), also offers a constructivist example
of the intellectual history of psychological research from the nineteenth
century (especially in Germany) to the emergence of contemporary
psychology. The main aim of Danziger is to consider the psychological
methodology as a kind of social and cultural practice rather than as a
simple matter of technique. However, in all of this literature, the aspect
that is missing is the European dimension of the debate and the
consequent role of psychology in the cultural and philosophical debate
before the rise of laboratories.
As exemplified by Rabinbach’s The Human Motor (1992) the study of
the historical, political and cultural developments of nineteenth century
science can only be conducted within a wider-European perspective.
Therefore, the rise of psychology and the history of its pioneers offer
one of the best examples for understanding European science and
culture between the 1860s and the turn of the twentieth century.
Butler’s Scientific Writing: The European Connections
Samuel Butler’s work on evolution was based on a large critical review
of the main nineteenth century scientific texts. Between 1863 and 1890
Butler read, translated, and popularised in his work a great deal of
English, French and German evolutionary literature. Beer explains in
Darwin’s Plots that in the Victorian period scientific language and
narratives were moving ‘rapidly and freely to and fro between scientists
and non-scientists’ (Beer, 2000, p. 5). However, in the Victorian period
there was also a clear distinction between practitioners and popularisers.
As Lightman has explained, the Victorian populariser was often not a
practitioner and his/her work was ‘mainly focused on writing about
nature’ (Lightman, 2007a, p. 13). Paul White’s book on Huxley also
looks at the establishment of professionalism in the 1870s stressing the
need to distinguish the creation of scientific knowledge from its
popularisation (White, 2003, pp. 51–58). There is, therefore, as suggested by
Lightman a distinction to make between the Victorian practitioner who
produced scientific knowledge and the populariser whose main job was
to entertain the masses talking about science (Lightman, 2007a, pp. 35–
In Life and Habit, Butler made a controversial statement about the
production of scientific knowledge: ‘I say that the term ‘‘scientific’’
should be applied (only that they would not like it) to the nice sensible
people who know what’s what rather than to the discovering class’
(Butler, 1910a, p. 35). Therefore, for Butler making science was not
simply a question of conducting experiments or collecting specimens in
remote locations. Instead, it was possible to produce new scientific
knowledge simply via knowing and reflecting on the ideas of others.
Samuel Butler made this way of producing scientific literature his
personal writing style (especially in his biological volumes). He read,
commented on and critiqued Darwinian and non-Darwinian literature
and tried, especially in Evolution Old and New (1879), to link the present
Darwinian science with the Lamarckism of the past. Butler tried to
show how certain ideas proposed by Darwin owed a deep debt to the
work of the previous generation of naturalists, especially Lamarck.
However, he also tried to look at how evolution was currently discussed
across Europe with a particular focus on the notion of memory.
In 1878, with the publication of Life and Habit, Butler recognised
that the first naturalist to identify a link between memory and heredity
was Lamarck in his 1809 work, Philosophie Zoologique (i.e. the concept
of ‘inheritance’). Butler’s use of Lamarck was due to his desire to
propose ‘the re-introduction of teleology into organic life’ (Jones, p. 66).
However, Butler’s intention in resurrecting Lamarck’s philosophy was
not just instrumental to his criticism of Darwin’s natural selection.
Butler’s aim was also to complement Darwinism with Lamarckism via a
historical examination of the two ideas.
Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (1809), proposed a hypothesis of
evolution (called transformisme) where the idea of transformation
implied a designed evolution of living species. Lamarck’s philosophy was
primarily progressive although it did involve some divergences
(Jablonka and Lamb, 1999, p. 3). Butler accepted Lamarck’s idea that in
nature there is no extinction, and evolution determines the passage from
simple to complex forms of life based on a continuous reproduction of
an ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’. Lamarckian evolution was
based on a process of adaptation of the organism to its environment.
This adaptation was explained by the naturalist via a process of use and
disuse of certain characteristics (Lamarck, 1914, p. 113).
In Zoological Philosophy, Lamarck located the source of vital
stimulation within the nervous system. Following the eighteenth-century
physiological tradition, Lamarck considered the nervous fluids as the
principle link existing between living things and the environments
(Jordanova, 1984, p. 76). In the Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans
Vertebres (1815), Lamarck even identified an organic component, a
fluid, to determine the functions of the living body (Corsi, 1998, p. 189).
In The Politics of Evolution (1989), Adrian Desmond explained that
Lamarck’s work influenced the early nineteenth century scientific debate
in England (but also in wider-Europe) and further shaped the medical
and biological background of the next generation of scientists.
However, it is important to observe that after the publication of the Origin,
Lamarck’s work started to be dismissed by many in Britain. Butler’s
scientific work and desire to resurrect Lamarckian ideas therefore
becomes a primary example with which to understand the importance of
Lamarck’s idea of ‘inheritance’ in Europe. In particular, in Unconscious
Memory and Luck, or Cunning?, Butler explained how Lamarck’s
hypothesis of inheritance developed in both physiology and philosophy
across the continent. Butler recognised traces of Lamarckism in the
research of Ewald Hering in Germany, Th e´odule Ribot in France and
William Benjamin Carpenter, Herbert Spencer and George Romanes in
Ewald Hering (1834–1918) is the key protagonist of Butler’s
popularisation of Lamarckian ideas. From 1880 and the publication of
‘‘Unconscious Memory’’, Butler cited and discussed Hering’s work in all
of his scientific books or essays. Educated as a physicist in Leipzig,
Hering subsequently worked as a physiologist at the University of
Vienna between 1865 and 1870, in Prague between 1870 and 1895, and
again in Leipzig between 1895 and 1908 (Baumann, 1992; Turner, 1993
1994; Janko, 1995). As a physiologist, Hering became known in Europe
largely due to his research into colour vision and spatial perception.
Nonetheless, he was also the first scientist in Germany to promote the
idea of organic memory as a biological hypothesis and to conduct
experiments on it (Otis, 1994, pp. 20–39).
Hering worked at the heart of a dynamic debate, and conducted
different types of research. In Vienna, he challenged physiologist
Hermann von Helmholtz’s colour-vision theory. In the same university, he
conducted research on respiration and, in 1868, with psychoanalyst
Josef Breuer (1842–1925), demonstrated the role of the ‘vagus’ nerve in
the regulation of breathing. However, Hering’s work was also
influenced by the philosophies of Kant, Goethe (scientific theory of colours),
Schelling and Fichte, alongside the arguably more scientific work of
other physiologists like Johannes Muller and Haeckel. As a result, his
approach to the subject was partly philosophical and partly scientific.
In 1870, Hering presented a lecture entitled Das Geda¨chtniss als
allgemeine Funktion der organisirter Substanz (Memory as a Universal
Function of Organised Matter), at the University of Prague. The lecture
rapidly became one of the most frequently quoted texts in the field. It
gave rise to a series of translations and was largely used among
European physiologists. In Britain, the first reference to Hering and the
notion of Memory and Heredity was published by Ray Lankester in
Nature in 1876 under the title of: ‘Perigenesis v. pangenesis – Haeckel’s
new theory of heredity’. Lankester briefly mentioned the name of
Hering but without providing a full account of his idea (Lankester,
1876, p.237). The first full account of Hering’s work was, then, provided
by Butler in 1880 in Unconscious Memory where the paper was
translated and published as an integral part of the book (Butler, 1920, pp.
Hering’s paper identified memory as a fundamental reproductive
capability of living matter. The main scientific hypothesis enclosed in
Hering’s lecture was the necessity to link materialistic science
(physiology) with the philosophy of the mind (psychology). Hering’s study
focused on memory linked to the body, moving it into the realms of
physiological processes. It involved scientific concepts such as
reproduction, conservation changes, and memory as hereditary but also
philosophical problems. A quote from Hering’s lecture exemplifies this
The word ‘‘memory’’ is often understood as though it meant
nothing more than our faculty of intentionally reproducing ideas or
series of ideas. But when the figures and events of bygone days rise
up again unbidden in our minds, is not this also an act of
recollection or memory? We have a perfect right to extend our
conception of memory so as to make it embrace involuntary
reproductions, of sensations, ideas, perceptions, and efforts; but we
find, on having done so, that we have so far enlarged her
boundaries that she proves to be an ultimate and original power, the
source, and at the same time the unifying bond, of our whole
conscious life (Butler, 1920, p. 68).
Hering located the origin of human memory, and that of animals and
plants, in the reflexes and instincts of primitive ancestors (Otis, 1994, p.
13). Consequently, memory was incorporated into the research of the
human nervous system. Thus, memory became, in Hering’s work, part
of a new physiological interpretation of the human body in which the
brain and the nervous system were considered as the base for the new
medicine of the human body. Memory also became the key for heredity
by explaining the continuity between generations without a drastic
denial of its philosophical importance. Hering seems to focus particularly
on this point at the end of the lecture where he declares without any
The most sublime ideas, though never so immortalised in speech or
letters, are yet nothing for heads that are out of harmony with
them; they must be not only heard, but reproduced; and both
speech and writing would be in vain were there not an inheritance
of inward and outward brain development, growing in
correspondence with the inheritance of ideas that are handed down from
age to age, and did not an enhanced capacity for their reproduction
on the part of each succeeding generation accompany the thoughts
that have been preserved in writing. Man’s conscious memory
comes to an end at death, but the unconscious memory of Nature is
true and ineradicable: whoever succeeds in stamping upon her the
impress of his work, she will remember him to the end of time
(Butler, 1920, pp. 85–86).
At the same time as Hering, Lamarckism was also discussed in France.
In his scientific writing, Butler cited the works of important French
Lamarckian biologists such as Yves Delage (1854–1920), Felix Le
Dantec (1869–1917), Jean-Louis de Lanessan (1843–1919), and Armand
de Quatrefages (1810–1892). They all conducted research very close to
Lamarckian ideas. They considered Darwin’s work as a simple
development of Lamarck’s evolutionist paradigm (Barsanti, 2005, pp. 306–
307). Even more controversially, Lanessan in his 1883 book Le
Transformisme negated any originality to Darwin’s work (de Lanessan, 1883,
In Life and Habit, in particular, Butler largely refers to the work of
another French scientist: The´ odule Ribot. After his appointment as
Professor at the College de France in 1880s, Ribot opened the first
laboratory of experimental psychology in the country. He defined
memory and heredity along the same lines as Hering. However, in
contrast to the German tradition, which was based mostly on empirical
research, Ribot divided his time between empirical research and
promoting psychology to both scientists and the general public.
Ribot’s main scholarly interest was to embed ‘memory’ into
physiological research whilst remaining aware of its philosophical roots. It is,
therefore, interesting to note the research approach adopted by the
French psychologist. Although Ribot was trained in philosophy, he
practiced clinical and experimental psychology from 1873 to 1885. As
suggested by Gullin, Ribot did not only open up experimental
psychology in France but also re-shaped the study of natural science in
relation to ‘l’anatomie, la physiologie, la pathologie mentale, l’histoire,
l’anthropologie’ (Guillin, 2004, pp. 165–181). Ribot’s research was,
therefore, received with interest by the scientific community.
Nonetheless, it also attracted the interest of philosophers like Henri Bergson
(Otis and Nicolas, 2005; Nicolas and Charvillat, 2001). Otis explains
that between the 1880s and 1890s, the neurological journal Brain
frequently cited Ribot’s research and Le Maladies de la Memoire became
the most quoted neurological publication of the late nineteenth century
(Otis, 1994, p. 15).
Memory, as defined by Ribot in the introduction of Les Maladies de
la Me´moire, was ‘Par essence, un fait biologique; par accident un fait
psychologique’ (Ribot, 1881, p. 1) and made sense only when merged
with heredity, instinct and habit (Otis, 1994, pp. 14–18). Indeed, for the
French psychologist memory and heredity are intrinsically the same.
Ribot’s hypothesis criticised the orthodoxy of biology which gave
precedent to conscious memory and cut it off from the domains of the
unconscious (i.e. memory as a biological phenomenon).
Like Hering, Ribot recognised the potential of Lamarck’s idea
of’inheritance’ and its role in evolution. For Ribot, memory could only
be described using a new scientific terminology and it was not made of
an ‘indefinable’ metaphysical substance. It was, instead, a biochemical
composition which leaves physical traces and residues. In this way,
memory became subject to a process of accumulation (‘le capital
accumule’ (Ribot, 1881, p. 6)) which, citing the work of Henry
Maudsley and Joseph Delboef, Ribot called molecular vibration. Memory, for
Ribot, required a dynamic association that, through repetition,
established a stable primitive anatomical connection (Ribot, 1881, p. 16).
In England, Butler recognised and discussed Lamarckian ideas in the
work of William Benjamin Carpenter, Herbert Spencer and George
Romanes. In Life and Habit Butler discussed in detail Carpenter’s
Principles of Mental Physiology (1874). Butler suggested that Carpenter
produced one of the first physiological interpretations of the role of the
mind in the economy of the body, largely influencing the medical and
physiological debate afterward (including himself). Butler recognised
only one problem in Carpenter’s work: ‘The only issue between myself
and Dr. Carpenter would appear to be, that Dr. Carpenter, himself an
acknowledged leader in the scientific world, restricts the term
‘‘scientific’’ to the people who know that they know’ (Butler, 1910a, p. 35).
In Unconscious Memory Butler discussed Spencer’s contribution to
the scientific and philosophical debate. Butler recognised Spencer’s
scientific writing as the cornerstone for a new interpretation of evolution
in between Darwinism and Lamarckism. Butler appreciated that
Spencer’s work (which was also translated into French by Ribot) was
purely theoretical and directed to a specialised philosophical audience.
It, therefore, deployed a methodology that was very similar to his own.
Butler’s opinion of Spencer’s work changed over the years. In 1884,
Butler partially dismissed Spencer’s work declaring ‘no writer that I
know of except Professor Hering of Prague, […] has shown a
comprehension of the fact that these expressions are unexplained so long as
‘‘heredity,’’ whereby they explain them, is unexplained; and none of
them sees the importance of emphasizing Memory, and making it as it
were the keystone of the system.’ (Butler, 1884, pp. 228–229) However,
in 1889, in the essay ‘The Deadlock in Darwinism’, Butler recognised
that ‘The Lamarckian system has all along been maintained by Mr.
Herbert Spencer’ (Butler, 1908, p. 240). Butler was not able to see ‘any
important difference in the main position taken by him and Lamarck’
(Butler, 1908, p. 240).
Finally, mention should be made of the work of George Romanes. In
1881, Romanes, while taking a position in the Darwin–Butler quarrel in
defence of the naturalist, publicly rejected Butler’s hypothesis of
unconscious evolution in his review of Unconscious Memory published
in Nature. Romanes insisted on showing how Butler’s ideas did not have
any scientific value because he was not a professional. Romanes wrote
on Butler’s incompetence: ‘To this arena, [science] however, he is in no
way adapted, either by mental status or mental equipment’ (Romanes,
1881, p. 285). In response, in 1884, Butler published a short essay
entitled Remarks on George Romanes’ Mental evolution in Animals. The
aim of the essay was to show that Romanes in Mental evolution in
Animals (1883) used Lamarckism in a manner similar to Life and Habit
(Butler, 1884, p. 236). Butler analysed the terminology and examples
used by Romanes and discovered a clear overlap between the theory of
mental evolution and his theory of memory as heredity (Butler, 1884,
pp. 240–243). For Butler, this would have convinced the scientific
community of the validity of his hypothesis of unconscious memory
which was, until then, rejected by British biologists as a pseudo-scientific
Consequently, it becomes necessary to question and analyse Butler’s
scientific writing to see whether he was just popularising the work of
others or if he was able, as declared in Life and Habit, to advance his
own personal vision of evolution just via knowing, analysing and
questioning the research of others.
Samuel Butler and the Idea of Unconscious Memory
In Butler’s work the word ‘unconscious’ described mechanical actions of
a living body including breathing, blood circulation and embryological
reproduction but also ‘actions which we have acquired with difficulty
and now perform almost unconsciously’ such as ‘playing a difficult piece
of music, reading, talking, walking’ (Jones, 1930, p. 53). All of those
actions were guaranteed by the presence of a (biological) memory in the
human body. Memory, for Butler, was the key aspect of the hereditary
process because it could be physically reproduced. This was explained
clearly in his notebooks:
There is the reproduction of an idea which has been produced once
already, and there is the reproduction of a living form which has
been produced once already. The first reproduction is certainly an
effort of memory. It should not therefore surprise us if the second
reproduction should turn out to be an effort of memory also.
Indeed all forms of reproduction that we can follow are based directly
or indirectly upon memory (Jones, 1930, p. 59).
In order to understand, the significance of Butler’s theory of memory
and heredity, it is important to trace its development. At the beginning
of his career, Butler referred to ‘unconscious memory’ in his novels and
short essays. Between 1863 and 1878, Butler engaged with the debate of
evolution from a purely philosophical perspective. This is particularly
evident in the periodical articles ‘Darwin among the Machines’ (1863),
‘Lucubratio Ebria’ (1865), the novel Erewhon (1872) and Life and Habit
(1878). In the 1860s, Butler published two short philosophical articles in
the New Zealand periodical The Press: ‘Darwin among the Machines’
and ‘Lucubratio Ebria’. In these articles, Butler attempted to explain
Darwin’s theory of natural selection in terms of the evolution of
machines (Jones, 1930, pp. 42–46). Butler also tried to question the role
played by mechanical tools such as notebooks and umbrellas in human
evolution (Jones, 1930, pp. 47–53). Butler’s articles offered an
anthropological reading of Darwin’s natural selection in a language full of
sarcasm and improbable analogies. In these articles, Butler’s intention
was not only to teach or question evolution but only to make this new
scientific theory accessible to a New Zealand audience.
In the novel Erewhon (1872) Butler expanded upon the idea of
‘unconscious memory’ already proposed in 1863–1865, by producing a 25
page manifesto in which he discussed the difference between conscious
and unconscious actions whilst describing organic and inorganic
evolution. As Roger Robinson has explained, in the three chapters entitled
‘The book of the Machines’ Butler wrote his personal eulogy to
Darwin’s Origin of Species taking evolution to its paradoxical extremes
(Robinson, 2007, pp. 21–44). The main merit of Erewhon, in advancing
Butler’s position about psychological evolution, is to finally present the
potential of ‘unconscious memory’. In the novel, ‘unconscious memory’
is the ‘medium’ which permits the preservation of life and makes the
generation of mechanical life possible.
Six years after the publication of Erewhon, Butler returned to
‘unconscious memory’ by proposing his idea in a different manner. After
temporarily leaving his occupation as a novelist, between 1876 and
1877, Butler produced his first philosophical book about unconscious
evolution: Life and Habit. Butler summarised Life and Habit’s theme as:
‘The identification of heredity and memory, and the corollaries relating
to sports, the reversion to remote ancestors, the phenomena of old age,
the causes of the sterility of hybrids, and the principles underlying
longevity – all of which follow as a matter of course. This was ‘Life and
Habit’ ’ (Jones, 1930, p. 66).
Although the book was presented as a scientific ‘publication’, by
discussing many of the topics that were in vogue during the period,
Butler’s critical approach can still be considered an example of ‘natural
philosophy’. It is important to be clear regarding the philosophical
nature of the text because this can explain why it was overlooked by the
scientific community. Life and Habit was based on a critical reflection
upon Darwin’s natural selection mediated with Lamarck’s hypothesis of
‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’. However, it also engaged with
philosophical topics including metaphysical and epistemological
questions: Life and Habit aimed to be what Chambers’ Vestiges had been in
the 1840s. Life and Habit tried to present an argument that was engaging
for philosophers, scientists and the public audience. However, it also
aimed to be, as declared by the writer in the text, ‘a valuable adjunct to
Darwinism’ (Butler, 1910a, p. 33). The ‘valuable adjunct’ was, indeed,
Lamarck’s philosophy of evolution. In Life and Habit, Lamarck played a
key role. Butler himself made this clear declaring in Luck, or Cunning?
(1887): ‘to Lamarck, therefore, I naturally turned, and soon saw that the
theory on which I had been insisting in’’ Life and Habit’’ was in reality an
easy corollary on his system’(Butler, 1910b, p. 9).
In Life and Habit, Butler also discussed Mivart’s Genesis of Species
(1871), Carpenter’s Mental Physiology (1874) and Ribot’s Heredity
(1875), especially in relation to the research of Henry Maudsley.
Additionally, it was in this work that he provided accounts of Aristotle,
Socrates, Plato, Marcus Aurelius and St. Paul in order to establish a strong
link between Victorian science and an older metaphysics. Butler’s
intention was to offer to readers an accessible way to understand everything
regarding evolution and not just present the results of scientific research.
The philosophical nature of the book was also illustrated by the
examples and terminology Butler used. In Life and Habit Butler
explained, citing and discussing large portions of Ribot’s work (and in
some way Lamarck), that humans have two different types of memory:
‘intelligence’ and ‘instinct’. ‘Intelligence’ is the mode of memory
acquired through learning and habits. ‘Instinct’, by contrast, is a type of
memory which exists in our cells and connects any living creature with
its own ancestors. In explaining this difference Butler directly cited
Ribot’s Heredity: ‘‘‘Whereas intelligence is developed slowly by
accumulated experience, instinct is perfect from the first’’ (‘‘Heredity,’’ p.
14)’ (Butler, 1910a, p. 198). In Life and Habit, Butler’s theory of
heredity was very close to Ribot’s although with one notable difference.
If for Ribot memory can only be understood in mechanical terms or as
biological accumulation (‘le capital accumule’), for Butler there was still
something missing. He wrote:
Obviously the memory of a habit or experience will not commonly
be transmitted to offspring in that perfection which is called
‘‘instinct,’’ till the habit or experience has been repeated in several
generations with more or less uniformity; for otherwise the
impression made will not be strong enough to endure through the
busy and difficult task of reproduction (Butler, 1910a, p. 198).
Memory, for Butler, was something more than a simple mechanical
ability; it was the element which links the physical structure of the brain
with its metaphysical nature. For Butler, memory and body were linked
together, as well as memory and heredity. Paraphrasing Life and Habit,
memory and heredity are the means of preserving experiences and
carrying them to the next generation.
Life and Habit did not receive enough attention from Victorian
readers and Butler’s idea was dismissed as an example of a philosophy
of life lacking any serious scientific acumen. In response to this criticism
Butler, in 1879, published Evolution Old and New, where he attempted to
trace the development of evolution before Charles Darwin. Although
not enlarging upon Butler’s theorisation of unconscious evolution, the
book provides an overview of Lamarck’s idea of ‘inheritance’ and its
influence on the pre- and post-Darwinian British debate. Butler himself
declared in Luck or Cunning?: ‘I wrote ‘‘Life and Habit’’ to show that
our mental and bodily acquisitions were mainly stores of memory: I
wrote ‘‘Evolution Old and New’’ to add that the memory must be a
mindful and designing memory’ (Butler, 1910b, p. 23). This explains the
secondary aim of Evolution Old and New which was to present memory
as something between ‘matter’ and ‘metaphysics’ linking the work of
Darwin with Lamarckism and highlighting their differences and
In 1880 Butler tried to propose the idea of memory as heredity for
the second time. With the publication of Unconscious Memory, Butler
returned to the theory that the scientific community had as yet found
unconvincing. It was in this articulation of his conception of the role of
memory in evolution that Butler drew from Hering’s 1872 lecture: Das
Geda¨chtniss als allgemeine Funktion der organisirter Substanz. It can be
argued that the book is nothing more than a discussion of Hering’s
work used by Butler as a justification of his own idea. This is because
Hering’s writing anticipated Butler’s theory using a language and a
methodology far better suited to the persuasion of the scientific
community. Therefore, Butler decided to dedicate a large part of his
Unconscious Memory to Hering’s work, providing an English translation of
the lecture. Speaking of this decision, Butler wrote (referring to Hering
If two men so placed, after years of reflection, arrive independently
of one another at an identical conclusion as regards the manner in
which this machinery must have been invented and perfected, it is
natural that each should take a deep interest in the arguments of
the other, and be anxious to put them forward with the utmost
possible prominence (Butler, 1920, p. 53).
Unconscious Memory presents two main differences to the previous
works. Firstly, Butler partially accepted Hering’s theory of memory as a
form of molecular vibration. The vibration theory was defined as a
series of chemical changes that occur in a substance called ‘protoplasm’
through repetition (Butler, 1920, pp. 55–57). The word ‘protoplasm’
comes from the Greek protos (first) and plasma (anything formed).
Protoplasm was introduced to the scientific language in 1846 by the
German botanist Hugo von Mohl (1805–1872). It was defined as the
‘tough, slimy, granular, semi-fluid’ substance within plant cells but
different from the cell wall, nucleus and sap within the vacuole. In
Unconscious Memory, Butler explained that protoplasm ‘may be, and
perhaps is, the most living part of an organism, as the most capable of
retaining vibrations’ (Butler, 1920, p. 279).
The concept of protoplasm became very popular among British
biologists. In 1869 Huxley, in a famous pamphlet, defined protoplasm
as the ‘physical basis of life’ (Huxley, 1869, pp 7–24). In 1879, G. J.
Allaman wrote in The Popular Science Monthly: ‘Protoplasm lies at the
base of every vital phenomenon. It is, as Huxley has expressed it, ‘the
physical basis of life;’ wherever there is life from its lowest to its highest
manifestation there is protoplasm; wherever there is protoplasm there is
life’ (Allman, 1879, pp. 721–722). However, the science of protoplasm
was not certain or precise. Butler, in particular, was not fully convinced
by this new theory. He wrote in Luck or Cunning?: ‘Science has not, I
believe, settled all the components of protoplasm, but this is neither here
nor there; she has settled what it is in great part, and there is no trusting
her not to settle the rest at any moment, even if she has not already done
so’ (Butler, 1910b, p. 125). The first full account of Protoplasm was,
then, only published by the American chemist E. Newton Harvey in the
1938 article: ‘Some Physical Properties of Protoplasm’. Harvey
described protoplasm as: ‘an albuminous substance containing carbon,
hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen in extremely complex molecular
combination and capable under proper condition of manifesting certain
vital phenomena […]’(Harvey, 1938, p. 68).
In Unconscious Memory, Butler also expressed some partial doubts
on the vibration theory: ‘I am not committed to the vibration theory of
memory, though inclined to accept it on a primaˆ facie view. All I am
committed to is, that if memory is due to persistence of vibrations, so is
heredity; and if memory is not so due, then no more is heredity’ (Butler,
1920, p. 62). In saying this, Butler did not reject his Lamarckian view of
heredity proposed in 1878. Instead, he suggested that whilst he knew
nothing about the vibration theory when he wrote Life and Habit, this
new biological advancement did not affect his theory of memory and
Unconscious Memory presented another novelty. In Life and Habit
Butler defined himself as a member of the general public with the
intention of explaining evolution to a popular audience. In 1880, he left
the naive spirit of the previous books and placed himself next to Hering,
whilst still highlighting his status as a non practitioner of science. He
Professor Hering and I, to use a metaphor of his own, are as men
who have observed the action of living beings upon the stage of the
world, he from the point of view at once of a spectator and of one
who has free access to much of what goes on behind the scenes, I
from that of a spectator only, with none but the vaguest notion of
the actual manner in which the stage machinery is worked (Butler,
1920, p. 53).
In his final and most polemical book, Luck or Cunning? (1886), Butler
again proposed the Lamarckian mechanism of unconscious memory.
He tried to show how Lamarck’s theory of memory and heredity was
implicit in much of the teaching of Spencer, Romanes and other leading
biologists although hidden by the Darwinian shadow.
Luck or Cunning? did not present any significant advancement of
Butler’s theory of memory as heredity proposed in Unconscious
Memory. However, Butler returned to the idea of protoplasm and memory.
In particular, he accepted a more marked development in the vibration
hypothesis of memory given by Hering and only adopted with reserve in
Unconscious Memory. In the book, Butler also presented a strong
objection to ‘protoplasm as the only living substance’ (Butler, 1910b,
p. 127) as suggested by Huxley. Instead, Butler explained that
protoplasm could only be accepted as corollary to his memory theory in
contrast to the use of protoplasm as a justification of ‘the mindless
theory of natural selection’ (Butler, 1910b, p. 142). Butler was very firm
on this point. In his opinion, it was not possible to talk about heredity
and protoplasm without Lamarckian design. He declared ‘I have said
enough to show that in the decade, roughly, between 1870 and 1880 the
set of opinion among our leading biologists was strongly against mind’
(Butler, 1910b, p. 142).
Unfortunately, the author of Life and Habit was not able to see his
theory recognised by the scientific community during his lifetime. He
remained an outsider or, citing again Romanes’ review, he remained, at
least to his contemporary English men of science, ‘in no way adapted,
either by mental status or mental equipment’ to take part in the
evolutionary debate (Romanes, 1881, p. 285).
The Afterlife of the Idea of Unconscious Memory
While Butler’s ideas made little headway in England, they fared better
abroad. In the early twentieth century Butler’s science of the mind
became recognised through the popularisation of Marcus Hartog (1851–
1924) and Eugenio Rignano, as the ‘Butler/Hering theory.’ Marcus
Hartog is central to the new ‘understanding’ of Butler’s science in the
early twentieth century. Educated in biology and an expert in natural
history, Hartog was one of the major followers of Butler’s theory of
memory and heredity. His interpretation of Butler’s work focused on
the assumption that Butler’s notion of unconscious memory was not an
isolated case in Europe. In his introduction of the 1910 edition of
Unconscious Memory, Hartog explained how Butler’s evolutionary idea
was linked to the work of Hering and Ribot, creating a European
parallel between those authors. He wrote: ‘Unconscious Memory was
largely written to show the relation of Butler’s views to Hering’s, and
contains an exquisitely written translation of the Address’ (Butler, 1920,
In 1914 Hartog published in the Italian periodical Scientia the article
‘Samuel Butler et les Recentes theories Biologique de la Memoire’ where
he defined Butler as one of the most unique spirits of the whole
Victorian period (Hartog, 1914, p. 40). He explained that Butler’s finest
merit was not only that of being able to popularise science to the general
audience, but also being an inspiration to science in the twentieth
century (Hartog, 1914, p. 55). It is also important to highlight that the
article was published in the journal Scientia which, at the beginning of
the twentieth century, was publishing the ‘avant-garde’ of the science of
One of the editors of Scientia was the Italian Eugenio Rignano.
Engineer, philosopher and writer, Rignano was an exponent of the
Italian neo-Lamarckian movement. Rignano published widely on
philosophical and scientific topics. His main book Sulla Trasmissibilita`
dei Caratteri Acquisiti (1907) explained the process of inheritance in a
manner very similar to that of Hering (and indirectly Butler). However,
what is interesting in Rignano’s work is how he insisted on the
mnemonic process as a concrete possibility in explaining the hereditary
mechanism. Similarly, in the review of August Pauly’s Darwinismus und
Lamarckismus (1907), Rignano explained how the position of Pauly was
developed – starting from the big discoveries in the organic memory
debate advanced by Hering (Rignano, 1907, p. 195).
The writings of both Hartog and Rignano present an unexpected
portrait of Butler’s idea of memory and heredity. During his lifetime,
Butler’s work was neglected and ignored by the British scientific
community to whom he tried to communicate it. However, Butler has
posthumously been recognised not only as a populariser of Hering’s
ideas, but also as a contributor to the debate about the mechanisms of
evolution. Rignano was not alone in placing Butler’s name alongside
that of Ribot and Hering as an important figure. At the beginning of the
twentieth-century, Butler was instead considered, alongside Th
e´oduleArmand Ribot and Ewald Hering, a relevant figure of the
post-Darwinian debate on heredity. In 1923, S. J. Tomekeieff’s article: ‘The
Mnemic Theories of Evolution’ (also published in Scientia) was correct
in defining Butler as the writer ‘whose genius is not yet fully appreciated
even in his own country’ (Tomekeieff, 1923, p. 160). Tomekeieff’s quote
perfectly summarises the content of this article which, I hope, has shed
some light upon the place of Butler in the late nineteenth century
panEuropean debate about evolution and psychology.
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Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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