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- Unconscious Memory - 1/38 -

Transcribed from the 1910 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email


"As this paper contains nothing which deserves the name either of experiment or discovery, and as it is, in fact, destitute of every species of merit, we should have allowed it to pass among the multitude of those articles which must always find their way into the collections of a society which is pledged to publish two or three volumes every year. . . . We wish to raise our feeble voice against innovations, that can have no other effect than to check the progress of science, and renew all those wild phantoms of the imagination which Bacon and Newton put to flight from her temple."--Opening Paragraph of a Review of Dr. Young's Bakerian Lecture. Edinburgh Review, January 1803, p. 450.

"Young's work was laid before the Royal society, and was made the 1801 Bakerian Lecture. But he was before his time. The second number of the Edinburgh Review contained an article levelled against him by Henry (afterwards Lord) Brougham, and this was so severe an attack that Young's ideas were absolutely quenched for fifteen years. Brougham was then only twenty-four years of age. Young's theory was reproduced in France by Fresnel. In our days it is the accepted theory, and is found to explain all the phenomena of light."--Times Report of a Lecture by Professor Tyndall on Light, April 27, 1880.

This Book Is inscribed to RICHARD GARNETT, ESQ. (Of the British Museum) In grateful acknowledgment of the unwearying kindness with which he has so often placed at my disposal his varied store of information.

Contents: Note by R. A. Streatfeild Introduction by Marcus Hartog Author's Preface Unconscious Memory


For many years a link in the chain of Samuel Butler's biological works has been missing. "Unconscious Memory" was originally published thirty years ago, but for fully half that period it has been out of print, owing to the destruction of a large number of the unbound sheets in a fire at the premises of the printers some years ago. The present reprint comes, I think, at a peculiarly fortunate moment, since the attention of the general public has of late been drawn to Butler's biological theories in a marked manner by several distinguished men of science, notably by Dr. Francis Darwin, who, in his presidential address to the British Association in 1908, quoted from the translation of Hering's address on "Memory as a Universal Function of Original Matter," which Butler incorporated into "Unconscious Memory," and spoke in the highest terms of Butler himself. It is not necessary for me to do more than refer to the changed attitude of scientific authorities with regard to Butler and his theories, since Professor Marcus Hartog has most kindly consented to contribute an introduction to the present edition of "Unconscious Memory," summarising Butler's views upon biology, and defining his position in the world of science. A word must be said as to the controversy between Butler and Darwin, with which Chapter IV is concerned. I have been told that in reissuing the book at all I am committing a grievous error of taste, that the world is no longer interested in these "old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago," and that Butler himself, by refraining from republishing "Unconscious Memory," tacitly admitted that he wished the controversy to be consigned to oblivion. This last suggestion, at any rate, has no foundation in fact. Butler desired nothing less than that his vindication of himself against what he considered unfair treatment should be forgotten. He would have republished "Unconscious Memory" himself, had not the latter years of his life been devoted to all- engrossing work in other fields. In issuing the present edition I am fulfilling a wish that he expressed to me shortly before his death.

R. A. STREATFEILD. April, 1910.

INTRODUCTION By Marcus Hartog, M.A. D.Sc., F.L.S., F.R.H.S.

In reviewing Samuel Butler's works, "Unconscious Memory" gives us an invaluable lead; for it tells us (Chaps. II, III) how the author came to write the Book of the Machines in "Erewhon" (1872), with its foreshadowing of the later theory, "Life and Habit," (1878), "Evolution, Old and New" (1879), as well as "Unconscious Memory" (1880) itself. His fourth book on biological theory was "Luck? or Cunning?" (1887). {0a}

Besides these books, his contributions to biology comprise several essays: "Remarks on Romanes' Mental Evolution in Animals, contained in "Selections from Previous Works" (1884) incorporated into "Luck? or Cunning," "The Deadlock in Darwinism" (Universal Review, April- June, 1890), republished in the posthumous volume of "Essays on Life, Art, and Science" (1904), and, finally, some of the "Extracts from the Notebooks of the late Samuel Butler," edited by Mr. H. Festing Jones, now in course of publication in the New Quarterly Review.

Of all these, "LIFE AND HABIT" (1878) is the most important, the main building to which the other writings are buttresses or, at most, annexes. Its teaching has been summarised in "Unconscious Memory" in four main principles: "(1) the oneness of personality between parent and offspring; (2) memory on the part of the offspring of certain actions which it did when in the persons of its forefathers; (3) the latency of that memory until it is rekindled by a recurrence of the associated ideas; (4) the unconsciousness with which habitual actions come to be performed." To these we must add a fifth: the purposiveness of the actions of living beings, as of the machines which they make or select.

Butler tells ("Life and Habit," p. 33) that he sometimes hoped "that this book would be regarded as a valuable adjunct to Darwinism." He was bitterly disappointed in the event, for the book, as a whole, was received by professional biologists as a gigantic joke--a joke, moreover, not in the best possible taste. True, its central ideas, largely those of Lamarck, had been presented by Hering in 1870 (as Butler found shortly after his publication); they had been favourably received, developed by Haeckel, expounded and praised by Ray Lankester. Coming from Butler, they met with contumely, even from such men as Romanes, who, as Butler had no difficulty in proving, were unconsciously inspired by the same ideas--"Nur mit ein bischen ander'n Worter."

It is easy, looking back, to see why "Life and Habit" so missed its mark. Charles Darwin's presentation of the evolution theory had, for the first time, rendered it possible for a "sound naturalist" to accept the doctrine of common descent with divergence; and so given a real meaning to the term "natural relationship," which had forced itself upon the older naturalists, despite their belief in special and independent creations. The immediate aim of the naturalists of the day was now to fill up the gaps in their knowledge, so as to strengthen the fabric of a unified biology. For this purpose they found their actual scientific equipment so inadequate that they were fully occupied in inventing fresh technique, and working therewith at facts--save a few critics, such as St. George Mivart, who was regarded as negligible, since he evidently held a brief for a party standing outside the scientific world.

Butler introduced himself as what we now call "The Man in the Street," far too bare of scientific clothing to satisfy the Mrs. Grundy of the domain: lacking all recognised tools of science and all sense of the difficulties in his way, he proceeded to tackle the problems of science with little save the deft pen of the literary expert in his hand. His very failure to appreciate the difficulties gave greater power to his work--much as Tartarin of Tarascon ascended the Jungfrau and faced successfully all dangers of Alpine travel, so long as he believed them to be the mere "blagues de reclame" of the wily Swiss host. His brilliant qualities of style and irony themselves told heavily against him. Was he not already known for having written the most trenchant satire that had appeared since "Gulliver's Travels"? Had he not sneered therein at the very foundations of society, and followed up its success by a pseudo- biography that had taken in the "Record" and the "Rock"? In "Life and Habit," at the very start, he goes out of his way to heap scorn at the respected names of Marcus Aurelius, Lord Bacon, Goethe, Arnold of Rugby, and Dr. W. B. Carpenter. He expressed the lowest opinion of the Fellows of the Royal Society. To him the professional man of science, with self-conscious knowledge for his ideal and aim, was a medicine-man, priest, augur--useful, perhaps, in his way, but to be carefully watched by all who value freedom of thought and person, lest with opportunity he develop into a persecutor of the worst type. Not content with blackguarding the audience to whom his work should most appeal, he went on to depreciate that work itself and its author in his finest vein of irony. Having argued that our best and highest knowledge is that of whose possession we are most ignorant, he proceeds: "Above all, let no unwary reader do me the injustice of believing in me. In that I write at all I am among the damned."

His writing of "EVOLUTION, OLD AND NEW" (1879) was due to his conviction that scant justice had been done by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and their admirers to the pioneering work of Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck. To repair this he gives a brilliant exposition of what seemed to him the most valuable portion of their teachings on evolution. His analysis of Buffon's true meaning, veiled by the reticences due to the conditions under which he wrote, is as masterly as the English in which he develops it. His sense of wounded justice explains the vigorous polemic which here, as in all his later writings, he carries to the extreme.

Unconscious Memory - 1/38

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