Butler, Samuel (1835–1902)

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The English writer and critic Samuel Butler was the author of the satirical novels The Way of All Flesh, Erewhon, and Erewhon Revisited, as well as several discussions of philosophical biology and the theory of evolution. He was the son of the Reverend Thomas Butler, whom he depicted as a domestic tyrant in The Way of All Flesh. Butler was sent to Cambridge by his father in the hope that he would become a clergyman, but after graduating he refused to take orders because of doubts about the Christian creed. In 1859 he emigrated to New Zealand, where he became a successful sheep farmer and for a time a convert to Darwinism. Returning to England in 1864 with enough money to live on, he began a career as an author, painter, and musician. The subject of evolution continued to occupy his mind for many years. It forms the substance of several essays and four books: Life and Habit (London, 1878), Evolution, Old and New (London, 1879), Unconscious Memory (London, 1880), and Luck or Cunning? (London, 1887). These works reflect a mounting hostility to the ideas of Charles Darwin and a desire to champion those of Erasmus Darwin and the Chevalier de Lamarck. This hostility first made its appearance in Erewhon (London, 1872).


Butler was neither a scientist nor a philosopher. His discussions of evolution are the work of a literary man with strong intellectual interests but little capacity for exact thought. He was at his best when giving scientific and philosophical ideas an original twist that often put them in quite a new light. To many fellow Victorians he seemed an irreverent skeptic or even an atheist; but in fact, he wanted to retain religion while discarding the Christian creed and to discard Darwin while retaining evolution. This outlook pervades all his major writings.

The central weakness of Darwinism, according to Butler, was its failure to identify the cause of the variations on which selection was said to operate. They were described as random or accidental, which would mean that the course of evolution has been a matter of luck. The older evolutionists, such as Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, were far sounder in their views, for they attributed the cause of variations to the activity of organisms and to the inherited effects of the use or disuse of their various functions. Not luck, they claimed, but cunning displayed by organisms in coping with their environment lies at the basis of evolution. Hence, the activity of organisms is profoundly purposive. The great mistake of Charles Darwin was to dismiss teleology from the domain of living things, for they then become indistinguishable from machines.

In an essay of 1865 Butler toyed with the idea that machines are adjuncts to organisms, like extra, though inferior, limbs, by means of which organisms have become more highly evolved. Hence, "a leg is only a much better wooden leg than anyone can manufacture." This led Butler to consider the problem of how living things have come to produce their natural organs and to equip themselves with adaptive habits. The answer, he asserted, is that the individual plant or animal must "know" at the start what to do. A fertilized ovum possesses the knowledge it needs to make itself into an embryo and subsequently into an adult organism. This knowledge is really a remembering of what its ancestors did in the past. Hence, we must postulate an "unconscious memory" at work in all living things, binding successive generations and providing the basis for the transmission of acquired characteristics.

Butler then leaped to two sweeping conclusions. First, consciousness and intelligence exist throughout the whole organic world. "For the embryo of the chicken, we claim exactly the same kind of reasoning power and contrivance which we claim for the amoeba, or for our own intelligent performances in later life." Second, since evolution involves a continuous process of derivation, there must be an "identity" between parents and offspring: the latter are not different individuals but are the parents at a later evolutionary stage. "Birth has been made too much of." A newborn infant is simply part of an unbroken biological process, not an utterly separate individual. Accordingly, there is a deep unity of all life, so that it constitutes "in reality, nothing but one single creature, of which the component members are but, as it were, blood corpuscles or individual cells."

With the aid of these conclusions, Butler sought to justify an idealistic and religious interpretation of evolution. In Unconscious Memory he contended that his earlier separation of the organic from the inorganic was unwarranted. "What we call the inorganic world must be regarded as up to a certain point living, and instinct with consciousness." Hence, "all space is at all times full of a stuff endowed with a mind," and "both stuff and mind are immaterial and imperceptible, so long as they are undisturbed, but the moment they are disturbed, the stuff becomes material and the mind perceptible." Evolution is therefore the life history of this primordial world stuff, "to which no name can be so fittingly applied as 'God.'"

Many of Butler's criticisms of Darwinism have been made irrelevant by the rise of the science of genetics. Yet he was justified in urging those criticisms at the time and in calling attention to vacillations in Darwin's thought on basic issues. If Butler had been more scrupulous in his own thinking and less facile with his pen, his works on philosophical biology might have had greater survival value.


Butler's rather unusual theology is set forth in three essays, posthumously published as God the Known and God the Unknown (London, 1909). He there contended that an adequate concept of God requires him to be a living person with a material body. To regard God as merely a spirit is tantamount to atheism. At first Butler held that the divine body is just the totality of life, the "one single creature" whose unconscious memory is part of the divine mind. When he rejected the distinction between the organic and the inorganic, his view shifted from a "panzoistic" conception of God to pantheism. He intended to rewrite his theology in the light of this shift, but never managed to do so. One odd belief he expressed was that the grand design of the cosmos points to the existence of "some vaster Person who looms out behind our God, and who stands in the same relation to him as he to us. And behind this vaster and more unknown God there may be yet another, and another, and another." This pyramiding of deities was one of the many items with which Butler enlivened the Victorian scene.

Social Thought

Despite the barbs he directed at the institutions of his day, Butler's social outlook was conservative. He took the position that those who are rich and successful are the highest types thus far produced in the evolutionary process. Poor men are biological misfits; hence, the sooner they disappear and leave room for those better able to take care of themselves, the better. In the imaginary society of Erewhon, "if a man has made a fortune of over £20,000, they exempt him from all taxation, considering him a work of art and too precious to be meddled with." Butler's account of this society is not so much a blueprint of utopia as a device for satirizing the beliefs and practices of middle-class Englishmen by inverting accepted values. Thus, in Erewhon bodily illness was considered a punishable crime, whereas moral failings deserved sympathy and were given therapeutic treatment. Instead of fostering machinery, the Erewhonians, after a long struggle, destroyed it when they realized that machines, like organisms, were evolving and would soon acquire a mastery over men. In Erewhon Revisited (London, 1901), Butler depicted a community showing signs of degeneration, as if to underline the conclusion that a social order is an impermanent evolutionary product and inevitably alters. Yet here again no consistent point of view was worked out.

See also Consciousness; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwin, Erasmus; Darwinism; Evolutionary Theory; Lamarck, Chevalier de; Pantheism; Philosophy of Biology; Teleology.


Furbank, P. N. Samuel Butler. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Jones, H. Festing. Samuel Butler, Author of Erewhon (18351902): A Memoir, 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1919. The standard biography.

Kingsmill, Hugh. After Puritanism. London: Duckworth, 1929.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1936.

Willey, Basil. Darwin and Butler, Two Versions of Evolution. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

T. A. Goudge (1967)

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