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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Samuel Butler to Francis Darwin   25 November 1877

15, Clifford’s Inn | Fleet Street E. C

Nov. 25. 1877

Dear Darwin

I am going down home this week, but expect that before I return my book will be out; it has been vexatiously delayed by printers— but shd leave the binders Thursday or Friday and I have left instructions that two copies should be at once sent you— one of which, if you think fit after reading it you will perhaps be kind enough to give to your father.1

I confess that I do not like the thought of either his seeing it or of your doing so, for it has resolved itself into a down right attack upon your father’s view of evolution and a defence of what I conceive to be Lamarck’s, and this is what I neither anticipated nor wished but what I was simply driven into.2 I should like if you will pardon me just to state how and why I did not say more to you on this head when I saw you last.3 Two or three days before I saw you a man had insisted on my reading Mivart’s book, and sent me a copy—4 I read it and when I saw you had got through about a quarter of it. I at once felt that something was wanted to give an aim to variations, and if you remember said that I felt this— I then got your father’s last edition of the Origin which I had not looked at for some years having lent my own copy to some one who had not returned it— I read the answers to Mivart, some of which were convincing, but others did not seem to me to be so.5 Then I read on and came to the chapter on instinct—and on p. 206 was horrified to read “It would be a serious error &c … ”6 Now this cut at the very root of what I was doing and I felt as though I had better burn my M.S at once— I finished the chapter—and was I need not say ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ more sure than before that I must have blundered—the conclusion on page 233 “I am surprised &c” knocked me out of time I can assure you.7 This was the first I had ever heard of the doctrine of inherited habit— which I had conceived was the new feature of my own book—and now to find that it was a stale old theory of the exploded Lamarck and was demonstrably impossible when my book was three parts done was, I can assure you, no small blow.

On thinking it over however I was again met with the weight of the evidence in favour of structure and habit being mainly due to memory, and accordingly gathered what I could from encyclopædias of what Lamarck had said—also I read as much about bees and ants as I could lay my hands on and in a little time saw my way again. I had no time to read Lamarck, but shall do so at once and, I think, translate him now—unless I find he has been translated already—but let that pass. Then reading your father more closely—and, I may say, more sceptically—the full antagonism between him and Lamarck came for the first time before me, and I saw plainly that there was no possibility of compromise between the two views. Then I fell to analysing your father’s answers to miscellaneous objections more closely and was met, and this time brought up by, the passage on p. 171 “In the earlier editions &c” on which I have been very severe in my own book8—but simply from the necessities of my own position, for either your father or Lamarck (and hence I) am on a very mistaken track—and the matter must be fought out according to the rules of the game—then—I went through the earlier part of my book and cut out all support of “natural selection” & made it square in with a teleological view—for such I take it Lamarck’s is, and only different from Paley’s in so far as the design with Paley is from without, and with Lamarck from within9—and feeling that I was in for a penny and might as well be in for a pound I wrote about your father’s work exactly as I should have done about any one else’s bearing in mind his immense services and his age as compared with my own— In one passage only have I been disrespectful— that is when I say that “domestic productions” may mean anything from a baby to an apple dumpling10—but I could not resist it—and can only say that it was “not I that did it, but sin that waketh in me”—11 In the other passages I have been exceedingly I hardly like to say “severe” but this is the word I should have used if I were your father’s equal in age and knowledge—but I have always frankly admitted, and in such way as to leave no sense of arriére pensée,12 the inestimable boon which he has conferred upon us by teaching us to believe in evolution, though maintaining that he has led us to believe in it on grounds which I for my own part cannot accept. What I imagine I have added to Lamarck, (though I make no shadow of doubt that if it is true either Lamarck will be found to have said it, or else that some one else will have done so—still I don’t know where to find it) is that I have pointed out the bonâ fide character of the continued personality between successive generations, and the bonâ fide character of the memory on the part of the offspring, of its past existences in the persons of its forefathers, and have connected this with the vanishing tendency of consciousness and the phenomena of the abeyance and recurrence of memory.13 With these additions (if they are additions) I cannot see that Lamarck’s system is wrong. As for “natural selection” frankly to me it now seems a rope of sand as in any way accounting for the “origin of species.” Of course I am strengthened in my opinion by seeing that it reduces to a common source the sterility of hybrids, the sterility of many wild animals under domestication—all variation (as being only a phase of sterility itself—or rather the only alternative left to a creature under greatly changed conditions if the changes are not great enough to induce sterility), the phenomena of growth—& metagenesis—the phenomena of old age, and a lot more which I see at present too uncertainly to venture to commit myself on paper concerning them—

I was obliged to leave the pangenesis chapter out, as I was anxious to keep my book as short as possible and it grew very rapidly upon me towards the end—14 Moreover what you told me about the review in Nature determined me to “hurry up.”15

Well— I hope you will forgive the inordinate length of this letter

If you remember a few days after seeing you I wrote that I was afraid I should have to differ from your father not a little only but seriously & fundamentally— I had finished Mivart’s book between your visit and my letter— as I went on I felt that I could hardly again write and say “I am differing more seriously and more fundamentally”—in fact there was nothing for it but to go ahead— the only thing would be to explain to you that when I saw you I had not yet begun to write the last 5 chapters of my book and had only just begun to see that I might have to fall foul of “natural selection”. Also I should like to assure you, and your father through you—that I have been, and am, a good deal exercised in mind about the whole matter.

Nothing would surprise me less than to see something sprung upon me in reviews and answers which cuts the ground completely from under me—and of course I neither expect nor give quarter in a philosophical argument. We want to get on to the right side, and neither your father nor I take it myself care two straws how we get on to the right side so long as we get there—nor do we want half refutations nor beatings about the bush. we want to come to an understanding as to what is true and what false as soon as possible, & we know well that we score more for retracting after having been deeply committed than for keeping on to our original course when a new light has come upon us—so you must not be surprised if I am myself among the first to turn upon new book and send it, as I shall most assuredly do if I find, as I probably shall find, that it is naught.

Please excuse this erasure.16 Its purpose was to say how sorry I was that your father should have been at school under my grandfather in as much as I myself should dislike an attack from a son or grandson of Kennedy’s when I shd not care two pence about it from any one else.17

Believe me yrs very truly | S. Butler.

I have written this in copying ink, & from a copy because I am sure I shall never again be at the pains of writing the steps by which my book came to be what is, but am not sorry to have a record of them.


Butler’s Life and habit (Butler 1878) was published on 4 December 1877 (Jones 1919, 1: 261). No copy survives in the Darwin Libraries at Down or CUL. For Francis’s reply to this letter, and for his response to Butler 1878, see Jones 1919, 1: 260–1, 263–4.
Butler was interested in Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics or habits. See Raby 1990, pp. 161–8.
Francis had lunched with Butler on 26 September 1877 (Jones 1919, 1: 256–7).
St George Jackson Mivart’s book On the genesis of species (Mivart 1871) included an extended critique of CD’s theory of natural selection. The friend who recommended that Butler read it has not been identified.
Origin (1876) was a corrected reprint of the sixth edition of 1872, which included a new chapter responding to Mivart’s criticisms (chapter 7).
The chapter on instinct was chapter 8. The full quotation reads,

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 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.

CD had discussed ants in which two sterile castes existed in the same nest, being widely different from each other and from their parents, concluding,

The case … proves that with animals, as with plants, any amount of modification may be effected by the accumulation of numerous, slight, spontaneous variations, which are in any way profitable, without exercise or habit having been brought into play. For peculiar habits confined to the workers or sterile females, however long they might be followed, could not possibly affect the males and fertile females, which alone leave descendants. 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.

CD had also mentioned Lamarck and the effects of use and disuse, or habit, in his Historical sketch at the beginning of Origin from the third edition onwards (pp. xiii–xiv in the 1876 edition).
‘In the earlier editions of this work I under-rated, as it now seems probable, the frequency and importance of modifications due to spontaneous variability. But it is impossible to attribute to this cause the innumerable structures which are so well adapted to the habits of life of each species.’ In Butler 1878, pp. 258–61, Butler concluded that this passage was ‘as nearly meaningless’ as it could be. By ‘spontaneous variability’, CD meant special cases such as bud-variations: for example, a nectarine that appeared on the stock of a peach tree.
William Paley, in his Natural theology, put forward an argument for the existence of God from the apparent evidence of beneficent design in the natural world (Paley 1802).
Butler 1878, p. 255:

Mr. Darwin tells us, in the preface to his last edition of the “Origin of species,” that Lamarck was partly led to his conclusions by the analogy of domestic productions. It is rather hard to say what these words imply; they may mean anything from a baby to an apple dumpling, but if they imply that Lamarck drew his inspirations from the gradual development of the mechanical inventions of man, and from the progress of man’s ideas, I would say that of all sources this would seem to be the safest and most fertile from which to draw.

CD used ‘domestic productions’ in the sense of domesticated animals and cultivated plants.
Rom. 7:17: ‘Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.’
Arrière pensée: mental reservation or concealed aim (French).
In Butler 1878, Butler traced the origin of characteristics in animals and plants to memories that had been acquired over many generations and had become unconscious, gradually taking the form of instincts, reflexes, and organic structures. For more on Butler’s concept of unconscious memory, see Beer 2007.
Chapter 27 of Variation 2d ed., ‘Provisional hypothesis of pangenesis’, outlined CD’s ideas regarding heredity; CD suggested that minute particles (gemmules) circulated in the bodily fluids and were capable of generating new cells, remaining dormant until required. He thought his hypothesis could explain both sexual and asexual reproduction, as well as reversion and the regrowth of body parts.
Edwin Ray Lankester had published an article in Nature, 13 June 1876, on Ernst Haeckel’s theory of perigenesis (Lankester 1876; Haeckel had substituted a wave theory of hereditary transmission for the particulate theory, pangenesis, put forward by CD). Haeckel was inspired partly by Ewald Hering’s ‘Über das Gedächtnis als eine allgemeine Function des organisirten Materie’ (On memory as a general function of organised matter; Hering 1870). Lankester summarised as follows (Lankester 1876, p. 237):

[Hering] points out that since all transmission of ‘qualities’ from cell to cell in the growth and repair of one and the same organ, or from parent to offspring, is a transmission of vibrations or affectations of material particles, whether these qualities manifest themselves as form, or as a facility for entering upon a given series of vibrations, we may speak of all such phenomena as ‘memory,’ whether it be the conscious memory exhibited by the nerve-cells of the brain or the unconscious memory we call habit, or the inherited memory we call instinct; or whether again it be the reproduction of parental form and minute structure. From the earliest existence of protoplasm to the present day, the memory of living matter is continuous.

Before this sentence, four lines of text have been scribbled out.
CD had attended Shrewsbury School under the headmastership of Samuel Butler (1774–1839), Butler’s grandfather. When Butler himself attended the school, the headmaster was Benjamin Hall Kennedy.


Butler, Samuel. 1878. Life and habit. London: Trübner & Co.

Jones, Henry Festing. 1919. Samuel Butler, author of ‘Erewhon’, 1835–1902: a memoir. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Origin (1876): The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 6th edition, with additions and corrections to 1872. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1876.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Paley, William. 1802. Natural theology; or, evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. London: R. Faulder.

Raby, Peter. 1990. Samuel Butler: a biography. London: Hogarth.

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.


SB’s book [Life and habit (1878)] will be bound shortly. He will send two copies, one of which can be given to CD. To SB’s surprise it has turned out to be an attack on CD’s views and a defence of Lamarck; describes how he was brought to the opinions expressed in it.

Letter details

Letter no.
Samuel Butler
Francis Darwin
Sent from
London, Clifford’s Inn, 15
Source of text
DAR 160: 393
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11254,” accessed on 11 August 2022,