DONALD R. FORSDYKE
Centaurus (2006) 48, 133-148
Author Posting. © The Author 2006. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version (with some imposed editing) was published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd. in Centaurus, 48:3, pp. 133-148. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1600-0498.2006.00045.x
Slowly scanning the assembly before him, his stern gaze settled on one upturned face: “Pococurante!” Decades later Charles Darwin (1867) recalled the event: “I was at school at Shrewsbury under a great scholar, Dr. Butler; I learned absolutely nothing, except by amusing myself by reading and experimenting in chemistry. Dr. Butler somehow found this out, and publicly sneered at me before the whole school for such gross waste of time; I remember he called me Pococurante [a person concerned only with trifles], which, not understanding, I thought was a dreadful name.”
On Saturday October 1st
(1809-1882) noted in his diary that he had finished correcting the
proofs of his great work, The Origin of Species, which appeared in November (Bowlby 1990).
That same Saturday, Dr. Butler’s grandson, Samuel (1835-1902), sailed
for New Zealand
with Justus Liebig’s Agricultural
Chemistry and the aim of becoming a sheep farmer (Jones 1919, p.
74). Shortly after his arrival he obtained a copy of
Here I review the concept of heredity as the transmission of stored information (memory) as introduced in the 1870s by Ewald Hering (1834-1918) and Samuel Butler. In the sense that the work of Mendel was quantally different from those of his intellectual ancestors but remains close to those of his intellectual posterity (Roberts 1929), so the work of Hering and Butler can now be seen as at the root of modern evolutionary bioinformatics (Forsdyke 2006). However, whereas Mendel’s work escaped recognition for a “mere” thirty-five years, that of Hering and Butler has escaped modern commentators (Smith 1999; Smith 2000; Kay 2000) and lain hidden for over a century.
who gained posthumous prominence in the twentieth century as the author
of Erewhon and
The Way of All Flesh, was a grandson of Bishop Samuel Butler who was
for many years the headmaster of
1870 Butler collected together some earlier publications (Butler 1914a)
with titles such as “Darwin Among the Machines,” “The World of the
Unborn,” “The Musical Banks” and “An Erewhonian Trial,” and
wrote his most “successful” literary work, a satire on the
materialism, pseudo-idealism and academic pretentiousness of his times
– Erewhon (the title is
close to “nowhere” backwards). It
was completed in 1871 and went on sale in 1872 with the support of a
loan to cover the publisher’s expenses (Jones 1919, p. 149). The
following seemingly convoluted paragraph on seed germination indicates
the already advanced state of his evolutionary thought (
heredity was seen as the process by which characters (which we would now
call the phenotype) were passed forward from parent to child. However,
wanted his strictly materialist position be understood (Butler 1880, p.
99): “Both man and the lower animals are to the physiologist neither
more nor less than the matter of which they consist.” He held that
ideas that disappeared from consciousness would be stored in some
material form in the unconscious memory, from which they could be
recalled to consciousness. Thus, “the physiology of the unconscious is
no ‘philosophy of the unconscious’” (
Hering considered that actions that were repeated were more likely to be stored in memory, and hence more accurately recalled, than actions that were performed only once or twice. So practice-makes-perfect with respect both to psychomotor functions, such as reproducing music on the piano, and to hereditary functions, such as reproducing a cell from a parent cell, and reproducing an organism from either a parent organism (asexual reproduction) or parent organisms (sexual reproduction) (Butler 1880, p. 124):
Among the recollections of the germ would be instinctual (innate) actions. As far as we know, a pianist, having practiced a piece so well that it can be played virtually unconsciously, does not pass knowledge of that piece through the germ line to children. Yet, Hering held that some psychomotor activities of comparable complexity are passed on (Butler 1880, p. 126):
lecture was noted with approval by the German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel
(1876) in a book which was reviewed in Nature
(Lankester 1876). Haeckel sent a copy to Charles Darwin, who forwarded
it to his young research associate, the physiologist George Romanes
second major work, Evolution Old
and New (1879), constituted a serious indictment of the failure of
the Darwinists to acknowledge their intellectual antecedents – Comte
Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788), Doctor Erasmus Darwin
(1731-1802), and Chevalier Jean Baptiste Pierre de Lamarck (1744-1829)
– later summarized as: “Buffon planted, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck
watered, but it was Mr. Darwin who said, ‘That fruit is ripe,’ and
shook it into his lap” (Butler 1887, p. 291). This, to put it mildly,
did not please the Darwinians, particularly Romanes who, by virtue of
his deep interest in evolution and mental function (Romanes 1884), was
well prepared to understand
Like other Victorians,
Butler did not often use the word “information” in the context of
heredity, but his third major work, Unconscious
Memory (1880, p. 252), made clear his understanding of memory as
fourth major work on evolution, Luck
In a lecture in 1894 on
“Thought and Language” attacking the views of
never using the word “information,” in his “provisional theory of
Evolution in Animals, Romanes
(1884) was happy to consider
instinctual activities, such as bird migration and nest-making, as
requiring inherited (“ready-formed”) information:
But, much to
Butler’s frustration, he would not move beyond this (Butler 1884, p. 236):
“Memory” refers either to the physiological process by which stored information is retrieved, or to the actual stored information itself. In the former sense, the storage of information is implicit. In the latter sense, memory is stored information. Whatever the sense, the concepts of memory and of stored information are very close. At some point in time information is selected and assigned to a store, and at a later point in time it may be retrieved. But storage of information is not enough. Information must be safely stored. To select and to store is not to preserve. Stored information must also be preserved information. When preservation is not perfect, there is variation. When there is variation, there can be both linear and branching evolution. Thus, in 1966 the US biologist George C. Williams defined a gene, not as a unit of function (observed as some phenotypic characteristic), but as a unit of preservation. This, and the related work of the Japanese biophysicist Akiyoshi Wada, are discussed elsewhere in much technical detail (Forsdyke 2004a, b; Lee, Mortimer and Forsdyke 2004; Forsdyke 2006).
Apparently unaware of
Joseph Hooker’s “doctrine of creation by variation” (Hooker 1860,
the parallels he had drawn between memory and heredity suggested to Butler
a set of alternatives that had some plausibility at the time. He opted
for an agency internal to the organism that would, in small
steps, bring about variations that would accumulate to the advantage of
the organism. This set of alternatives had gained some scientific
respectability both in
it served his purpose
Butler soared beyond the comprehension of most of his contemporaries on the wings of his conceptual insight that heredity was the transfer of stored information. The German zoologist Richard Semon (1859-1918) acknowledged Butler’s influence in developing his “mneme” theory of memory (Hartog 1914; Russell 1916; Richards 1987; Schachter 2001). Dawkins (2003) was unaware of this when he suggested the word "meme" as a self-replicating element of culture, passed on by imitation. Although Butler’s dalliance with Lamarckism has not won support, we recognize today that the robustness of the underlying idea led him closer to solutions to fundamental biological problems such as the origin of sex, the sterility of hybrids, and aging (Butler 1878, p. 296).
example, since parental gametes can transfer information to offspring
only while the parents are reproductively active (i.e. young),
Scotland a professor of engineering, Fleeming Jenkin, noted that for
“an impartial looker-on” the best way to question “the
Darwinians” was to “admit the facts, and examine the reasoning” (Jenkin
1867). This seems to have been the approach taken by Butler. He did not himself read the primary literature. He relied on the facts
provided by the Darwinians and their few opponents, especially Mivart
(1871) (Butler 1887, p. 5). Although Butler
was greatly disillusioned on finding that the men of science had not
done their home-work regarding early sources (
prevailing view was that parental characters were blended in their
offspring. Jenkin (1867), for example, saw members of a
biological species as enclosed within a sphere and noted that there
would always be a tendency for individuals to vary centripetally, rather
blending inheritance, it was difficult to see how a rare new variant organism, even if personally advantaged by virtue
of the variation, would find a mate with a similar variation. Rather,
the variant (e.g. white) would be swamped by crossing with the abundant
non-variant type (e.g. black) to produce a blend (e.g. grey). With
further crossing with the non-variant type (black) the descendents of
the variant would soon be indistinguishable from the original
non-variant type. This latter point was emphasized by Jenkin (1867):
access to a mate with the same mutation had been a strength of the
Lamarckist doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characters. According
to Lamarck (and
There was also an anti-Lamarckian argument that Butler had acknowledged, but never satisfactorily dealt with (Butler 1878, p. 237). Among colonial insects there is often a much greater separation of the germ line from the soma than in other organisms. For example, the germ line is personalized in the form of the queen bee. The soma is personalized in the forms of the neuter worker bees. Through “use or disuse” the latter might come to strengthen or deplete characters in a Lamarckian fashion. But how could the corresponding Darwinian “gemmules” transfer back to their queen. Apart from recent work showing the systemic spread of RNA within a plant, which is probably an antiviral defense (Waterhouse, Wang and Lough 2001; Liu 2006), there is no evidence that gemmules (i.e. genes) can transfer from soma to germ line within a body, let alone between bodies (that do not interact sexually). Many of the phenomena associated with colonial insects have found satisfactory explanations in terms of modern selfish-gene theory (Dawkins 1976; 2003). The possibility of transgenerational inheritance involving transfer of epigenetic information is considered elsewhere (Forsdyke 2006, p. 323).
wake of various lawsuits over the teaching of Darwinian evolution, a
major proponent of the so-called “intelligent design” (ID)
alternative was recently given the opportunity to clarifying the issue
in the “op-ed” section of The
New York Times. It seemed possible that, once and for all, the
“widespread confusion about what intelligent design is and what it is
not” would be dispelled, and the case that ID “is not a religiously
based idea” would be set out with irrefutable clarity. Sadly, the old
arguments of the eighteenth century theologian William Paley, a distant
put, one party, having defined its own version of ID, declared that it
was not religious, and so was scientific. The other party declared that
all ID theories were religious, and so were not scientific. Neither
party appeared aware that in the nineteenth century Samuel Butler had
furnished Paley’s argument with a non-supernatural, and what then
appeared, a scientifically coherent, foundation. Since the balance of
evidence turned strongly
against it, Butlerian ID did not gain support. In particular, there was
the doctrine of the non-inheritance of acquired characters, with
separation of the cells of the germ line from those of the mortal soma,
as argued by August Weismann (1904). However, Butlerian ID was a
respectable scientific hypothesis in accord with the canons of its time.
intelligent design must be clearly distinguished from the “intelligent
design” that is currently a subject of much controversy. Butlerian
intelligent design had a coherent foundation that was not “based on
supernatural explanations,” and is part of the history of science. It
can, and should, form part of science history curricula. Modern
proponents of “intelligent design” do not invoke Butlerian roots,
and provide no coherent alternative. The concept of information in the
context of hereditary transmission has ancient roots (Delbrück 1971),
and in 1863 the geologist Charles Lyell devoted an entire chapter
to the subject.
Claus Emmeche for a helpful review. Queen’s University hosts my
web-pages where further background and full-text versions of some of the
references may be found. Macmillan Reference Ltd. kindly placed my brief
biographies of Mendel and Romanes online in the Nature
Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, now made available by Wiley (http://els.wiley.com).
The Project Gutenberg has made many of
2005: “Intelligent Design”, The New York Times, February 12.
The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution,
for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard for Discontinuity
in the Origin of Species,
1909: “Heredity and Variation in
Modern Lights”, in A C Seward (ed), Darwin
and Modern Science,
Behe, Michael J.
2005: “Design for Living”, The
Bernstein, Carol, and Harris Bernstein
1991: Aging, Sex and DNA Repair,
Biggers, J. D.
1991: “Walter Heape, FRS: a pioneer in reproductive biology. Centenary of his embryo transfer experiments. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility 93, 173-186.
1990: Charles Darwin. A New
“Die Elementarorganismen”, Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der
Wissenschaften Wein, Mathematische-wissenschaftliche Classe 44, 381-406.
Bungener, Patrick, and
2003: “Early connection between
cytology and Mendelism: Michael F. Guyer’s contribution. History
and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
[See also Guyer in these web-pages
[See also Guyer in these web-pages (Click Here)]
Life and Habit,
Old and New,
1884: Selections from Previous Works, with Remarks on Mr. G.
J. Romanes’ “Mental Evolution in Animals,” and a Psalm of
1887: Luck or Cunning as the Main Means of Organic Modification? London:Trübner.
1914a: A First Year in
1914b: The Humour of Homer and Other Essays,
1935: Erewhon or Over the Range, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, pp. 197-198.
Notebooks of Samuel Butler, H. Festing Jones (ed),
London: Hogarth Press, p. 59.
1859: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London:John Murray.
Letter to Canon Farrar, March 5, in Francis Darwin (ed), More
Darwin, Volume 2,
1868: The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,
Letter to Romanes, May 29, in Francis Darwin (ed), More
Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume 1,
1908: Address to the British Association for the Advancement of
1976: The Selfish Gene,
1971: “Aristotle-totle-totle”, in Jaques Monod and Felix Borek (eds), Of Microbes and Life, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 50-55.
Forsdyke, Donald R.
Origin of Species, Revisited,
2004a: “Chromosomal speciation: a
reply”, Journal of Theoretical Biology
2004b: “Regions of relative GC%
uniformity are recombinational isolators”,
of Biological Systems
1872: “On blood relationship,”
Proceedings of the Royal Society
1876: “A theory of heredity”, Journal of the Anthropological Institute
1876: Die Perigenesis der Plastidule oder die Wellenzeugung der Lebenstheilchen, Berlin:Reimer, pp. 40-4, 67, 77.
1909: “Charles Darwin as an
Anthropologist”, in A. C. Seward (ed), Darwin and
1914: “Samuel Butler and recent mnemic biological theories”, Scientia 15, 38-52.
1870: Über das Gedachtniss als eine allgemeine Function der organisirten Materie. Vienna: Karl Gerold’s Sohn. (“On memory as a universal function of organized matter.” A lecture delivered on May 30th at the anniversary meeting of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Vienna, translated by Butler “with the kind assistance of friends” in his 1880: Unconscious Memory, London: David Bogue, pp. 97-133. (Another, anonymous, translation, with some interesting differences, is in the 1896 Religion of Science Library issue cited next).
1896: On Memory and the Specific Energies of the Nervous System, Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company for The Religion of Science Library.
Hooker, Joseph Dalton
1860: “On the origination and distribution of vegetable species: introductory essay to the flora of Tasmania”, American Journal of Science and Arts 29, 305-326.
1932: Life of Mendel,
Jenkin, H. C. Fleeming
1867: “The origin of species”, The North British Review 46, 277-318.
Jones, Henry Festing
1911: Charles Darwin and Samuel Butler. A Step Towards Reconciliation. London: Fifield.
Samuel Butler Author of Erewhon
(1835-1902). A Memoir, Vols. 1 and 2.
Kay, Lily E.
2000: Who Wrote the Book of
Life? A History of the Genetic Code, Stanford:
1908: Darwinism Today. A Discussion of Present-Day Scientific Criticism of the
Darwinian Selection Theories, Together with a Brief Account of the
Principal other Proposed Auxiliary and Alternative Theories of
1809: Philosophie Zoologique. Translated by Hugh Elliot as
Lankester, Edwin Ray
1876: “Perigenesis versus pangenesis – Haeckel’s new theory of heredity”, Nature 14, 235-238.
R. Mortimer, and Donald R. Forsdyke
2004: “Genomic conflict settled in favour of the species rather
than the gene at extreme GC percentage values”,
2006: “Historical and modern genetics of plant graft hybridization”, Advances in Genetics 56, 101-129.
1863: The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man with Remarks on
Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation.
Mendel, Gregor Johann
1865: “Versuche uber Pflanzen Hybriden”, Verhandlung des naturforschenden Vereines in Brunn 4, 3-47.
1871: On the Genesis of
1856: “Observations constatant le retour simultané de la
descendance d’une plante hybride aux types paternels et
Translated by S. Finn,
Richards, Robert J.
Plant Hybridization before Mendel. Princeton:
1896: The Life and Letters of George John Romanes. London: Longmans, Green and Co., pp. 19-50, 223.
Romanes, George John
1884: Mental Evolution in Animals, with a Posthumous Essay on Instinct by Charles Darwin, New York: Appleton , p. 131.
Letter to Schafer, May 18,
Russell, Edward Stuart
1916: Form and Function,
Schachter, Daniel L.
Ideas, Neglected Pioneers: Richard Semon and the Story of Memory,
Smith, John Maynard
1999: “The idea of information in biology”, The Quarterly Review of Biology 74, 395-400.
2000: “The concept of information in biology”, Philosophy of Science 67, 177-194.
Wallace, Alfred Russel
1879: “Organization and intelligence”, Nature 19, 477-480.
Waterhouse, Peter M.,
Ming-Bo Wang, and Tony Lough
2001: Gene silencing as an adaptive defence against viruses. Nature 411, 834-841.
1904: The Evolution Theory, Volume 1, London: Edward Arnold, p. 411.
Williams, George C.
1966: Adaptation and
Natural Selection, Princeton:
Yockey, Hubert P.
2005: Information Theory,
Evolution, and the Origin of Life,
End Note on Dreams (Jan 2007)
|1. Prospero in The
Tempest declares "We are such stuff as dreams are
2. In Erewhon Revisited (1901),
Butler writes: "I
wish some one would write a book about dreams and
3. Gregory Bateson in Mind and Nature (1979) takes this as Butler arguing: "As dreams are to thought, so parthenogenesis is to sexual reproduction. Thought is stabilized and tested against the template of external reality, but dreams run loose. Similarly, parthenogenesis can be expected to run loose; whereas zygote formation is stabilized by the mutual comparison of gametes."
End Note on Pernicious Anaemia (Apr 2010)
Butler was born on 4th December 1835 and died of pernicious anaemia on 18th June 1902 at the age of 66. 18 years later George Hoyt Whipple (1878-1976; right) found that raw liver was curative. George Minot and William Murphy later showed the active principle was in liver juice, but it was not until 1948 that the active principle, Vitamin B12, was identified. In 1934 Whipple, Minot and Murphy received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. An independent observer has pointed out that, in appearance, GHW is remarkably like the author of these webpages (in a more sober mood).
End Note (July 2010) - Commentary by Shaw
crossed swords with Samuel Butler who, way ahead of
his time, viewed heredity as information transmission from
generation to generation. George Bernard Shaw counted himself as among
“the best brains” that supported
End Note (Nov 2010) - Darwin's Notebooks
One searches in vain for the I-word -- Information -- among Charles Darwin's Notebook writings (circa 1840) that were inspired by the early 19th century literature he was deeply reading. Yet those he read, such as Edmund Blyth (1837. Magazine of Natural History), sometimes used the I-word [Notebook C]: "Whereas the human race is compelled to derive the whole of its information through the medium of the senses, the brute is, on the contrary, supplied with an innate knowledge of whatever properties belong to all the natural objects around, which can in anywise affect its own interests or welfare." The M-word -- Memory -- being stored information, occurs often; e.g.[Notebook M]: "Now if memory <<of a tune & words can thus lie dormant, during a whole life time, quite unconsciously of it, surely memory from one generation to another, also without consciousness, as instincts are, is not so very wonderful." Occasionally Darwin used the K-word - Knowledge -- as when he considered the power of limb regeneration possessed by some animals [Notebook D]:
Having read Charles Bell (1833) on insect development, Darwin commented [Notebook E]: "Seems to argue, that as the transformations from the egg, or larva, or foetus to perfect animal are adapted by foreknowledge, so must the mutations of species.!!"
At that time Darwin pondered the relative roles of Lamarckian evolution and natural selection [Notebook N]: "An habitual action must some way affect the brain in a manner which can be transmitted. -- this is analogous to a blacksmith having children with strong arms. -- The other principle of those children. which chance? produced with strong arms, outliving the weaker ones, may be applicable to the formation of instincts, independently of habits. -- the limits of these two actions either on form or brain very hard to define."
From this we see that Butler was crossing ground that Darwin had already explored, yet Butler emerged with quite different conclusions.
End Note (Jan 2013) - Haeckel's Support of Semon
As set out in detail in the paper on Butler and long-term memory (click
below), the Butler-Hering viewpoint was adopted by Semon with little
acknowledgement. Francis Darwin praised Semon while well-aware of Butler's
work, but Haeckel was possibly unaware of Butler. At the Darwin
celebration in 1909, Bateson praised Butler, while Haeckel referred to
"This important Mneme-theory of Semon and the luminous physiological
experiments and observations associated with it
Go to: Samuel Butler and Long Term Memory (Click Here)
Go to: Butler, Romanes, Theory of Mind and Selfish Genes (Click Here)
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This page was established in October 2006 and was last edited 12 Nov 2014 by Donald Forsdyke