How Right Was Samuel Butler About Evolution? Part II: Why Evolution is Really a Problem for the Humanities


  • Murray Code University of Guelph


Evolution, Emergence, Variation, Habit, Power, Faculty, Butler, Darwin, Lamarck, Whitehead, Coleridge, Deleuze, Heredity, Soul, Imagination



Samuel Butler begins to sketch a non-Darwinian story about evolution which indicates that the first task of the would-be naturalist is to decide how natural philosophy ought to be done. In attempting to give a plausible Lamarckian account of the very vague idea of evolution, he brings out the need for an adequate figurative language capable of doing justice to a primary assumption---that organisms are dynamically organized psycho-physical wholes. Thus interpreting the order in Nature not in modern terms of universal and immutable ‘laws of Nature'  but rather in terms of more or less fixed habits, Butler suggests that the trope of a living self infused with habits, powers, and unconscious memory holds the key to understanding the evolving macro-cosmos. The factor of emergence can thus be interpreted in terms of selective operations of natural powers which are capable of breaking extant habits by responding ‘intelligently' to certain feelings of need or want. A way is thus opened up to take into account the basic consideration that evolution alludes in the first instance to the creation of novel forms of organization. For if one interprets the trope of powers in terms of the faculties that Deleuze insists are indispensable to natural philosophy, one can think of faculties or powers as also capable of evolution. It is then possible to do justice to the fact that human experiencing involves a constant struggle to reconcile immaterial and material concerns. For if both types of concern refer to faculties that have emerged from more primitive concerns, as A. N. Whitehead intimates, it is possible to ‘naturalize' the moral and/or ethical (as well as aesthetic and religious) concerns that Butler elicits when he suggests that evolution implies a vague cosmic aim to produce ever deeper and more profound forms of sensibility. Indeed, with the help of Coleridge his story can be extended to a truly vitalistic naturalism which depicts the naturing of Nature as generally guided by a hidden Logos of the sort that Heraclitus long ago elicited---one that resonates with Butler's presupposition that the notion of self alludes to an embodied soul. For Heraclitus also indicates that a proper understanding of the fundamental notion of experience calls for a wise soul---which Coleridge intimates is one in charge of a well-cultivated faculty of imagination.






How to Cite

Code, M. (2014). How Right Was Samuel Butler About Evolution? Part II: Why Evolution is Really a Problem for the Humanities. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 10(2), 92–120. Retrieved from