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Life and Habit By Samuel Butler Characters: 28378

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

But if we once admit the principle that consciousness and volition have a tendency to vanish as soon as practice has rendered any habit exceedingly familiar, so that the mere presence of an elaborate but unconscious performance shall carry with it a presumption of infinite practice, we shall find it impossible to draw the line at those actions which we see acquired after birth, no matter at how early a period. The whole history and development of the embryo in all its stages forces itself on our consideration. Birth has been made too much of. It is a salient feature in the history of the individual, but not more salient than a hundred others, and far less so than the commencement of his existence as a single cell uniting in itself elements derived from both parents, or perhaps than any point in his whole existence as an embryo. For many years after we are born we are still very incomplete. We cease to oxygenise our blood vicariously as soon as we are born, but we still derive our sustenance from our mothers. Birth is but the beginning of doubt, the first hankering after scepticism, the dreaming of a dawn of trouble, the end of certainty and of settled convictions. Not but what before birth there have been unsettled convictions (more's the pity) with not a few, and after birth we have still so made up our minds upon many points as to have no further need of reflection concerning them; nevertheless, in the main, birth is the end of that time when we really knew our business, and the beginning of the days wherein we know not what we would do, or do. It is therefore the beginning of consciousness, and infancy is as the dosing of one who turns in his bed on waking, and takes another short sleep before he rises. When we were yet unborn, our thoughts kept the roadway decently enough; then were we blessed; we thought as every man thinks, and held the same opinions as our fathers and mothers had done upon nearly every subject. Life was not an art-and a very difficult art-much too difficult to be acquired in a lifetime; it was a science of which we were consummate masters.

In this sense, then, birth may indeed be looked upon as the most salient feature in a man's life; but this is not at all the sense in which it is commonly so regarded. It is commonly considered as the point at which we begin to live. More truly it is the point at which we leave off knowing how to live.

A chicken, for example, is never so full of consciousness, activity, reasoning faculty, and volition, as when it is an embryo in the eggshell, making bones, and flesh, and feathers, and eyes, and claws, with nothing but a little warmth and white of egg to make them from. This is indeed to make bricks with but a small modicum of straw. There is no man in the whole world who knows consciously and articulately as much as a half-hatched hen's egg knows unconsciously. Surely the egg in its own way must know quite as much as the chicken does. We say of the chicken that it knows how to run about as soon as it is hatched. So it does; but had it no knowledge before it was hatched? What made it lay the foundations of those limbs which should enable it to run about? What made it grow a horny tip to its bill before it was hatched, so that it might peck all round the larger end of the eggshell and make a hole for itself to get out at? Having once got outside the eggshell, the chicken throws away this horny tip; but is it reasonable to suppose that it would have grown it at all unless it had known that it would want something with which to break the eggshell? And again, is it in the least agreeable to our experience that such elaborate machinery should be made without endeavour, failure, perseverance, intelligent contrivance, experience, and practice?

In the presence of such considerations, it seems impossible to refrain from thinking that there must be a closer continuity of identity, life, and memory, between successive generations than we generally imagine. To shear the thread of life, and hence of memory, between one generation and its successor, is so to speak, a brutal measure, an act of intellectual butchery, and like all such strong high-handed measures, a sign of weakness in him who is capable of it till all other remedies have been exhausted. It is mere horse science, akin to the theories of the convulsionists in the geological kingdom, and of the believers in the supernatural origin of the species of plants and animals. Yet it is to be feared that we have not a few among us who would feel shocked rather at the attempt towards a milder treatment of the facts before them, than at a continuance of the present crass tyranny with which we try to crush them inside our preconceived opinions. It is quite common to hear men of education maintain that not even when it was on the point of being hatched, had the chicken sense enough to know that it wanted to get outside the eggshell. It did indeed peck all round the end of the shell, which, if it wanted to get out, would certainly be the easiest way of effecting its purpose; but it did not, they say, peck because it was aware of this, but "promiscuously." Curious, such a uniformity of promiscuous action among so many eggs for so many generations. If we see a man knock a hole in a wall on finding that he cannot get out of a place by any other means, and if we see him knock this hole in a very workmanlike way, with an implement with which he has been at great pains to make for a long the past, but which he throws away as soon as he has no longer use for it, thus showing that he had made it expressly for the purpose of escape, do we say that this person made the implement and broke the wall of his prison promiscuously? No jury would acquit a burglar on these grounds. Then why, without much more evidence to the contrary than we have, or can hope to have, should we not suppose that with chickens, as with men, signs of contrivance are indeed signs of contrivance, however quick, subtle, and untraceable, the contrivance may be? Again, I have heard people argue that though the chicken, when nearly hatched, had such a glimmering of sense that it pecked the shell because it wanted to get out, yet that it is not conceivable that, so long before it was hatched, it should have had the sense to grow the horny tip to its bill for use when wanted. This, at any rate, they say, it must have grown, as the persons previously referred to would maintain, promiscuously.

Now no one indeed supposes that the chicken does what it does, with the same self-consciousness with which a tailor makes a suit of clothes. Not any one who has thought upon the subject is likely to do it so great an injustice. The probability is that it knows what it is about to an extent greater than any tailor ever did or will, for, to say the least of it, many thousands of years to come. It works with such absolute certainty and so vast an experience, that it is utterly incapable of following the operations of its own mind-as accountants have been known to add up long columns of pounds, shillings, and pence, running the three fingers of one hand, a finger for each column, up the page, and putting the result down correctly at the bottom, apparently without an effort. In the case of the accountant, we say that the processes which his mind goes through are so rapid and subtle as to elude his own power of observation as well as ours. We do not deny that his mind goes though processes of some kind; we very readily admit that it must do so, and say that these processes are so rapid and subtle, owing, as a general rule, to long experience in addition. Why then should we find it so difficult to conceive that this principle, which we observe to play so large a part in mental physiology, wherever we can observe mental physiology at all, may have a share also in the performance of intricate operations otherwise inexplicable, though the creature performing them is not man, or man only in embryo?

Again, after the chicken is hatched, it grows more feathers and bones and blood, but we still say that it knows nothing about all this. What then do we say it does know? One is almost ashamed to confess that we only credit it with knowing what it appears to know by processes which we find it exceedingly easy to follow, or perhaps rather, which we find it absolutely impossible to avoid following, as recognising too great a family likeness between them, and those which are most easily followed in our own minds, to be able to sit down in comfort under a denial of the resemblance. Thus, for example, if we see a chicken running away from a fox, we do admit that the chicken knows the fox would kill it if it caught it.

On the other hand, if we allow that the half-hatched chicken grew the horny tip to be ready for use, with an intensity of unconscious contrivance which can be only attributed to experience, we are driven to admit that from the first moment the men began to sit upon it-and earlier too than this-the egg was always full of consciousness and volition, and that during its embryological condition the unhatched chicken is doing exactly what it continues doing from the moment it is hatched till it dies; that is to say, attempting to better itself, doing (as Aristotle says all creatures do all things upon all occasions) what it considers most for its advantage under the existing circumstances. What it may think most advantageous will depend, while it is in the eggshell, upon exactly the same causes as will influence its opinions in later life-to wit, upon its habits, its past circumstances and ways of thinking; for there is nothing, as Shakespeare tells us, good or ill, but thinking makes it so.

The egg thinks feathers much more to its advantage than hair or fur, and much more easily made. If it could speak, it would probably tell us that we could make them ourselves very easily after a few lessons, if we took the trouble to try, but that hair was another matter, which it really could not see how any protoplasm could be got to make. Indeed, during the more intense and active part of our existence, in the earliest stages, that is to say, of our embryological life, we could probably have turned our protoplasm into feathers instead of hair if we had cared about doing so. If the chicken can make feathers, there seems no sufficient reason for thinking that we cannot do so, beyond the fact that we prefer hair, and have preferred it for so many ages that we have lost the art along with the desire of making feathers, if indeed any of our ancestors ever possessed it. The stuff with which we make hair is practically the same as that with which chickens make feathers. It is nothing but protoplasm, and protoplasm is like certain prophecies, out of which anything can be made by the creature which wants to make it. Everything depends upon whether a creature knows its own mind sufficiently well, and has enough faith in its own powers of achievement. When these two requisites are wanting, the strongest giant cannot lift a two-ounce weight; when they are given, a bullock can take an eyelash out of its eye with its hind-foot, or a minute jelly speck can build itself a house out of various materials which it will select according to its purpose with the nicest care, though it have neither brain to think with, nor eyes to see with, nor hands nor feet to work with, nor is it anything but a minute speck of jelly-faith and protoplasm only.

That this is indeed so, the following passage from Dr. Carpenter's "Mental Physiology" may serve to show:-

"The simplest type of an animal consists of a minute mass of 'protoplasm,' or living jelly, which is not yet differentiated into 'organs;' every part having the same endowments, and taking an equal share in every action which the creature performs. One of these 'jelly specks,' the am?ba, moves itself about by changing the form of its body, extemporising a foot (or pseudopodium), first in one direction, and then in another; and then, when it has met with a nutritive particle, extemporises a stomach for its reception, by wrapping its soft body around it. Another, instead of going about in search of food, remains in one place, but projects its protoplasmic substance into long pseudopodia, which entrap and draw in very minute particles, or absorb nutrient material from the liquid through which they extend themselves, and are continually becoming fused (as it were) into the central body, which is itself continually giving off new pseudopodia. Now we can scarcely conceive that a creature of such simplicity should possess any distinct consciousness of its needs" (why not?), "or that its actions should be directed by any intention of its own; and yet the writer has lately found results of the most singular elaborateness to be wrought out by the instrumentality of these minute jelly specks, which build up tests or casings of the most regular geometrical symmetry of form, and of the most artificial construction."

On this Dr. Carpenter remarks:-"Suppose a human mason to be put down by the side of a pile of stones of various shapes and sizes, and to be told to build a dome of these, smooth on both surfaces, without using more than the least possible quantity of a very tenacious, but very costly, cement, in holding the stones together. If he accomplished this well, he would receive credit for great intelligence and skill. Yet this is exactly what these little 'jelly specks' do on a most minute scale; the 'tests' they construct, when highly magnified, bearing comparison with the most skilful masonry of man. From the same sandy bottom one species picks up the coarser quartz grains, cements them together with phosphate of iron secreted from its own substance" (should not this rather be, "which it has contrived in some way or other to manufacture"?) and thus constructs a flask-shaped 'test,' having a short neck and a large single orifice. Another picks up the finest grains, and puts them together, with the same cement, into perfectly spherical 'tests' of the most extraordinary finish, perforated with numerous small pores disposed at pretty regular intervals. Another se

lects the minutest sand grains and the terminal portions of sponge spicules, and works them up together-apparently with no cement at all, by the mere laying of the spicules-into perfect white spheres, like hom?opathic globules, each having a single-fissured orifice. And another, which makes a straight, many-chambered 'test,' that resembles in form the chambered shell of an orthoceratite-the conical mouth of each chamber projecting into the cavity of the next-while forming the walls of its chambers of ordinary sand grains rather loosely held together, shapes the conical mouth of the successive chambers by firmly cementing together grains of ferruginous quartz, which it must have picked out from the general mass."

"To give these actions," continues Dr. Carpenter, "the vague designation of 'instinctive' does not in the least help us to account for them, since what we want is to discover the mechanism by which they are worked out; and it is most difficult to conceive how so artificial a selection can be made by a creature so simple" (Mental Physiology, 4th ed. pp. 41–43)

This is what protoplasm can do when it has the talisman of faith-of faith which worketh all wonders, either in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. Truly if a man have faith, even as a grain of mustard seed, though he may not be able to remove mountains, he will at any rate be able to do what is no less difficult-make a mustard plant.

Yet this is but a barren kind of comfort, for we have not, and in the nature of things cannot have, sufficient faith in the unfamiliar, inasmuch as the very essence of faith involves the notion of familiarity, which can grow but slowly, from experience to confidence, and can make no sudden leap at any time. Such faith cannot be founded upon reason,-that is to say, upon a recognised perception on the part of the person holding it that he is holding it, and of the reasons for his doing so-or it will shift as other reasons come to disturb it. A house built upon reason is a house built upon the sand. It must be built upon the current cant and practice of one's peers, for this is the rock which, though not immovable, is still most hard to move.

But however this may be, we observe broadly that the intensity of the will to make this or that, and of the confidence that one can make it, depends upon the length of time during which the maker's forefathers have wanted the same thing before it; the older the custom the more inveterate the habit, and, with the exception, perhaps, that the reproductive system is generally the crowning act of development-an exception which I will hereafter explain-the earlier its manifestation, until, for some reason or another, we relinquish it and take to another, which we must, as a general rule, again adhere to for a vast number of generations, before it will permanently supplant the older habit. In our own case, the habit of breathing like a fish through gills may serve as an example. We have now left off this habit, yet we did it formerly for so many generations that we still do it a little; it still crosses our embryological existence like a faint memory or dream, for not easily is an inveterate habit broken. On the other hand-again speaking broadly-the more recent the habit the later the fashion of its organ, as with the teeth, speech, and the higher intellectual powers, which are too new for development before we are actually born.

But to return for a short time to Dr. Carpenter. Dr. Carpenter evidently feels, what must indeed be felt by every candid mind, that there is no sufficient reason for supposing that these little specks of jelly, without brain or eyes, or stomach, or hands, or feet, but the very lowest known form of animal life, are not imbued with a consciousness of their needs, and the reasoning faculties which shall enable them to gratify those needs in a manner, all things considered, equalling the highest flights of the ingenuity of the highest animal-man. This is no exaggeration. It is true, that in an earlier part of the passage, Dr. Carpenter has said that we can scarcely conceive so simple a creature to "possess any distinct consciousness of its needs, or that its actions should be directed by any intention of its own;" but, on the other hand, a little lower down he says, that if a workman did what comes to the same thing as what the am?ba does, he "would receive credit for great intelligence and skill." Now if an am?ba can do that, for which a workman would receive credit as for a highly skilful and intelligent performance, the am?ba should receive no less credit than the workman; he should also be no less credited with skill and intelligence, which words unquestionably involve a distinct consciousness of needs and an action directed by an intention of its own. So that Dr. Carpenter seems rather to blow hot and cold with one breath. Nevertheless there can be no doubt to which side the minds of the great majority of mankind will incline upon the evidence before them; they will say that the creature is highly reasonable and intelligent, though they would readily admit that long practice and familiarity may have exhausted its powers of attention to all the stages of its own performance, just as a practised workman in building a wall certainly does not consciously follow all the processes which he goes through.

As an example, however, of the extreme dislike which philosophers of a certain school have for making the admissions which seem somewhat grudgingly conceded by Dr. Carpenter, we may take the paragraph which immediately follows the ones which we have just quoted. Dr. Carpenter there writes:-

"The writer has often amused himself and others, when by the seaside, with getting a terebella (a marine worm that cases its body in a sandy tube) out of its house, and then, putting it into a saucer of water with a supply of sand and comminuted shell, watching its appropriation of these materials in constructing a new tube. The extended tentacles soon spread themselves over the bottom of the saucer and lay hold of whatever comes in their way, 'all being fish that comes to their net,' and in half an hour or thereabouts the new house is finished, though on a very rude and artificial type. Now here the organisation is far higher; the instrumentality obviously serves the needs of the animal and suffices for them; and we characterise the action, on account of its uniformity and apparent unintelligence, as instinctive."

No comment will, one would think, be necessary to make the reader feel that the difference between the terebella and the am?ba is one of degree rather than kind, and that if the action of the second is as conscious and reasonable as that, we will say, of a bird making her nest, the action of the first should be so also. It is only a question of being a little less skilful, or more so, but skill and intelligence would seem present in both cases. Moreover, it is more clever of the terebella to have made itself the limbs with which it can work, than of the am?ba to be able to work without the limbs; and perhaps it is more sensible also to want a less elaborate dwelling, provided it is sufficient for practical purposes. But whether the terebella be less intelligent than the am?ba or not, it does quite enough to establish its claim to intelligence of a higher order; and one does not see ground for the satisfaction which Dr. Carpenter appears to find at having, as it were, taken the taste of the am?ba's performance out of our mouth, by setting us about the less elaborate performance of the terebella, which he thinks we can call unintelligent and instinctive.

I may be mistaken in the impression I have derived from the paragraphs I have quoted. I commonly say they give me the impression that I have tried to convey to the reader, i.e., that the writer's assent to anything like intelligence, or consciousness of needs, an animal low down in the scale of life, is grudging, and that he is more comfortable when he has got hold of onto to which he can point and say that mere, at any rate, is an unintelligent and merely instinctive creature. I have only called attention to the passage as an example of the intellectual bias of a large number of exceedingly able and thoughtful persons, among whom, so far as I am able to form an opinion at all, few have greater claims to our respectful attention than Dr. Carpenter himself.

For the embryo of a chicken, then, we damn exactly the same kind of reasoning power and contrivance which we damn for the am?ba, or for our own intelligent performances in later life. We do not claim for it much, if any, perception of its own forethought, for we know very well that it is among the most prominent features of intellectual activity that, after a number of repetitions, it ceases to be perceived, and that it does not, in ordinary cases, cease to be perceived till after a very great number of repetitions. The fact that the embryo chicken makes itself always as nearly as may be in the same way, would lead us to suppose that it would be unconscious of much of its own action, provided it were always the same chicken which made itself over and over again. So far we can see, it always is unconscious of the greater part of its own wonderful performance. Surely then we have a presumption that it is the same chicken which makes itself over and over again; for such unconsciousness is not won, so far as our experience goes, by any other means than by frequent repetition of the same act on the part of one and the same individual. How this can be we shall perceive in subsequent chapters. In the meantime, we may say that all knowledge and volition would seem to be merely parts of the knowledge and volition of the primordial cell (whatever this may be), which slumbers but never dies-which has grown, and multiplied, and differentiated itself into the compound life of the womb, and which never becomes conscious of knowing what it has once learnt effectually, till it is for some reason on the point of, or in danger of, forgetting it.

The action, therefore, of an embryo making its way up in the world from a simple cell to a baby, developing for itself eyes, ears, hands, and feet while yet unborn, proves to be exactly of one and the same kind as that of a man of fifty who goes into the City and tells his broker to buy him so many Great Northern A shares-that is to say, an effort of the will exercised in due course on a balance of considerations as to the immediate expediency, and guided by past experience; while children who do not reach birth are but prenatal spendthrifts, ne'er-do-weels, inconsiderate innovators, the unfortunate in business, either through their own fault or that of others, or through inevitable mischances, beings who are culled out before birth instead of after; so that even the lowest idiot, the most contemptible in health or beauty, may yet reflect with pride that they were born. Certainly we observe that those who have had good fortune (mother and sole cause of virtue, and sole virtue in itself), and have profited by their experience, and known their business best before birth, so that they made themselves both to be and to look well, do commonly on an average prove to know it best in after-life: they grow their clothes best who have grown their limbs best. It is rare that those who have not remembered how to finish their own bodies fairly well should finish anything well in later life. But how small is the addition to their unconscious attainments which even the Titans of human intellect have consciously accomplished, in comparison with the problems solved by the meanest baby living, nay, even by one whose birth is untimely! In other words, how vast is that back knowledge over which we have gone fast asleep, through the prosiness of perpetual repetition; and how little in comparison, is that whose novelty keeps it still within the scope of our conscious perception! What is the discovery of the laws of gravitation as compared with the knowledge which sleeps in every hen's egg upon a kitchen shelf?

It is all a matter of habit and fashion. Thus we see kings and councillors of the earth admired for facing death before what they are pleased to call dishonour. If, on being required to go without anything they have been accustomed to, or to change their habits, or do what is unusual in the case of other kings under like circumstances, then, if they but fold their cloak decently around them, and die upon the spot of shame at having had it even required of them to do thus or thus, then are they kings indeed, of old race, that know their business from generation to generation. Or if, we will say, a prince, on having his dinner brought to him ill-cooked, were to feel the indignity so keenly as that he should turn his face to the wall, and breathe out his wounded soul in one sigh, do we not admire him as a "real prince," who knows the business of princes so well that he can conceive of nothing foreign to it in connection with himself, the bare effort to realise a state of things other than what princes have been accustomed to being immediately fatal to him? Yet is there no less than this in the demise of every half-hatched hen's egg, shaken rudely by a schoolboy, or neglected by a truant mother; for surely the prince would not die if he knew how to do otherwise, and the hen's egg only dies of being required to do something to which it is not accustomed.

But the further consideration of this and other like reflections would too long detain us. Suffice it that we have established the position that all living creatures which show any signs of intelligence, must certainly each one have already gone through the embryonic stages an infinite number of times, or they could no more have achieved the intricate process of self-development unconsciously, than they could play the piano unconsciously without any previous knowledge of the instrument. It remains, therefore, to show the when and where of their having done so, and this leads us naturally to the subject of the following chapter-Personal Identity.

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