Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 9, No 1 (2013)

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Was Samuel Butler Mainly Right About Evolution?

Murray Code


Samuel Butler, a contemporary critic of Charles Darwin, proffered an alternative, vitalistic account of evolution. At the same time, he put into question all modern naturalistic treatments of this fundamental idea which presuppose that evolution is mainly a scientific problem. On the contrary, Butler in effect insists, this extremely vague idea calls for not an `explanation' but rather a fairly comprehensive, plausible story that helps elucidate an inherently complex idea. Butler can thus be read as outlining an anthropomorphic metaphorics that evokes a living Cosmos wherein it might be possible to do justice to the problem which Darwin left unresolved---the problem of heredity. In this picture of the Cosmos Butler links the fundamental notion of organization not to the allegedly universal and immutable `laws of nature,' as the moderns would have it, but rather to dynamically evolving relationships between only more or less stable habits. The variations in extant habits that emergence elicits are moreover the products of quasi-intelligent responses to new challenges from the environment. For Butler follows Lamarck in holding that all organisms possess powers capable of responding to felt needs and/or desires to make alterations in the habits (or instincts) that characterize their modes of existence. He thus in the end effectively bequeaths to his readers a challenge to extend and amplify, if possible, his outline of a promising metaphysical imaginary that can take into account some highly unorthodox conjectures.

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