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Samuel Butler against the Professionals: Rethinking Lamarckism 1860–1900 by David Gillott

Reviewed by Madeleine Chalmers, University of Oxford

Samuel Butler against the Professionals: Rethinking Lamarckism 1860–1900, David Gillott. London: Legenda (Studies in Comparative Literature 32), Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2015. £55.00. ISBN: 9781909662254.


The twenty-first century may just be Samuel Butler's moment. He has long been a marginal figure, but in an age characterised by technological development, public suspicion of 'experts', and burgeoning research into epigenetics, the maverick Victorian sheep farmer behind the satirical machinic evolutions of Erewhon (1872) is perhaps ripe for re-evaluation. David Gillott's rich monograph – the first on Butler for two decades – makes a valuable contribution to such a revival. It seeks to provide an encyclopaedic synthesis of the biographical, literary, theological, scientific, and aesthetic elements of Butler's seemingly eclectic oeuvre. As his title suggests, Gillott posits Butler as an 'anti-professional', prone to polemic against the emerging professional scientists and self-professed authorities of the mid- to late nineteenth century, who Butler lambasts as hypocritical and self-serving. Gillott then suggests that it is Butler's understanding of the pre-Darwinian and largely discredited French evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck which – consciously or unconsciously – shapes this attitude.

            A dense introduction presents the framework for Gillott's study, with a particular focus on Lamarck's theory of inherited memory: the notion that we can inherit the abilities developed by our genetic ancestors, such that their conscious actions become our unconscious, instinctive ones. Gillott argues that Butler extends this notion from physical processes such as digestion all the way to artistic production, placing human will at the heart of evolution, rather than random, Darwinian mutations. Within this framework, Butler emerges as a non-binary thinker of continuity, instinct, and practical self-development. His version of the human individual is embedded in a network of inherited capabilities, including the technological prostheses by which we intervene in the world. For Butler, our knowledge (both inherited and acquired) constitutes our identity. It shapes what we produce and how we act in the world. Gillott argues that it is this Lamarckian-inflected 'harmonicism' which leads to Butler's distinctive anti-professionalism. In the chapters which follow, Gillot ranges with consummate familiarity across the full breadth of Butler's writing, from fiction to polemic to critical editions.

            In his first chapter, Gillott tackles Butler's best-known text – the 'Book of the Machines' episode of Erewhon – through an in-depth contextualisation of Butler's evolutionary ideas. At the heart of his dissection are the 'logical absurdities' which, for Butler, result in the use and abuse of analogies for scientific purposes. Gillott digs back to early texts by Butler to uncover the underlying structures of his thought and his sources of inspiration, from William Paley's clockmaker to the doctrinal wranglings of the Church of England over infant baptism.

            He pursues his evolutionary theme in a second chapter which traces Butler's changing responses to Darwin's Origin of Species and the emergence of his suspicion of professional scientists. Gillott demonstrates how Butler began to dissolve the distinction between author and work: a writer's character was inextricably intertwined with his output. He argues that Butler's critiques of Darwin are fuelled as much by ambivalence towards Darwin's character and professional status, as by objections to his method or conclusions. Gillott carefully hints at how Butler's strong personal investment might also be a paradoxical intellectual liberation, in a comparison between Butler and the Darwinist Thomas Huxley:

            Expanding his scope beyond Butler's well-known entanglements with Darwin, Gillott's third chapter explores how this epistemological perspective affects Butler's theological writings, particularly with regard to the status of 'Gospel truth'. With considerable nuance, Gillott finds a middle ground which draws on his leitmotif of Lamarckian inherited memory, arguing that 'Butler moved from rationalism to a belief that faith was the ultimate basis of all knowledge, but that faith resulted from the accretion of the conscious use of reason over countless generations' (18).

            Chapter 4 broadens out to consider how these considerations affect Butler's aesthetic writings. Butler is portrayed as striking a blow against professionalisation and academic painting, reclaiming the value of instinct and practice over theory. His championing of lesser known painters of the Italian Renaissance and critique of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood anticipates the experimental and non-academic forms of art which emerged at the turn of the twentieth century.

            Having moved outwards from Butler's more familiar texts to show the ramifications of Butler's Lamarckian understanding, Gillott's final chapter returns to the very centre of the web: to Butler himself, and to the notions of genealogy which lie at the heart of nineteenth-century evolutionary thinking. He turns to Butler's late projects – on his grandfather, Ancient Greece and Shakespeare – to uncover the consistent presence of Butler throughout – and uses this to speculate about Butler's homosexuality. 

            In a finely-balanced conclusion, Gillott traces Butler's afterlife: how he has flickered in and out of fashion, falling from favour as Lamarck's fortunes waned and Darwinism entered the mainstream. He argues poignantly that Butler can continue to turn his critical eye on our present institutions, raising epistemological questions about 'how and what we are able to know, how this knowledge comes to be culturally authorized, and how this authority is appropriated by or conferred upon certain carefully self-fashioned individuals' (176), questions which have lost none of their pertinence today. As academic readers – and writers – in our own right, we are not exempt from Butler's anti-professionalism. As Gillott asks, provocatively: 'is the academic neglect of Butler because most of his ideas have proved to be wrong, or because the author behind these ideas appears to be so objectionable and antagonistic towards his professional academic reader?' (177).

            Indeed, while Gillott in some sense provides Butler with what he most desired – validation and an afterlife – this remains a book for the professional Butlerian. While its thoroughness is to be commended, it requires an extensive pre-existing knowledge of Butler and familiarity with the period. Dense and at times a little dry, the text might have benefited from an even more extensive exploration of what Butler has to offer us today, as twenty-first-century readers. Its title is perhaps a little misleading: Gillott rethinks Butler using one aspect of Lamarckian thinking about memory and inheritance; he does not really rethink Lamarck. This unidirectional approach does not yield the truly comparative literary study one might expect – it is very much a book on Butler, which deploys a Lamarckian idea to support this exploration. Nevertheless, Gillott's monograph represents an invaluable contribution, revealing Butler as a thinker concerned with identity, continuity, and relationships, and building up a picture of the diffusion and persistence of Lamarckian ideas in nineteenth-century Britain.