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CHAPTER TWO: HOW I CAME TO WRITE LIFE AND HABIT,” AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF ITS COMPLETION
T WAS IMPOSSIBLE, HOWEVER, FOR MR. Darwin's readers to leave the matter as Mr. Darwin had left it. We wanted to know whence came that germ or those germs of life which, if Mr. Darwin was right, were once the world's only inhabitants. They could hardly have come hither from some other world; they could not in their wet, cold, slimy state have travelled through the dry ethereal medium which we call space, and yet remained alive. If they travelled slowly, they would die; if fast, they would catch fire, as meteors do on entering the earth's atmosphere. The idea, again, of their having been created by a quasianthropomorphic being out of the matter upon the earth was at variance with the whole spirit of evolution, which indicated that no such being could exist except as himself the result, and not the cause, of evolution. Having got back from ourselves to the monad, we were suddenly to begin again with something which was either unthinkable, or was only ourselves again upon a larger scale-to return to the same point as that from which we had started, only made harder for us to stand upon.
There was only one other conception possible, namely, that the germs had been developed in the course of time from some thing or things that were not what we called living at all; that they had grown up,
in fact, out of the material substances and forces of the world in some manner more or less analogous to that in which man had been developed from themselves.
I first asked myself whether life might not, after all, resolve itself into the complexity of arrangement of an inconceivably intricate mechanism. Kittens think our shoe-strings are alive when they see us lacing them,
because they see the tag at the end jump about without understanding all the ins and outs of how it comes to do
“Of course,” they argue, “ if we cannot understand how a thing comes to move, it must move of itself, for there can be no motion beyond our comprehension but what is spontaneous; if the motion is spontaneous, the thing moving must be alive, for nothing can move of itself or without our understanding why unless it is alive. Everything that is alive and not too large can be tortured, and perhaps eaten; let us therefore spring upon the tag ”; and they spring upon it. Cats are above this; yet give the cat something which presents a few more of those appearances which she is accustomed to see whenever she sees life, and she will fall as easy a prey to the power which association exercises over all that lives as the kitten itself. Show her a toy-mouse that can run a few yards after being wound up; the form, colour, and action of a mouse being here, there is no good cat which will not conclude that so many of the appearances of mousehood could not be present at the same time without the
presence also of the remainder. She will, therefore, spring upon the toy as eagerly as the kitten upon the tag.
Suppose the toy more complex still, so that it might run a few yards, stop, and run on again without an additional winding up; and suppose it so constructed that it could imitate eating and drinking, and could make as though the mouse
were cleaning its face with its paws.
Should we not at first be taken in ourselves, and assume the presence of the remaining facts of life, though in reality they were not there? Query, therefore, whether a machine so complex as to be prepared with a corresponding manner of action for each one of the successive emergencies of life as it arose, would not take us in for good and all, and look so much as if it were alive that, whether we liked it or not, we should be compelled to think it and call it so; and whether the being alive was not simply the being an exceedingly complicated machine, whose parts were set in motion by the action upon them of exterior circumstances; whether, in fact, man was not a kind of toy-mouse in the shape of a man, only capable of going for seventy or eighty years, instead of half as many seconds, and as much more versatile as he is more durable? Of course I had an uneasy feeling that if I thus made all plants and men into machines, these machines must have what all other machines have if they are machines at all-a designer, and some one to wind them up and work them; but I thought this might wait for the present, and was perfectly ready then, as now, to accept a designer from without, if the facts upon examination rendered such a belief reasonable.
If, then, men were not really alive after all, but were only machines of so complicated a make that it was less
a trouble to us to cut the difficulty and say that that kind of mechanism was being alive,” why should not machines ultimately become as complicated as we are, or at any rate complicated enough to be called living, and to be indeed as living as it was in the nature of anything at all to be? If it was only a case of their becoming more complicated, we were certainly doing our best to make them so. 1
I do not suppose I at that time saw that this view comes to much the same as denying that there are such qualities as life and consciousness at all, and that this, again, works round to the assertion of their omnipresence in every molecule of matter, inasmuch as it destroys the separation between the organic and inorganic, and maintains that whatever the organic is the inorganic is also. Deny it in theory as much as we
please, we shall still always feel that an organic body, unless dead, is living and conscious to a greater or less degree. Therefore, if we once break down the wall of partition between the organic and inorganic, the inorganic must be living and conscious also, up to a certain point.
I have been at work on this subject now for nearly twenty years, what I have published being only a small part of what I have written and destroyed. I cannot, therefore, remember exactly how I stood in 1863. Ņor can I pretend to see far into the matter even now;/for when I think of life, I find it so difficult, that I take refuge in death or mechanism; and when I think of death or mechanism, I find it so inconceivable, that it is easier to call it life again. The only thing of which I am sure is, that the distinction between the organic and inorganic is arbitrary; that it is more coherent with our other ideas, and therefore more acceptable, to start with every molecule as a living thing, and then deduce death as the breaking up of an association or corporation, than to start with inanimate molecules and smuggle life into them; and that, therefore, what we call the inorganic world must be regarded as up to a certain point living, and instinct, within certain limits, with consciousness, volition, and power of concerted action.
, It is only of late, however, that I have come to this opinion.
One must start with a hypothesis, no matter how much one distrusts it; so I started with man as a mechanism, this being the strand of the knot that I could then pick at most easily. Having worked upon it a certain time, I drew the inference about machines becoming animate, and in 1862 or 1863 wrote the sketch of the chapter on machines which í afterwards rewrote in Erewhón. This sketch appeared in the Press,
Canterbury, N.Z., 13th June 1863; a copy of it is in the
I soon felt that though there was plenty of amusement to be got out of this line, it was one that I should have to leave sooner or later; I therefore left it at once for the view that machines were limbs which we had made, and carried outside our bodies instead of incorporating them with ourselves. A few days or weeks later than 13th June 1863 I published a second letter in the Press putting this view forward. Of this letter I have lost the only copy I had; I have not seen it for years. The first was certainly not good; the second, if I remember rightly, was a good deal worse, though I believed more in the views it put forward than in those of the first letter. I had lost my copy before I wrote Erewhon, and therefore only gave a couple of pages to it in that book; besides, there was more amusement in the other view. I should perhaps say there was an intermediate extension of the first setter which appeared in the Reasoner, ist July 1865.
In 1870 and 1871, when I was writing Erewhon, I thought the best way of looking at machines was to see them as limbs which we had made and carried about with us or left at home at pleasure. I was not, however, satisfied, and should have gone on with the subject at once if I had not been anxious to write The Fair Haven, a book which is a development of a pamphlet I wrote in New Zealand and published in London in 1865.
As soon as I had finished this, I returned to the old subject, on which I had already been engaged for nearly a dozen years as continuously as other business would allow, and proposed to myself to see not only machines
This and the other contributions to periodicals referred to in this chapter are reprinted in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, and other Early Essays.- A.T.B.