Life and Habit (1878)

First edition title page (BII LIF 1878.4)

Butler first read Charles Darwin’s great work On the Origin of Species (1859) while living in New Zealand, and was an immediate convert to the theory of evolution. When he eventually set about writing on the subject himself, Butler intended his work to complement Darwin’s – though he also believed his own ideas were highly original.

He had already written most of Life and Habit when a friend alerted him to the existence of St George Mivart’s work. After reading Mivart, Butler went back to the Origin of Species, and suddenly noticed Darwin’s dismissal of ‘the well-known doctrine of inherited habit as advanced by Lamarck’. Remarkably, this was the first Butler had heard of Lamarck’s doctrine of inherited habit; he had thought it was his own idea. The discovery that it was, in Butler’s own words, ‘a stale old theory of the exploded Lamarck’, placed his entire approach in a precarious position. Butler saw that he faced a choice: accept that he had been labouring over a false premise already disproved by Darwin, or acknowledge and uphold the Lamarckian idea of use-inheritance, in direct opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Cover of Life and Habit

First edition front cover (BII LIF 1878.1)

Butler's copy of the second edition containing pressed flowers

Butler's copy of the second edition, containing pressed flowers (BII LIF 1890.2)

At the time of publication, Butler wrote an apologetic note to Charles Darwin’s son Francis, warning him that the book had ‘resolved itself into a downright attack upon your father’s view of evolution, and a defence of what I conceive to be Lamarck’s. I neither intended nor wished this, but I was simply driven into it’.

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