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Tautology 1b: Butler

So, upon further investigation I find that Samuel Butler, in his Evolution Old and New (1879) states the tautology argument clearly.

The fact that one in a brood or litter is born fitter for the conditions of its existence than its brothers and sisters, and, again, the causes that have led to this one’s having been born fitter—which last is what the older evolutionists justly dwelt upon as the most interesting consideration in connection with the whole subject—are more noteworthy factors of modification than the factor that an animal, if born fitter for its conditions, will commonly survive longer in the struggle for existence. If the first of these can be explained in such a manner as to be accepted as true, or highly probable, we have a substantial gain to our knowledge. The second is little—if at all—better than a truism. Granted, if it were not generally the case that those forms are most likely to survive which are best fitted for the conditions of their existence, no adaptation of form to conditions of existence could ever have come about. “The survival of the fittest” therefore, or, perhaps better, “the fertility of the fittest,” is thus a sine quâ non for modification. But, as we have just insisted, this does not render ” the fertility of the fittest ” an especial “means of modification,” rather than any other sine quâ non for modification.

But, to look at the matter in another light. Mr. Darwin maintains natural selection to be “the most important but not the exclusive means of modification.”

For “natural selection” substitute the words “survival of the fittest,” which we may do with Mr. Darwin’s own consent abundantly given.

To the words “survival of the fittest” add what is elided, but what is, nevertheless, unquestionably as much implied as though it were said openly whenever these words are used, and without which “fittest” has no force—I mean, ” for the conditions of their existence.” [Butler 1879:350f]

Butler is no friend to Darwin, having had a feud with him. As a result he spends considerable effort in this book to show that (1) Darwin is not original, and (2) Darwin is not saying anything much. We might think of him, along with Mivart, as the original anti-Darwinian. Butler is arguing in favour of Lamarck’s notion of acquired characters. He want to make out the case that Darwin has no underlying mechanism for the generation of variation (again, recall our friend Goodwin’s making the same point). And to do this he makes, for the first time I can find, the tautology argument. Notice that from the start, the exchange of the phrase “survival of the fittest” for the definition of natural selection that Darwin gives is made, and this is what gives the objection its force. Here’s Darwin’s definition of natural selection, opening Chapter IV of the Origin:

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

As we know now, the source of these variation is mutation, but it was thought to be a knockdown attack on Darwin to point out that these variations were adaptive before they were selected for; and this is still a line of attack. But of course all variations must be adaptive to some degree if the organism is to develop; if they aren’t then the organism is not viable and does not develop to the point where ecological adaptation occurs. Butler’s attack has become widespread.

I will continue to look for earlier critiques of this kind – maybe Mivart (Lynch? Do you know?), but it’s time to move on. The next post will cover the modern arrival of this concern.


  1. thonyc thonyc

    John you tautology series is realy excellent.

  2. The issue of tautology comes up in a dispute between Mivart and Max Muller (it is Muller, however, who raises the issue of tautology, and Mivart does not respond to that point) . Mivart lays out all the letters of the dispute in an interminable footnote in Chapter II of The Origin of Human Reason. But this is not an earlier instance; it occurred in the late 1880s.

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