From Samuel Butler 11 May 1872
15. Clifford’s Inn | Fleet Street E. C.
May 11. 1872
I venture upon the liberty of writing to you about a portion of the little book Erewhon1 which I have lately published and which I am afraid has been a good deal misunderstood. I refer to the chapter upon Machines, in which I have developed and worked out the obviously absurd theory that they are about to supplant the human race and be developed into a higher kind of life.
When I first got hold of the idea I developed it for mere fun, and because it amused me and I thought would amuse others, but without a particle of serious meaning; but I developed it and introduced into “Erewhon” with the intention of implying “see how easy it is to be plausible, and what absurd propositions can be defended by a little ingenuity and distortion & departure from strictly scientific methods” and I had Butler’s analogy in my head as the book at which it should be aimed, but prefered to conceal my aim for many reasons.2 Firstly the book was already as heavily weighted with heterodoxy as it would bear, and I dare not give another half ounce lest it should break the camel’s back, secondly it would have interfered with the plausibility of the argument, and I looked to this plausibility as a valuable aid to the general acceptation of the book: thirdly it is more amusing without any sort of explanation, and I thought the drier part that had gone before wanted a little relieving; and also the more enigmatic a thing of this sort is the more people think for themselves about it, on the principle that advertisers ask “Where is Eliza?” and “Who is Griffiths?”3 I therefore thought it unnecessary to give any disclaimer of an intention of being disrespectful to the Origin of Species a book for which I can never be sufficiently grateful, though I am well aware how utterly incapable I am of forming any opinion on a scientific subject which is worth a moment’s consideration.
However, you have a position which nothing can shake and I knew very well that any appearance of ridicule would do your theories no harm whatsoever, and that they could afford a far more serious satire than anything in Erewhon— the only question was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as disbelieving in things which I believe most firmly. On thinking it over I determined to say nothing in the preface, but to wait for a second edition before explaining—that is if a second edition were called for.4 On the whole I think I did wisely, though I am sincerely sorry that some of the critics should have thought that I was laughing at your theory, a thing which I never meant to do, and should be shocked at having done—
I am Sir | your’s respectfully | S. Butler
P.S. Let me beg of you not trouble to answer this letter
His chapter on machines in Erewhon has been misunderstood as laughing at the Origin. He was only trying to show how an absurd proposition can be defended with a little ingenuity, distortion, and departure from strict scientific method. Will explain in a second edition, if one is called for.
Please cite as
Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8318,” accessed on 25 March 2017, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-8318