Evolution, Old & New Informative Summary


Samuel Butler’s Evolution, Old & New is a compelling exploration of the theory of evolution, specifically challenging the prevailing notion that Darwin’s theory of natural selection disproves the existence of design or purpose in nature. Butler, a contemporary of Darwin, argues for a teleological approach, where organisms themselves are the designers and architects of their own structures. He draws heavily from the earlier works of Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, arguing that their theories, which emphasize the role of adaptation and inheritance of acquired characteristics, offer a more complete understanding of evolution than the purely accidental processes emphasized by Darwin.

Butler’s central argument revolves around the concept of “habit” as a driving force in evolution. He contends that repeated actions and adaptations over generations become ingrained as habits, leading to gradual but significant changes in an organism’s structure and behavior. This process is often unconscious and driven by the organism’s need to survive and thrive in its environment. Through this lens, Butler examines a range of animal characteristics and behaviors, demonstrating how seemingly intricate and purposeful designs can arise from the accumulation of habits, rather than from blind chance.

Key Findings:

  • Teleological Evolution: Butler argues that evolution is inherently purposive, driven by the organism’s desire to adapt to its environment and enhance its survival.
  • Habit as a Driving Force: He proposes that the accumulation of habits over generations is a key factor in evolution, leading to gradual changes in structure and behavior.
  • Internal Design: Butler advocates for a view where the designer of an organism resides within the organism itself, rather than external to it.
  • Reevaluation of Early Evolutionists: He argues that the contributions of Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck have been unfairly overlooked and dismissed.


  • Evolution Beyond Darwin: The reader will learn that Darwin’s theory is not the only, nor necessarily the most accurate, explanation of evolution.
  • Purposive Nature: The text challenges the common view of nature as a collection of random occurrences, suggesting that purpose and design are inherent in the process of evolution.
  • Habitual Adaptation: The reader will understand how the inheritance of acquired characteristics, through the mechanism of habit, contributes to the evolution of species.
  • Embryological Development: Butler explores the significance of embryological development in understanding the evolutionary history of organisms.

Historical Context:

The text was written in 1879, a period of intense debate and discussion surrounding the theory of evolution. Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published 20 years earlier, sparking a scientific and societal revolution. Butler’s work reflects this context, engaging in a critical dialogue with Darwin’s ideas while championing the less recognized but nonetheless significant work of earlier evolutionists.


  • Animals have a “circumstance-suiting” power: This means they can adapt their actions and structures to suit the conditions of their environment.
  • Rudimentary organs are evidence of past usefulness: Organs that are no longer used can be seen as vestiges of a time when they served a function for the organism’s ancestors.
  • Animals and plants are interconnected: Buffon saw a continuous gradation from the most perfect animal to the most formless matter, with plants occupying an intermediate position.
  • Animals have senses, but not necessarily as good as man’s: Buffon acknowledged that animals can feel and perceive, but questioned their capacity for reason and memory.
  • Animals can learn and adapt: Despite his claims that animals lack reason and memory, Buffon recognized that they can adapt their behaviors and even modify their physical characteristics through repeated actions.
  • The brain is not the seat of perception: According to Buffon, the brain is primarily an organ of secretion and nutrition for the nerves.
  • Animals under domestication are more variable: Domesticated animals are more susceptible to changes in physical and mental characteristics due to human influence.
  • The “natural” order of classification is based on familiarity: Buffon argued that we should classify organisms based on our own experience with them, rather than on abstract theoretical systems.
  • The number of individuals within a species remains relatively constant: Buffon observed that despite high fecundity, populations are regulated by a balance of factors, including natural resources, predators, and diseases.
  • Animals have a “prescient instinct” that drives their behaviors: Even though Buffon denied reason and memory in animals, he acknowledged that they exhibit seemingly intelligent behaviors, such as storing food for winter.
  • Animals and plants can change their “natures” through adaptation: Buffon believed that species can become “perfected” or “degraded” over time, influenced by factors like climate, food, and domestication.
  • The “type” of a species has essential and accessory features: Buffon suggested that while species retain their essential characteristics, their accessory features can vary.
  • The mammoth has disappeared: This extinction event points to the fact that species are not immutable and can disappear entirely.
  • Geographical distribution of animals has changed: Buffon recognized that the animal life of the Old and New Worlds differs significantly, suggesting that populations have been separated and adapted to their respective environments.
  • Animals of the New World are smaller than their counterparts in the Old World: Buffon attributed this difference to the “brutal condition” of nature in the Americas.
  • The ox family can be reduced to three species: Buffon believed that the bull, buffalo, and bubalus represent the fundamental types within the ox genus.
  • Domestication can profoundly affect animals: Domesticated animals undergo significant changes in their physical and mental characteristics compared to their wild ancestors.
  • Time is a major factor in evolution: Buffon emphasized the importance of time in the gradual process of adaptation and change in organisms.


  • Man lives 80 years, while the dog lives only 10: This difference in lifespan contributes to greater variability in dogs due to the accumulation of generations over time.
  • The “stock” of a plant, like the diaphragm of an animal, divides the organism transversely: This analogy highlights the importance of a central point of control and support for the organism.
  • The brain is a soft, inactive substance: Buffon’s observation that the brain lacks elasticity and sensation supports his argument that it is not the seat of perception.


  • Teleology: The study of purpose or design in nature.
  • Evolution: The gradual change in the characteristics of a species over time.
  • Natural Selection: The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and reproduce more successfully.
  • Rudimentary Organs: Organs that are present in an organism but have lost their original function.
  • Hybridism: The process of breeding between different species or varieties.
  • Domestication: The process of breeding animals or plants for specific traits.
  • Degeneration: A term used by Buffon to describe the process of descent with modification, often implying a decrease in complexity or a loss of specific features.
  • Type: A representative example of a species, often used to describe its essential characteristics.


  • The Ass and Horse: Buffon used the resemblance between these two animals as evidence for their shared ancestry, suggesting that species are not immutable and can be modified over time.
  • The Pig: Buffon pointed to the presence of seemingly useless toes on the pig as an example of a structure that doesn’t necessarily serve a function.
  • The Dog: Buffon’s study of the wide range of dog breeds highlighted the remarkable extent to which humans can influence the physical and mental characteristics of animals through selective breeding.
  • The Hare: Buffon used the high reproductive rate of the hare to illustrate the concept of the geometrical ratio of increase and the balance of power in nature.
  • The Mammoth: The extinction of the mammoth exemplified the mutability of species and the possibility that even large and dominant species can disappear.
  • The Bison and Aurochs: Buffon suggested that these animals, along with domestic cattle, share a common ancestry, demonstrating the plasticity of species.
  • The Camel: The hump of the camel, Buffon argued, is an adaptation to arid climates.
  • The sensitive plant: Buffon used the limited movement of this plant to illustrate the relationship between perception and motion.
  • The Polypus: This animal’s ability to reproduce by fission demonstrated to Buffon that sensation and perception are not necessarily centralized in a brain.
  • Bees: The intricate social structure and behaviors of bees, Buffon believed, could not be explained by reason or intelligence.


Samuel Butler’s Evolution, Old & New offers a fresh perspective on the theory of evolution, challenging the dominant view that Darwin’s theory eliminates the idea of design in nature. By highlighting the importance of habit and adaptation in the shaping of organisms, Butler presents a teleological framework where creatures themselves are the designers of their own structures. He emphasizes the crucial roles of earlier evolutionists like Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck, urging a reevaluation of their work and a broader understanding of the complex processes that drive evolution.

For the reader, this book provides a valuable opportunity to move beyond the simplistic understanding of Darwinian natural selection and engage with a more nuanced and compelling picture of evolution as a dynamic, purposive process where organisms actively shape their own destinies.

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