Yuri Tarnopolsky
6. On the Yahoos, or Apologia of Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler. Norbert Wiener. competition of humans and things. co-evolution. technology.

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Essay 6. On the Yahoos, or Apologia of Samuel Butler

New ideas are conceived and born out of sight, like babies—or crimes. When they grow up and mature, some of them come into the limelight in full glory. Like political leaders, pop stars, and lucky criminals, they capture imagination of large masses of people. In the pre-tech past, the leader, the prophet, the champion seemed to be an embodiment of his idea, a puppet driven by an invisible spiritual hand. In the post-education present, ideas can quietly percolate through massive layers of former high school graduates. This can happen with all kinds of ideas, from esoteric scientific ideas, like nuclear energy and genetic engineering, to less obscure global warming and loss of personal privacy.

The ideas of mass origin usually develop into reform or revolt. Obviously, when many people were dissatisfied by the existing regime in France by the end of the eighteenth century, the revolution followed. Same can be said about the pre-revolutionary North American colonies. Similarly, many people in America link the juvenile violence to the cult of violence in the entertainment, although neither revolt nor reform are in sight. Such ideas are simple to conceive or stumble upon: we pay taxes, and they don’t, therefore... They are represented in matters of taxation and we are not, therefore... They are violent, their movies are violent, therefore...  etc.  Many people observe life and many come to the same conclusion, which may be or may not be true. Such ideas have bright colors, spin in the air, and rustle under the feet like October foliage.

Other ideas are born in one or a few minds out of contemplating a reality that most people don’t encounter and don’t care about other ideas. The visionary is not necessarily a genius: he might have seen through the keyhole of the microscope what common people could not for the lack of instrument.  His idea has to wait some time until its underlying reality develops through technology and politics to such extent that it reaches the surface where everybody can see it and have a private judgment.

Ideas evolve, diverge, fuse, and crossbreed, like organisms. After Richard Dawkins’ meme, it is habitual to regard ideas as a form of life, although the study of their genealogy had been popular long before (one can try an in-depth site about memes) . The life and evolution of ideas about life and evolution must be a curious detective story without a solution—and it is.

In my opinion, one of the most unusual root ideas throughout the entire history of human thought was the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, first published in 1859. The tree supported by the old roots is still growing, and axes of critics are still getting blunt while hitting the trunk.

Today the idea of evolution is not limited by the plants and animals: it is a very general, actually, universal principle well beyond the realm of biology. Paradoxically, the basic Darwinism is still struggling for the acceptance of conservative mind, at least in the USA, and has opponents and  skeptics even among specialists.  There are profound reasons for that and the apparent incompatibility with the centuries and millennia old religious, ethical, and cultural traditions is only one of them.  This is all the more strange that whether we believe in evolution or not is totally irrelevant for our everyday life. As global practice proves, so is the choice of religion.

The general idea of evolution is neither about the past nor about the future. We can learn very little from it about the present. It is about the mechanism of transformation from past to future—quite a limitless range, like the world ocean. When it stirs imagination, the mental storms are reluctant to calm down.  In 1859, some minds got excited immediately.

A simple but far-reaching extrapolation of  Darwin’s idea was first expressed as early as in 1863 by Samuel Butler (1835-1902) in a letter to the New Zealand newspaper Press, entitled  Darwin among the Machines.

Who will be man's successor?  To which the answer is:  We are ourselves creating  our own successors.  Man will become to the machine what the horse and the dog  are to man; the conclusion being  that machines are, or are becoming, animate.

Samuel Butler developed his idea in three chapters of his widely published, known, and referred to Erewhon (1872), which is hard to tag as either utopia or anti-utopia, although its title points to utopia, i.e., nowhere.  Most other chapters are a satire, sometimes very biting, of the Victorian England, but the three chapters that the author presents as a digest of The Book of the Machines, written by an Erewhonian professor about the reasons for the abolition of technology, certainly look neither ironic nor satiric today. They are remarkable for their hauntingly modern tone and somber logic.

Whether Samuel Butler really saw the evolving machines as a challenge to humans or put Darwinism to test by reductio ad absurdum, does not actually matter. He presented in Erewhon his ideas with intense and eloquent clarity. They have been living a life of their own since, and the explosions of the Unabomber’s contraptions, as well as the raucous anti-globalization demonstrations, were their distant repercussions.

For decades Butler was obsessed with his mental discovery but it seems that he was ambivalent about it, as well as about Darwinism, and the idea was unsettling for him.

Did Butler seriously recommend the destruction of technology? He seemed  to avoid complete seriousness and logical consistency, enjoying ideas as they are, in a Zen-like manner (see the biographical sketch written by his friend Henry Festing Jones).

The machine Darwinism was for him like a mathematical strange attractor and his mind, probably, was making a round after round over the idea, incapable of coming to a  stable position and never exactly repeating the previous trajectory of thought.

Anyway, in his  Erewhon Revisited (1901), the laws against machinery are already repealed, resulting, of course, in the spread of materialism. Thirty years after Erewhon, it was the time of telephone, motion pictures, and first automobiles, the time of big expectations.

Darwinism is like astrophysics: both have the magnetic appeal of impossibility of proof. Although based on hard experimental science and supported by a train of new discoveries, both could have the final proof only beyond the temporal limits of human existence. Same is true about futurology in general. Once you are there, on the platform of you premise, you are doomed to wander from one edge to another, see attractor.

Here are some examples of Butler’s ideas.

1. We see machines evolving so fast that the path of their evolution may cross someday with that of the humans.

But returning to the argument, I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines;  what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something verydifferent to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, andchecked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless? 

  2. Machines tend to exceed man in many functions.

And take man’s vaunted power of calculation. Have we not engines which can do  all manner of sums more quickly and correctly than we can? .... Our sum-engines  never drop a figure, nor our looms a stitch; the machine is brisk and active, when  the man is weary; it is clear-headed and collected, when the man is stupid and dull;  it needs no slumber, when man must sleep or drop; even at its post, ever ready  for work, its alacrity never flags, its patience never gives in; its might is stronger than  combined hundreds, and swifter than the flight of birds; it can burrow beneath  the earth, and walk upon the largest rivers and sink not. 

3. The human control over machines may not be sustainable in the future. The machines may control the humans. 

We treat our domestic animals with much kindness. We give them whatever we  believe to be the best for them; and there can be no doubt that our use of meat  has increased their happiness rather than detracted from it. In like manner there  is reason to hope that the machines will use us kindly, for their existence will be  in a great measure dependent upon ours; they will rule us with a rod of iron, but  they will not eat us; they will not only require our services in the reproduction  and education of their young, but also in waiting upon them as servants; in gathering  food for them, and feeding them; in restoring them to health when they are sick;  and in either burying their dead or working up their deceased members into new  forms of mechanical existence.

 And yet:

 Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them;  but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense  of any machine. 

 4. The machines have the ability to manipulate the humans.

  ...they [machines] owe their very existence and progress to their power  of ministering to human wants, and must therefore both now and ever be  man’s inferiors.  This is all very well. But the servant glides by imperceptible approaches  into the master; and we have come to such a pass that, even now, man must  suffer terribly on ceasing to benefit the machines.

  Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks  as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought  upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs.

  So that even now the machines will only serve on condition of being served, and  that too upon their own terms; the moment their terms are not complied with, they  jib, and either smash both themselves and all whom they can reach, or turn churlish  and refuse to work at all.

 5. Machines can be as autonomous as organisms.

  The main point, however, to be observed as affording cause for alarm is, that  whereas animals were formerly the only stomachs of the machines [like plough],  there are now many which have stomachs of their own, and consume their food  themselves. This is a great step towards their becoming, if not animate, yet  something so near akin to it, as not to differ more widely from our own life  than animals do from vegetables.

6. Man is part of the reproductive system of machines .

  Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically,  we may say that it has a reproductive system. What is a reproductive  system, if it be not a system for reproduction? And how few of the machines  are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines?  But it is man that makes them do so. ... Does anyone say that the red  clover has no reproductive system because the humble bee (and the  humble bee only) must aid and abet it before it can reproduce? No one.  The humble bee is a part of the reproductive system of the clover.  Each one of ourselves has sprung from minute animalcules whose  entity was entirely distinct from our own, and which acted after their  kind with no thought or heed of what we might think about it.  These little creatures are part of our own reproductive system;  then why not we part of that of the machines? 

 7. The machine has a reproductive system distributed in the society.

 We are misled by considering any complicated machine as a single thing;  in truth it is a city or society, each member of which was bred truly after its kind.

The truth is that each part of every vapor-engine is bred by its own special  breeders, whose function it is to breed that part, and that only, while  the combination of the parts into a whole forms another department  of the mechanical reproductive system, which is at present exceedingly  complex and difficult to see in its entirety.

8. The machines are extensions of human organs.

Man, he [the Erewhonian author] said, was a machinate mammal. The lower animals keep all their limbs at home in their own bodies,  but many of man’s are loose, and lie about detached, now here and  now there, in various parts of the world--some being kept always  handy for contingent use, and others being occasionally hundreds  of miles away. A machine is merely a supplementary limb; this is  the be all and end all of machinery. We do not use our own limbs  other than as machines; and a leg is only a much better wooden leg  than any one can manufacture. 

There is much more in the original. The above quotations are not a substitute for the complete text. Erewhon is a short book and Chapters 23-25 are only a small part of it.

Samuel Butler, probably, had predecessors, but there was too little time between 1859 and 1863 to have many of them. I can feel in his text the freshness of the first discovery. I accidentally discovered Butler only very late, after I myself had already arrived at the gate of the same mental enclosure, some would say, trap. I might have even read Butler in my youth in a Russian translation, but it left no impression.

The amazing book that drew my attention to Butler is also worth mentioning: From Dawn to Decadence by  Jacques Barzun, a history of the last five centuries of the Western culture, a book unlike anything else in this overcrowded domain. By the way, it ends with some intriguing futuristic prognoses echoing H. G. Wells.

At least two other writers, Henry Thoreau and  Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, like Butler, witnessed the genesis of modern technology, had definite reservations about it.

The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind;
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete,
Not reconciled,—
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.

Ralf Waldo Emerson,

Ode Inscribed to W. H. Channing


“And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season?  But if we  stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not  ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. “   

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Emerson (1803-1882), most probably, read Erewhon, but Thoreau (1817-1862) could not.

Butler, Thoreau, and Emerson lived in the times when mechanical technology was as new and emerging as the computers and Internet for our generation. Moreover, they lived in USA and Britain, right on the breeding grounds of technology. All generations that witness the emergence of a new social factor are split about it, but those who are born with it take it for granted.  It is all the more intriguing that after 150 years Darwin and Butler still teas and stimulate human mind.

There is a new version of the same idea, apparently, independent, see NOTE.

The train of books referring to Butler’s ideas is endless. The most significant recent work is Darwin among the Machines by George B. Dyson. It is not only directly influenced by Butler but repeats the title of his original essay. Another significant view was outlined by Sir Peter Medawar.

A wide range of opinions has sprouted up today on the plat of mental land first tilled by Samuel Butler. It is still big enough for anybody to drop a seed.

I do not believe in any Luddite assault on technology. I believe, though, in the war of humans against the species of technology that take away their freedom and privacy—the war in which humans are the most likely losers. I believe that we live in times of a starting divergence between the evolutionary branches of man-made Things and humans. Divergence means competition.

Emerson, unlike Butler and all subsequent detractors of technology, did not mean technology per se, but the Things in general, i.e., the objects of manufacturing and exchange. This seems the most general approach to the evolution of a society that is not exclusively human anymore. By the Things I mean everything for sale, including cars, food, hotel services, movies, government (meaning not corruption but the fact that we pay for it), and even ideas that are becoming Things because of ever widening concept of copyright. Even our personal data and preferences are becoming Things for sale when we disclose them to companies in exchange for some miserable benefit.

Humans legally represent Things, like the abolitionists represented the slaves, parents represent children, and special interest groups represent whales, redwood trees, guns, breast, and colon.

I believe that the humans are shifting toward performing the same role in society as enzymes in the living cell: they assemble and disassemble Things, having very little choice in doing anything else. The details of this vision should better be left to another essay. Sufficient to say here that Butler anticipated all that and more in Chapters 26 and 27:

    Now it cannot be denied that sheep, cattle, deer, birds, and fishes are our
    fellow-creatures. They differ from us in some respects, but those in which they
    differ are few and secondary, while those that they have in common with us are
    many and essential. My friends, if it was wrong of you to kill and eat your
    fellow-men, it is wrong also to kill and eat fish, flesh, and fowl. Birds, beasts, and
    fishes, have as full a right to live as long as they can unmolested by man, as man
    has to live unmolested by his neighbors.

     Plants,” said he, “show no sign of interesting themselves in human affairs. We shall
    never get a rose to understand that five times seven are thirty-five, and there is no use
    in talking to an oak about fluctuations in the price of stocks. Hence we say that the oak
    and the rose are unintelligent, and on finding that they do not understand our business
    conclude that they do not understand their own. But what can a creature who talks
    in this way know about intelligence? Which shows greater signs of intelligence?
    He, or the rose and oak?

    And when we call plants stupid for not understanding our business, how capable do
    we show ourselves of understanding theirs?

Both Darwinism and astrophysics can only add to one’s fatalism, and history does not offer any consolation, either. An optimist could say that most of human history was made on horseback but that great innovation did not make us look like Yahoos beside the  Houyhnhnms. A pessimist could see instead an exactly opposite picture.

Norbert Wiener’s books made a deep imprint on me since the late 50’s. His opinion is especially interesting because, like Butler, he not only had witnessed the genesis  of a whole new area of intelligent machines, but, in a sense, was their Darwin.

Wiener seemed to be reconciled with technology in general. In his The Human Use of Human Beings he shifted the responsibility from technology to man.

    “ When I say that the machine’s danger to society is not from the machine
    itself but from what man makes of it, I am really underlining the warning
    of Samuel Butler. In Erewhon he conceives machines otherwise unable
    to act as conquering mankind by the use of men as the subordinate organs.
    Nevertheless, we must not take Butler’s foresight too seriously, as in fact
    at his time neither he nor anyone around him could understand the true nature
    of the behavior of automata, and his statements are rather incisive figures
    of speech than scientific remarks. “

Wiener emphasized, however, the machine-like aspect of human society.

    “When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used,
    not in their full right  as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers
    and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is
    used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether
    we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh
    and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and
    corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless
    we ask the right questions.”

 He did not seem to foresee a society where not only both humans and machines but also all Things are moving toward emancipation , as Jaques Barzun called the overwhelming trend of the Western evolution for half millennium. They are becoming members of a certain representative republic of all Things, from energy, matter, and land to plants and animals, to humans and all their various social subspecies, to machines and all goods for sale. In this democracy every cog and lever cares for itself and has no loyalty to the machine.

Would that be the right question to ask: if humans and machines  are reciprocally dependent, “ride” each other, are components of a single  system, and there is a single reconciled law for both (compare with Emerson’s “There are two laws discrete, /Not reconciled,—/Law for man, and law for thing;”) then who is responsible for what?

As a possible answer, Robert B. Reich in his admirable The Future of Success illustrates the inherent dissipation of responsibility in modern economy as fait accompli. The book is also a long list of examples of how the Things ride on humans.

It seems like Wiener’s train of thought brought up a contradiction: on the one hand, humans are responsible for their destiny. On the other hand, they are used as elements of the social machine, therefore, are the elements of it, and, therefore, are not responsible. The final answer depends on the outcome of the ongoing struggle of the fundamental American and Western individualism with the power of the systemic reality. One might say that in the twentieth century, humans in Russia, Germany, China, and Cuba lost to their systems. The totalitarian system based on one-way domination, however, is not dynamic, i.e., not based on individual reciprocal interactions. The recent history makes the victory of dynamic system over the frozen one look more probable, at least, in the short run.

Today there is a yet amorphous but apparently growing body of people concerned about technology. Quite humanly, they are using the new technology of communication for strengthening the skeleton of their soft body.

Since a confrontation with technology is senseless (we are the limbs of the machines, they are our limbs, we are one body), another evolutionary divergence could be an alternative: the split between the humans that just go with the tide and those who, like the apes, want to stay a step behind and enjoy the primitive pleasures of the “pure” human life where humans trust and represent only  themselves. But again, would that be the life at the Walden Pond or a  barbarically opulent culture, art, and philosophy mixed with equally sophisticated barbarous cruelty, aggression, and competition? Would the two new races of humans compete like the ancient hominids that happened to inhabit the same territory for a while, leaving only one survivor?

The name of this hypothetic trend, still vaguely visible and unstable, is self-segregation (balkanization, if you will), and if it happened to dominate, history would change its 500 year old course.

I believe that the problem that the humankind faces is not the recent technological inventions. All inventions have always been digested, absorbed, and used with an acceptable degree of risk, like aviation and telephone. The problem is that if plants, animals, humans, their man-made creations, and the creation-made creations form a single global system of mutual dependence, with the wireless nerves of the Web (also anticipated by Samuel Butler!) some organs of this system may change their function, undergo hypertrophy, like human brain, or reduction, like the tail of the  hominids. There is nothing to be digested in a single system except energy and matter. Any other digestion will be the self-digestion. Any fight will be self-mutilation, like the LA riots. For the first time in the history of the Earth, population would consist of a single organism not knowing any competition. Why would anybody need a brain then?

For most of history, mere distance, mountain, desert, ocean, language, and historical memories could keep not only human populations apart, so that they could compete (often, a euphemism for murder), invent, exchange, and mimic each other, but also maintain some barriers between the humans and the rest of nature, including the environment and mineral resources. The perspective of a large system with bilateral and reciprocal interactions at all levels would mean the next evolutionary turn on the same scale as the advent of man. Who rides whom—this question would lose meaning. In the 70’s oil was riding the USA, and in 2001 it still looks like electricity takes a ride on California.

If it is the system that rides its parts, there is no place for either individualism or dictatorship inside the system.

What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine (Norbert Wiener).

Fortunately, speaking about the future, we cannot prove anything. We have only three choices: to scare, to comfort, and to have fun.

NOTE:   Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001; Page xv) writes about the relation of coevolution between the gardener and the plants:

So the question arose in my mind that day: Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog.


That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.

However, coevolution in biology can be competitive, parasitic, and predatory.

On coevolution with technology, see: coevolution 1, , coevolution 3.


P.S. (2016). An interesting phenomenon in the development of Things is the sexy seductive ploys and theatrics of Apple’s iPhones that make a little slick Thing an object of status, fashion, and adoration. People seem to physically live with them as with obsessing sexual partners, suffering even a short separation.


Page created: 2001                                                     Revised: 2016

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