He was out to provoke, and provocative it still is. But it bears comparison with the best recent thinking about the relationship between science and religious belief. In his Rock of Ages (1999), the late Stephen Jay Gould proposed to settle the matter with the idea of 'Non-Overlapping Magisteria' or 'NOMA'. Science is thereby defined as appropriately concerned with facts, or theories devised to account for them. Natural selection would be an excellent example. Religion is concerned with questions of meaning, of ultimate value, i.e. what, if anything, does the theory of natural selection mean for the way I choose to live my life? If nothing, then on what basis do I make decisions?
Bad science tries to deal in questions of ultimate value, like Dawkins sliding the 'selfishness' of genes across to account for (alleged) basic truths about all human behaviour. Bad religion tries to re-create the facts in its own image: 'creationist' science. Meanwhile the best versions of both, science and religion, have nothing to fear from each other.
This is surely the most satisfactory approach. It contains an important flaw, however. Being what it incorrigibly is, the human race is unlikely ever to pay much attention to such an idea. We are patterners. Where we are also ignorant and/or frightened, the dots we join up – because we are forever joining up the dots – will give us just that terrifying confirmation of our worst fears which we find so irresistibly fascinating. A quick flick through today's headlines will give you a rough idea of what I mean. The notion of science as a self-contained 'magisterium' may have strong appeal to a professor for whom the complexities of his subject are what make life worth living, but that is never how any wider public is going to see 'complexity'. They want the dots joined up, all of them, and if the Professor Goulds won't do it for them, they'll find someone who will.
Which is perhaps where someone like Butler comes in useful. Because where imaginative power, even without formal 'scientific training', reaches out towards science to challenge and interpret it on its own terms, the result doesn't have to be 'bad religion'. The result can be certain chapters in Erewhon, for example – the ones satirising machine civilisation – and we can be all the richer for the novelist 'straying' outside his magisterium. Was Butler so wrong after all to conceive of heredity as a “form of memory”? “Everybody is both himself and all his direct ancestors and all his descendants as well,” he wrote.
Listen to a modern geneticist, Diethard Tautz, writing in the early 1990s: “The formation of an adult organism can be seen as the transmission which is laid down in the egg and its genome”. Or read Luigi Cavalli-Sforza's account, in Genes, Peoples and Languages, of how the study of certain genetic frequencies in human populations allows us to track the different phases of global colonisation by humans, helping us both to re-construct ancient migrations, as well as de-construct any lingering concepts of race. Tautz and Cavalli-Sforza are from quite different disciplines within the study of genetics but both in their ways confirm Butler's vitalist hunch.
“The high philosophy view of the matter,” he wrote, “is that every human being is still but a fresh edition of the primordial cell, with the latest additions and corrections”. Fox Keller has written of the interdependence of the genes and the cytoplasm of the cell in which they are embedded. To replicate itself generation after generation, the DNA is reliant on the cell's “complex machinery of editing, proof-reading and repair”, she writes.
These may seem superficial resemblances, rhetorical flourishes rather than substantial agreement. Taken together with the other analogies between the 19th century and the current debate, they point to something more important. And the plot only thickens when we find Butler's theory of evolution has fascinating affinities with his idea of culture. It was an idea he expounded in a late novel as well as in a lecture he was invited to give at a London club in the 1880s. He was to talk on the subject of ‘How to Make the Best of Life’. He began with the disclaimer that he didn't even know how to make the best of the next twenty minutes never mind the whole of his own or anyone else's life. Instead he chose to ask which life the questioner meant – the conscious or the unconscious?
What he then proceeds to elaborate is a theory of cultural transmission: “The life of the embryo was unconscious before birth, and so is the life […] after death. But as the embryonic and infant life of which we were unconscious was the most potent factor in our after-life of consciousness, so the effect which we may unconsciously produce in others after death […] is in all sober seriousness our truer and more abiding life, and the one which those who would make the best of their sojourn here will take most into their consideration”.
And we begin to see suddenly how his theory of heredity fits with the rest of his thinking. “Our life in this world […] is a period of probation.” Not before our ascension to the one, or descent to the other, place. It is of course that 'brightest heaven of invention” to which he refers – he means the European inheritance and though we should widen that category it's hard to argue with the examples he offers: Giovanni Bellini, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Handel. He does not hesitate to name participation in that 'after-life' as the best use any man can make of his earthly life: “who cares one straw for far any such chances and changes as will commonly befall him here if he is upheld by the full and certain hope of everlasting life in the affections of those who shall come after?”
One of the (many) ways in which we would widen that category would be to include, say, those who have released truths like those of modern genetics for use by the human imagination – scientific, philosophical, artistic. Whether or not, viewed from the other side of the 20th century, we admire such projects, Butler's was, as I mentioned at the start, a genuine attempt to arrive at a grand synthesis, pulling together his literary, historical and scientific interests. We may dismiss the attempt as misguided – the synthesis he achieved was deemed cranky even in his own day and the very idea is still disastrously unfashionable. But perhaps that was/is a price worth paying. One advantage, I suggest, of producing such varied work is that you have a chance of leaving the world a fascinating set of intellectual grandchildren. That much would surely have delighted him, in whatever afterlife his belief system allows.