Chapter 3 Babbage Meets Darwin: Mechanisation and Evolution in the 19th Century

By the climax of the British Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, the idea of machines making other machines was no longer quite such an “unexpected property” as it was when Paley wrote Natural Theology just decades earlier. Indeed, around this time we start to see more anxiety about the potential consequences of machine self-reproduction as the idea begins to seem a little less far-fetched. In 1844, the British author and future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Coningsby; in a passage of the book describing the industrial landscape of Manchester, the narrator remarks:

“And why should one say that the machine does not live? It breathes … It moves … And has it not a voice? … And yet the mystery of mysteries is to view machines making machines; a spectacle that fills the mind with curious, and even awful, speculation.”

— Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, 1844 (Disraeli, 1844, p. 154)

By the mid-nineteenth century, the intellectual advances of the preceding two hundred years had laid the groundwork for the first extended explorations of the possible repercussions of self-reproducing machines, with particular concern about their potential to evolve. The nexus of this development was London; in the nineteenth century, the intellectual elite of England were a richly connected web of thinkers, among whom ideas of science, philosophy, technology, literature and the arts freely flowed.

For example, shortly after returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin attended one of Charles Babbage’s regular London soirées and witnessed a demonstration of his work on a mechanical calculating machine, the Difference Engine.19 Babbage worked with Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace), who was the daughter of poet George (Lord) Byron, whose friend Percy Bysshe Shelley was married to novelist Mary Shelley, whose work Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818) remains the seminal science fiction account of the creation of an artificial being,20 and so on …

It was into this intellectual powder keg that Darwin was about to drop a lit match with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 (C. Darwin, 1859). Descartes and La Mettrie had claimed that organisms were machines, and Darwin now argued that complex organisms had evolved from simple beginnings. We do not have to wait long thereafter to find thinkers who combined these lines of thought to conceive and explore the idea of self-reproducing, evolving machines—that is, evo-replicators.

Within a year of Darwin’s publication, his American friend and colleague Asa Gray published an extended review and examination of Darwin’s theory in three successive issues of The Atlantic magazine.21 In the first of these, published in July 1860, Gray compared Darwin’s picture of biological evolution to the development of human technology and artefacts:

“To compare small things with great in a homely illustration: man alters from time to time his instruments or machines, as new circumstances or conditions may require and his wit suggest. Minor alterations and improvements he adds to the machine he possesses; he adapts a new rig or a new rudder to an old boat: this answers to variation. If boats could engender, the variations would doubtless be propagated, like those of domestic cattle. In course of time the old ones would be worn out or wrecked; the best sorts would be chosen for each particular use, and further improved upon; and so the primordial boat be developed into the scow, the skiff, the sloop, and other species of water-craft,—the very diversification, as well as the successive improvements, entailing the disappearance of many intermediate forms, less adapted to any one particular purpose; wherefore these go slowly out of use, and become extinct species: this is natural selection.”

— Asa Gray, 1860 (Gray, 1860, p. 122) (original emphasis)

This passage is perhaps the first published example of an analogy being drawn between the process of biological evolution and the evolution of human technology.22 In addition, Gray also conjures the image of a boat giving rise to other boats like itself. While Gray was not necessarily thinking of self-reproducing technology,23 over the following twenty-year period we find at least three authors writing explicitly and extensively about the idea of evo-replicators—and about the potential consequences of their emergence for the future of humankind.

3.1 Samuel Butler: Darwin Among the Machines (1863)

A little biographical background is required to explain how, in the 1860s, a sheep farmer on a remote ranch in New Zealand came to be writing about the conquest of humanity by evolving, self-reproducing machines.

Born in England, Samuel Butler (1835–1902) set sail aboard the Roman Emperor, bound for New Zealand, in October 1859 (Butler, 1863a).24 A recent graduate of Cambridge University, and son of the Reverend Thomas Butler,25 Samuel had decided not to follow his father into the clergy, but instead intended to establish himself among the early British settlers of the Canterbury settlement in New Zealand’s South Island.

Butler’s plan was to increase his wealth by sheep farming, and by late 1860 he had established a sheep run named Mesopotamia Station. Although the run was situated some 90 miles south-west of the regional capital Christchurch, Butler spent much of his time in the capital and became well connected. Over the four years he spent in New Zealand, he wrote a number of contributions for The Press, a Christchurch newspaper.

Shortly after his arrival in New Zealand, Butler obtained a copy of Darwin’s recently-published On the Origin of Species (C. Darwin, 1859). In late 1862 he anonymously published a dialogue in The Press entitled Darwin on the Origin of Species (Butler, 1862) in which one character argues in support of Darwin’s theory and the other against it. This wrestling with Darwin’s theory and its implications was to form a common thread in many of Butler’s later works. The following year, on 13 June 1863, he published another letter in The Press—this time under the pseudonym Cellarius—entitled Darwin Among the Machines (Butler, 1863b) (see Fig. 3.1).

The front page of The Press newspaper from 13 June 1863. Butler’s letter Darwin Among The Machines starts at the bottom of the second column. The letter continued to the end of the first column of the second page (not shown).

Figure 3.1: The front page of The Press newspaper from 13 June 1863. Butler’s letter Darwin Among The Machines starts at the bottom of the second column. The letter continued to the end of the first column of the second page (not shown).

Butler began the letter by noting the rapid pace of development of machinery from the earliest mechanisms to the most sophisticated examples of the day. He commented that this had far outstripped the pace of development in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and asked what might be the ultimate outcome of this trend. Observing the increasingly sophisticated “self-regulating, self-acting power” with which machines were being conferred, Butler suggested that humans “are ourselves creating our own successors” (Butler, 1863b, p. 1). He further speculated that, freed from the constraints of feelings and emotion, machines will ultimately become “the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at,” at which point “man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man” (Butler, 1863b, p. 1).26

At that stage, Butler reasoned, the machines would still be reliant upon humans for feeding them, repairing them and producing their offspring, and hence they would likely treat us kindly. “[Man] will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state” (Butler, 1863b, p. 1). However, he then introduced the possibility of a time when “the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive,” noting that “it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind” (Butler, 1863b, p. 2).

Given the scenario he had presented, Butler ended the letter by suggesting that the best course of action for the human race was to embark upon the destruction of all machines and to return to a simpler way of life. If such a course of action seemed impossible given the degree to which human civilisation already relied upon technology, Butler warned that “the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage” (Butler, 1863b, p. 2).

Among subsequent commentators on Butler’s work, there are varying opinions on whether his intention was to support or critique Darwin’s theory (see (Holt, 1989, pp. 26–28)).27 Butler was certainly challenged by the implications of the theory, and his published work reflects his own conflicting views and their development over his lifetime. For example, in a subsequent letter to The Press entitled Lucubratio Ebria (Butler, 1865a), published on 29 July 1865, he presented a vision of machines as an extension of the human body, rather than as a competing species. From this perspective, Butler emphasised the capacity of machines to exert positive influences on the evolution of humankind, not only by increasing our physical and mental capabilities but also by changing the environment in which we develop as individuals and evolve as a species.28 He wrote: “We are children of the plough, the spade, and the ship; we are children of the extended liberty and knowledge which the printing press has diffused. Our ancestors added these things to their previously existing members; the new limbs were preserved by natural selection and incorporated into human society; they descended with modifications, and hence proceeds the difference between our ancestors and ourselves” (Butler, 1865a).

Butler’s struggle in deciding how best to reconcile Darwin’s theory of biological evolution with its implications for machine evolution is well expressed in Lucubratio Ebria: “We know that what we see is but a sort of intellectual Siamese twins, of which the one is substance and the other shadow, but we cannot set either free without killing both.” Upon his return to England in 1864, he continued to explore these ideas, first in an expanded essay entitled The Mechanical Creation, published in the London journal The Reasoner in 1865 (Butler, 1865b),29 and finally in their most developed form as The Book of the Machines, which constituted chapters 23–25 of his novel Erewhon, published in 1872 (Butler, 1872).

In Erewhon, Butler explored the idea of the collective reproduction of heterogeneous groups of machines, as an alternative to a single machine individually producing a complete copy of itself. He likened a complicated machine to “a city or society” (Butler, 1872, p. 212), and asked “how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines?” (Butler, 1872, p. 210).30 He invoked a number of biological analogies, such as bee pollination and specialisation of reproductive function in ant colonies, to argue that machines are no less lifelike even if not fully self-reproducing individually.

He further explored the idea, first addressed in Lucubratio Ebria, that humans and machines are co-evolving, in a process driven by market economics. However, in contrast to his earlier writing, he now feared that this might be detrimental to humankind, with machines evolving to act parasitically upon their designers: “[the machines] have preyed upon man’s grovelling preference for his material over his spiritual interests” (Butler, 1872, p. 207). Humans, he argued, are economically invested in producing machines with ever more “intelligibly organised” mechanical reproductive systems (Butler, 1872, p. 212):

“For man at present believes that his interest lies in that direction; he spends an incalculable amount of labour and time and thought in making machines breed better and better … and there seem no limits to the results of accumulated improvements if they are allowed to descend with modification from generation to generation.”

— Samuel Butler, Erewhon, 1872 (Butler, 1872, p. 212)

As machines evolved to become ever more complex, Butler cautioned that they might “so equalise men’s powers” that evolutionary selection pressure on human physical capabilities would be reduced to a level that precipitated “a degeneracy of the human race, and indeed that the whole body might become purely rudimentary” (Butler, 1872, p. 224). This concern about the consequences for the human race of entering a long-term co-evolutionary relationship with machines is taken up by a number of later authors, most notably J. D. Bernal, whose 1929 work The World, The Flesh and the Devil we discuss in Sect. 4.2.1.

3.2 Alfred Marshall: Ye Machine (c. 1867)

In 1865, the year after Butler’s return to London, and a little over 50 miles away, Alfred Marshall (1842–1924)—a recently appointed fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge—was introduced to the university’s Discussion Society (Raffaelli, 1994a). The society was a forum for intellectual debate that later became known as The Grote Club after its founder, the Reverend John Grote.

A graduate in mathematics, Marshall was later to become one of the founding fathers of neoclassical economics. In his influential book The Principles of Economics, first published in 1890, Marshall drew analogies between economics and biology. He noted that both dealt with systems “of which the inner nature and constitution, as well as the outer form, are constantly changing” (Marshall, 1961, p. 772), and, further, that the development of both biological and industrial organisations “involves an increasing subdivision of functions between its separate parts on the one hand, and on the other a more intimate connection between them” (Marshall, 1961, p. 241). He argued that “[t]he Mecca of the economist lies in economic biology” (Marshall, 1961, p. xiv).31

During his early career in the 1860s, however, Marshall was more engaged in questions of philosophy—in particular, the extent to which the activities of the human mind could be understood in purely physical terms (Raffaelli, 1994a), (Cook, 2005).32 He wrote a series of four papers that formed the basis of talks presented at The Grote Club: “The Law of Parcimony”, “Ferrier’s Proposition One”,33Ye Machine”, and “The Duty of the Logician or the System-maker to the Metaphysician and to the Practical Man of Science(Raffaelli, 1994a), (Raffaelli, 1994b).34 The first three of these are a sequential discourse as Marshall feels his way “towards a general theory of psychology … as a doctrine that the action of Brutes are accountable for by mechanical agencies only … and that the phenomena of the human mind are accountable for by mechanical agencies and self-consciousness” (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 111).

In the first two papers, Marshall defended the distinction between the subjective and objective aspects of the mind. Although supportive of the philosophical work of Ferrier and his followers, he complained that they made no attempt to engage with contemporary scientific approaches to mental phenomena (Raffaelli, 1994b, pp. 110–111). In the third paper, “Ye Machine”, Marshall addressed this failure by proposing a model for the objective study of mechanisms capable of learning and intelligent action. Inspired by recent scientific work in psychology,35 evolution36 and calculating machines,37 he described the design of a mechanical device (a robot in today’s terms) equipped with sensors, effectors and inner circuitry that would allow it to develop progressively more sophisticated ideas and reasoning about its interactions with the world.

Marshall’s proposal for the device’s “brain” was as follows:

“We may suppose the Machine to contain an indefinite number of wheels of various sizes, and in various positions … Now suppose that when any two wheels were together performing two partial revolutions, the Machine itself connects them by a light band, slightly fitting. Then, when one of them again revolved, the other would also revolve, unless there were a resisting or opposing force, in which case the band would slip. But every time the same double motion was repeated the band would be tightened.”

— Alfred Marshall, Ye Machine, c. 1867 (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 116)

The proposal was clearly intended as a thought experiment rather than a practical design. But Marshall’s essential point was that it is possible to conceive of a machine with a mechanism that strengthens the linkage between internal elements that tend to be active concurrently.38 The design implements what would now be classified as a kind of associative learning. Marshall goes on to describe how a machine like this might also learn through receiving positive or negative feedback about its actions, and how it might develop instincts to maintain desired states. Although such instincts could arise from the associative learning mechanisms already mentioned, Marshall speculated:

“Nay, further, the Machine, like Paley’s watch, might make others like itself. We thus get hereditary and accumulated instinct. For these descendants, as they may be called, may vary slightly, owing to accidental circumstances, from the parent. Those which were most suited to the environment would supply themselves most easily with fuel, etc. and have the greatest chance of prolonged activity. The principle of natural selection, which indeed involves only purely mechanical agencies, would thus be in full operation.”

— Alfred Marshall, Ye Machine, c. 1867 (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 119)

He went on to discuss how the Machine’s design might be augmented with a second level of inner circuitry, which he called its Cerebrum in contrast to its existing Cerebellum. Marshall discussed how the Cerebrum could give the Machine the power to reason about sequences of future events by internal meditation. He then addressed its ability to learn concepts of language, numbers and arithmetic, geometry, mechanics and the natural sciences. In his discussion, Marshall invoked the idea of natural selection on a couple of further occasions.

He suggested it might assist Machines to evolve complex capacities for cooperation and for the communication of ideas (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 124), along with strong powers of sympathy and moral character (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 130).39

Ye Machine” and the other papers presented by Marshall at The Grote Club in the late 1860s had a very limited—albeit distinguished40—audience at the time, and they were not published in the scientific literature until 1994 (courtesy of the efforts of the late Tiziano Raffaelli). However, the ideas that Marshall developed in these papers are clear antecedents of themes in his influential work in economics later in his career (discussed earlier in this section).41

On a final biographical note, Alfred Marshall’s marriage in 1877 provides another example of the interconnectedness of the key figures in our story; his bride was Mary Paley (Corry, 2008), the great-granddaughter of none other than William Paley (Sect. 2.2).

3.3 George Eliot: Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879)

In the following decade, the British author Mary Ann Evans (known by her pen name George Eliot) published her final work Impressions of Theophrastus Such (Eliot, 1879). The work is written as a series of short essays by an imaginary scholar named Theophrastus, who attempts to study the human species by focusing on how certain individuals behave in particular interactions—much as an ethologist might study animal behaviour. As the literary scholar S. Pearl Brilmyer puts it, by “[a]massing descriptions of various unperceptive and unsympathetic human beings … Theophrastus tries to illuminate that which escapes his embodied awareness: the form of the species of which he is but an instance” (Brilmyer, 2014, p. 37).

The penultimate chapter, entitled Shadows of The Coming Race, covers in a few short pages many themes concerning the long-term future of the human species. The chapter is written as a dialogue between a character named Trost, who has an optimistic view of the future of humanity, and the narrator, who is more pessimistic. The discussion focuses upon our relationship with machines, and the question of whether consciousness is an advantage to our species or rather an “idle parasite” which we would do better without.

Echoing views expressed in Butler’s works, the chapter’s narrator foresees a time when machines develop “conditions of self-supply, self-repair, and reproduction.” These developments, she fears, will have detrimental effects upon society, leading to mass unemployment. This would first affect the ranks of the lower-skilled, but eventually even the most highly-skilled and intellectual of our species will become redundant and “subside like the flame of a candle in the sunlight,” superseded by the machines that are “free from the fussy accompaniment of … consciousness.” Like Butler, Eliot imagined that along the path to our eventual extinction, our increasing reliance upon machines would lead to a degeneration of the human body, leaving us “pale, pulpy, and cretinous.”

Many of the ideas expressed in Eliot’s chapter can also be found in Butler’s earlier works. Indeed, Butler thought that Eliot had “cribbed” Erewhon in her work.42 However, it is perfectly possible that both authors seized upon similar ideas independently, given the intellectual atmosphere of the time as described at the start of this chapter. Eliot was well informed of contemporary scientific developments, and had read On the Origin of Species days after its publication (Knoepflmacher, 1965, pp. 28–30). Indeed, from the early 1850s she had a close friendship with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who was an early advocate of the theory of evolution (Haight, 1968, p. 112), and in the late 1860s she became friends with Charles Darwin and his family too.43 Furthermore, her partner George Henry Lewes had started working on his major work Problems of Life and Mind in 1867, just two years before Eliot wrote Impressions (Collins, 1978, p. 463). Lewes’ work included a section entitled Animal Automatism, which explored the questions of “whether animals are machines” and “in what sense can we correctly speak of Feeling as an agent in organic processes?” (Lewes, 1877, p. 362).44 There is therefore no doubt that Eliot was immersed in just the scientific and philosophical ideas that would have allowed her to conceive her chapter Shadows of the Coming Race completely independently of Butler’s work.45

There is a fear expressed in Eliot’s chapter that scientists are proceeding with a blinkered view of what might be the long-term consequences of their creations. Towards the end of the chapter the narrator summarises her vision of the ultimate outcome of the process of technological development—when humans have been driven to extinction by intelligent but unconscious machines—in the following passage:

“Thus this planet may be filled with beings who will be blind and deaf as the inmost rock, yet will execute changes as delicate and complicated as those of human language and all the intricate web of what we call its effects, without sensitive impression, without sensitive impulse: there may be, let us say, mute orations, mute rhapsodies, mute discussions, and no consciousness there even to enjoy the silence.”

— George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 1879 (Eliot, 1879, ch. 17)

Asked where these ideas had come from, the narrator explains that “[t]hey seem to be flying around in the air with other germs.” By the late 1800s these topics were indeed very much in the air.

3.4 The Late 19th Century

In the final two decades of the nineteenth century we see continuing allusions to self-reproducing machines, although nothing as protracted and explicit as the works of Butler, Marshall and Eliot.

In 1891 the controversial American author Wilford Hall published an article in which he argued that divine creation was still required to explain the origin of life even if we accept Darwin’s arguments (Hall, 1891). With echoes of William Paley before him (Sect. 2.2), Hall uses human technology as an analogy in his argument; while he appears to accept the possibility of a self-reproducing machine, he draws the line at machines that could produce output more complex than themselves: “No inventor, for example, constructs an ingenious machine and then expects that machine to evolve other inventions even still more complex than itself” (Hall, 1891, p. 162). The fallacy in his argument was demonstrated some fifty years later, when John von Neumann did exactly that (as we will discuss in Sect. 5.1.1).

Turning to work with wider impact, H. G. Wells’ seminal 1898 sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds alludes to the evolution of a bio-mechanical hybrid species: the Martians in the novel “may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands … at the expense of the rest of the body” (Wells, 1898). As Leo Henkin remarks in his work Darwinism in the English Novel, Wells’ Martians “have become practically mere brains, wearing different mechanical bodies according to their needs” (Henkin, 1940, p. 255). This brings to mind Butler’s earlier image of the likely future degeneracy of the human body as we rely ever more upon machines in our daily activities (Sect. 3.1). These themes were later developed more extensively in the early twentieth century, most notably by J. D. Bernal, whose work we discuss in Sect. 4.2.1.

* * *

As demonstrated by the work described in this chapter, by the end of the nineteenth century the second major step in thinking about self-replicators—the birth of the idea of evo-replicators that can not only reproduce but also evolve—had already been accomplished. In the decades that followed, further explorations of the idea began to appear in short stories and plays aimed at a much wider general audience. At the same time, the increasingly common discussion of the idea began to catalyse a deeper exploration by scientists of the long-term implications of self-replicator technology. These developments are the subject of the following chapter.


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  1. Babbage used the Difference Engine to demonstrate how discontinuities could arise in a system without external intervention, and thereby to argue that discontinuities in Nature, such as the appearance of new species, could likewise be explained by natural laws without requiring constant divine guidance (Snyder, 2011). Snyder argues that this demonstration likely emboldened Darwin’s ideas of nature being governed by natural laws (Snyder, 2011, p. 195). Babbage’s fascination with complex machines had been stimulated as a young child when he was taken to exhibitions of human and animal mechanical automata (Riskin, 2016, pp. 126–127), (Mazlish, 1993, pp. 134–135).↩︎

  2. For a detailed discussion of the scientific context (especially the biological and evolutionary context) within which Shelley wrote Frankenstein, see (Page, 2012). Shelley’s novel itself includes an allusion to self-reproducing artificial beings, if not automata as such. In a section where Victor Frankenstein has commenced making a female companion for his creature, he decides to halt the endeavour after imagining what might come of it: “Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley, 1818, ch. 20) (see also (Brantlinger, 2011, p. 195)).↩︎

  3. These articles were later collated as a single volume and published in London the following year (Gray, 1861).↩︎

  4. George Basalla’s classic book The Evolution of Technology does not mention Gray’s work, but instead focuses on organic-mechanical analogies in the works of Samuel Butler (whom we describe in Sect. 3.1) and Augustus Pitt-Rivers (born Augustus Lane-Fox) (Basalla, 1988, pp. 14–21). It is true that Butler and Pitt-Rivers explored these ideas far more than did Gray. Basalla identifies a variety of other writers who further developed the idea of the evolution of technology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but to elaborate on those here would take us beyond our focus on self-reproducing machines. Here we mention just one further work of interest, which is little cited elsewhere: in 1910 the German chemist and Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald published a short article in the supplement of Scientific American entitled “Machines and Living Creatures(Ostwald, 1910). Ostwald argued that machines and biological organisms can both be considered as energy transformers, and both evolve over time to achieve “a higher ratio of efficiency between energy consumed and energy produced.” Both the removal of dispensable parts, and the development of individual organs to perform specific functions, can be explained by this principle in organisms and in machines, said Ostwald. The only subsequent reference we have found to Ostwald’s article appears in an editorial of an American Theosophy newsletter, Century Path, later in the same year (Tingley, 1910)—this criticised the application of analogies of biological evolution to human technology on the grounds that the latter requires conscious human selection for its operation.↩︎

  5. The word “engender” in his phrase “If boats could engender …” is ambiguous in this regard. Interestingly, the 1861 republication of the work includes an expanded version of this sentence, which reads “`Like begets like,’ being the great rule in nature, if boats could engender, the variations would doubtless be propagated, like those of domestic cattle.” (Gray, 1861, p. 6).↩︎

  6. Sources of biographical details in this section include (Holt, 1989), (Robinson, n.d.) and (Butler, 1912), and further information is also available in (G. Dyson, 1997).↩︎

  7. Samuel Butler was also the grandson of Dr Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury School during the years when the young Charles Darwin attended the school (Forsdyke, 2006). Furthermore, he was distantly related, by marriage, to William Paley (Gillot, 2013, p. 12).↩︎

  8. We can see glimmerings of the modern idea of the technological singularity (Moravec, 1988), (Kurzweil, 2005) (sometimes simply referred to as “the singularity”) in Butler’s writing. Different authors adopt different definitions of this concept, but they all essentially involve a profound change in human civilisation brought about by the emergence of machines with greater-than-human intelligence (Eden et al., 2013, pp. 1–12). The differences lie in the rate at which these changes might happen. Nick Bostrom has recently introduced the term superintelligence as a more precise concept that does not commit to the ongoing exponential growth rates envisaged by some proponents of the singularity (Bostrom, 2014). As we see here, the origin of these ideas can be traced back at least as far as Butler’s writing in the 1860s. The birth of the digital computer age prompted increasing interest and speculation along these lines; the idea was discussed in the 1950s by both Alan Turing (Turing, 1951, p. 666) (who explicitly referred to Butler’s work) and John von Neumann (Ulam, 1958, p. 5) (who first introduced the term singularity in reference to the accelerating pace of technology, and whose work on machine self-reproduction we discuss in Sect. 5.1.1). For a good discussion of the history of these ideas and an analysis of the themes entailed, see (Eden et al., 2013), and for a recent general overview see (Shanahan, 2015).↩︎

  9. The ambiguity is partially attributable to Butler’s literary style. E. M. Forster, whose short story The Machine Stops we discuss in Sect. 4.1.1, was influenced both by Butler’s ideas and his technique (Forster, 1951). He praised Butler as “a master of the oblique” whose technique involved “muddling up the actual and the impossible until the reader isn’t sure which is which.”↩︎

  10. To apply modern terminology from theoretical biology to Butler’s ideas, we could say that he is arguing that machines can be viewed as part of the extended phenotype of humans (Dawkins, 1982), and that human evolution is affected by niche construction through our machine-building activities (Odling-Smee et al., 2003).↩︎

  11. Butler’s Lucubratio Ebria (LE) was also written after his return to England, and he sent it from London to New Zealand to be published in The Press. Its eventual publication date of 29 July 1865 was a few weeks after that of The Mechanical Creation (MC) on 1 July 1865, although Butler wrote LE before MC (Mazlish, 1993, p. 150).↩︎

  12. These and all other quotes from Erewhon in this section are voiced by characters in the novel. However, as this part of the novel was a development of Butler’s earlier thoughts set out in The Mechanical Creation and Darwin Among the Machines (as explained in the preface of Erewhon (Butler, 1872, p. 33)), we can assume that these quotes are representative of Butler’s own thinking.↩︎

  13. Several authors have commented, however, that Marshall’s plans to develop a more biological economics remained largely aspirational, and a planned sequel to The Principles of Economics dealing with economic dynamics was never completed (Hodgson, 1993), (Thomas, 1991).↩︎

  14. Indeed, Marshall apparently always regarded himself as a philosopher, writing towards the end of his life that “I taught economics … but repelled with indignation the suggestion that I was an economist: `I am a philosopher, straying into a foreign land. I will go home soon.’” (Raffaelli, 1994a, p. 53).↩︎

  15. James Frederick Ferrier was a nineteenth century Scottish moral philosopher whose Idealist philosophy saw self-consciousness as the defining feature of human experience (Raffaelli, 1994a, p. 64). Marshall describes Ferrier’s Proposition One as “along with whatever any intelligence knows, it must, as the ground or condition of its knowledge, have some cognizance of itself” (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 105).↩︎

  16. Marshall presented the first of these papers to The Grote Club on 27 March 1867 (Raffaelli, 1994a, p. 62). The precise dates of the subsequent presentations are unknown, although it appears that the second and third papers were presented in two consecutive weeks (Raffaelli, 1994b, pp. 111–113).↩︎

  17. Most notably Alexander Bain’s work on associationism.↩︎

  18. Primarily the work of Herbert Spencer rather than Charles Darwin (see (Hodgson, 1993) for further discussion).↩︎

  19. The work of Charles Babbage (see (Cook, 2005) for further discussion).↩︎

  20. Marshall also suggested that the Machine could be designed with electromagnetic components (Raffaelli, 1994b, pp. 116–117).↩︎

  21. Marshall also foresaw—like Butler before him (see earlier footnote)—that the process could lead to machines with superintelligence beyond the level of humans: “a Machine of very great power—by means of the enormous number of associations which it would have ever present with it—might … discover laws that we have not yet attained to, and might set to work to dig for its own coal in places where coal was never heard of” (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 129).↩︎

  22. Other active members of The Grote Club at the time included the economist and philosopher Henry Sidgwick, the logician John Venn and the theologian Frederick Denison Maurice (Raffaelli, 1994b, p. 103).↩︎

  23. See also (Hodgson, 1993) for further discussion of the role of biological analogies in Marshall’s work in economics.↩︎

  24. See entry entitled “George Eliot” in Butler’s notebooks (Butler, 1934, p. 90) and a letter from Butler dated 10 June 1880 (Butler & Butler, 1962, pp. 85–86). However, the idea might have been originally planted in Butler’s mind by his confidant Eliza Savage (see letter from Savage to Butler dated 24 September 1879, (Butler & Savage, 1935, pp. 208–210)), and her intentions in doing so might have been somewhat convoluted (Knoepflmacher, 1965, pp. 224–226).↩︎

  25. As documented in various letters between Darwin, Eliot and Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes (source:↩︎

  26. These are similar topics to those addressed by Alfred Marshall in his Grote Club lectures, described in Sect. 3.2.↩︎

  27. On the other hand, it is also possible, and perhaps likely, that Eliot was making an implicit reference to Erewhon in the chapter—this would tie in with her general style that integrates “literary, scientific, or historical allusion in the structure of Impressions(Eliot, 1994, p. ix). Indeed, the chapter title Shadows of the Coming Race is a reference to Eliot’s friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 sci-fi novel The Coming Race (Bulwer-Lytton, 1871) (see, e.g., (Haight, 1968, p. 522), (Brantlinger, 2011, p. 194), and (Eliot, 1994, p. xxxvi,footnote 26)). When Erewhon was first published in 1872 it appeared anonymously and was widely taken to be Bulwer-Lytton’s sequel to The Coming Race. Upon the announcement two months later that the author was in fact Butler, sales dropped by 90 percent (Festing Jones, 1919, pp. 155, 158–159). The literary scholar Marc Redfield goes as far as to question whether Eliot was intentionally “plagiariz[ing] the plagiarist” in Shadows (Butler himself having been suspected by some of plagiarising The Coming Race) (Redfield, 1996). This idea might not be as fanciful as it first appears if one considers that “Eliot successfully transmuted ideas into the form and structure of her novels; it is seldom sufficiently emphasized that this transmutation is in itself a key to her ‘art’” (Knoepflmacher, 1965, p. 25), and that in Impressions “[s]tories and phrases are freely borrowed. The concepts of originality and authorship are being questioned” (Eliot, 1994, p. xxxiii). However, speculations along these lines take us far beyond what can be proven, so we delve no further into this issue here.↩︎