Butler’s Erewhon

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon was first published in 1872. (In other words, the seventy-third year of the 19th century.)  The following excerpt is from the Modern Library edition of 1927, pp. 227-29.

“…[t]he writer went on to say that he anticipated a time when it would be possible, by examining a single hair with a powerful microscope, to know whether its owner could be insulted with impunity.  He then became more and more obscure, so that I was obliged to give up all attempts at translation; neither did I follow the drift of his argument.  On coming to the next part which I could construe, I found that he had changed his ground.

“‘Either’, he proceeds, ‘a great deal of action that has been called purely mechanical and unconscious must be admitted to contain more elements of consciousness than has been allowed hitherto (and in this case germs of consciousness will be found in many actions of the higher machines)–or (assuming the theory of evolution but at the same time denying the consciousness of vegetable and crystalline action) the race of man has descended from things which had no consciousness at all.  In this case there is no a priori improbability in the descent of conscious ( and more than conscious) machines from those which now exist, except that which is suggested by the apparent absence of anyting like a reproductive system in the mechanical kingdom.  This absence however is only apparent, as I shall presently show.

“‘Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life.  The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man.  The largtest of them will prpbably greatly diminsh in size.  Some of the lowest vertebrata attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organized representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the sixe of machines has often attended their development and progress.

“‘Take the watch, for example; examine its beautiful structure; observe the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks that preceded it; it is no deterioration from them.  A day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present time are not diminishing in bulk, will be superceded owing to the universal use of watches, in which case they will become as extinct as ichthyosauri, while the watch, whose tendency has for some years been to decrease in size rather then the contrary, will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

“‘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 far different 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, and checked 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?'”

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