27 Oct 2009

The Evolution of Creation. Creative Evolution. Bergson. Ch.1 Part 5: Transformism

by Corry Shores
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The Evolution of Creation

Henri Bergson

Creative Evolution

Évolution Créatrice

Chapter 1

The Evolution of Life – Mechanism and Teleology

Chapitre Premier

De l’évolution de la vie. – Mécanisme et finalité.

5. Transformism

5. Du transformisme et des manières de l'interpréter

Previously Bergson argued that the sort of time that we undergo while aging is not the instantaneous mathematicized time that we find in calculus-based physics. And we do not age by gaining or losing parts. Our aging is creation occurring through duration.

§26 The Growth of Transformism

Bergson will explain why he adopts transformism. We see it already in germinal form in the natural classification of organized beings: general traits are subdivided into more specific ones. Ancestors pass-on their traits to their descendents. At the embryo stage, there is little to differentiate the various species. But they each diverge in their subsequent development. Yet we see that on account of evolution, the most complex and diverse forms begin from the simplest. So, different species begin their lives in a similar simple form, but then develop diverse complexities. This suggests that simpler organisms long ego evolved into the complex ones we see today. Recent experiments by H.de Vries suggest that random genetic mutations are more prevalent than we thought. So evolution may proceed faster than we once figured. And the evidence in support of transformism continues to grow.

§27 Let’s Transform into Transformists

For the sake of argument, Bergson assumes the opposite position: species arose through a discontinuous process. If this were so, we would still be able to classify species, as would all other facets of biological studies. It could still determine their kinship relations. Although, the relations would no longer be material connections; rather, they would be ideal kinships. However, paleontology tells us that different species emerged at different times. So the kinships would not have arisen simultaneously. Evolution theory as well establishes ideal kinships: “wherever there is this relation of, so to speak, logical affiliation between forms, there is also a relation of chronological succession between the species in which these forms are materialized” (26d). Now, let’s consider this possibility: the species result from the activity of some all-encompassing “creative Thought.” [Let’s imagine it as the mind of God for illustration. He thinks the idea for a species. But the attributes of one species are variations on those of its logical predecessors. So] the ideas for the species would also spring from each other, just as transformism sees this process occurring on earth. Or consider another possibility: there is a “plan of vital organization immanent in nature.” [It is as if Nature had already planned the path of variations her species would undergo.] This plan unfolds gradually. It results in the logical relations between successive species. But this too would produce the same outcome as a transformist perspective that sees the planned vital organizations as real affiliations that living individuals share [on account of their actual transformations into one another]. Or let’s consider one last possibility: there is some other cause for the successive variations between species, but we do not know what it is, and it yields the same outcome as would happen if the species actually had generated one another. But because all these instances presuppose that there will be the logical and chronological kinship relations, evolution is implicit in all these accounts. So transformism explains nature just as well as these theories. And given that scientific evidence currently supports it, we should probably adopt it.

§28 The Egg of Flow

If we take-up transformism, then we are no longer thinking of life abstractly. Life is not a category that umbrellas all living beings. Rather, life is a vibrant flow:

At a certain moment, in certain points of space, a visible current has taken rise; this current of life, traversing the bodies it has organized one after another, passing from generation to generation, has become divided amongst species and distributed amongst individuals without losing anything of its force, rather intensifying in proportion to its advance. So because succeeding species have a variation on previous ones, such a creative thinking would need to evolve the ideas of the species. [27d]

A un certain moment, en certains points de l'espace, un courant bien visible a pris naissance : ce courant de vie, traversant les corps qu'il a organisés tour à tour, passant de génération en génération, s'est divisé entre les espèces et éparpillé entre les individus sans rien perdre de sa force, s'intensifiant plutôt à mesure qu'il avançait. [28bc]

Now consider what happens when an ovum is fertilized. It will divide. The original fluids in the ovum will disperse and weaken. But new tissues emerge. There is some vital force that emerges where weakness should have appeared. These forces develop the creature, which then fertilizes another ovum, and thereby also imparting the vital forces.

life is like a current passing from germ to germ through the medium of a developed organism. It is as if the organism itself were only an excrescence, a bud caused to sprout by the former germ endeavouring to continue itself in a new germ. The essential thing is the continuous progress indefinitely pursued, an invisible progress, on which each visible organism rides during the short interval of time given it to live. [28-29]

la vie apparaît comme un courant qui va d'un germe à un germe par l'intermédiaire d'un organisme développé. Tout se passe' comme si l'organisme lui-même n'était qu'une excroissance, un bourgeon que fait saillir le germe ancien travaillant à se continuer en un germe nouveau. L'essentiel est la continuité de progrès qui se poursuit indéfiniment, progrès invisible sur lequel chaque organisme visible chevauche pendant le court intervalle de temps qu'il lui est donné de vivre. [29b.c]

§29 Evolutionary Unpredictability

Consider also how the past contracts with the present by means of our memory [see this entry for more]. On the one hand, the past is a fixed collection. But it contracts with the newness of the present instant and crystallizes with it. This produces a new present that is qualitatively different from all preceding moments: “the past presses against the present and causes the upspringing of a new form of consciousness, incommensurable with its antecedents” (29a). [See §64 and §66 of Time and Free Will where Bergson illustrates this with the example of a melody.] We saw something similar with evolution. The whole past development of a species presses-upon its current alteration. If we know all the causes for its current form, we can explain why it has its given traits. Consider also how astronomers can predict the courses of heavenly bodies many years into the future, based on where they have been in the past. Chemistry assumes there are basic unchanging building blocks that rearrange themselves, and it too can predict outcomes for chemical mixtures. However, when a species evolves, it takes on a radically original and unique form. We cannot know before-hand what these strange traits will be. Bergson writes: “Of the future, only that is foreseen which is like the past or can be made up again with elements like those of the past” / “On ne prévoit de l'avenir que ce qui ressemble au passé ou ce qui est recomposable avec des éléments semblables à ceux du passé” (29c/30b). Hence even if we know everything about how the species came to take its current form, we cannot predict what will be its next change. [To illustrate, Bergson refers to James Baldwin’s concept of the genetic irreversible series: physics and chemistry can only explain evolutionary changes after they occur. Bergson also cites Time and Free Will where he explains why we cannot predict someone’s future free decisions, see §114 , §115, §116 , §117, §118, §119, §120, §121, §122, §123 ].

So we can only explain an evolutionary change after it occurs. This holds not just for the evolution of a species, but also for an individual, “and, more generally, of any moment of any living form” (30b). Variation is “produced every moment, continuously and insensibly, in every living being” (30bc). Hence “it might be said of life, as of consciousness, that at every moment it is creating something” (30c).

Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]:

Images from the original French [click to enlarge]

Bergson, Henri. L'Évolution Créatrice. Ed. Felix Alcan. Paris: Librairies Félix Alcan et Guillaumin Réunies, 1908. Available online athttp://www.archive.org/details/levolutioncreatr00berguoft

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Transl. Arthur Mitchell. London: MacMillan and Co., 1922. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/creativeevolutio00berguoft

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