Work of Darwin and Spencer–Bergson’s L’Evolution creatrice–Life–L’elan vital–Evolution not progress in a straight line–Adaptation an insufficient explanation–Falsity of mechanistic view–Finalist conception of reality as fulfilling a plan false–Success along certain lines only–Torpor, Instinct, and Intelligence–Genesis of matter–Humanity the crown of evolution–Contingency and Freedom–The Future is being created.
Since the publication of Darwin’s famous work on The Origin of Species in 1859, the conception of Evolution has become familiar and has won general acceptance in all thinking minds. Evolution is now a household word, but the actual study of evolutionary process has been the work of comparatively few. Science nowadays has become such a highly specialized affair, that few men cover a large enough field of study to enable them to deal effectively with this tremendous subject. What is more, those who shouted so loudly about Evolution as explaining all things have come to see that, in a sense, Evolution explains nothing by itself. Mere description of facts undoubtedly does serve a very useful purpose and may help to demolish some of the stanchly conservative theories still held in some quarters by those who prefer to take Hebrew conceptions as a basis of their cosmology however irreconcilable with fact these may prove to be. Mere description, however, is not ultimate, some philosophy of Evolution must be forthcoming. “Nowadays,” remarks Hoffding, “every philosopher has to take up a position with respect to the concept of Evolution. It has now achieved its place among the categories or essential forms of thought by the fact of its providing indications whence new problems proceed. We must ask regarding every event, and every phenomenon, by what stages it has passed into its actual state. It is a special form of the general concept of cause. A philosophy is essentially characterized by the position which it accords to this concept and by the way in which it applies it.” [Footnote: The Philosophy of Evolution–lecture IV, of Lectures on Bergson, in Modern Philosophers, Translated by Mason (MacMillan), p. 270.]
No one has done more to make familiar to English minds the notion of Evolution than Herbert Spencer. His Synthetic Philosophy had a grand aim, but it was manifestly unsatisfactory. The high hopes it had raised were followed by mingled disappointment and distrust. The secret of the unsatisfactoriness of Spencer is to be found in his method, which is an elaborate and plausible attempt to explain the evolution of the universe by referring the complex to the simple, the more highly organized to the less organized. His principle of Evolution never freed itself from bondage to mechanical conceptions.
Bergson’s Creative Evolution, his largest and best known work, appeared in 1907. It has been regarded not only as a magnificent book, but as a date in the history of thought. Two of the leading students of evolutionary process in England, Professors Geddes and Thomson, refer to the book as “one of the most profound and original contributions to the philosophical consideration of the theory of Evolution.” [Footnote: In the Bibliography in their volume Evolution.]
For some time there had been growing a need for an expression of evolutionary theory in terms other than those of Spencer, or of Haeckel–the German monistic philosopher. The advance in the study of biology and the rise of Neo-Vitalism, occasioned by an appreciation of the inadequacy of any explanation of life in terms purely physical and chemical, made the demand for a new statement, in greater harmony with these views, imperative. To satisfy this demand is the task to which Bergson has applied himself. He sounds the note of departure from the older conceptions right at the commencement by his very title, ‘Creative’ Evolution. For this, his views on Change, on Time, and on Freedom, have in some degree prepared us. We have seen set forth the fact of Freedom, the recognition of human beings as centres of indetermination, not mere units in a machine, “a block universe” where all is “given,” but creatures capable of creative activity. Then by a consideration of Time, as la duree, we found that the history of an individual can never repeat itself; “For a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly. Should the same be said,” Bergson asks, “of existence in general?” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 8 (Fr. p. 8).]
So he proceeds to portray with a wealth of analogy and brilliance of style, more akin to the language of a poet than a philosopher, the stupendous drama of Evolution, the mystery of being, the wonders of life. He makes the great fact of life his starting point. Is life susceptible to definition? We feel that, by the very nature of the case, it is not. A definition is an intellectual operation, while life is wider, richer, more fundamental than intellect. Indeed Bergson shows us that intellect is only one of the manifestations or adaptations of life in its progress. To define life, being strictly impossible, Bergson attempts to describe it. He would have us picture it as a great current emerging from some central point, radiating in all directions, but diverted into eddies and backwaters. Life is an original impetus, une poussee formidable, not the mere heading affixed to a class of objects which live. We must not speak any longer of life in general as an abstraction or a category in which we may place all living beings. Life, or the vital impulse, consists in a demand for creation, we might almost say “a will to create.” It appears to be a current passing from one germ to another through the medium of a developed organism, “an internal push that has carried life by more and more complex forms, to higher and higher destinies.” It is a dynamic continuity, a continuity of qualitative progress, a duration which leaves its bite on things. [Footnote: For these descriptions of life, see Creative Evolution, pp. 27-29 and 93-94 (Fr. pp. 28-30 and 95-96).] We shall be absolutely wrong, however, if we attempt to view the evolutionary process as progressive in a straight line. The facts contradict such a facile and shallow view. Some of the stock phrases of the earlier writers on Evolution were: “adaptation to environment,” “selection” and “variation,” and a grave problem was presented by this last. How are we to account for the variations of living beings, together with the persistence of their type? Herein lies the problem of the origin of species. Three different solutions have been put forward. There is the “Neo-Darwinian” view which attributes variation to the differences inherent in the germ borne by the individual, and not to the experience or behaviour of the individual in the course of his existence. Then there is the theory known as “Orthogenesis” which maintains that there is a continual changing in a definite direction from generation to generation. Thirdly, there is the “Neo-Lamarckian” theory which attributes the cause of variation to the conscious effort of the individual, an effort passed on to descendants. [Footnote: Concerning Lamarck (1744-1829) Bergson remarks in La Philosophie (1915) that without diminishing Darwin’s merit Lamarck is to be regarded as the founder of evolutionary biology.] Now each one of these theories explains a certain group of facts, of a limited kind, but two difficulties confront them. We find that on quite distinct and widely separated lines of Evolution, exactly similar organs have been developed. Bergson points out to us, in this connexion, the Pecten genus of molluscs, which have an eye identical in structure with that of the eye of vertebrates. [Footnote: The common edible scallop (Pecten maximus) has several eyes of brilliant blue and of very complex structure.] It is obvious, however, that the eye of this mollusc and the eye of the vertebrate must have developed quite independently, ages after each had been separated from the parent stock. Again, we find that in all organic evolution, infinite complexity of structure accompanies the utmost simplicity of function. The variation of an organ so highly complex as the eye must involve the simultaneous occurrence of an infinite number of variations all co-ordinated to the simple end of vision. Such facts as these are incapable of explanation by reference to any or all of the three theories of adaptation and variation mentioned. Indeed they seem capable of explanation only by reference to a single original impetus retaining its direction in courses far removed from the common origin. “That adaptation to environment is the necessary condition of Evolution we do not question for a moment. It is quite evident that a species would disappear, should it fail to bend to the conditions of existence which are imposed on it. But it is one thing to recognize that outer circumstances are forces Evolution must reckon with, another to claim that they are the directing causes of Evolution.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 107 (Fr. p. 111).]
“The truth is that adaptation explains the sinuosities of the movement of Evolution, but not the general directions of the movement, still less the movement itself. The road which leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground, but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road nor have they given it its direction.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 108 (Fr. p. 112).] The evolution of life cannot be explained as merely a series of adaptations to accidental circumstances. Moreover, the mechanistic view, where all is “given,” is quite inadequate to explain the facts. The finalist or teleological conception is not any more tenable, for Evolution is not simply the realization of a plan. “A plan is given in advance. It is represented or at least representable, before its realization. The complete execution of it may be put off to a distant future or even indefinitely, but the idea is none the less formulable at the present time, in terms actually given. If, on the contrary, Evolution is a creation unceasingly renewed, it creates as it goes on, not only the forms of life but the ideas that enable the intellect to understand it. Its future overflows its present and cannot be sketched out therein, in an idea. There is the first error of finalism. It involves another yet more serious. If life realizes a plan it ought to manifest a greater harmony the further it advances, just as the house shows better and better the idea of the architect as stone is set upon stone.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 108 (Fr. p. 112).] Such finalism is really reversed mechanism. If, on the contrary, the unity of life is to be found solely in the impetus (poussee formidable) that pushes it along the road of Time, the harmony is not in front but behind. The unity is derived from a vis a tergo: it is given at the start as an impulsion, not placed at the end as an attraction, as a kind of
“… far-off divine event To which the whole creation moves.”
“In communicating itself the impetus splits up more and more. Life, in proportion to its progress, is scattered in manifestations which undoubtedly owe to their common origin the fact that they are complementary to each other in certain aspects, but which are none the less mutually incompatible and antagonistic. So that the discord between species will go on increasing.” “There are species which are arrested, there are some that retrogress. Evolution is not only a movement forward; in many cases we observe a marking-time, and still more often a deviation or turning back. Thence results an increasing disorder. No doubt there is progress, if progress means a continual advance in the general direction determined by a first impulsion; but this progress is accomplished only on the two or three great lines of Evolution on which forms ever more and more complex, ever more and more high, appear; between these lines run a crowd of minor paths in which deviations, arrests, and set-backs are multiplied.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, pp. 107-110 (Fr. pp. 111-114).] Evolution would be a very simple and easy process to understand if it followed one straight path. To describe it, Bergson uses, in one place, this metaphor: “We are here dealing with a shell which has immediately burst into fragments, which, being themselves species of shells, have again burst into fragments, destined to burst again, and so on.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 103 (Fr. p. 107).]
A study of the facts shows us three very marked tendencies which may be denoted by the terms “Torpor,” “Instinct,” and “Intelligence.” These are, in a sense “terminal points” in the evolutionary process. Hence arises the distinction of plant and animal, one showing a tendency to unconscious torpor, the other manifesting a tendency towards movement and consciousness. Then again arises another divergence which gives rise to two paths or tendencies, one along the line of the arthropods, at the end of which come the ants and the bees with their instincts, and the other along the line of the vertebrates, at the end of which is man with his intelligence. These three, Torpor, Instinct, and Intelligence, must not, however, be looked upon as three successive stages in the linear development of one tendency, but as three diverging directions of a common activity, which split up as it went on its way. Instinct and Intelligence are the two important terminal points in Evolution. They are not two stages of which one is higher than the other, they are at the end of two different roads. The wonders of Instinct are a commonplace to students of animal and insect life. [Footnote: See the interesting books by the French writer, Henri Fabre.] Men, with their intellect, make tools, while Instinct is tied to its tool. There is a wondrous immediacy, however, about Instinct, in the way it achieves ends, and its operations are often quite unconsciously performed. The insect or animal could not possibly “know” all that was involved in its action. Instinct, then, is one form of adaptation, while Intellect is quite another. In man–the grown man–Intellect is seen at its best. Yet we are not without Instincts; by them we are bound to the race and to the whole animal creation. But in ants and bees and such like creatures, Instinct is the sole guide of life, and it is often a highly organized life. The following example clearly shows the contrast between Instinct and Intelligence. A cat knows how to manage her new-born kittens, how to bring them up and teach them; a human mother does not know how to manage her baby unless she is trained either directly or by her own quick observation of other mothers. A cat performs her simple duties by Instinct, a human mother has to make use of her Intelligence in order to fulfil her very complex duties. We must observe, however, the relative value of Instinct and Intelligence. Each is a psychical activity, but while Instinct is far more perfect, far more complete in its insight, it is confined within narrow limits. Intelligence, while far less perfect in accomplishing its work, less complete in insight, is not limited in such a way. But while Intellect is external, looking on reality as different from life, Instinct is an inner sympathy with reality; it is deeper than any intellectual bond which binds the conscious creature to reality, for it is a vital bond.
Bergson now turns to a consideration of Life and Matter in the evolutionary process, and their precise relation to one another. Life is free, spontaneous, incalculable, not out of relation to Matter, but its direction is not entirely determined by Matter nor has its initial impulse Matter as its source. Although Bergson denies that Will and Consciousness, as we know them, are mere functions of the material organism, yet they do depend upon it as a workman depends upon his tool. We are fond of insinuating that a bad workman always blames his tools. A good workman, however, cannot be expected to do the best work with bad tools. The tool, although he uses it, at the same time limits him. So it is with the material organism at our disposal, our body, and so, too, with spirit and matter in general. Spirit and Matter are not to be regarded as independent or as ranged against one another from all eternity. Matter is a product of Spirit or Consciousness, the underlying psychic force. “For want of a better word,” says Bergson, “we have called it Consciousness. But we do not mean the narrowed consciousness that functions in each of us.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 250 (Fr. p. 258).] It is rather super-Consciousness than a consciousness like ours. Matter is a flux rather than a thing, but its flow is in the opposite direction to that of Spirit. The flow of Spirit shows itself in the creativeness of the evolutionary process; Matter is the inverse movement towards stability. Bergson adheres to the view of Spirit as fundamental, while Matter, he says, is due to a lessening of the tension of the spiritual force which is the initial elan. Now, of course, Matter and Spirit have come to be two opposing forces, for one is determined and the other free. Yet Bergson has to make out that there must have been some indetermination in Matter, however small, to give Spirit an opening to “insinuate itself” into Matter and thus use it for its own ends. It always seems, however, as if Spirit were trying to free itself from material limitations. It evolved the Intellect to cope with Matter. This is why Reason is at home, not in life and freedom, but in solid Matter, in mechanical and spatial distinctions. There is thus an eternal conflict in progress between Spirit and Matter. The latter is always tending to automatism, to the sacrifice of the Spirit with its creative power. In his little book on The Meaning of the War Bergson claims that here we have an instance of Life and Matter in conflict–Germany representing a mechanical and materialistic force. In quite another way he illustrates the same truth, in his book on Laughter, where he shows us that “rigidity, automatism, absent-mindedness, and unsociability, are all inextricably entwined, and all serve as ingredients to the making up of the comic in character,” [Footnote: Laughter, p. 147 (Fr. p. 151).] for “the comic is that side of a person which reveals his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which, through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life.” [Footnote: Laughter, p. 87 (Fr. p. 89).]
Finally, in reviewing the evolutionary process as a whole, Bergson asserts that it manifests a radical contingency. The forms of life created, also the proportion of Intuition to Intelligence, in man, and the physique and morality of man, are all of them contingent. Life might have stored up energy in a different way through plants selecting different chemical elements. The whole of organic chemistry would then have been different. Then, too, it is probable that Life manifests itself in other planets, in other solar systems also, in forms of which we have no idea. He points out that between the perfect humanity and ours one may conceive many possible intermediaries, corresponding to all the degrees imaginable of Intelligence and Intuition. Another solution might have issued in a humanity either more intelligent or more intuitive. Man has warred like the other species, he has warred against the other species. If the evolution of life had been opposed by different accidents en route, if the current of life had been divided otherwise, we should have been, in physique and in morality, very different from what we are. [Footnote: Creative Evolution, pp. 280-282 (Fr. p. 288-290).] We cannot regard humanity as prefigured in the evolutionary process, nor look on man as the ultimate outcome of the whole of Evolution. The rest of Nature does not exist simply for the sake of man. Certainly man stands highest, for only in man has consciousness succeeded, but man has, as it were, lost much in coming to this position. The whole process of Evolution “IS AS IF A VAGUE AND FORMLESS BEING, WHOM WE MAY CALL, AS WE WILL, man OR super-man, HAD SOUGHT TO REALIZE HIMSELF AND HAD SUCCEEDED ONLY BY ABANDONING A PART OF HIMSELF ON THE WAY.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 281 (Fr. p. 289). (Italics are Bergson’s.)]
In the lectures on The Nature of the Soul, Bergson referred to the “Pathway of the evolutionary process” as being a “Way to Personality.” For on the line which leads to man liberation has been accomplished and thus personalities have been able to constitute themselves. If we could view this line of evolution it would appear to resemble a telegraph wire on which has travelled a dispatch sent off as long ago as the first beginnings of life, a message which was then confused, of which a part has been lost on the way, but which has at last found in the human race the appropriate instrument.
Humanity is one; we are members one of another. Bergson insists on this solidarity of man, and, indeed, of all living creatures. “As the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undivided movement of descent which is materiality itself, so all organized beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible. All the living hold together and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us, in an overwhelming charge, able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, pp. 285-286 (Fr. pp. 293-294).]