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Between God and Darwin: Bergson's Creative Evolution (Part 2 of 3)

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

This article follows part one, where we introduced Bergson’s ‘Creative Evolution’ - his take on (a) the scientific, bottom-up Darwinian mechanism on one side, and (b) the planned, top-down finalism on the other side.

Today, we’re looking at three contrasts:

1) Life force vs form;

2) States vs tendencies; and

3) Dissociation vs association

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Last time, we saw how Bergson unveils the slippery, elusive yet fundamental reality: that life itself is occurring in the middle, it’s neither small, isolated particles, nor the final “result.” He gave us three analogies – puzzle vs painting; hand A-B movement; and vision/eye.

He shows us by contrasting both positions – mechanism and finalism – that although both contain observable parts, and both are in their limited sense “true,” this “truth” isn’t capturing the essence of life and evolution – whether it’s creating a painting, moving a hand, or seeing.

He shows us that the whole is not the sum of its parts, and the parts are not the whole

For example, humans are “following a script” set by evolution, e.g. puberty, change of teeth, grey hair, menopause, hair loss … but also physiological automatic changes, e.g. sweating, blinking, pupils dilating, and hundreds of smaller “scripts.”

At the same time, humans are unique and spontaneous individuals able to create art, push science beyond the stratosphere, and invent new industries.

Let’s explore more contrasts … often uneasy and contradictory. Contrasts constitute a grey garment of life, where neither black nor white threads are visible but without which the garment wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t have its colour.

Bergson is aiming at that slippery middle.

Contrast 1) Life force vs form

Molluscs evolved to have hard shells as a protective shield. The shell protects them but it also fixes them to one spot.

Crustaceans have hard plates on their bodies. They too are protected but also limited in their movement. The animal in this state isn’t evolving. It doesn’t have to – it’s “safe.” It’s stuck on the evolutionary timeline, life atrophied and imprisoned in static safety and immobility.

The highest life forms, e.g. humans, are those that escaped this evolutionary safety route, by shedding their shells and accepting risks.

A naked human body – without fat, fur, shells, sharp teeth and claws is vulnerable, contrary to a mollusc or a turtle, but our mobility and vulnerability were the preconditions for our ascent.

Bergson offers an analogy with a medieval army

Cavalrymen and knights, wearing heavy armour were protected, like crabs or turtles, but also slow and constrained in movement (like crabs or turtles). What initially looked like an advantage eventually killed them, because lightweight infantrymen could cross creeks and rivers (while the heavy knights drowned) and were faster on foot and horse.

Outer layers appear to offer protection, but they are stagnation at best and death at worst. The key is to shed them and remain mobile, nimble and flexible.

Bergson tells us that “in a general way, in the evolution of life, just as in the evolution of human societies and of individual destinies, the greatest successes have been for those who have accepted the heaviest risks.”

But shedding the shell – the form - isn’t easy because a life urge is constrained by form

True, the evolutionary process as a whole is one big, dynamic, albeit very slow action…

But the particular species themselves – the individual life forms, like exits on this giant evolutionary highway – strive to conserve their energy, ideally by not working too much. At the extreme is the mollusc, where the vital life force is perpetually imprisoned inside its own “protective” shell. Molluscs and crustaceans have been around since before dinosaurs, and they haven’t transcended their form.

Each species, Bergson says, “absorbed in the form it is about to take, it falls into a partial sleep, in which it ignores almost all the rest of life; it fashions itself so as to take the greatest possible advantage of its immediate environment with the least possible trouble. Accordingly, the act by which life goes forward to the creation of a new form, and the act by which this form is shaped, are two different and often antagonistic movements.”

Contrast 2) States vs tendencies

It’s natural to perceive life as a series of static states, but Bergson’s view is that it’s tendencies, not states, that are the true characteristic of life.

A state implies a completed reality, but “vital properties are never entirely realized, though always on the way to become so.”

And this becoming-tendency is constantly going on, in all life forms, including human individuals.

That brings a contradiction...

For a tendency to reach its goal, to run its course, it mustn’t be opposed by another tendency.

But that’s impossible…

…because life is complex and full of antagonistic tendencies.

Here, “it may be said of individuality that, while the tendency to individuate is everywhere present in the organized world, it is everywhere opposed by the tendency towards reproduction. For individuality to be perfect, it would be necessary that no detached part of the organism could live separately. But then reproduction would be impossible.”

This tendency to individuate maps onto…

Contrast 3) Dissociation vs association

“Life does not proceed by the association and addition of elements, but by dissociation and division”

Let’s bring back this “general tendency” of evolution – a life force common to all species – like a giant highway. From this highway, many road exits shoot off to other smaller roads – some windy and curvy (e.g. humans), some dead-end streets (molluscs, crabs), and anywhere in between (many road types, large and small, paved and unpaved…many animal and plant species). The roads shooting off the highway – various life forms – dissociate themselves from the highway. That’s the splitting up tendency (dissociation vs association).

He says that life “is the continuation of one and the same impetus, divided into divergent lines of evolution.”

Not convergence, but divergence, the tendency to individuate.

Again, the form constrains this “flow,” although the kinds of constraints vary across species (like different road types).

At this point, we need to ask:

Okay, if we have the tendency to dissociate and diverge, instead of associate and converge, why don’t we put all the pieces together – wouldn’t that explain the evolutionary process?

Bergson says a resolute NO

Because we would come back to the finalism puzzle analogy discussed in the first article.

We would project a picture already created, like a puzzle image (or a lego), and then we would reconstruct that pre-determined image by putting the pieces together, molluscs here, humans there, crabs there, pigeons, etc.

But that’d assume the current state of the world to be final, a completed reality. Nothing is final or complete and there are tendencies rather than states.

Despite the attempts of puzzle assemblers, in a dynamic world moved by tendencies, there is no final end into which each piece neatly slots.

Next time, we’ll wrap this up by addressing Bergson’s views on instinct vs intelligence and three causalities (we only see the A-B, the most obvious one).

See you then.


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