Durant 1926: Creative Evolution (Bergson)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 1.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. HENRI BERGSON

3. Creative Evolution

With this new orientation, evolution appears, to us as something quite different from the blind and dreary mechanism of struggle and destruction which Darwin and Spencer described. We sense duration in evolution, the accumulation of vital powers, the inventiveness of life and mind, “the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.” We are prepared to understand why the most recent and expert investigators, like Jennings and Maupas, reject the mechanical theory of protozoan behavior, and why Professor E. B. Wilson, dean of contemporary cytologists, concludes his book on the cell with the statement that “the study of the cell has, on the whole, seemed to widen rather than to narrow the enormous gap that separates even the lowest forms of life from the inorganic world.”  And everywhere, in the world of biology, one hears of the rebellion against Darwin.

Evolution appears to be something quite different from the blind and dreary mechanism of struggle and destruction which Darwin and Spencer described. We sense duration in evolution, the accumulation of vital powers, the inventiveness of life and mind.

Darwinism means, presumably, the origin of new organs and functions, new organisms and species, by the natural selection of favorable variations. But this conception, hardly half a century old, is already worm-eaten with difficulties. How, on this theory, did the instincts originate? It would be convenient to conceive them as the inherited accumulation of acquired habits; but expert opinion closes that door in our faces,—though some day that door may be opened. If only congenital powers and qualities are transmissible, every instinct must have been, on its first appearance, as strong as it natively is now; it must have been born, so to speak, adult, in full panoply for action; else it could not have favored its possessor in the struggle for existence. If, on its first appearance, it was weak, it could have achieved survival value only through that acquired strength which (by current hypothesis) is not inherited. Every origin is here a miracle.

Darwinism means the evolution of species by the natural selection of favorable variations. But this conception does not explain the origination of instincts.

And, as with the first instincts, so with every variation: one wonders how the change could have offered, in its first form, a handle to selection. In, the case of such complex organs as the eye, the difficulty is discouraging: either the eye appeared at once, full-formed and competent (which is as credible as Jonah’s introspection of the whale); or it began with a series of “fortuitous” variations which, by a still more fortuitous survival, produced the eye. At every step the theory of a mechanical production of complicated structures by a blind process of variation and selection presents us with fairy-tales that have all the incredibility of childhood’s lore, and little of its beauty.

Evolution has to be more than just mechanical. A blind process of variation and selection cannot produce complicated structures like an eye.

The most decisive difficulty, however, is the appearance of similar effects, brought about by different means, in widely divergent lines of evolution. Take as example the invention of sex as a mode of reproduction, both in plants and in animals; here are lines of evolution as divergent as could be, and yet the same complex “accident” occurs in both. Or take the organs of sight in two very distinct phyla—the molluscs and the vertebrates; “how could the same small variations, incalculable in number, have ever occurred in the same order on two independent lines of evolution, if they were purely accidental?” More remarkable still,

nature arrives at identical results, in sometimes neighboring species, by entirely different embryogenic processes … The retina of the vertebrate is produced by an expansion of the rudimentary brain of the embryo. … In the mollusc, on the contrary, the retina is derived from the ectoderm * directly. … If the crystalline lens of a Triton be removed, it is regenerated by the iris. Now the original lens was built out of the ectoderm, while the iris is of mesodermal origin. What is more, in the Salamandra maculata, if the lens be removed and the iris left, the regeneration of the lens takes place at the upper part of the iris; but if this upper part of the iris itself be taken away, the regeneration takes place in the inner or retinal layer of the remaining region. Thus parts differently situated, differently constituted, meant normally for different functions, are capable of performing the same duties and even of manufacturing, when necessary, the same pieces of the machine.

* The organs of the growing embryo are built up out of one or another of three layers of tissues; the external layer, or ectoderm; the intermediate layer, or mesoderm; and the internal layer, or endoderm.

The most decisive difficulty, however, is the appearance of similar effects, brought about by different means, in widely divergent lines of evolution. For example, the regeneration of lens of the eye of the salamander by different means under different circumstances.

So, in amnesia and aphasia, ”lost” memories and functions reappear in regenerated or substituted tissues. Surely we have here overwhelming evidence that there is something more in evolution than a helpless mechanism of material parts. Life is more than its machinery; it is a power that can grow, that can restore itself, that can mould to its own will some measure of environing circumstance. Not that there is any external design determining these marvels; that would, be merely an inverted mechanism, a fatalism as destructive of human initiative and of creative evolution as the sombre, surrender of Hindu thought to India’s heat. ”We must get beyond both points of view—mechanism and finalism—as being, at bottom, only standpoints to which the human mind has been led by considering the work of men”: we thought at first that all things moved because of some quasi-human will using them as instruments in a cosmic game; and then we thought that the cosmos itself was a machine because we had been dominated, in character and philosophy, by our mechanical age. There is a design in things; but in them, not outside; an entelechy, an inward determination of all the parts by the function and purpose of the whole.

Life is more than its machinery; it is a power that can grow, that can restore itself. There is a design in things, not outside them, by the function and purpose of the whole.

Life is that which makes efforts, which pushes upwards and outwards and on; “always and always the procreant urge of the world.” It is the opposite of inertia, and the opposite of accident; there is a direction in the growth to which it is self-impelled. Against it is the undertow of matter, the lag and slack of things towards relaxation and rest and death; at every stage life has had to fight with the inertia of its vehicle; and if it conquers death through reproduction, it does so only by yielding, every citadel in turn, and abandoning every individual body at last to inertia and decay. Even to stand is to defy matter and its ”laws”: while to move about, to go forth and seek, and not, plant-like, to wait, is a victory purchased at every moment by effort and fatigue. And consciousness slips, as soon as it is permitted, into the restful automatism of instinct, habit, and sleep.

Life is that which makes efforts; there is a direction in the growth to which it is self-impelled. It is the opposite of inertia, and accident. At every stage life has had to fight with the inertia of its vehicle.

At the outset life is almost as inert as matter; it takes a stationary form, as if the vital impulse were too weak to risk the adventure of motion. And in one great avenue of development this motionless stability has been the goal of life: the bending lily and the majestic oak are altars to the god Security. But life was not content with this stay-at-home existence of the plant; always its advances have been away from security towards freedom; away from carapaces, scales and hides, and other burdensome protections, to the ease and perilous liberty of the bird. “So the heavy hoplite was supplanted by the legionary; the knight, clad in armor, had to give place to the light free-moving infantryman; and 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 accepted the heaviest risks.” So, too, man has ceased to evolve new organs on his body; he makes tools and weapons instead, and lays them aside when they are not needed, rather than carry all his armament at every step, like those gigantic fortresses, the mastodon. and the megatherium, whose heavy security lost them the mastery of the globe. Life may be impeded, as well as aided, by its instruments.

Life’s advances have been away from security towards freedom; away from burdensome protections towards the ease and perilous liberty of free-movement.

It is with instincts as with organs; they are the tools of the mind; and like all organs that are attached and permanent, they become burdens when the environment that needed them has disappeared. Instinct comes ready-made, and gives decisive—and usually successful—responses to stereotyped and ancestral situations; but it does not adapt the organism to change, it does not enable man to meet flexibly the fluid complexities of modem life. It is the vehicle of security, while intellect is the organ of an adventurous liberty. It is life taking on the blind obedience of the machine.

Instincts and organs become burdens when the environment that needed them has disappeared. They do not adapt the organism to change.

How significant it is that we laugh, usually, when a living thing behaves like matter, like a mechanism; when the clown tumbles about aimlessly, and leans against pillars that are not there; or when our best beloved falls on an icy path, and we are tempted to laugh first and ask questions afterward. That geometrical life which Spinoza almost confused with deity is really a reason for humor and tears; it is ridiculous and shameful that men should be machines; and ridiculous and shameful that their philosophy should describe them so.

It is ridiculous and shameful that men should be machines; and ridiculous and shameful that their philosophy should describe them so.

Life has taken three lines in its evolution: in one it relapsed into the almost material torpor of plants, and found there, occasionally, a supine security, and the cowardly tenure of a thousand years; in another avenue its spirit and effort congealed into instinct as in the ants and bees; but in the vertebrates it took the dare of freedom, cast off its ready-made instincts and marched bravely into the endless risks of thought. Instinct still remains the profounder mode of visioning reality and catching the essence of the world; but intelligence grows ever stronger and bolder, and wider in its scope; it is at last in intelligence that life has placed its interests and its hopes.

It is at last in intelligence that life has placed its interests and its hopes.

This persistently creative life, of which every individual and every species is an experiment, is what we mean by God; God and Life are one. But this God is finite, not omnipotent,—limited by matter, and overcoming its inertia painfully, step by step; and not omniscient, but groping gradually towards knowledge and consciousness and “more light.” “God, thus defined, has nothing of the ready-made; He is unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery; we experience it in ourselves when we act freely,” When we consciously choose our actions and plot our lives. Our struggles and our sufferings, our ambitions and our defeats, our yearnings to be better and stronger than we are, are the voice and current of the Elan Vital in us, that vital urge which makes us grow, and transforms this wandering planet into a theatre of unending creation.

God is this persistently creative life that is limited by matter and is groping gradually towards knowledge and consciousness and “more light.” Creation occurs when we consciously choose our actions and plot our lives. This is the Elan Vital (vital urge) which makes us grow.

And who knows but that at last life may win the greatest victory of all over its ancient enemy, matter, and learn even to elude mortality? Let us have an open mind, even to our hopes.* All things are possible to life if time is generous. Consider what life and mind have done in the mere moment of a millennium, with the forests of Europe and America; and then see how foolish it is to put up barriers to life’s achievements. “The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and 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.” 

* Bergson thinks the evidence for telepathy is overwhelming. He was one of those who examined Eusapia Palladino and reported in favor of her sincerity. In 1918 he accepted the presidency of the Society for Psychical Research. 

And who knows but that at last life may win the greatest victory of all over its ancient enemy, matter, and learn even to elude mortality?

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