A Source Book in Animal Biology

Author: Henri Louis Bergson  | Date: 1911

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Creative Evolution

Let us indicate at once the principle of our demonstration. We said of life that, from its origin, it is the continuation of one and the same impetus, divided into divergent lines of evolution. Something has grown, something has developed by a series of additions which have been so many creations. This very development has brought about a dissociation of tendencies which were unable to grow beyond a certain point without becoming mutually incompatible. Strictly speaking, there is nothing to prevent our imagining that the evolution of life might have taken place in one single individual by means of a series of transformations spread over thousands of ages. Or, instead of a single individual, any number might be supposed, succeeding each other in a unilinear series. In both cases evolution would have had, so to speak, one dimension only. But evolution has actually taken place through millions of individuals, on divergent lines, each ending at a crossing from which new paths radiate, and so on indefinitely. If our hypothesis is justified, if the essential causes working along these diverse roads are of psychological nature, they must keep something in common in spite of the divergence of their effects, as school-fellows long separated keep the same memories of boyhood. Roads may fork or by-ways be opened along which dissociated elements may evolve in an independent manner, but nevertheless it is in virtue of the primitive impetus of the whole that the movement of the parts continues. Something of the whole, therefore, must abide in the parts; and this common element will be evident to us in some way, perhaps by the presence of identical organs in very different organisms. Suppose, for an instant, that the mechanistic explanation is the true one: evolution must then have occurred through a series of accidents added to one another, each new accident being preserved by selection if it is advantageous to that sum of former advantageous accidents which the present form of the living being represents. What likelihood is there that, by two entirely different series of accidents being added together, two entirely different evolutions will arrive at similar results? The more two lines of evolution diverge, the less probability is there that accidental outer influences or accidental inner variations bring about the construction of the same apparatus upon them, especially if there was no trace of this apparatus at the moment of divergence. But such similarity of the two products would be natural, on the contrary, in a hypothesis like ours: even in the latest channel there would be something of the impulsion received at the source. Pure mechanism, then, would be refutable, and finality, in the special sense in which we understand it, would be demonstrable in a certain aspect, if it could be proved that life may manufacture the like apparatus, by unlike means, on divergent lines of evolution; and the strength of the proof would be proportional both to the divergency between the lines of evolution thus chosen and to the complexity of the similar structures found in them.

It will be said that resemblance of structure is due to sameness of the general conditions in which life has evolved, and that these permanent outer conditions may have imposed the same direction on the forces constructing this or that apparatus, in spite of the diversity of transient outer influences and accidental inner changes. We are not, of course, blind to the role which the concept of adaptation plays in the science of today. Biologists certainly do not all make the same use of it. Some think the outer conditions capable of causing change in organisms in a direct manner, in a definite direction, through physi-co-chemical alterations induced by them in the living substance; such is the hypothesis of Eimer, for example. Others, more faithful to the spirit of Darwinism, believe the influence of conditions works indirectly only, through favoring, in the struggle for life, those representatives of a species which the chance of birth has best adapted to the environment. In other words, some attribute a positive influence to outer conditions, and say that they actually give rise to variations, while the others say these conditions have only a negative influence and merely eliminate variations. But in both cases, the outer conditions are supposed to bring about a precise adjustment of the organism to its circumstances. Both parties, then, will attempt to explain mechanically, by adaptation to similar conditions, the similarities of structure which we think are the strongest argument against mechanism. So we must at once indicate in a general way, before passing to the detail, why explanations from "adaptation" seem to us insufficient. . . .

Let us consider the example on which the advocates of finality have always insisted: the structure of such an organ as the human eye. . . .

Let us place side by side the eye of a vertebrate and that of a mollusk such as the common Pecten. We find the same essential parts in each, composed of analogous elements. The eye of the Pecten presents a retina, a cornea, a lens of cellular structure like our own. There is even that peculiar inversion of retinal elements which is not met with, in general, in the retina of the invertebrates. Now, the origin of mollusks may be a debated question, but whatever opinion we hold, all are agreed that mollusks and vertebrates separated from their common parent-stem long before the appearance of an eye so complex as that of the Pecten. Whence, then, the structural analogy?—. . .

Let us assume, to begin with, the Darwinian theory of insensible variations, and suppose the occurrence of small differences due to chance, and continually accumulating. It must not be forgotten that all the parts of an organism are necessarily co-ordinated. Whether the function be the effect of the organ or its cause, it matters little; one point is certain—the organ will be of no use and will not give selection a hold unless it functions. However the minute structure of the retina may develop, and however complicated it may become, such progress, instead of favoring vision, will probably hinder it if the visual centers do not develop at the same time, as well as several parts of the visual organ itself. If the variations are accidental, how can they ever agree to arise in every part of the organ at the same time, in such way that the organ wilt continue to perform its function? Darwin quite understood this; it is one of the reasons why he regarded variation as insensible. For a difference which arises accidentally at one point of the visual apparatus, if it be very slight, will not hinder the functioning of the organ; and hence this first accidental variation can, in a sense, wait for complementary variations to accumulate and raise vision to a higher degree of perfection. Granted; but while the insensible variation does not hinder the functioning of the eye, neither does it help it, so long as the variations that are complementary do not occur. How, in that case, can the variation be retained by natural selection? Unwittingly one will reason as if the slight variation were a toothing stone set up by the organism and reserved for a later construction. This hypothesis, so little conformable to the Darwinian principle, is difficult enough to avoid even in the case of an organ which has been developed along one single main line of evolution, e.g., the vertebrate eye. But it is absolutely forced upon us when we observe the likeness of structure of the vertebrate eye and that of the mollusks. 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? and how could they have been preserved by selection and accumulated in both cases, the same in the same order, when each of them, taken separately, was of no use?

Let us turn, then, to the hypothesis of sudden variations, and see whether it will solve the problem. It certainly lessens the difficulty on one point, but it makes it much worse on another. If the eye of the mollusk and that of the vertebrate have both been raised to their present form by a relatively small number of sudden leaps, I have less difficulty in understanding the resemblance of the two organs than if this resemblance were due to an incalculable number of infinitesimal resemblances acquired successively: in both cases it is chance that operates, but in the first case chance is not required to work the miracle it would have to perform in the second. Not only is the number of resemblances to be added somewhat reduced, but I can also understand better how each could be preserved and added to the others; for the elementary variation is now considerable enough to be an advantage to the living being, and so to lend itself to the play of selection. But here there arises another problem no less formidable, viz., how do all the parts of the visual apparatus, suddenly changed, remain so well co-ordinated that the eye continues to exercise its function? For the change of one part alone will make vision impossible, unless this change is absolutely infinitesimal. The parts must then all change at once, each consulting the others. I agree that a great number of unco-ordinated variations may indeed have arisen in less fortunate individuals, that natural selection may have eliminated these, and that only the combination fit to endure, capable of preserving and improving vision, has survived. Still, this combination had to be produced. And, supposing chance to have granted favor once, can we admit that it repeats the self-same favor in the course of the history of a species, so as to give rise, every time, all at once, to new complications marvelously regulated with reference to each other, and so related to former complications as to go further on in the same direction? How, especially, can we suppose that by a series of mere "accidents" these sudden variations occur, the same, in the same order—involving in each case a perfect harmony of elements more and more numerous and complex—along two independent lines of evolution?

The law of correlation will be invoked, of course; Darwin himself appealed to it. It will be alleged that a change is not localized in a single point of the organism, but has its necessary recoil on other points. The examples cited by Darwin remain classic; white cats with blue eyes are generally deaf; hairless dogs have imperfect dentition, etc.—Granted; but let us not play now on the word "correlation." A collective whole of solidary changes is one thing, a system of complementary changes—changes so co-ordinated as to keep up and even improve the functioning of an organ under more complicated conditions—is another. That an anomaly of the pilous system should be accompanied by an anomaly of dentition is quite conceivable without our having to call for a special principle of explanation; for hair and teeth are similar formations, and the same chemical change of the germ that hinders the formation of hair would probably obstruct that of teeth: it may be for the same sort of reason that white cats with blue eyes are deaf. In these different examples the "correlative" changes are only solidary changes (not to mention the fact that they are really lesions, namely, diminutions or suppressions, and not additions, which makes a great difference). But when we speak of "correlative" changes occurring suddenly in the different parts of the eye, we use the word in an entirely new sense: this time there is a whole set of changes not only simultaneous, not only bound together by community of origin, but so co-ordinated that the organ keeps on performing the same simple function, and even performs it better. That a change in the germ, which influences the formation of the retina, may affect at the same time also the formation of the cornea, the iris, the lens, the visual centers, etc., I admit, if necessary, although they are formations that differ much more from one another in their original nature than do probably hair and teeth. But that all these simultaneous changes should occur in such a way as to improve or even merely maintain vision, this is what, in the hypothesis of sudden variation, I cannot admit, unless a mysterious principle is to come in, whose duty it is to watch over the interest of the function. . . .

Still keeping to our comparison between the eye of vertebrates and that of mollusks, we may point out that the retina of the vertebrate is produced by an expansion in the rudimentary brain of the young embryo. It is a regular nervous center which has moved toward the periphery. In the mollusks, on the contrary, the retina is derived from the ectoderm directly, and not indirectly by means of the embryonic encephalon. Quite different, therefore, are the evolutionary processes which lead, in man and in the Pecten, to the development of a like retina. But, without going so far as to compare two organisms so distant from each other, we might reach the same conclusion simply by looking at certain very curious facts of regeneration in one and the same organism. 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 mesodermic 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. Here we have, indeed, the same effect obtained by different combinations of causes.

Whether we will or no, we must appeal to some inner directing principle in order to account for this convergence of effects. Such convergence does not appear possible in the Darwinian, and especially the neo-Darwinian, theory of insensible accidental variations, nor in the hypothesis of sudden accidental variations, nor even in the theory that assigns definite directions to the evolution of the various organs by a kind of mechanical composition of the external with the internal forces. So we come to the only one of the present forms of evolution which remains for us to mention, viz., neo-Lamarckism.

It is well known that Lamarck attributed to the living being the power of varying by use or disuse of its organs, and also of passing on the variation so acquired to its descendants. A certain number of biologists hold a doctrine of this kind today. The variation that results in a new species is not, they believe, merely an accidental variation inherent in the germ itself, nor is it governed by a determinism sui generis which develops definite characters in a definite direction, apart from every consideration of utility. It springs from the very effort of the living being to adapt itself to the circumstances of its existence. The effort may indeed be only the mechanical exercise of certain organs, mechanically elicited by the pressure of external circumstances. But it may also imply consciousness and will, and it is in this sense that it appears to be understood by one of the most eminent representatives of the doctrine, the American naturalist Cope. Neo-Lamarckism is therefore, of all the later forms of evolutionism, the only one capable of admitting an internal and psychological principle of development, although it is not bound to do so. And it is also the only evolutionism that seems to us to account for the building up of identical complex organs on independent lines of development. For it is quite conceivable that the same effort to turn the same circumstances to good account might have the same result, especially if the problem put by the circumstances is such as to admit of only one solution. But the question remains, whether the term "effort" must not then be taken in a deeper sense, a sense even more psychological than any neo-Lamarckian supposes.

For mere variation of size is one thing, and a change of form is another. That an organ can be strengthened and grow by exercise, nobody will deny. But it is a long way from that to the progressive development of an eye like that of the mollusks and of the vertebrates. If this development be ascribed to the influence of light, long continued but passively received, we fall back on the theory we have just criticized. If, on the other hand, an internal activity is appealed to, then it must be something quite different from what we usually call an effort, for never has an effort been known to produce the slightest complication of an organ, and yet an enormous number of complications, all admirably co-ordinated, have been necessary to pass from the pigment-spot of the Infusorian to the eye of the vertebrate. But, even if we accept this notion of the evolutionary process in the case of animals, how can we apply it to plants? Here, variations of form do not seem to imply, nor always to lead to, functional changes; and even if the cause of the variation is of a psychological nature, we can hardly call it an effort, unless we give a very unusual extension to the meaning of the word. The truth, is, it is necessary to dig beneath the effort itself and look for a deeper cause. . . .

So we come back, by a somewhat roundabout way, to the idea we started from, that of an original impetus of life, passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations. This impetus, sustained right along the lines of evolution among which it gets divided, is the fundamental cause of variations, at least of those that are regularly passed on, that accumulate and create new species. In general, when species have begun to diverge from a common stock, they accentuate their divergence as they progress in their evolution. Yet, in certain definite points, they may evolve identically; in fact, they must do so if the hypothesis of a common impetus be accepted. . . .

For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to the parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping-up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal had been made in another way.

With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coordinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions:

they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion.

The greater the effort of the hand, the farther it will go into the filings. But at whatever point it stops, instantaneously and automatically the filings co-ordinate and find their equilibrium. So with vision and its organ. According as the undivided act constituting vision advances more or less, the materiality of the organ is made of a more or less considerable number of mutually coordinated elements, but the order is necessarily complete and perfect. It could not be partial, because, once again, the real process which gives rise to it has no parts. That is what neither mechanism nor finalism takes into account, and it is what we also fall to consider when we wonder at the marvelous structure of an instrument such as the eye. At the bottom of our wondering is always this idea, that it would have been possible for a part only of this co-ordination to have been realized, that the complete realization is a kind of special favor. This favor the finalists consider as dispensed to them all at once, by the final cause; the mechanists claim to obtain it little by little, by the effect of natural selection; but both see something positive in this co-ordination, and consequently something fractionable in its cause something which admits of every possible degree of achievement. In reality, the cause, though more or less intense, cannot produce its effect except in one piece, and completely finished. According as it goes further and further in the direction of vision, it gives the simple pigmentary masses of a lower organism, or the rudimentary eye of a Serpula, or the slightly differentiated eye of the Alciope, or the marvelously perfected eye of the bird; but all these organs, unequal as is their complexity, necessarily present an equal co-ordination. For this reason, no matter how distant two animal species may be from each other, if the progress toward vision has gone equally far in both, there is the same visual organ in each case, for the form of the organ only expresses the degree in which the exercise of the function has been obtained.

But, in speaking of a progress toward vision, are we not coming back to the old notion of finality? It would be so, undoubtedly, if this progress required the conscious or unconscious idea of an end to be attained. But it is really effected in virtue of the original impetus of life; it is implied in this movement itself, and that is just why it is found in independent lines of evolution. If now we are asked why and how it is implied therein, we reply that life is, more than anything else, a tendency to act on inert matter. The direction of this action is not predetermined: hence the unforeseeable variety of forms which life, in evolving, sows along its path. But this action always presents, to some extent, the character of contingency; it implies at least a rudiment of choice. Now a choice involves the anticipatory idea of several possible actions. Possibilities of action must therefore be marked out for the living being before the action itself. Visual perception is nothing else: the visible outlines of bodies are the design of our eventual action on them. Vision will be found, therefore, in different degrees in the most diverse animals, and it will appear in the same complexity of structure wherever it has reached the same degree of intensity.

* B. Russell, A history of western philosophy, Simon and Schuster, pp. 791–810, New York, 1945.


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Chicago: Henri Louis Bergson, "Creative Evolution," A Source Book in Animal Biology, trans. A. Mitchell in A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. Thomas S. Hall (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951), 674–684. Original Sources, accessed August 12, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9STIFKSD1K8ER6.

MLA: Bergson, Henri Louis. "Creative Evolution." A Source Book in Animal Biology, translted by A. Mitchell, in A Source Book in Animal Biology, edited by Thomas S. Hall, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1951, pp. 674–684. Original Sources. 12 Aug. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9STIFKSD1K8ER6.

Harvard: Bergson, HL, 'Creative Evolution' in A Source Book in Animal Biology, trans. . cited in 1951, A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.674–684. Original Sources, retrieved 12 August 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=X9STIFKSD1K8ER6.