Posted by: Johan Normark | May 23, 2009

Bergson, Nietzsche, complexity theory and neo-Darwinism

In 1907 the French philosopher Henri Bergson published his book Creative Evolution (L’Evolution créatrice). In this book he tries to give an alternative explanation for Darwin’s mechanism of evolution. The book was very popular in the early 20th century but lost its importance when the neo-Darwinian synthesis developed. However, there has been a Bergsonian renaissance among certain “biophilosophers” such as Keith Ansell Pearson and Elizabeth Grosz, largely via Deleuze’s version of complexity theory.

Although Darwin usually is the main figure associated with evolutionary thinking, he himself talked about descent with modification and only used the word evolution once in the first edition of The Origin of Species. He was more interested in natural selection. Darwin’s idea of natural selection works on the phenotype (an observable characteristic of an organism). The phenotype is made up of combinations of genes. However, an individual gene does not have a fixed selective value since it is dependent on its interaction with other genes (Grosz 2004:48). Basically, the genotype (inherited instructions carried within the genetic code), the environment and random variation creates the phenotype.

Much of what Bergson faces in Creative Evolution is the work of the neo-Darwinist biologist Weismann who laid the foundation to modern genetics. Weismann argues that life can replicate and reproduce itself because of a hereditary substance, the germ plasm (what in contemporary science is called DNA). This control and program in advance and is not dependent on external factors as had been argued by Darwin and Lamarck. Weismann argues that the hereditary substance cannot form anew; it can only grow and multiply and be transmitted between generations. His biology focus on the species and not on the individuals since any external influences that changes the individual dies with it. The species goes on despite changes in individuals (Ansell Pearson 1999:5-6).

Weismann’s genealogy means that the substance of life is immortal. Similar ideas are today expressed by Dawkins (1989) and his selfish gene in which he suggests that there is no design or purpose. DNA just is (Ansell Pearson 1999:10). However, there is often a conflict between the interests of the gene, the organism, and the species. So what is being selected? Weismann’s germ cells direct the somatic cells and not the other way. For him, it is the germ line that descends. Williams suggests that it is the gene that is selected as it is what enter the next generation and does not end with the body. The organism is then just a finite bearer of the infinite immortal germ line. The idea of genes as the main units of selection would then explain why we have collective behaviour. Cooperation is maybe not the best for an individual, but it is for the genotype that wishes to reproduce future beings. Thus, the gene is selfish (Dawkins 1989). In this view, an organism is just a vehicle needed for genetic transmission (Grosz 2004:79-82).

Another neo-Darwinist is Dennett (1996) whose idea of processes in natural selection is algorithmic. This consists of logical, formal, and mindless systems that do have laws or deterministic principles that direct them. These are not material and have no determinable result. An algorithm consists of several steps that need to be finished one by one. However, something needs to be actualized and become existent to be called a step. It can only be isolated if it is taken out of duration, out of the changing process itself (Grosz 2004:52, 205).

Bergson and his followers argue that the neo-Darwinians reduce evolution and the organism to fixed states, preferably the genetic code, the germ, or the algorithm (Grosz 2004:206). For Bergson, the impetus is not located in a particular point or part of the organism. Likewise, Nietzsche would argue that not only the gene is selfish, but the organ, organism, and environment are equally selfish. None is more important than any other (ibid:129).

It is the neo-Darwinian view of evolution that currently dominates in evolutionary archaeology (O’Brien and Lyman 2002; Shennan 2002). However, Nietzsche sees a link between liberalism, economism, and the neo-Darwinists. He believes that Darwinism reflects particular English ideas of equalization, a downward descent which reduces the human to something common. This egalitarianism reduces everything to the average. Thus, Darwinism is a triumph of the weak over the strong. Nietzsche claims that Darwinism is a struggle of the unfit. These Nietzschean ideas have been problematic since they were taken up and twisted by Nazism. However, for Nietzsche, evolution is a future that constantly changes the present and directs the present beyond itself. Thus, evolution is not the reconstructed past that explains the present, but a way to form unknowable futures (Grosz 2004:100-108). This, Grosz and Ansell Pearson argues, is similar to ideas developed by complexity theory since it focus on emergent processes, non-determined from the start and these processes are more open and aims to break boundaries.

The complexity theory within biology has therefore sought to go beyond neo-Darwinian genetic reductionism and determinism. It suggests a co-evolution of organism and environment. In Darwin’s natural selection, it is the environment that selects the organism. In the idea of co-evolution, the organism may just as well select the environment (Ansell Pearson 1999:146). Neo-Darwinians do not attribute agency to organisms as they are not real entities, they are just vehicles for genes, but complexity theory argues that organisms have innovative capacities (ibid:149). Then we are back at Bergson’s creative evolution again. I’ll explain that in another post.

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