Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century
Chapter 8 Evolution Becomes a General Idea
PASSING as we have from Kant over to the Romantic idealists, we proceed from a conception of static forms which are originally given, and which serve as the whole basis of Kant's transcendental philosophy, to an idea of the development of the forms through a process, an evolutionary process. Kant conceived of the basic forms of the world as being given in the character of the mind itself. The forms of space and time -- given in the sensibility, the forms of the understanding - given in the categories, and the forms of the reason, all there are in advance of experience. If the object, as such, arises under Kant's doctrine, it is because of certain contents of the sensibility passing into these forms. That is what makes it an object. It is not an object for our cognitive experience unless it has these forms that give it its reality. Sensuous experience itself, unless it takes on some form, has no meaning, no reality; it cannot be known except in so far as the experiences have some form. And in the Kantian doctrine, the form is given in advance. This is what Kant expressed in terms of the "transcendental logic," the term "transcendental" meaning the logical pre-existence of the form to the object. This concept, you see, belongs to pre-evolutionary days. The logical pre-existence of the form to the object cannot be stated in terms of process; therefore it falls outside of evolutionary ideas. In order that there might be an object there, Kant, as over against the empiricists, said that the form must be there originally, in advance. The latter undertook to show how an object might arise out of the mere association of different states of consciousness. Kant insisted that, in order for there to be an object, the form must be there first.
But the Romantic idealists changed all that. For them, the forms arose in the very process of experience, in the process of overcoming antinomies, overcoming obstacles. We are responsible for the forms. In other words, we have, in experience, not a pouring of the characters of our sensibility-colors, sounds, tastes, odors-into certain fixed forms, but a process of experience in which these very forms arise. Logic, as the romanticists conceived of it, was a dynamic, not a static, affair-not a simple mapping-out of judgments which we can make because of the forms which the mind possesses, but a process in which these very forms themselves arise.
The process of experience, according to these idealists, creates its own forms. Now this has a very abstruse sound, of course; but what I want to call your attention to is that it is nothing but an abstract statement of the principle of evolution. These Romantic idealists were undertaking in the field of philosophical speculation what Darwin and Lamarck were undertaking in the field of organic phenomena at the same period. What the Romantic idealists, and Hegel in particular, were saying, was that the world evolves, that reality itself is in a process of evolution.
This was a different point of view from that which characterized the Renaissance science of which I have previously spoken. This Renaissance science started off with just as simple elements as it could. It started with mass and motion. And Newton defined "mass" first as a quantity of matter; but, as that involved a conception of density and there was no way of telling just how dense your matter was, he had to get another definition. And he found it in terms of inertia, that is, the response which a body offers to a change of state in either its rest or its motion. If you want to measure the mass of a body, you measure its inertia. You see how much force is necessary to set it going, and so forth. And in that way you measure its mass, so that mass is really measured in terms of accelerations, that is, accelerations that you add to motions of a body. We come back to these simple conceptions of mass and motion; but we
(155) really define our mass in terms of certain sorts of motion, that is, velocities, accelerations. With these very simple conceptions the physicist undertook to build up a theory of the world. Newton gave the simple laws of mass and motion, and then, on the basis of mathematics, worked out an entire mechanics, which up to within a very short time has been the classical theory of the physical world. On the basis of this physical theory, there is just so much motion; there is just so much mass; there is just so much energy in the universe. When the system was more fully worked out, as it was in the nineteenth century, the principles of the conservation of energy were added to those of Newton, although they were implied in his system anyway.
Now, such a world as this is made up simply of physical particles in ceaseless motion. That is all there is to it. We speak of the different objects about us-trees, houses, rivers, mountains -all varied, all part of the infinite variety of nature-but what this science does is to break them up into ultimate physical particles, molecules, atoms, electrons, and protons. The object is nothing but a congeries of these; and, as already stated, the relationship between the particles in one object and in another object are just as real and just as important as the relations found between the particles within any single object itself. For you, the tree is something that exists by itself. When it has been cut down, it is so much lumber. The stump continues to exist as a thing by itself. And yet, from the point of view of mechanical science, the relationship between atoms and electrons in the stump of the tree with those in the star Sirius is just as real as the relations existing between the electrons in the trunk of the tree. The trunk is not an object there because of the physical definition that you give to it. Every field of force that surrounds every electron is related to every other field of force in the whole universe. We cut our objects out of this world. The mechanical world reduces to a mass of physical particles in ceaseless motion. So far as such a world can be said to have any process of its own, it is that which is represented in the term "entropy."
(156) With the appearance of steam engines, people tried to work out the theory of them. And a Frenchman, Sadi Carnot, had the happy idea of thinking of the heat which was responsible for the formation of steam as flowing down hill through different degrees of temperature. When the steam was hot, its expansive power was great; and then, as it lost heat, it lost its power to expand. As it flowed down the hill of temperature, it lost its power. Of course, energy is not lost in the universe. It is just dispatched into surrounding objects. Thus, Carnot was able to work out a theory of steam engines which hinged upon this knowledge of energy flowing down a temperature hill. You put your piston rod into this stream and it will work the engine; but when it is at the bottom of the hill, it can do no more work. The mill cannot be turned by water that has passed. Well, now, this presented a picture of the whole universe as just a congeries of atoms in the sort of motion that was called "heat." If you set any sort of motion going, you know that you use up energy by friction in some way or other-that you produce heat. The whole universe seems to be running down toward a condition in which this motion will be evenly distributed through the entire universe. All manifestations of energy are due to the fact that they are on high levels, so to speak; but, given time enough, in the course of millions of years, everything will get evened out and all the particles will be in a fairly quiescent condition, with a slight, even motion of a Brownian sort distributed throughout the whole universe. That is the conception of entropy. That is the goal of the universe, if it has one, in which there will be some kind of energy evenly distributed throughout. We can be very thankful that we do not exist at that time. Of course, we could not exist then in any meaningful sense. That mechanical conception which science presents has no future -- or a very dark one, at best. Not dark in the sense of catastrophies, for those are always exciting; but dark in the very monotony of the picture. The conception of entropy is anything but exciting. Such a universe would answer only to an infinite sense of ennui.
The scientific conception, the mechanical conception, of the
(157) world did not seem to be one that gave any explanation to the form of things. As I have said, science does not justify us in taking a tree, a plant, an animal, a house, as separate objects by themselves. As we know, from the scientific standpoint there is no difference between life and death-simply a shifting of energies. From the scientific standpoint, the forms of things have no real significance. Of course, if you start off with a certain thing, given a certain form, you can use scientific technique to analyze it; but your abstract mechanical science, that to which Newton gave form, does not account for any object, does not account for the acceptance of one object rather than another.
It was Kant who took the first step toward a theory of the heavenly bodies. He was very devoted to the mechanical science of his period; but his imagination carried him a step farther, and he tried to conceive how the present form of the heavens might have arisen out of earlier forms. His statement was one that really got its scientific formulation in Laplace's conception of the solar system as a great nebula, intensely hot to begin with, and which gradually cooled down. Kant had to assume -a -whirling nebula which cooled down and resulted in a series of rings moving about the center as it condensed, gradually developing into a system of bodies of unspecific form. The velocity of the bodies on the outside of the system would keep them from moving in toward the center, and out of these rings the planets would arise. That is the suggestion which Laplace took from Kant and made into an explanation of the way in which the solar system arose. This was the first step toward a theory of the evolution of the heavens.
But what I now want to present is something different from this picture which mechanical science gives of the universe. It is an attempt to state an object in a certain form, and to show how that form might arise. If you think of it, that is the title of Darwin's book, The Origin of Species, "species" being nothing but the Latin word for form. What is the origin of these forms of things? Mechanical science does not offer any explanation of them. Anyway, from the point of view of mechanical science,
(158) the form has no meaning. All that this science says about a particular form is that in referring to a certain object you are isolating a certain group of physical particles, taking them off by themselves. Really, they are related to all physical particles. But the universe that we know is more than particles. It is a world of forms. Now, the question is, where do these forms come from? Certain of the principal forms, Kant said, come from the very structure of our own minds. The theology of the period said the forms of animals and plants go back to a creative fiat of God. He gave the earth its form and all the stellar bodies their forms and their motions, as well as those of the plants and animals on them. And that, of course, was the point from which the descriptive sciences of the time -- biology, botany, and zoology - started. They assumed species of plants and animals which had been created by God when he made the earth.
What Darwin undertook to show was that some of these forms must conceivably have arisen through natural processes. But how could the forms as such have arisen? Mechanical science could not explain them, because, from the point of view of mechanical science, form does not exist. There are only two objects -- one the world as a whole, and the other the ultimate physical particles out of which it is made. All the other so-called "objects" are objects that our perception cuts out. That is, we distinguish the chair from the table and ignore the relations between them because we want to move them about, we want to sit on the one and write on the other. For our purposes, then, we distinguish them as separate objects. Actually, they attract each other as physical particles, parts of a single, all inclusive electromagnetic field. The forms are not explained by the mechanical science of the period. The biological and other sciences -such as cosmology, astronomy-all explained certain forms which they found, in so far as they did account for them, by saying that they were there to begin with. And even Kant assumes that the forms of the mind are there to begin with.
Now the movement to which I am referring, under the term
(159) "theory of evolution," is one which undertakes to explain how the forms of things may arise. Mechanical science cannot explain that. It can break up forms, analyze them into physical particles; but it cannot do more than that. Biological science and astronomical science both start with certain forms as given. For example, Laplace's conception is of rapidly revolving, hot nebular bodies which were present to start with. Biological science started with certain living forms; geology, with definite types and forms of rocks. These sciences classify things in accordance with the forms that are found. But they do not generally undertake to show how the forms arise. There is, of course, the science of the growing form, embryology. But this is a recent science. It accounts for the way in which the adult arises out of the embryo. The older theory of biology assumed the form already there; it even conceived of a complete man as given in the very cells from which the form of the embryo developed. The assumption was that the form was there as a precondition of what one finds. This is Aristotelian science. It is also essentially Kantian. We have seen how we conceived of the forms of the mind as given as the precondition of our experience.
Now, Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution undertook to show how, by a certain process, forms themselves might come into being, might arise. Starting with the relatively formless, how could one account for the appearance of forms? Lamarck started with the hypothesis that every activity of the form altered the form itself, and the form then handed on the change to the next generation. As a picturesque example, assume that the progenitors of the giraffe wanted, or had, to feed off the leaves of trees, and so stretched their necks. They handed this stretched neck on to their longer-necked offspring. The inheritance of so-called "acquired characteristics" was Lamarck's suggestion to account for the appearance of forms. He assumed, as did Darwin, that you start with relatively formless protoplasm, and he went on to show the process by means of which forms might arise from that which was relatively formless.
In the previous chapter we were discussing Romantic ideal-
(160) -ism, and we pointed out that it was a development or an expression of the spirit of evolution, of the definite entrance of the idea of evolution into Western thought. Indeed, we spoke of Hegel's philosophy as a "philosophy of evolution." This highly abstruse speculative movement is simply a part of this general movement toward the discovery of the way in which the forms of things arise, of origins. As a scientific undertaking, it was not helped out by the physical science of the time. It had to make its own way, and this it did to an amazing extent. In later generations it became a guiding idea in practically all investigations.
I mentioned earlier the distinction between the conception of evolution that belonged to the older, the ancient thought, that which got its classical expression in the Aristotelian doctrine, and the evolutionary theory of this period. The Aristotelian evolution was the development of the so-called "form," the nature of the thing which was already present. It presupposed the existence of the form as something that was there. In this conception a metaphysical entity was thought of which existed in and directed the development of the form. The species which is the Latin word for the Greek term "form"-- was actually conceived of as a certain nature that supervised the development of the seed of the embryo into the normal adult form. Under the conception of Christian theology this form was thought of as existing first in the mind of God, then as appearing in the plants and animals and various other objects that he created, and finally as arising in our minds as concepts. The form, however, was not thought of exactly in the Aristotelian sense as existing in advance, as being an entelechy, the nature of the object existing in advance of the actual animal or plant.
The difference between that conception of evolution and the modern conception is given, as I have already pointed out, in the very title of Darwin's book, The Origin of Species, that is, the origin of forms. It is an evolution of the form, of the nature, and not an evolution of the particular animal or plant. What this theory is interested in is the evolution of the nature of the
(161) object, of the form, in a metaphysical sense. It is this which distinguishes the later theory of evolution from the former, namely, that the actual character of the object, the form or the nature itself, should arise instead of being given.
As you may remember, Darwin got the suggestion for his hypothesis from Malthus' doctrine of population. This was an attempt to show the relationship which exists between population and the food supply, and what effect this relationship may have on the future of the race. Of course, Malthus' statement was greatly disturbed by the introduction of machine production; this upset many of his calculations, if not the theory as a whole. Yet, it is interesting as an attempt to state in definite ways what the experience of the race will be in the light of a single factor in its environment, that is, the food supply.
Darwin became very much interested in this problem, and it led him to undertake to explain certain variations which take place in forms as being due to the pressure of population. In nature there are always more forms born into the world, more plants and animals, than can possibly survive. There is a constant pressure which would lead to the selection of those variants which are better adapted to the conditions under which they must live. This process of the culling-out of these better adapted forms would, in time, lead to the appearance of new forms. What lies back of this conception is the idea of a process, a life-process, that may take now one, and now another, form. The thing of importance is that there is a distinction made between this life-process and the form that it takes. This was not true of the earlier conception. In it, the life-process was thought of as expressed in the form; the form had to be there in order that there might be life.
The idea of which I have Just spoken I have referred to as Darwinian. The same idea lies back of the conception of Lamarck. He assumes a life-process which may appear in one form or another, but which is the same process whatever form it takes on. The particular form which it does assume depends upon the conditions within which this life-process is run. Thus we find
(162) the same fundamental life-process in plants and in animals-in the amoeba, in man, and in every form between. It is a process that starts in the separation of carbon and oxygen. These two, in the form of carbon dioxide, exhaled by animals as a by-product of the assimilation of food, are found in water solution in plants as carbonic acid. Through the mediation of the action of chlorophyl cells and light this eventually becomes food, in the form of various sugars and starches. These starches are then carried to tissues that expend energy, that burn up and set free energy in the life of plant or animal, get rid of waste products, set up the means of reproduction, and so pass on from one plant or animal to another, from one generation to another. The essentials of that life-process are the same in all living forms. We find it in unicellular forms, in multicellular forms. The only difference is that in the case of the latter we find a differentiation of tissues to carry out various functions; we find different groups of cells that take up one of the phases of the life-process and specialize in that-the lungs take in air, oxygen; another group of cells becomes the means of the circulation of the blood; others take over the functions of ingestion, of locomotion, of secreting fluids that make digestion and reproduction possible. In other words, separate groups of cells carry on different parts of the life-process. The whole process, however, is the same as that which goes on in unicellular forms. That, you see, is involved in this conception of evolution -- a life-process that flows through different forms, taking on now this form, now that. The cell, as a single entity in the whole, remains fundamentally what it was in the unicellular form. All living cells bathe in some fluid medium; those cells on the outside of us are dead. Living cells are those which are bathed in the fluids of the body, such as the blood or lymph. They are the only ones which are alive, and they carry over into the body some of the original sea from which our original unicellular existence migrated. These cells went from the surface to the bottom, and there multicellular forms arose. From the bottom of the sea to man, they had to bring this precious fluid in which alone cells can live.
(163) This was first found in plants. And animals then came and lived upon the plants; but the life-process has flowed through all, and remains the same life-process.
Given such a conception as this, it is possible to conceive of the form of the plant or the animal as arising in the existence of the life-process itself. It is very important that we should get the conception of evolution that is involved in it and distinguish it from the earlier conception, especially if we are to understand the appearance of this conception in its philosophic form. We are concerned with a theory which involves a process as its fundamental fact, and then with this process as appearing in different forms.
Now, the Romantic idealists, who first developed a philosophy of evolution, came back, of course, to our experience of ourselves--that reflexive experience in which the individual realizes himself in so far as, in some sense, he sees himself, hears himself. He looks in the glass and sees himself; he speaks and hears himself. It is the sort of situation in which the individual is both subject and object. But in order to be both subject and object, he has to pass from one phase to another. The self involves a process that is going on, that takes on now one form and now another-a subject-object relationship which is dynamic, not static; a subject-object relationship which has a process behind it, one which can appear now in this phase, now in that.
To get the feeling for this Romantic idealism, one must be able to put himself in the position of the process as determining the form. And it is for this reason that I have said what I have in regard to evolution. That does not get us as deep into our experience as the subject-object relationship does. Logically, it is of the same character, namely, a process in this case, a life-process, going on that takes now one form and now another. The process can be distinguished from the form; yet it takes place within the different forms. The same apparatus for digestion has to be there; the same apparatus for expiration, for circulation, for the expenditure of energy, have to be there for the life-process to go on; and yet this life-process may appear
(164) now with this particular apparatus and now with that. In your thought you can distinguish the process from the form. And yet you can see that there must be forms if the process is to take place. We have spoken of the unicellular animal as having no form in that sense. That statement is not entirely correct. We know that there is a high degree of organization of molecular structure in the cell itself. We can follow it out in a vague sort of way. There is also structure there. You cannot have a process without some sort of a structure; and yet the structure is simply something that expresses this process as it takes place now in one animal and now in another, or in plants as over against animals. That life-process that starts off with carbon dioxide, with water and carbonic gas, goes on through plant and animal life and ends up as carbon dioxide, in the carbonic acid gas and water that we breathe out. That process is something we can isolate from the different organs in which it takes place, and yet it could not take place without some sort of organ. We can separate the process from particular organs by recognizing them in one or another animal, in one or another plant. But we could not have the process if there were not some structure given, some particular form in which it expresses itself.
If, then, one is to make a philosophy out of this evolutionary movement, one must recognize some sort of process within which the particular form arises. In the biological world this process is a life-process, and it can be definitely isolated as the same process in all living forms, because in the scientific development of physics and chemistry, as well as of physiology, we are able to find out what this life-process is, that is, to think of the life-process apart from the particular form in which it goes on-to separate, in other words, such a function as the digestive process from the digestive tract itself; to be able to realize that the ferments essential to digestion, the breaking-down of starches and proteins through these ferments, and the organization, the synthesis, of these into organic products which the animal can assimilate, goes on in the amoeba, which has no digestive tract at all. The importance of the digestive tract is
(165) dependent upon the life of the particular group of cells that go to make up an animal. The problem presented to the animal form is the conversion of edible protoplasm, which is found in plants, into an assimilable form. The plant had to protect its fluid by cellulose. In order to get at the fluid, the animal has to be able to digest away the cellulose. Such an animal as the ox has to have a very complicated apparatus within itself; it sets up a whole series of bacteriological laboratories and brings into them microorganisms that set up ferments to get rid of the cellulose that surrounds the edible protoplasm in its food. The digestive tract of the animal is, then, an adaptation to the sort of food which these living cells feed upon. The animal has to have a structure which will enable it to get at the edible protoplasm itself. On the other hand, the tiger, which lives on the ox, has a rather simple assimilative problem on his hands. The ox has done the work, and the tiger can feed on his flesh. Of course, we are in the position of the tiger, except that we take the ox from the stockyards! The point is that our digestive system, like that of the tiger, can be much more simple than the ox's. Our whole life-process is not devoted to digesting away cellulose that surrounds food.
This indicates the way in which the form arises, so to speak, within the life-process itself. The form is dependent upon the conditions under which the life-process goes on. It is the same process, but it meets all sorts of difficulties. It has to have a particular apparatus in order that it may meet each of these upcropping difficulties. Such a life-process as this, which is the same in all these forms, was entirely unknown to the ancient physiologist. He could look at the animal only from the outside. He could see what were the function of the mouth and the feet, of the various limbs and external organs; but he could not get inside the animal and discover this process that was flowing on, that was taking on these different outer forms as the plant or animal needed a certain apparatus to enable it to live under certain conditions. It is essential to science and to the philosophy of evolution that it should recognize as basic to all a certain
(166) process that takes place, and then that it should undertake to show the way in which the forms of things arise in the operation of this process.
The question as to whether a Darwinian or Lamarckian hypothesis is to be accepted is not really of such great importance. The important thing about the doctrine of evolution is the recognition that the process takes now one form and now another, according to the conditions under which it is going on. That is the essential thing. One must be able to distinguish the process from the structure of the particular form, to regard the latter as being simply the organ within which a certain function takes place. If the conditions call for a certain type of organ, that organ must arise if the form is to survive. If conditions call for an organ of another sort, that other sort of organ must arise. That is what is involved in the evolutionary doctrine. The acceptance of the Darwinian hypothesis is simply the acceptance of Darwin's view that selection under the struggle for existence would pick out the organ which is necessary for survival. The heart of the problem of evolution is the recognition that the process will determine the form according to the conditions within which it goes on. If you look at the life-process as something which is essential in all forms, you can see that the outer structure which it takes on will depend upon the conditions under which this life-process runs on.
Now, if you generalize this, make a philosophic doctrine out of it, you come back to some central process which takes place under different conditions; and the Romantic idealists undertook to identify this process, first of all, with the self-not-self process in experience, and then to identify this self-not-self process with the subject-object process. They undertook to make these one and the same. The subject-object relationship is, from the philosophical standpoint, and especially from the epistemological standpoint, the more fundamental one. But the self looms up very importantly here, as you can see, for it is a self that is a subject. As I pointed out above, the object was in some sense explained by the empiricist. If you are to put the
(167) object into the subject-object process, you have to find a subject that is involved in the presence of the object. The old doctrine assumed that the world was there and that human beings later came into it. In other words, according to this view, the object was there before the subject. The appearance of the subject seems to have been purely accidental, incidental. The object might just as well be there without the subject being there. But, what the Romantic idealists insisted upon is that you cannot have an object without a subject. You can see very well that you cannot have a subject without an object, that you cannot have a consciousness of things unless there are things there of which to be conscious. You cannot have bare consciousness which is not consciousness of something. Our experience of the self is one which is an experience of a world, of an object. The subject does involve the object in order that we may have consciousness. But we do not as inevitably recognize that the subject is essential to there being an object present. According to our scientific conception, the world has arisen through millions of years, only in the last moments of which have there been any living forms; and only in the last second of these moments have there been any human forms. The world was there long before the subjects appeared. What the Romantic idealist does is to assume that for these objects to be present there must be a subject. In one sense this might be said to be reflecting the philosophical dogma that the world could not be present unless created by a conscious being. But this problem is something more profound than a philosophical dogma. It is the assumption that the very existence of an object, as such, involves the existence of a subject to which it is an object.
Well, if we are to find an instance of that in which the object involves a subject, as well as the subject involving an object, we can come back to the self. The self can exist as a self only in so far as it is a subject. And significant objects can exist only as objects for a subject. We can see that the self-process of the Romantic idealists-this fusion of the two phases of experience, the self-experience on the one hand and the subject-object ex-
(168) -perience on the other hand-was one which enabled them to insist not only that the subject involved an object but also that the object involved a subject. This, then, was the central process for them: the self, the not-self, are expressions of a single process, and in this also is found the subject-object relationship in which both terms are always mutually involved. just as there can be no self without a not-self, so there can be no subject without an object, and vice versa.
One more word about evolution. We have a statement of the human animal as having reached a situation in which he gets control over his environment. Now, it is not the human animal as an individual that reaches any such climax as that; it is society. This point is cogently insisted upon by Hegel, the last of the Romantic idealists. The human animal as an individual could never have attained control over the environment. It is a control which has arisen through social organization. The very speech he uses, the very mechanism of thought which is given, are social products. His own self is attained only through his taking the attitude of the social group to which he belongs. He must become socialized to become himself. So when you speak of this evolution, of its having reached a certain climax in human form, you must realize that it reaches that point only in so far as the human form is recognized as an organic part of the social whole. Now, there is nothing so social as science, nothing so universal. Nothing so rigorously oversteps the points that separate man from man and groups from groups as does science. There cannot be any narrow provincialism or patriotism in science. Scientific method makes that impossible. Science is inevitably a universal discipline which takes in all who think. It speaks with the voice of all rational beings. It must be true everywhere; otherwise it is not scientific. But Science is evolutionary. Here, too, there is a continuous process which is taking on successively different forms. It is this evolutionary aspect of science which is important in the philosophy of the contemporary French philosopher, Henri Bergson, whose work we will consider later