Life as Emergent Agential Systems: Tendencies Without Teleology

 So here is the whole thing. I sent his off  for review last week and had restructured it so completely that posting in the sensible pieces based on what went before was impossible. So this is the whole shebang. When you run across sections you have read before you can just skim and move on. This is very long for a post. Sorry. 

For those who don’t want to read this long, long paper in a nutshell the argument is:

A) Life has evolved in a completely Darwinian fashion. 

B) Even so their are strategies that evolution has stumbled upon over and over like the move to individuality and sociality which produces more individuation at higher levels. Other’s include the emergence of life imbedded in a context, changes the design space upon which it rests through influencing and restructuring that space in a constant back and forth between life and that design space. The result in genuine novelty.

C) Bergson, a French philosopher of the early 20th century, noticed that there were creative tendencies in evolution that life uses again and again despite the non-teleological direction of evolutionary change. 

D) This has implications for theology:

  1. The creation is ongoing.

  2. That the creation is unique, unpredicted, and surprising and worthy of preservation and protection. Life is not a set of predefined necessary forms.

  3. That emergence means that the universe is open ended and that surprises await in what evolves. 


For: What Is Life? Theology, Science, and Philosophy Conference

Krakow, Poland June 2011


Biology has something relevant to say to theology and visa-versa (Cunningham 2010), and as a biologist I would like to hone in on some aspects of life that may gesture to perspectives that cross disciplinary lines. In particular I would like to draw on the work of Henri Bergson, long ignored in biology. However, he is growing in relevance as problems in understanding what life is and how it enfolds in an emergent universe become more pressing and more perplexing.

Life is a relationship among various kinds of agents interacting at different scales in ways that are multifarious, complex, and emergent. Life is always part of an ecological embedding in communities of interaction, which in turn structure and influence how life evolves. Evolution is essential for understanding life and biodiversity.

Evolution is supported by random genetic mutations and other sources of variance that arise in the chemically-based genetic structures that underpin life on Earth. Natural selection sifts through and finds those organisms better suited to the local environment in which those particular life forms find themselves. In addition, the stochastic nature of survival, the accidents and contingency of living in a dangerous world ensures that genetic drift will also play an important role. These two processes structure the kinds of organisms that inhabit our planet by forging them in ways that are conditioned on the randomness and contingency of local environments. The history of evolution is one of false starts, dead ends, accidents, and mistakes. This, as seen through the lens of science, suggests a lack of teleological aim for the forms of life on this planet. Does this imply that the universe is therefore without certain tendencies? I would like to explore this question in detail by first looking at aspects of biology that appear over and over again in the history of life on Earth. Secondly, I would like to examine what is known about the ‘Arrow of Complexity,’ the tendency of life to increase in complexity over time and how this creates opportunities for emergence and creativity to arise. Lastly, I would like to explore these repeated aspects in the light of the work of Henri Bergson, particularly of that found in his work Creative Evolution (Bergson 2005).


Life on Earth as Structured by Evolution


Evolution by natural selection is an a priori principle according to Christian Illies (2005). As given, it requires no empirical content to frame, nor is it a particular law in a given universe. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it a sorting algorithm (Dennett 1996), but it always holds under the following conditions (Lewontin 1970):

(1) Variation in traits;

(2) Selection on trait differences (Different variants leave different numbers of offspring);

(3) Trait attributes are to some extent inherited by ‘offspring’ from ‘parents’

These things are sufficient for evolution to occur. This works whether these are chemicals, digital computer programs, or beans in a jar—anything. This description of evolution by natural selection is not really in dispute (try it at home with playing cards if you like). It is obviously just a procedure, in a functional sense, that sorts things based on some selection criteria, usually determined by some environment in which the traits vary on how well they fare in that environment.

A claim of evolution by natural selection is a claim that the system that you are working with is one in which these conditions hold. Life on Earth seems just the sort of thing where these conditions are met. The claim that some group is a Darwinian population, is the claim that it meets these criteria. In application however, it can be complex and messy as philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in his book Darwinian Populations (Godfrey-Smith 2009):

“Darwinian populations are collections of things that vary, reproduce at different rates, and inherit some of this variation. The basic features of these collections are startlingly routine—births, lives, and deaths, with variation and inheritance. But Darwin saw that this set-up, this arrangement of ordinary features, is an extraordinarily important element of the world. Darwin’s description was empirical and concrete. The last century’s work has included a series of moves towards abstraction, attempting to say what is essential about the Darwinian machine—which features are not dependent on the contingent particularities of life on earth.” p. 107

Variation on earth, the first requirement for evolution by natural selection, arises through the random process of mutations. These random mutations are expressed in a particular environment and survive differentially based on how well they do in that particular environment. So over time, at the level of local environment, there is a kind of ‘matching’ between the environment and the organisms that inhabit it. However it is only in that local environment that any sort of direction can be observed. In such a system there can be no goal or aim toward which evolutionary change is moving—only local adaptation given the context of mutational changes.

However, even though this process draws on the randomness inherent in the genetic structure of life, there yet appear to be tendencies, repeated patterns, and strategies in which life engages at multiple levels. This seems to belie the idea that evolution is just randomness being co-opted for local environments, because there seems to be aspects of life that bubble up over and over again, suggesting that there are things about life that appear to be tendencies of life itself.

To begin, some effort in dissecting what life ‘is’ may be useful. Eugene Thacker, carefully unpacks some of the differences between ‘life’ as such and ‘life forms (Thacker 2010).’ Starting with Aristotle he draws a useful distinction between the two concepts. Life is more than a nominalistic category and more than a summing over the instances of life forms. Life is something with properties, the exploration of which gives us a sense of what is possible in the world of actually realized life forms. What features of life seem to be repeatedly instantiated in the instances of life on Earth? Are there tendencies to which life seems drawn? There have been nice explorations of this from the theological side, in particular Milbank (2011) gives attention to the distinction between the instances of life and what constitutes, and frames, life, but here I want to draw on distinctions from the biological sciences and tease out how these might be relevant to more philosophical and theological considerations, especially as informed by Bergson’s thought. First, let us examine a few of these tendencies as seen in empirical studies of the biological sciences.


Examples of Tendencies in Life

It is useful to consider the history of life on earth and point out key aspects of its evolution that highlight features that argue against disenchanted reductive views of nature, and perhaps even suggest a very Bergsonian view of the creative nature of evolution. I suggest that an ecological emergent view helps us see life as a non-essentialist unfolding that is established by dynamic networks of cooperating entities, which in turn allow for further creativity, innovation and freedom in the universe.

The universe is structured, as Latour (Harman 2009), p. 23, suggests, such that, “entities (as broadly construed) have struck a hard bargain with reality to allow stable configurations of chemicals that allow life to get started.” How life got started on Earth from its chemical precursors remains an open scientific question, upon which progress is being made. As we learn more about early planetary environments, and as we discover how frequent life is in the universe through surveys of distant solar systems, the question of how life begins will likely become more clear. Once life is off the ground there seem to be repeated patterns. While there is nothing, specifically teleological about life on earth in the sense that there are specific platonic-like forms to which life is heading, there are repeated strategies that evolve independently, that seem constitutive of how life proceeds biologically on Earth.


Life solves engineering problems


The first tendency I want to examine is that evolution solves engineering problems. Organisms in similar circumstances arrive at similar solutions for surviving well. For example, life on Earth has had multiple species evolve to solve the problem of swimming in the sea. Fish from chordate ancestors evolved into something with a torpedo shape, terminal tail movements to produce forward thrust, and fins to stabilize the motion. In addition to the initial evolutionary radiation of the fishes, this strategy for living in water has also evolved at least twice from vertebrate terrestrial organisms. In looking at the body ‘designs’ of dolphins and ichthyosaurs, their similarity to fish and to each other is immediately apparent. Thus, solving engineering problems can create some startlingly specific designs.

Another example is found in sabre-toothed ‘cats’ that evolved independently from separate rat-like precursors in both marsupial and placental mammalian lines (Wroe, Lowry, and Anton 2008). Biologist Conway Morris (2003) speculates that given this propensity, it may mean that the human shape and form may be inevitable in the universe similarly constituted planets with similar ecological underpinnings.

This allows us to ask about how the evolutionary trajectories of specific life forms have evolved. Moreover, there are more general tendencies that seem to be repeatedly repeated in vastly different organisms and seem to underpin what makes life a successful enterprise in increasing complexity and innovation in the universe. And while specifics are non-essentialist and lack formal (in the Platonic sense) underpinnings, there are repeated patterns that allow for increased complexity. These other tendencies are usefully examined by looking at attributes of organisms closer to the chemical underpinning of life like bacteria (There would have been a temptation in previous eras, when a Great Chain of Being was seen to structure life, to call these simpler, or even more recently ‘less evolved,’ but given the complexity we are discovering in the microbial world, abandoning such notions seem important). These are representative of the first instances of life and these organisms have continued from the time of life’s emergence on Earth to be successful contenders in the struggle of existence on this planet.


A trend toward individuality then to societies of individuals

There is a trend toward individuality. The first instances of life must have been simply the packaging of chemical systems creating an inside and an outside. To put it crudely, a ‘me’ and a ‘not me.’ If we look at a prokaryotic cell we see definitive structures that carve it from the common chemical milieu.

This move to individuality occurs at multiple scales in a back and forth movement between societies of individuals and the individuals themselves framing the creation of new kinds of individuals that have as their makeup other individuals. This means that while individual objects are the foundation of life, these individuals can be composed of other confederations of objects and individuals. Life seems to move from individuals, to an ecology and society of individuals that create new individuals, which in turn frame new ecological and societal relationships. This is one of life’s most strong tendencies.

Bacteria are an especially good example of this in light of their supposed simplicity. The societal and ecological relationships of bacteria are an area of growing interest, in part because of the surprises they have held.

For example, that bacteria have social communicative networks that enhance their ability to survive has been seen as one of the more important discoveries of microbiology in recent years. Quorum Sensing, the ability of a bacterial population to communicate with other conspecifics to perform coordinated activities like the building of a protective film that offers them protection, allows the use of shared resources, and provides opportunities for greater dispersal (Goryachev 2009). Communication through detecting and sending chemical signals allows others within the film to assess the condition and structure of the population. In addition, through quorum sensing biofilms can provide a shared resource for other species. For example, oxygen-using bacteria can use the boundaries of the film where the gas is more abundant, while abiotic species, that thrive in the absence of oxygen can exploit more anterior positions, yet provide food and chemical resources that are beneficial to the bacteria on the edges secreting the biofilm, supporting commensal relationships among differing species. These cooperative relationships establish ecological networks that take place on multiple scales and among very different species.

A spectacular example comes from the relationship between the bioluminescent bacteria, Vibrio fischeri and the squid, Euprymna scolopes (Nyholm et al. 2009). The squid contains a light organ that allows the colonization of the bacteria. The organ provides specific nutrients to the bacteria that allow for its own thriving. The bacteria can live individually among the oceanic plankton. However, using quorum sensing, when the population reaches a certain size, the bacteria turn on the genes that produce the bioluminescence. This is a benefit to the squid because by glowing it reduces its shadow as seen by predators looking towards the surface lit by a bright moon. So both species benefit. It is a complex dance between two different species, on vastly different size scales, which have to coordinate their behaviour with other members of the population. This attribute of life to move to social cooperation to solve complex problems is ubiquitous in Earth’s biota.

Other moves made by life along this continuum of individuality and societal relationships, is the differentiation and specialization of individual function for the benefit of the whole. The most extreme example of this is where individuals give up their potential for reproduction. But differentiation of individual roles is quite common in the microbial world including things like the following: Domicile creation, cooperative hunting, specialized food provisioning, specialized defenders, specialized dispersal forms, altruistic suicide, and communication (Crespi 2001).

Two quick examples. The first is the jelly-fish-like Portuguese Man-O-War (Physalia physalis) (Clarke 2010). This is not a single organism but is rather a colony of individuals. Although, each individual has taken on a different role, e.g., some are stinging cells, some are part of the air bladder, the ‘organism’ itself is a colony. Only the individuals that have differentiated into gametophores reproduce, so, much like a beehive, only a few of the individuals retain the ability to reproduce.

Another example is the slime molds (Bonner 2008). Which similarly, create fruiting bodies and other types of cells, which will reproduce. Some form a stalk to facilitate dispersal.

So we see that within life the repeated strategy of cooperation, differentiation, and individuation is ubiquitous from the smallest to the highest scales. Also important to explaining life on earth is understanding the vast, growing, complexity since its inception 5.5 Billion years ago when abiogenesis got off the ground. What allows this clear increase in complexity? In part it seems to be the bootstrapping that occurs as complexity generates more complexity.

It is in such social communities that we find the first place to look for where individuals leap forward in creative networks that allow for greater complexity and creativity in the life forms that structure life on Earth.


Niche Construction


Another tendency of life can be illuminated in the creative power described by Niche construction theory (Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman 2003). Niche construction theory was developed in the early 80s, and while growing in influence, is still a nascent field. While a complete accounting of the main features of this theory is beyond the scope of this paper, the basic idea is easy to grasp. Life evolves in contexts, i.e. the struggle for life is always embedded in an environment. It is clear that this environment is not static and is in constant flux, but while we often take note that, we fail to acknowledge that what is causing and substantiating that flux is life itself, creating a constant back and forth between organisms and the environment they inhabit. This not only changes the habitat for the biotic creature that initially found themselves in the environment in question, but creates new opportunities of survival and for evolutionary change among all the organisms living within that environment.

The American Beaver is an oft-sited example of niche construction. These North American animals build large dams, that block streams that change the environment significantly. They cut down trees to make their dams and lodges, move these, creating a pond, which can in turn create wetlands, provide habitat for fish and birds, and restructure completely the ecological community. Their presence provides new energy flows that can allow new levels of complexity and opportunities for evolutionary directions to expand. The beaver is interesting because Dawkins uses it as an example of the extended phenotype for his gene centred view of evolutionary change (Dawkins 1982). But that misses the changes that feed back and forth between the beaver and its environment. Dawkins assumes a static landscape that misses much of how life structures and restructures itself. Niche Construction Theory suggests that the landscape is in constant flux, and that life unfolds generously, from more to more. In the evolution of ecology it can be truly said, “For to every one who has, will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Matt 25:29 RSV

Niche construction is key in understanding how life unfolds. That it is missing in current reductive thought becomes very apparent in the models that are used to construct evolutionary explanations and predictions. A good example is the failures of the ‘Climbing Mt. Improbable’ models (Dawkins 1996) that have been used to model evolutionary change. As philosophers of science have noted, all of these models have in some sense failed to capture the fact that life has grown in complexity over the evolutionary time scales over which it has progressed. In a recent, Korb and Dorin (2011) argue that models have failed to reproduce the increase in complexity that is obvious in the directional arrow of complexity—things move from lesser to greater complexity. Most models of evolutionary processes have missed the obvious trend in increasing complexity that is so apparent in the fossil record. They argue further that this is because niche construction theory has been ignored and that using the static landscape models that have been widely used in evolutionary biology misses this feature of nature. They argue that to capture this, only simulation models are adequate for the task, and need to target what life actually does, which is change the selective landscape in which it evolves, thus providing increases in complexity. The metaphor that Dawkins uses of climbing Mt. Improbable then fails, because the complexity of life is a moving target. Life changes the nature of the landscape. I will come back to this momentarily.

This suggests that life is constantly reinventing itself, changing, becoming more than it was, unfolding in new and creative directions. In short, life is emergent. And this is clear from the empirical evidence we have about the way life has emerged on this planet. Life created an oxygen atmosphere, which allowed for more complex autotrophs like fungi and plants to create more niches. Following this, motile animals evolved, more niches opened, plants invaded bare and lifeless landmasses, which in turn provided more niches. The transformation of life on earth has been the story of increasing complexity, opening and creation of new niches, advances in sociality and cooperation and coevolution. A wildly emergent universe full of genuine surprises has been the result.


Emergence and Complexity

Niche theory introduces the possibility of emergence. Let me be careful with that word because it has come to mean many things to many people and tends to be a fraught concept. I am defining it in the sense of Badau (2008). Badau argues for three concepts of emergence. In all three types, the foundational concept of emergence is the idea that a property is emergent if it is a property that can be possessed by the macro scale, that cannot be possessed by the micro scale. The classic example of this is the property liquidity possessed by water. The liquidity of water sloshing in a bucket is not possessed by a single water molecule in that bucket.

Badau breaks down emergence into three kinds: nominal, weak and strong. The first ‘nominal emergence’ is emergent in the sense in which wholes are dependant on their parts and are autonomous from their parts in the sense that parts do not have the properties of the whole. To take a biological example, a herd of wildebeest is a herd just as a result of individual wildebeest aggregating in a certain way. The herd emerges because of individual behaviour.

On the other side of the spectrum of emergence, strong emergent properties, are characterized by supervenient powers that create irreducible causal influences. In this sense emergent properties although dependent on micro level properties, create causal powers that cannot be reduced. These are thought to be extra-scientific in that they cannot in principle be explored through reductive methods. The subjective experience of the mind is the only example that is usually given and there is scepticism that strong emergence is a coherent concept.

Falling between these kinds of emergence, Badau defines weak emergence in this way, “The systems global behaviour derives just from the operation of micro-level processes, but the micro-level interactions are interwoven in such a complicated network that the global behaviour has no simple explanation.” Getting more specific he argues that weak emergence is un-derivable except through simulation, he suggests that micro level state changes are dependent on the situation in which they find themselves and which allows for the updating of their reaction to this situation. A clear example of weak emergence would be a beehive in which individual bees are making ‘decisions’ based upon the needs of the hive and situation within the hive. A bee can assess the conditions and needs of its hive and change its behaviour accordingly. Within a beehive individual bees are not only making decisions, but they are exchanging information with each other, assessing the situation within the hive and with the outside world in complex ways that make the hive much more than an aggregate of bees in the same sense that a herd is just an aggregate of wildebeest. Although, one can see that this is a continuum and there is some assessment going on within a herd (e.g., what is my neighbour looking at and why is it so nervous?), it is not as complex as the hive nor is its behaviour as complex. The information used to create such complex networks is also much higher.

The beehive is especially intriguing because the colony that emerges appears to be a new kind of individual. Where the entire hive becomes the unit of selection. Some individuals have given up their reproductive capability to become something new.

This outline gives a sense of the main themes of life: individuation, sociality among individuals, ecological relationships among the biotic and abiotic worlds, niche construction, and emergent complexity.


Bergson: Life as Tendency


From the above it is clear that there are tendencies in the way that life has evolved on Earth: Individuality; societies of interacting individuals; the creation of habitat through niche construction; increasing complexity and the emergence of novelty.

These tendencies seem to be universal aspects of the deep structure of the universe. Note these are not mysterious, nor do they argue for some sort of intelligent design to force these aspects into existence. However, these do seem to appear over and over in the life histories of Earth’s organisms.

Henri Bergson in his book Creative Evolution argued that for life to evolve creatively, there must be an initial push. A striving that allowed for life to press forward into to new creative ventures. This élan vital, was structured into the beginning of life’s forward motion and continues from duration to duration. In the gap between these durations he saw the opportunity for creativity to blossom and provide fodder for adaptive evolutionary processes. However, not merely in a Darwinian sense, as life is seen as endowed with certain tendencies, as Miquel (2007) makes this explicit:

“What is life, according to Bergson, then? First of all, life is not adaptation by divergence of characters. This is the difference with Darwin: there is for Bergson an internal impetus, which can be described by neither the principle of divergence, nor the law of natural selection. It is a tendency acting through its counter tendency.” Italics in the original.

Marrati (2005) points out that for Bergson, life has an essence and that essence of life is a tenancy to a ‘motion’ that creates divergence. This is the élan vital in which life finds its tendency to creativity and complexity.

There is a temptation in biology to dismiss Bergson’s idea of a first impulse as a kind of vitalism, in which the élan vital functions as an influencing force that moves life in certain directions or provides the necessary spark that animates life and in some sense defines what it means to be alive. However, this reading is not quite correct, as life for Bergson is the movement or tendency to push through negative influences by dividing itself in new, creative and emergent ways (Fujita and Lapidus 2007). This is largely congruent with the findings of biology. Since the modern synthesis of Darwinian biology and genetics, the idea of a first impulse can be translated into our current conceptions of evolutionary change in ways concordant with how they currently stand. Bergson’s view of life is borne out by our current understanding of evolutionary biology.

In Creative Evolution, Bergson argues that this forward impetus was structured by ‘durations’ that specifically provided a temporal ‘place’ in which creativity could arise in this forward motion of life. While structured differently than he would, there are places that provide this kind creativity in the moment between durations. Let me unpack this a bit.

For example, randomness itself can be viewed analogously with Bergson’s élan vital, with random mutation marking the end of durations and the mutation becoming the source of creativity as he outlined for his initial push. This is much more complex than I have time to outline, but in broad brush you should be able to see how randomness plays out with life on earth. These are empirical observations, yet they seem to capture everything that Bergson required for this initial impulse. Imbedded in the structure of the universe is a push forward from the constant stream of randomness that unfolds and the sorting of the randomness according to local environmental conditions.

Life’s processes are often mischaracterized as a simple reductive scheme that misses some of life’s most astonishing features. Bergson criticized this as finalism in which the whole was given. This ‘whole’ can be seen in Philosopher Daniel Dennett idea of a design space, which he uses to argue for a deterministic universe. Because there are only so many possible combinations of DNA that produce viable ‘creatures.’ From a given starting point, the unfolding of different life forms, must wander around on this design space, driven by local selection regimes, but the set is finite, and the steps must be small ones. Richard Dawkins uses the same notion in his view of ‘climbing mount improbable’ in which he demonstrates how evolution can entirely explain the designed complexity of life on earth. They are right that evolution completely explains complexity, but the question that deserves some consideration is, can we ask where the design space comes from? Of course that is in principle unanswerable from a scientific perspective.

One of the interesting things about the flat naturalism that is rarely commented on, is the ‘given all at once’ as Bergson called it, nature of the static landscape. In a flat world of with all the possibilities stretched out, it seems to me from one perspective in which we look at the entire landscape of physical possibility from above in a God’s eye view, in which time is one dimension over which the design space wanders as it were where the landscape over which life wanders is fully given. The question of the source of the landscape seems especially odd from the point of view of a strict naturalism. It assumes, and it seems to me must assume, a metaphysics in which the marvellous landscape of bacteria, beavers, eyeballs, ecological niches are given completely from the initial starting event like the Big Bang, because the unfolding of the universe, by their view, is entirely deterministic and non-creative. The entire extent landscape must be all there from the first moment. What unfolds, must be necessary and conditioned on this given landscape and which must be given a priori to the universe’s unfolding—for it is on that that the universe unfolds. Strict flat naturalism then shares a stance with naive creationist views that assume that the entire landscape is present in its entirety from some perspective. If it is deterministic it must be ‘all there’ or ‘given’ as Bergson suggests. This would suggest that ontological materialism actually embeds a cheep creationism.

The other thing that this idea of an ontological design space approach misses, is the precise point that Bergson laid out and that has yet to be addressed is where does creativity and complexity come from in the design spaces conjured to explain the evolution of life? This brings up a related question what aspects of Life (as opposed to life forms) seem to be those that give us broad scale principals of what life is.

However, the richness of the universe appears to argue for even higher levels of creativity, opportunity and grace. Because, unlike the previous depictions of biological reality, the flat landscape seems to be missing something essential, namely the creative nature that seem inherent in evolutionary processes, which create new landscapes on which to work using the tendencies described above.

Bergson saw this as a key aspect of what we mean by life as Ansell-Pearson explains (2005):

“Bergson then turns his attention to life. It is necessary, he argues, to deal with tendencies that are to be explained by the necessity of living. By ‘living’ Bergson means the formation of distinct material zones, in short, bodies. It is my own body and that of others that I have the most right to distinguish in the continuity of the universe. A body is led by its various needs—the need for food, or the need for self-preservation, for example—to distinguish and constitute other bodies. It is the life of living bodies, therefore, that establishes a primary discontinuity within matter: “To establish these special relations among portions thus carved out from sensible reality is just what we call living” (Bergson, Oeuvres. Paris: PUF, 1959. 334; Bergson, Matter and Memory. Trans. N. M. Paul & W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone

Books, 1991. 198).”

This seems to coincide nicely with the habit of life to seek individuality, but does so not ay positing a fixed design space like Dennett’s, but through the tendency of life to create now openings for life through things like niche creation.

Bergson’s view recaptures aspects of life that the kind of landscape Dennett posits misses in its static givenness, it is ironic that he is principally remembered, at least in biology, for the élan vital when in fact he wrote extensively against teleology (or finiteism as he called it). It seems to me that this flat naturalism is a more insidious teleology that the entire landscape is given and organisms move through it with the only possibilities being those that appear in this static landscape. Bergson, notes, “To speak of an end is to think of a pre-existing model which has only to be realized. It is to suppose, therefore, that all is given, and that the future can be read in the present. It is to believe that life, in its movement and in its entirety, goes to work like our intellect, which is only a motionless and fragmentary view of life, and which naturally takes is stand outside of time. Life on the contrary progresses and endures in time. p. 34”

He notes that life is what we now might call emergent and contextualized only on what’s gone before, but not as if following a landscape, he continues, “But, in the adaptation of an organism to the circumstance it has to live in where is the pre-existing form awaiting the matter? The circumstances are not a model into which life is inserted and whose form life adopts <think of Dennett’s design space here > this is indeed to be fooled by a metaphor. There is no form yet, and the life must create a form for itself, suited to the circumstances that are made for it. It will have to make the best of these circumstances, neutralize their inconveniences and utilize their advantages-in short, respond to out actions by building up a machine which as no resemblance to them. Such adapting is not repeating, but replying—an entirely different things. p. 39” He is not imagining life here as an intelligent agent and he fully supports the idea that evolution is what does the replying, but he is suggesting that life is creative in just the sense that there are novel responses and opportunities embedded within the evolutionary process, just as niche theory would suggest.

This suggests that there may be the possibility of a new Bergsonianism that recognizes that his views inform our current understanding of biology. It appears that creative evolution has relevance today as we look at life as having just the kind of tendencies that Bergson described in his important work.


Theological Implications of the New Bergsonianism


What are the theological implications of this? I would like to focus on three. The first is that with a view of the open-endedness of the universe seems to imply a non-closed creation. That the creation is on going, creative, and unfolding. The flat naturalism that posits an intact design space would imply that God’s creative acts are like that of the intelligent designer of creationism in which God’s role is to nudge things along that would otherwise be improbable, but the flat landscape is still given up front. However, an open universe in which niches create new opportunity and infinite possibilities suggest as John Haught terms it, endless promise (Haught 2003). This does not forestall certain ends, as I’ve shown above in certain kinds of universes, certain engineering problems seem to recommend certain ends. In my own theological tradition of Mormonism the human form contains a kind of sacrecy that holds special place in our theology. This kind of openness does not limit this kind of divine purpose, but it does necessarily do so with teleological specifics such that the creation is less than continuing process.

Again turning to Bergson


“The truth is that adaptation explains the sinuosities of the movement of evolution, but not its general directions, still less the movement itself. The road that leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground; but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road, nor have they given it its direction. At every moment they furnish it with what is indispensable, namely, the soil on which it lies; but if we consider the whole of the road, instead of each of its parts, the accidents of the ground appear only as impediments or causes of delay, for the road aims simply at the town and would fain be a straight line. Just so as regards the evolution of life and the circumstances through which it passes–with this difference, that evolution does not mark out a solitary route, that it takes directions without aiming at ends, and that it remains inventive even in its adaptations.


But, if the evolution of life is something other than a series of adaptations to accidental circumstances, so also it is not the realization of a plan. A plan is given in advance. It is represented, or at least representable, before its realization. The complete execution of it may be put off to a distant future, or even indefinitely; but the idea is nonetheless formidable at the present time, in terms actually given. If, on the contrary, evolution is a creation unceasingly renewed, it creates, as it goes on, not only the forms of life, but also the ideas that will enable the intellect to understand it, the terms which will serve to express it. That is to say that its future overflows its present, and can not be sketched out therein in an idea.


There is the first error of finalism.” Bergson: Creative Evolution p. 68


In fact, it opens the possibility of tendencies without teleology. In which, God can enter into the world in unique ways that can be niche creating in the ways that I’ve outlined here. One could point to things like the incarnation as this kind of niche creation which allows unfolding into new and perhaps non-teleological ways that speak to divine purpose and love without the need for God to intervene in specific ways in the flat design space and envisioned by Intelligent Design.

It also speaks the uniqueness of creation and gives reasons for preserving, as a theological mandate, the treasures of this on going creation. It gives reasons for supposing that this is something quite precious and sacred about life on Earth because it is not been manufactured like a boat, that has been crafted to a purpose, but rather that creation is exemplified by life itself as manifest in the history and unfolding of the universe. This kind of unfolding, open view of creation makes a better metaphor for God’s action in the world. More like a grower who intervenes by entering the process itself.

I use the word ‘process’ here intentionally as there seem to be affinities with this ecological view of creation and Process Theologies and LDS views, over Paleyesque kinds of natural theology, or theo-drama views of theologians like Deane-Drummond (Deane-Drummond 2009). However, they may point to a new kind of natural theology based not on the specifics of life forms, but on the general tendencies of life like sociality, individuation, complexity and creativity.

Lastly, Emergence seems to imply that the universe is becoming freer and more open-ended in certain senses and does that freedom imply that the universe itself in generosity, freedom, is creating new levels, based on the features of life that seem ubiquitous and move in a back and forth in ways that are agential and individualized, and that grow in complexity and emerge in beauty to a magnificent universe.








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8 Responses to Life as Emergent Agential Systems: Tendencies Without Teleology

  1. Jeff G says:

    Inasmuch as this is a refutation of one among many perspective on naturalistic evolution then I agree with it. However, there also seems to be a tendency to think that flowery descriptions of evolution somehow provide insight into one deep truth or another. With this I cannot agree.

    First, let me address that particular perspective which Dennett’s writing lends itself so well to. For starters, “Design Space” and “the Library of Mendel” are two very different things for Dennett. The Library of Mendel is meant as an illustration (an overly simplistic one at that) of genetically determined design only. Design space, on the other hand, is ALL teleology and intentionality in the entire universe. Thus, the Library of Mendel describes (over-simplistically) a sub-set of biological design space which is itself a sub set of Design space as a whole. With this distinction in mind, the idea that natural selection applies to the entire design space in the same simplistic way that it does in the library of Mendel is wrong in so many ways. I think Dennett knows this, but I don’t think he makes this point clear enough in his book.

    Next, let me address the arrow of complexity. Each replicating entity depends upon a certain stable and reliable access to the appropriate resources in its environment for its replication and survival as a kind. However, the population of an environment by some new kind of replicating entity just is the creation of a new form of stability in the environment which can then be exploited by some new replicating entity which could not exist before the former was on the scene. In other words, since any kind of replicating entity depends upon stability to exist, and since any kind of replicating entity just is a kind of stability, we can expect replicating entities to combine with and build upon each other as new stabilities emerge in the environment over time. There’s nothing in this that Dennett would disagree with.

    Finally let’s address the issue of naturalistic determinism. I think Dennett would agree the universe was, from the very beginning, going to unfold in such a way that included various pockets of growth and evolution in complexity and creativity, etc. But, to show that the universe actually has such pockets only confirms such a position. There is nothing that could ever happen that would falsify the deterministic claim that whatever happens was always going to happen. Unless you are invoking some kind of counter-causal source of growth or change, in which case you are abandoning science, you have made no dent whatsoever in Dennett materialistic worldview.

    Again, I think all of these points as clearly discernible in the view of natural selection as the way in which types of patterns are able to resist the force of entropy by way of replication. No flowery language or metaphysics needed.

  2. SteveP says:

    ” I think Dennett knows this” , “I think Dennett would agree” “There’s nothing in this that Dennett would disagree with” I, however, am forced to gage his thought on what he’s written. My disadvantage.

    Your explanation of complexity misses that your talk of stability works without increasing complexity. This is the philosophical problem. This is why it is such a hot controversial topic. See BIOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY: Volume 26, Number 3, 317-338, Evolution unbound: releasing the arrow of complexity,’ for an overview of why simple ‘stability’ arguments fail as an explanation of increasing complexity and the history of trying to sort though the problems involved (this was accidentally left of my reference list although it is cited in the text).

    I disagree with Dennett’s well known handwaving that life is just information ‘escaping entropy.’ See Godfrey-Smith’s book that I reference above, he takes him apart on that. Keep in mind Dennett is a popularizer of philosophy. He makes terrible mistakes when it comes to actual biology.

    Sorry my ‘flowerily language annoyed you. And as for no metaphysics needed? Good luck with that. I think you’ll find them imbedded in every thought expressed by humans. And apparently most primates. If you remove it you’ll be a hero and can create a post-logical positivist revival. 🙂

  3. peckhive says:

    Also, farily new book on the Arrow of Complexity by McShea and Brandon (of the levels of selection fame). I started it, but only two chapters in.

    McShea, Daniel W., and Robert N. Brandon. 2010. Biology’s First Law: The Tendency For Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems: University of Chicago Press

  4. Jeff G says:

    That’s a pretty snarky response to the serious accusation of misrepresenting your target. Sure, Dennett does popularize philosophy, but to see him as only a popularizer would be a serious mistake. (This is part of the reason why I find the attention he directs toward religion more than a little unfortunate.) His entire philosophical project of unifying Ryle with Quine goes right through natural selection and as such required a close a careful examination of it.

    As for the arrow of complexity, since this is really the main crux of the issue, maybe you could explain why the creation of stable patterns in an environment does not allow (not force) the formation of patterns which are based on those.

    As for the flowery language, I was worried that you’d think I was talking about you. I was talking more about Bergson. The passages you have sited seem to parallel fast and testimony meetings in university wards: thinking that you can discover new truths by simply repackaging an idea in exciting new language. I do like how you try to bring his talk of “creative pushes” and the like down to scientifically respectable reality, but I don’t think that there’s anything in Bergson’s idea which are both true and unable to be accommodated within a naturalistic worldview. The only ways to do it would be to use a caricature of naturalism (which I think you do) or to go beyond or even against the empirical science (which I suspect he does).

  5. SteveP says:

    I don’t really see Dennett except in his popularizer mode as he doesn’t do much Philosophy of Biology in the primary lit (although he did critique Godfrey-Smith’s book in the July issue of Biology and Philosophy in which he seems dated and a Dawkinsist). I’ve read his works on consciousness, Darwin and freedom and they all are just popularizations–albeit great ones. I’m not familiar with his analytic work at all.

    “As for the arrow of complexity, since this is really the main crux of the issue, maybe you could explain why the creation of stable patterns in an environment does not allow (not force) the formation of patterns which are based on those.”

    This is what I’m arguing with niche construction. My supporting an open ontology with niche theory, does not preclude flat naturalism, I’m not arguing that, I’m arguing that it supports an open ontology better. And that there is something not being picked out with a flat naturism, these repeated patterns of life tendencies.

    BTW, Your use of ‘kinds’ is a little unsettling in biology (as I do a lot of work on this blog dismissing such a notion because of the essentialism that it implies).

    Actually I honestly can’t figure out where we disagree. You make these statements that seem to make me out to be mischaracterizing Dennett. My criticisms do not run at the level of the observable universe. For Dennett the observable universe just is the universe. I do disagree with his biology because he misses much of what’s going on in biology, but this is not a critique of his biology. But largely we agree. (My students are forced to read huge swaths of DDI because he does some killer explanations of the evolutionary process.) My arguments are to support an open, process oriented ontology, rather than a closed deterministic one. I’m arguing against flat naturalistic ontology. I’m showing that an open process oriented metaphysics is compatible with current understanding of life. Flat naturalism is harder to accommodate (and it’s too cheap a creationism for my tastes), but not impossibly so. My audience, process theologians, will pick up on this so it doesn’t need to be be explicit in this paper.

    Bergson is an early process philosopher upon who Whitehead drew. He was an atheist and well informed on the evolutionary thinking of the late 1800. He wrote in French. Very flowery and worthy of engagement even so. I don’t think there is anything in his thought that runs counter to evolutionary theory today. And obviously I think he has something to say that is worth paying attention to.

  6. Jeff G says:

    Don’t worry, his analytic work isn’t all THAT much clearer. It’s important to remember, as you just pointed out, that he isn’t doing Biology or even philosophy of Biology as either of these are traditionally understood. If you see him as getting the biology wrong, you’re almost surely misunderstanding his point. But don’t worry, I’ll never fault somebody for “getting him wrong” since he all but invites us to do so. Furthermore, almost every point that I do disagree with him is on is in some way related to Dawkins (their gene and meme centrism, not to mention their views on religion). So you’re probably right in us not disagreeing all that much, especially when it comes to our anti-essentialism. (Like Quine and Dennett, I reject Plato’s idea that kinds are static or definite.)

    I think my issue then is, as always, not having the stomach for process philosophy of any kind. I think where I’m bogging down is in what, exactly, flat naturalism is and whether anybody is actually committed to it. I think that part goes by too quickly. It seems like you are saying that if everything which seems to us to be new was always going to happen, then it isn’t really new.

  7. Jeff g says:

    Let me try another stab at this.

    Your account of niche construction sounds a lot like the concept of a “strange loop” applied to a biological environment as described by Doug Hofstadter in “Godel Escher Bach”. Is that about right?

    If so, I dont think that Dennett, Dawkins or any other naturalist serves as an appropriate target of criticism. If it means something else, then I don’t think I understand at all.

  8. Don B says:

    Nice article, Steve. You have contextualized and solidified my own thinking on the matter–and provided references, to boot! Thanks!

    One question, though. How do atoms and molecules fit into the picture? Do they exhibit emergent behaviors? My suspicion is that they do; they behave in ways dictated by their structure and constituent parts. The formation of biological molecules in the primordial earth occurred because of the types and concentrations of molecules available to be acted upon by physical forces. The biomolecules that formed also changed the landscape and their interactions permitted what we know as life to form.

    My ideas are, as usual, half-baked.


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