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Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Is it then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 5

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

Henri Bergson on Change and Evolution

The idea that Bergson is trying to get across is that human beings evolve during the course of a lifetime by the self creating the self. Here he seems to be making a significant error by equating psychological development with biological adaptation. He sees the two as inseparable, joined at the hip so to speak, but they are, in fact, two distinct processes serving two distinct and unrelated outcomes. The development of the psychological self is, as Bergson points out, the cauldron of both rational and lived experience, each of which contributes to the re-creation of ourselves by ourselves. On this point, Bergson is most likely correct. His phenomenological approach to the lived experience almost requires one to conclude that change is inevitable because every action and every thought contributes to the constant purpose of perpetual change. But this change is contained within a single lived experience. It does not impact future generations, make for much more than a measure of maturation in a single individual lived experience.

Evolutionary change, on the other hand, serves a completely different purpose. Evolution suggests that a species adopts random changes when one of those changes is deemed to be necessary for species survival. Evolution is an adaptive process rather than a process driven by activity. It is often a sexual process with females choosing mates displaying the much desirable random changes, In this way the desired change is passed on to and by future generations. Evolutionary change is not a result of phenomenological change but, rather, a result of adaptive responses to a changing environment. It is not driven by thoughtful interventions (the exception is managed changes in breeding dogs, horses, cows and pigs by human intervention) rather by mutations of genes that are then selected as desirable and, therefore, kept and passed on.

Evolutionary change is not connected in any way to psychological development, changes in psyche that make each unique individual what they are. To Bergson’s defense, he is writing a mere three decades after Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of natural selection was published. He was also likely influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer and his regressive ideas about social darwinism (it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’) as social change. Spencer’s view of change was far more developmental than adaptive concentrating of the development of the superior castes while dismissing the development of the lower castes in society. Given the lack of a complete understanding of Darwin and the poorly constructed social schema envisioned by Spencer, Bergson’s attempt to join evolutionary change with human development is understandable, just wrong.

When Bergson writes, “The truth is that we change without ceasing, and that the state itself is nothing but change,” he is describing a process of human development across linear time; change which can be understood as a regular and quite normal progression of life itself. This change may be understood in the context of stages of development which, in turn, may be described, normalized and studied. It is an action of psychological study and not one of random changes across several generations which would be more attuned to evolutionary change. Even as a metaphor, Bergson falls short of his mark.

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