February 4, 2009

Viral Creativity: Crossing the boundary between life and nonlife

Filed under: Aesthetics,Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:21 pm

Nietzsche almost breaks with romanticism. He almost reaches into the postmodern scientific world: the world of quanta, complexity and connectionism. But, unsurprisingly given his historical position, he does not quite make it. This is plain when we examine the relationship between his central principle of the will to power and his reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution. What is problematic is that Nietzsche refused to accept natural selection–which we can now understand as deconstructing the boundary between inner and outer, organism/environment, animate/inanimate.

Nietzsche was also unaware of the role of chance in the process of evolution. The result of these omissions is that what could have been a remarkable reconciliation between science and philosophy becomes an, albeit highly significant, reworking of Schopenhauer’s romantic, post-theological concept of nature possessing a life-force he calls Will.

The notion of nature possessing a life force is fundamentally ontological. In a typically romantic fashion nature is supposed to possess a being which is other, yet akin to the being many philosophers believe lies at the core of the human. When, however, Nietzsche develops the notion of the will to power as a manifold network of interconnected forces he reaches beyond romanticism into a systems approach to nature that resonates with science. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly given his historical location, the two positions are not reconciled in Nietzsche. Nevertheless, his adoption of the concept of evolution brings us close to such a reconciliation.

Nietzsche is famous for proclaiming the death of god. What is more interesting, however, is what he put in God’s place: Darwinian evolution. In his writings Nietzsche elaborates and expands the theory of evolution into moral and aesthetic dimensions. The reader may wonder why a book on aesthetics would be concerning itself with Darwinian evolution. The reason is simple, in the absence of God evolution is the most powerful creative process of which we are aware and Nietzsche is the first philosopher to have taken this on board. And of the philosophers of the 19th century Nietzsche is the most dedicated to aesthetics. His philosophy places aesthetics above not only reason but also morality. Which is to say aesthetics becomes the basis for morality not according to standards of eternal beauty and goodness but on the basis of an art-drive (Kunsttrieb) that appears to be an epiphenomenon of the transhuman flux of Dionysian forces that produces infinite difference, although with the last point I have to admit I am entering into the Deleuzean elaboration of Nietzsche which is actually post-Nietzschean.

What cannot be denied is that evolution is profoundly creative, it created the human brain, the most complex structure in the known universe. And with the brain it created the mystery of consciousness which baffles both philosophy and science. Consciousness can be understood as a virtual reality that is indubitably real. That is the mystery of consciousness: it deconstructs the boundary between concepts of real and virtual. From the standpoint of evolution the mechanism that creates this virtual reality which is also reality, the brain, is a mirror of the complexity of nature. Anthropically, evolution traces back from the human brain, through animals, plants, viruses, to nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), organic molecules, inorganic molecules, atoms, and to the fundamental particles and forces of the quantum substrate of phenomena.

The idea of evolution is more sublime than that of God due to its mindlessness, its reliance on chance and, crucially, its intimate intertwining of the inner and outer evident in the manner in which species are effects of their environment while simultaneously affecting and transforming their environment and thereby being forced to evolve adaptations to their new environment in a never-ending feedback loop. Evolution cancels out the distinction between inner and outer, the inner is determined by the outer and vice versa. Which is to say evolution is a creative process that is cybernetic, complex, holistic, networked, nonlinear, ecological and, historically, cosmological.
Nietzsche equated human creativity with the process of evolution and in so doing took the human beyond the human into the overhuman (Übermensch) where there is no distinction between animate and inanimate matter. What we are left with are networks of forces within networks of forces ad infinitum. And his approach has had a significant impact on contemporary theory, evident in the writings of Bataille, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari. And with regard to the aesthetic dimension of Nietzsche it can be suggested that evolution is a transgressive creative force because it is viral and destructive as much as it is creative. It is both the source of beauty and a sublime force beyond total understanding, beyond the narrow window of consciousness that it created.

Although science “understands” evolution it understands it in the same way that it understands everything else in nature: partially and provisionally. Science is continually striving to understand nature and in this sense it is inherently and enduringly incomplete. We see this in the continued debates raging in the scientific world regarding issues such as the validity of Darwin’s “tree of life” as opposed to the more rhizomatic evolutionary theories of horizontal gene transfer and genetic drift (Lawton 2009; Stix 2009).

Evolution flies in the face of humanist, rationalist and idealist philosophy because there is no consciousness directing evolutionary creative process. That which created consciousness is unconscious, which draws a massive question mark over the primacy of consciousness evident in modern philosophy from Descartes, through Hegel to Husserl and Habermas. Moreover, the creative process of evolution supports much romantic and postromantic philosophy and aesthetics which figures creativity as fundamentally unconscious. Philosophising evolution as a creative process is one of Nietzsche’s greatest achievements.

Darwinian evolution is an extremely powerful theory with ontological, moral and aesthetic implications. It is one of the jewels in the crown of modern/postmodern science. It is not simply limited to biology and genetics, it has spread into information and cognitive science intertwining with connnectionism. With the discovery of DNA and RNA evolution crossed the boundary of what we call “life” and entered into the sphere of the inanimate and informatic (DNA and RNA are informatic molecules). And with the rise of probabilistic connectionism in cognitive science, evolutionary algorithms came to the fore as systems that can solve problems creatively via synthetic analogues of random mutation and “natural selection”.

We also know, after Darwin and scientific research since Darwin, that chance lies at the heart of this creative process. Deleuze (1983) has made the connection between Nietzsche’s concept of “force” or “power” and chance (the “dice throw”) but he mentions Darwin only in passing. In contrast, Keith Ansell-Pearson (1997) and Gregory Moore (2002) have established a firm connection between Nietzsche and Darwin’s theory of evolution, but their studies indicate that Nietzsche was unaware of the role of chance variations in Darwinian theory.
It should also be stated from the beginning that there is no evidence that Nietzsche read Darwin’s writings, what he read was the reception of Darwin by various German writers. And these writers, even as scientists, were extraordinarily unsympathetic to the mechanistic approach of Darwin’s theory. The commentators that Nietzsche read modified Darwin’s ideas in a manner that reflects aspects of German romanticism and idealism and, indeed, to some extent resonates with Schopenhauer’s concept of Will as a mysterious “inner” force of nature.

The reference to Schopenhauer is pertinent because Nietzsche’s philosophy began with an acceptance of Schopenhauer’s concept of Will. Christopher Janaway explains that Schopenhauer’s concept of Will is intimately interconnected with the body (nature) as opposed to consciousness (spirit):

The body itself is will; more specifically, it is a manifestation of will to life (Wille zum Leben), a kind of blind striving, at a level beneath that of conscious thought and action, which is directed towards the preservation of life, and towards engendering life anew (Janaway 2002: )

and this Will being corporeal does not valorise the conscious, rational subject:

Admittedly, willing to act involves conscious thinking — it involves the body’s being caused to move by motives in the intellect — but it is, for Schopenhauer, not different in principle from the beating of the heart, the activation of the saliva glands, or the arousal of the sexual organs. (Janaway 2002: )

Schopenhauer’s concept of an embodied will, embodied subjectivity, is continued in Nietzsche as Zarathustra informs us:

body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body. The body is a great reason, a plurality … An instrument of your body is also your little reason, my brother, which you call “spirit”–a little instrument and toy of your great reason. . . . Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage-whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. (Nietzsche 1954: )

Nietzsche’s contribution over and above that of his mentor Schopenhauer is to engage with an even more materialist foundation to the blind force of nature in the form of Darwin’s theory evolution. It has to be said that despite this materialistic facet of Nietzsche’s theory, like Schopenhauer, his conclusions ultimately remain in the vein of German romantic-idealist philosophy.

Nietzsche’s key notion of the Will to Power reconfigures the Schopenhauerian Will in evolutionary terms. Ansell-Pearson observes a that it “has been little noted that the notion of will-to-power is, in large part, inspired by texts Nietzsche read in the early 1880s in experimental embryology (notably Wilhelm Roux) and orthogenesis (notably Carl von Nageli)” (Ansell-Pearson 1997: 93). These texts were interpretations of Darwin’s theory of evolution. But what Ansell-Pearson does not draw attention to, which Moore does, is the romantic-idealist inclination of such so-called scientific interpretations. Fundamental to this romantic-idealist bent is an emphasis upon the creative force of evolution as inner rather than outer. Nietzsche was unable to accept Darwin’s crucial premise that it is the environment that selects new forms and not some mysterious inner creative force. Although there is also an inner force evident in evolution in the form of chance mutation. But genetic mutation was not only unknown to Nietzsche it was also unknown to Darwin. Accordingly we can to some extent forgive Nietzsche’s negative reaction to Darwin’s emphasis upon natural selection by the external environment.

Ansell-Pearson’s research reveals that Nietzsche garnered some support for the notion of an inner evolutionary force of nature in the theory of Wihelm Roux in particular Roux’s 1881 text Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in an Organism) which argued that natural selection was unable to account for Organbildung (the development of organs) since it relied on a purely external as opposed to internal influences (Ansell-Pearson 1997: 98). Even in the absence of any knowledge of genetic mutation this constitutes a serious misunderstanding of Darwin, because natural selection can account for the development of organs. But we have to remember that we are talking about evolutionary theory in the late 19th century when the scientific evidence backing up Darwin’s theory was not as overwhelming as it is today.

Ansell-Pearson notes that it is from “Roux that Nietzsche borrows the notion of ‘form-shaping/building forces’” (Ansell-Pearson 1997: ) and suggests that Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power was intimately interconnected with his belief that “the essential phenomenon in the life process is precisely the ‘tremendous shaping, form-creating force’ (ungeheure gestaltende herformschaffende Gewalt) that works from within and then utilizes and exploits ‘external circumstances’” (Ansell-Pearson 1997: ). Which is to say in the external environment plays no role in selecting new forms, the creative process stems entirely from within the organism: a notion closer to Lamarck than to Darwin. What Roux is speaking about is fundamentally metaphysical and can be related to Aristotelian entelechy.

The interpretive problems evident in Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism concern his rejection of natural selection and his ignorance of the role of chance. Given his time, given the lack of knowledge of genetics and the misinterpretation of Darwin by the German biologists Nietzsche consulted, his “tremendous shaping, form-creating force” remains an imaginative elaboration of romantic-idealist metaphysics into a discourse that at least accommodates science and advances closer to a materialist theory of creativity. The crucial point is that with Nietzsche creativity is no longer the preserve of the human subject, even the unconscious human subject. In this sense Nietzsche’s philosophy is hyperromantic because it foregrounds nature over and above the human subject. The human subject dissolves into the sublime, noumenal forces of nature.

Ansell-Pearson’s analysis can be complemented by another in-depth investigation of Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinian evolution offered by Gregory Moore. Moore’s investigation is of particular interest because he stresses the aesthetic dimension evident in Nietzsche’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution. Moore begins with Nietzsche’s earliest work The Birth of Tragedy. This is a particularly good place to begin because Nietzsche wrote the birth of tragedy as a young man thoroughly bowled over by Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation. It was only later that Nietzsche began to formulate his own concept of the will to power.

Moore emphasises the centrality of aesthetics to Nietzsche’s Schopenhauerian concept of will and its relationship to the concept of a natural art-drive (Kunsttrieb). He also makes it apparent that at the centre of the cluster of revisionist evolutionary theorists who influenced Nietzsche was not Wilhelm Roux, as claimed by Ansell-Pearson, but rather the German biologist Ernst Haeckel who pursued “monistic philosophy, an idiosyncratic blend of [idealist-romanticist] Naturphilosophie and Darwinism” (Moore 2002: ). Moore explains that Haeckel:

seeks to account not only for the existence of ‘natural beauty’ — that is, the awe-inspiring symmetry and order of living structures produced by the processes of evolution — but also for the origin of human invention. Both, he concludes, are the visible manifestation of an intrinsic creative force operating throughout the universe: the Kunsttrieb [art drive].

Moore also notes that Haeckel’s contribution was to give the idea of the art-drive an evolutionary twist:

human artistry is simply a more refined expression of the same primordial creative instincts which all organisms possess to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time … [Haeckel] also implies that this Kunsttrieb [art-drive] is a supra-individual vital force identical with the developmental processes of life itself.” (Moore 2002: ).

What we see in this passage is a radical misinterpretation Darwinian evolution that effectively conflates Darwin with Lamarck. Although Haeckel was an established biologist is evident that he was less of a scientist than Darwin due to the influence of Naturphilosophie (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer) pointed to by Moore.

The notion of the art-drive is evident in Nietzsche’s theory in the early text The Birth of Tragedy and Moore points out that the twin principles of the Apollonian and Dionysian that form the crux of that text are “explicitly and repeatedly described as ‘Kunsttriebe’ [art-drives]” (Moore 2002: ). Examining Nietzsche’s notes for The Birth of Tragedy Moore finds a passage where Nietzsche contends that “the ‘unconscious form-creating force’ which manifests itself ‘in procreation’ is the same ‘Kunsttrieb [art drive]… which compels the artist to idealise nature and which compels each and every human being to create a pictorial representation of himself and of nature’” (Moore 2002: ). This interlinking of sexuality and human creativity is self-evidently a precursor to ideas developed shortly after by Sigmund Freud. Moore also cites an extraordinary passage from The Birth of Tragedy in which Nietzsche states:

The more I become aware of those all-powerful artistic drives in nature [Kunsttriebe], and of a fervent longing in them for semblance, for their redemption and release in semblance, the more I feel myself driven to the metaphysical assumption that that which truly exists, the eternally suffering and contradictory, primordial unity, simultaneously needs, for its constant release and redemption, the ecstatic vision, intensely pleasurable semblance (in Moore 2002: )

What we have therefore are typically Schopenhauerian tormented inchoate forces which are impelled towards the production of semblance. In Nietzschean terms Dionysian intoxication becomes Apollinian form. With the benefit of 20th-century scientific knowledge we can understand such a process without any need for romantic embellishment. The forces of nature studied by science can possess a violent aspect but they are also tremendously creative. Tremendously violent cosmic events lead to the production of elements that coalesce into planets that lead on to chemical reactions, nucleic acids and the production of life. All of which are extremely remarkable phenomena that do not require the invention of forces other than the ones that scientific theory and empirical experimentation have uncovered to be considered sublimely awe inspiring.

Putting aside the unscientific aspect of Nietzsche’s romantic interpretation of nature the notion of a striving towards semblance is of interest. In Schopenhauerian terms, the first achievement of Will is the “world of representation” the phenomenal world we perceive in consciousness. But Nietzsche’s idea is that the Will strives even further creating representations of this world of representation. We see this not only in art but also in technology; especially in the way in which modern technologies of reproduction are gradually inching closer towards a virtualised reconstruction of reality. One thinks here of Jean Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality and simulation.

Moore examines Nietzsche’s focus on visual representation, and his observations on the evolution of the eye, but this is somewhat limiting when it is considered that the virtual reality of primary representation — the phenomenal world that we live in — is multisensory and includes our awareness of our own body via touch, proprioception and nociception (pain). Indeed, one could suggest that it is physicality rather than visuality that is the most extraordinary aspect of the virtual reality produced by our nervous system and brain (the body-brain). It will be a long time before we will be able to represent that in technical virtual reality.

To represent our bodily sensations we would have to plug into the brain stem or spinal column in the manner of William Gibson’s cyberspace novels or their filmic equivalent in the Matrix movies (1999, 2003, 2003) or Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999). And Moore touches on this aspect to some extent when he insists that “sensation” is at the core of Nietzsche’s conception of will. Moore cites Nietzsche “Sensation is not the result of the cell; rather, the cell is the result of sensation … That which is real [Das Substantielle] is sensation” (in Moore 2002: ; Nietzsche III ).

This is a difficult statement to assimilate due to the fact that it is hard to imagine sensation in the absence of a sense organ (cell). There are two ways to understand sensation in the manner evident in Nietzsche’s statement: one would be to suggest a disembodied mode of sensation which suggests a spiritual being; the other would be to imagine sensation without consciousness in the form of complex molecular interactions which operate at the level of electron shell (chemical) energies.

At this level one could say that different atoms “sense” each other in terms of their capacity to form chemical bonds (the combining power of an element) and do so in a manner that forms increasingly complex molecular configurations in an environmental matrix that eventually result in what we call life. It is this “sensing” at the molecular level of the energy fields of electron shells that evolves more and more complex molecules eventually resulting in the informatic molecules RNA (cf. the “RNA world” thesis) and DNA which provide the recipe for life.

Electrochemical “sensing” which effects complex molecular configurations is simultaneously energetic and informatic. Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and cosmologist Glenn D. Starkman note that “life thrives on energy and information” (Krauss 1999: ). And it seems reasonable to translate what Nietzsche refers to as “sensation” into the notion of information understood as something beyond consciousness and indeed beyond life. Indeed consciousness can be understood as one of many layers of sensation, it is most remarkable for its capacity to represent and record but from a contemporary cognitive psychological and neurological perspective what we call “thought” is mostly the product of unconscious information processing.

Information is that which informs, that which provides form, where “form” here is not conceived in metaphysical, transcendental terms but fundamentally materialistic terms. For example, ideas in the mind (conscious or unconscious) are the results of electrochemical synaptic interconnections. We should also remember here the intimate interrelationship between a scientific concept of information and the phenomenon of negative entropy (negentropy) which is fundamental to the evolutionary process of producing increasingly complex structures.

Another analysis of the impact of Darwinian evolution on Nietzsche’s theory is provided by John Richardson (2004). It is noteworthy for being more circumspect about the impact of Nietzsche’s misunderstanding of evolution on his notion of the will to power than is the case in Ansell-Pearson’s account, although aspects of his analysis support Ansell-Pearson’s conclusions. Richardson notes “Nietzsche seems to misread Darwinian survival as an “end” in too literal a sense: as the aim of a will or drive or instinct …” (Richardson 2004: ). But it should be noted that the focus on the primacy of survival stems from Spencer not Darwin and is another example of a misinterpretation of Darwin. Accordingly, Nietzsche’s reaction against the primacy of survival in this case leads to a more sophisticated understanding of evolution.

For Nietzsche evolution is not primarily concerned with survival but rather with unbounded creative process. From a scientific point of view this is borne out by the fact that evolution is constantly trying out new forms without any concern for survival. Some genetic mutations can be positively dangerous, but statistically most mutations are neutral (cf. the theory of genetic drift) but as the environment changes neutral mutations may lead to remarkably positive transformations in the organism and in this sense evolution points to the connection between chance and creativity. But Nietzsche, in the shadow of Schopenhauer, ignores the genius of chance and complexity and interprets such creative process in essentially romantic terms as a life force.

Richardson, however, contemplates the possibility that “Nietzsche might save drives and will to power from mentalism and vitalism, by cleaving closer to Darwin than we’ve supposed.” (Richardson 2004: ). And sees the crux of a more positive interpretation of Nietzsche’s will to power in his critique of causality:

[Nietzsche] frequently raises doubts against the causality not just of consciousness, but of motives and purposes, and often states these as attacks on “will.” So [in Twilight of the Idols]: “The will no longer moves anything, hence does not explain anything either – it merely accompanies events … Nietzsche introduces his drives and will to power not as versions of that mental model, but as alternatives to it; his point is that we are more like animals than we thought, not that they are more like us.
For these reasons I think we must not treat will to power as something mental or representational, that can plausibly apply only to humans.” We must search for a different analysis of both drives and will to power (Richardson 2004: )

Richardson’s account here accords with Ansell-Pearson’s interpretation of the will to power. But Ansell-Pearson’s Deleuzian stance is more focused on the transhuman dimension which includes not only animals but also the role of the will to power in the inanimate world from which life arose. Nevertheless, although Richardson’s approach is conservative in comparison his remarks on causality are perceptive.

We see the relevance of causality to the will to power if we turn to Richard Schacht’s study of Nietzsche. Schacht reveals that Nietzsche’s deconstruction of Schopenhauer’s concept of Will begins precisely with a questioning of causality, which is a fundamental premise of classical physics, and indeed plays a crucial role in Kant’s categories and Hume’s principles of the association of ideas. Although for Hume causality is less a law of nature than an after-effect of synthesising, associationist, processes of autonomous (and therefore implicitly subconscious) imagination. Richard Schacht notes that in The Will to Power (1883-8) Nietzsche states: “We have absolutely no experience of a cause; psychologically considered, we derive the entire concept from the subjective conviction that we are causes …” (in Schacht 1992: ). Which is to say causality is based on the misguided notion that we are willing agents.

Schacht quotes Nietzsche: “We believed ourselves to be causal in the act of willing … who would have denied that a thought is caused? That the ego causes the thought?” (in Schacht 1992: ). But, Schacht points out, Nietzsche does not accept that the ego wills. Nietzsche, after Schopenhauer, understands will is something more fundamental than consciousness. Ego and consciousness become merely side-effects of deeper processes within both internal and external reality. It has already been noted that the romantic concept of inner nature is a precursor of the Freudian unconscious. But it is also the case that experimental psychology is increasingly suggesting that what we understand as consciousness, ego, and reason are in fact side-effects or after-effects of deeper processes in the synaptic universe of the brain. One can cite for example the pioneering experiments on willing carried out by Benjamin Libet which suggested that we become aware of the act of willing a fraction of a second after an unconscious mental event has already taken place (Frith 2007).

Nietzsche remarks scathingly “as for the ego! That has become a fable, a fiction, a play on words: it has altogether ceased to think, feel or will!” (in Schacht 1992: ). And further “when Schopenhauer assumed that all that has being is only a willing, he enthroned a primeval mythology” (in Schacht 1992: ). This is quite a break from romanticism because it denies an anthropocentric projection of human willing onto natural processes. We begin to enter into a transhuman conception of nature that bears much in common with science and lays the groundwork for later notions such as Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “machinic desire”. And in The Gay Science, Nietzsche points to the erroneous nature of the contention that “will is something which is effective, that will is a capacity. … today we know that it is only a word” (in Schacht 1992: ). Schacht explains:

The world, for Nietzsche, ourselves and all else included, is to be conceived neither as some sort of substance or collection of material entities, nor as ‘spirit’ or ‘will, ‘ but rather as the totality of such dynamic quanta or fields of force, in a condition of internal tension and instability. Ultimately there exist ‘only dynamic quanta, in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta’ (Colli 1967: ); and ‘reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole’ (Colli 1967: ) – although there are no discrete and self-contained parts, strictly speaking, since the ‘essence’ of these quanta ‘lies in their relation to all other quanta’ (Colli 1967: ). (Schacht 1992: )

This appears to be a remarkably scientific vision of the world that it entirely at odds with Moore’s account of Nietzsche’s misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution which effectively puts forward the Schopenhauerian Will as the principal evolutionary force. And there is little doubt that the Schopenhauerian Will is an ontological notion, it is post-theological, anthropocentric notion of being even if it is being beyond consciousness. But Schacht’s analysis of Nietzsche’s will to power portrays an entirely different, and post-romantic, concept of that goes beyond a univocal force of being and is instead splintered into a multiplicity of quanta that could possibly be congruent with the forces explored by science: forces that become increasingly strange as science penetrates deeper into the fabric of nature (e.g. quantum theory).
Nietzsche refigures Schopenhauer’s anthropocentric Will as a colossal matrix of transhuman forces within forces without any ultimate purpose other than to be creative. What is positive– what defeats nihilism — is that this blind mindless and constantly evolving force field of naked power produced human consciousness—Schopenhauer’s “world as representation”–as one of its effects. In other words we have to factor in evolution in order to understand how Nietzsche transformed Schopenhauer’s fundamentally pessimistic, negative theological, notion of Will into a positive and productive concept of power. What is most impressive about Nietzsche’s interweaving of evolution into his philosophy is not his apparent vitalism but his contention that evolution is fundamentally creative, which is difficult to deny.

And we can note at this point that poststructuralism is fundamentally indebted to Nietzsche’s remarkable concept of a holistic matrix of dynamically interrelated forces. This is evident in Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic desire, Lyotard’s libidinal economy and Foucault’s concept of power is an all-pervasive, disciplining yet productive, network of forces, and Derrida’s notions of force and difference.
Nevertheless despite Schacht and Deleuze’s rehabilitation of the will to power Nietzsche’s philosophy appears deeply divided: on the one hand leaning towards the alternative spirituality of romanticism and, on the other hand, towards an aesthetic refiguring of scientific mechanism (one thinks here of Deleuze’s “ desiring machines”). The Will to Power stands somewhere in between Schopenhauer’s romantic concept of a will and Darwin’s thoroughly scientific, and therefore mechanistic, notion of evolution. It marks a significant shift away from romantic humanism towards what might be termed “machinic” trans-humanism which can be defined as a deconstruction of the boundary between animate and inanimate forces.

The reconstruction of Nietzsche’s will to power is not difficult, one only has to factor in the inanimate principles his vitalistic interpretation of evolution excludes–chance and natural selection. This displaces but does not necessarily destroy his concept of a form shaping force. Instead of the form-shaping force being conceived of as a life force, more akin to Schopenhauer’s Will than Nietzsche would care to admit, it becomes a principle that can function machinically in terms of the probabilistic interaction of inanimate matter as well as at the higher levels of complexity evident when nature makes the quantum leap from RNA and DNA to the living cell. Indeed from the perspective of a scientific account of evolution we have to accept the creative potential of inanimate forces because we now believe that life arose out of the inanimate “primordial soup” of the “RNA world” (Horgan 1996). Indeed evolution begins before this with the molecular processes that produced the primordial soup billions of years ago.

With regard to the deconstruction of the boundary between animate and in animate the fundamental problem with Nietzsche’s adversity to natural selection lies in an overemphasis on the inner, which for Nietzsche begins with the cell as opposed to the outer which is the inanimate environment. It appears that for Nietzsche only the cell can embody form shaping life forces. The external environment becomes reduced to a condition of a thing without being. Obviously Nietzsche was unaware of RNA but his notion that there are “only dynamic quanta, in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta” (Colli 1967: ) comes remarkably close to the scientific conception of evolution wherein the boundary between inner and outer, animate and inanimate, is eroded by a matrix of interpenetrating material forces.

In spite of his emphasis upon the body, and even the cell, as opposed to the conscious mind Nietzsche’s concept of form shaping forces remains fundamentally anthropocentric, focused on inner being as opposed to the outer conceived of as in terms of material-machinic forces. What is missing from Nietzsche’s conception is the notion of feedback loops connecting the manifold of internal and external forces. Cybernetic feedback between material forces and processes deconstructs the boundary between organism and environment. What is form shaping is precisely this economy of interconnected forces; there is no need to posit a something else, an ontological vital principle that lies beyond the grasp of scientific instruments. Such a vital principle actually appears to be–somewhat ironically given Nietzsche’s fundamental deconstruction of consciousness–a construct of consciousness, a construct of our capacity to sense our self: a product of the illusory coherence of presence.

From the standpoint of transgressive aesthetics and what is most disappointing about Nietzsche’s reception of evolution is that it appears to ignore the fundamental role played by chance, despite the fact that chance is implicit in Nietzsche’s deconstruction of causality. But the role of chance in Nietzsche is foregrounded when we read Deleuze’s account of Nietzsche’s will to power in terms of “the dice throw”:

we … have the opportunity to see how Nietzsche understood physical science, the energetics and thermodynamics of his time. It is now clear that he dreamt of a fire machine completely different from the steam engine. Nietzsche had his own conception of physics with no ambition as a physicist. He granted himself the poetic and philosophical right to dream of machines that perhaps one day science will realise by its own means. The machine to affirm chance, to cook chance, to produce the number which brings back the dicethrow, the machine to release these immense forces by small, multiple manipulations, the machine to play with the stars, in short the Heraclitean fire machine. (Deleuze 1983: )

Deleuze amplifies the acausality of the dicethrow into a defining feature of Nietzschean philosophy—although without any reference to evolution. Evolution comes separately in Deleuze’s oeuvre in his distinctly Nietzschean interpretation of Bergson’s notion of creative evolution. Deleuze’s analysis of Nietzsche suggests an affirmation of chance as a liberation from the necessity of the Hegelian “absolute idea”—which could be read as a philosophical replacement for the totality offered by the Judeo-Christian God. In contrast, in the course of his analysis of Nietzsche Deleuze asserts that Mallarme, “always understood necessity [causality] as the abolition of chance”:

Mallarmé conceived the dice throw in such a way that chance and necessity are opposite terms, the second of which must deny the first and the first of which can only halt the second in check. The dice throw only succeeds if chance is annulled; it fails because chance continues to exist in a certain way; … It has often been noticed that Mallarmés poem belongs to the old metaphysical thought of a duality of worlds; chance is like existence which must be denied, necessity [is] like the character of the pure idea or the eternal essence. So that the last hope of the dice throw is that it will find its intelligible model in the other world, a constellation accepting responsibility for it “on some vacant, higher surface” where chance does not exist. Finally, the constellation is less than the product of the dice throw than of its passing to the limit or into another world. (Deleuze 1983: ) [emphasis added]

Deleuze suggests that the Hegelian symbolist Mallarmé remains faithful to a romantic and idealistic conception of the existence of a totality beyond appearances. But one cannot be entirely sure that Mallarmé had such a solid philosophical position: he was after all an artist. And even if he was a staunch Hegelian it cannot be denied that A Throw of the Dice introduced the extremely powerful concept of chance into modern art.

Chance became fundamental to both Dada and Surrealism and the motivating force behind Marcel Duchamp’s anti-art, including his “discovery” that any object whatsoever can be called a work of art. This may be a long way from Hegel’s absolute idea but it is certainly closer to Nietzsche’s celebration of the form-shaping, creative will to power as the principal motivating force in the universe in the wake of the death of God. With Nietzsche the romantic focus on the human soul which culminated in Schopenhauer’s concept of Will is replaced, at least in Deleuze’s supplementary account of Nietzsche by the throw of the dice. The “God” of evolution, like the God of quanta, does indeed play with dice.

Chance plays a considerable role in the scientific account of evolution. Although it has to be said that the extent of this role was not available to Nietzsche or Bergson or even Deleuze. The notion that chance might be a dominant factor in evolution only became apparent in the 1980s. For example the theory of genetic drift has become almost as important as natural selection. Gary Stix explains:

Is every biological trait an evolutionary adaptation, or are some characteristics just a random by-product of a physical characteristic that provides a survival advantage? … And as far as the origin of species, what role does genetic drift play? Moreover, does the fact that single-celled organisms often trade whole sets of genes with one another undermine the very concept of species, defined as the inability of groups of organisms to reproduce with one another? The continued intensity of these debates represents a measure of the vigor of evolutionary biology (Stix 2009: )

Genetic drift is a process whereby neutral mutations pass unnoticed by environmental forces of selection. But if the environment changes some neutral mutations can prove beneficial and then become selected by the changed environment thereby increasing their frequency. It is believed that 81% of genes may have diverged by genetic drift (Stix 2009: ). In Deleuzian terms we could conceive of genetic drift as an instance of the rhizomatic flux of heterogeneous difference. But in the end it is the environment that decides, but that environment is also constantly changing due to the impact of new organic forms that emerge out of genetic variations. As noted previously what we have here is a cybernetic feedback system that deconstructs the boundary between inner and outer “forces”.

Ansell Pearson notes that unlike Nietzsche “Bergson never denies that selection plays a crucial role in evolution and that it is a necessary condition of it.” But he also adds that for Bergson “evolution is equally impossible without an ‘original impetus’” (Ansell Pearson 1999: ), which brings us back to a Nietzschean concept of a form shaping force, a species of “life-drive”. Ansell Pearson notes that “if we accept that life is inventive even in its adaptations then these inventions serve to make life itself more complex in the very matter and mechanism of its evolution. In other words, life does not only involve adaptations dictated by external circumstances.” (Ansell Pearson 1999: ). This is certainly the case and is in no way contradicted by evolutionary theory due to the interaction of the inner forces of genetic mutation and horizontal gene transfer that can alter an organism’s interaction with its environment making that environment either select or deselect it. Moreover, altered organisms also alter environment leading to a need for more adaptation in an apparently never-ending feedback loop.
The recourse to a life-drive is unnecessary if we factor in the role of chance in evolution and accept the approximately infinite complexity of the evolutionary process. Accordingly we can be very critical when Ansell Pearson notes, apparently approvingly, that for Bergson the

critical point … is to stress that the instincts of life could not have evolved in complexification by a process of simple accretion since each new element or piece requires a ‘recasting of the whole’, a recasting which, he contends, mere chance could not effect. In other words, complexity in evolution cannot itself be simply the result of an exogenous mechanism (such as natural selection) (1962:; 1983:).

What is remarkable about Ansell Pearson’s sympathetic account of Bergson’s theory is an understanding of evolution akin to the contemporary variant of creationism evident in the “intelligent design” movement. We can forgive Bergson for his perplexity given his position in history but we cannot be so generous to Ansell Pearson.

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” (Darwin 1999 [1859]: ). The contemporary intelligent design movement which includes scientists have suggested that the bacterial flagellum is precisely an exception to Darwin’s theory of “numerous, successive, slight modifications”. Dan Jones notes that the “bacterial flagellum is one of the most complex and elegant pieces of biological machinery known” and that “each of its interacting components is essential for the system to function” (Jones 2008). Proponents of intelligent design have claimed that because the removal of any single component of this intricate mechanism would make it ceased to function it must have come into being in an integrated form. Proponents of intelligent design suggests that this entails the possibility of God and this argument seems very similar to the one being put forward by Bergson and implicitly supported by Ansell Pearson.

It is certainly the case that neither Bergson nor Ansell Pearson are suggesting the existence of God but there is certainly a metaphysical dimension to the concept of an inner form shaping life force that is remarkably akin to theology. But Darwinian evolution has not been confounded by the bacterial flagellum. Jones reports that in the 1990s

microbiologists discovered so-called “type III secretion systems” (T3SSs), a class of molecular machine used by disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella. A typical T3SS is a complex made up of 15 to 20 proteins embedded in the cell wall that shuttles toxic proteins from inside the bacterial cell into a needle-like structure on the outside, which the bacterium uses to inject toxins into its victim. (Jones 2008)

This is relevant to the bacterial flagellum because variants of at least seven T3SS proteins are also found in the flagellum within the basal body and funnels replacement flagellin subunits to the filament “using a mechanism remarkably similar to T3SS”:

In fact, the two systems are so similar that the flagellar protein export system is now considered to be a subclass of the T3SS
Such similarities, or “homologies”, are strong evidence that the two systems evolved from a common ancestor – analogous to the way that the arrangement of bones in the limbs of horses, bats and whales reveal their common ancestry despite their very different outward appearance and function. Similar homologies can be seen in the DNA sequences of genes, and in the amino acid sequences and 3D structures of proteins – all are clear evidence of shared descent. (Jones 2008)

What is demonstrated here is the ad hoc nature of evolution were configurations of proteins can have a variety of uses and can coalesce into what Deleuze and Guattari might refer to as “machinic assemblages”. What we have here is less a demonstration of the mechanistic nature of evolution so much as a demonstration that creativity does not require consciousness: not even the negative consciousness implicit in Nietzsche’s notion of form shaping forces or Bergson’s élan vital. What appears to be motivating evolution are forces of bricolage and chance: the essential ingredients of creative process.

One wonders at this point whether there is a relationship between the romantic concept of genius and Nietzsche’s notion of a form shaping force and Bergson’s life force. Such ideas suggest a negative ontology. Which is to say Nietzsche’s notion of the active as opposed to be reactive mind becomes a of negative image of being which nevertheless remains an ontology. One thinks here of the influence of Eastern philosophy on Schopenhauer which surely rubbed off on Nietzsche. David L. Hall notes that:

Mahayana Buddhism contains within it resources for the development of a radical negative ontology. The dissolution of the cosmological character of things leads to the ultimate experience of emptiness. Beyond the emptiness of all things is the empty — not as negation, not as nonbeing over against being — but as the emptiness of process or becoming. (Hall 1996: )

This concept of being beyond consciousness, being projected into the processes of nature seems very akin to Nietzsche’s notion of form shaping forces, and Bergson’s insistence upon a life force. It can also be compared with poststructuralist theories of difference which are fundamentally metaphysical. Habermas (1987) has argued strongly that poststructuralist theory is fundamentally a development of romanticism that retains a negative theological dimension. But reading Habermas’ polemical attack on Derrida, for example, one has the impression that he is creating a straw man. The situation is more complex: poststructuralism is certainly metaphysical, but to suggest that it is theological as does Habermas in his critical analysis of Derrida (1987) is going too far.

From the point of view of postmodern aesthetics there is certainly no reason to reject metaphysics. In fact metaphysics has been inextricably interwoven into aesthetics since Romanticism. Metaphysics remains necessary because science is incomplete and will for all intents and purposes continue to be incomplete. Consciousness remains a mystery that demands metaphysical speculation. Evolution is certainly much more amenable to scientific exploration, nevertheless it too retains an element of mystery especially evident in its deconstruction of the boundary between the animate and the inanimate.

What Nietzsche and Bergson were unable to accept was that the inanimate could be as important as the animate, that there is, in fact, no clear boundary between these two dimensions. Accordingly both philosophers concoct an ontology of animate forces. They were unable to accept that the inanimate could be creative, but this is proven by post-Darwinian molecular evolutionary theory. What is remarkable about the scientific evolutionary theory as opposed to its metaphysical reception is that we are provided with concrete evidence that the not only is the unconscious mind creative but also that inanimate forces are creative. It is at this point that we leave romanticism behind and step into an aesthetics of technology.

Given the turn towards the unconscious that began with romantic and idealist philosophy one wonders why there should be such a prejudice against the inanimate. And the answer would appear to be that the romantic focus on the unconscious mind is a negative ontology. Nietzsche’s active, unconscious, body-mind, his form shaping forces, and his will to power are all instances of Being-beyond-consciousness. But this Being-beyond-consciousness cannot, apparently, cross over into the territory of the inanimate. Yet this seems contradicted by Nietzsche’s description of the will to power in terms of an interconnected field of quanta. Evidently the quanta of which Nietzsche speaks are fundamentally animate, an expression of negative ontology that is a metaphysical surrogate of negative theology. And the same seems to be the case for Bergson.

Although Nietzsche railed against the conscious will he still referred to his remarkable theory of differential field of forces as the ultimate basis of being as “will to power” which translates in Schopenhauerian terms into a privileging of the romantic unconscious. This seems to be preserved in Bergson and even in Deleuze because he insists upon in the affirmative nature of differential forces. But how on earth can differential forces be affirmative unless they embody some form of benign being? This appears to be the fundamental objection towards mechanism: that it rejects ontology. And in rejecting being it also rejects the possibility of a fundamental goodness woven into the flux of animate/inanimate forces.

Considering the ethical dimension of evolution from a mechanistic point of view one might consider the roles of mutations and viruses. The theory of genetic drift has shown that most mutations are in fact benign, they are neither harmful nor productive. Similarly most viruses are benign and contribute to the web of life. Viruses are bundles of complex chemicals, they are not alive in themselves. In the same way that a bundle of neurons and synapses in a petri dish cannot exhibit consciousness, viruses only become lifelike when they inhabit a cell when they become part of a complex system. Luis P. Villarreal notes that

viruses directly exchange genetic information with living organisms—that is, within the web of life itself. A possible surprise to most physicians, and perhaps to most evolutionary biologists as well, is that most known viruses are persistent and innocuous, not pathogenic. They take up residence in cells, where they may remain dormant for long periods or take advantage of the cells’ replication apparatus to reproduce at a slow and steady rate. These viruses have developed many clever ways to avoid detection by the host immune system— essentially every step in the immune process can be altered or controlled by various genes found in one virus or another. Furthermore, a virus genome (the entire complement of DNA or RNA) can permanently colonize its host, adding viral genes to host lineages and ultimately becoming a critical part of the host species’ genome. Viruses therefore surely have effects that are faster and more direct than those of external forces that simply select among more slowly generated, internal genetic variations. The huge population of viruses, combined with their rapid rates of replication and mutation, makes them the world’s leading source of genetic innovation: they constantly “invent” new genes. And unique genes of viral origin may travel, finding their way into other organisms and contributing to evolutionary change. (Villarreal 2004: )

Environmental selection then is complexified by genetic contingencies such as genetic drift, viral symbiosis and the transfer of genes across species by microorganisms. If we are looking for internal forces that are more vital than environmental selection there are certainly material forces on offer. There is no need to speculate about a spiritual form shaping force (Nietzsche) or elan vital (Bergson), both of which are species of Being as Will.

Darwin Tree of Life, Then and Now

If we examine Darwin’s Tree of Life sketched in 1837 illustrated above on the left we see that it is relatively simple. In Deleuzian terms it is aborescent as opposed to rhizomatic. But if we look at a contemporary computer model shown on the right we see how evolution not only proceeds via arborescent branching but also by rhizomatic interactions created by lateral transfer of genes via microorganisms. W. Ford Doolittle observes: “lateral, or horizontal, gene transfer—has … affected the course of … evolution profoundly. Such transfer involves the delivery of single genes, or whole suites of them, not from a parent cell to its offspring but across species barriers.” (Doolittle 2000: ).
There is no doubt that evolution is creative but there is also little doubt that this creativity is dependent not only on environmental selection but also a host of contingent processes. It is also the case that such contingent processes change the environment leading to further change. This is a feedback process. The environment is not something fixed, it changes radically as we have seen with the advent of modernity. What seems most fundamental is chance and the question that has to be posed is how chance can be reconciled with the notion of form-shaping forces and difference.

It would appear that chance is the best candidate for a fundamental form shaping/creative force. It is also the case that stochastic process and noise play a significant role in the operation of the synaptic universe of the brain. If we are enmeshed in metaphysics and accordingly impelled to choose an essence or Being then, chance seems to be a good contender. Chance and difference can be understood as complementaries and as for repetition or the Nietzschean eternal return we have stochastic formations, the emergent phenomena that arise out of complex systems.

The key question that postclassical science poses to philosophy is whether chance can function as a basis for a concept of being. This appears to be the case in Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche in terms of the dice-throw in Nietzsche and Philosophy. God is superseded by nature as dice player. The question then is whether Deleuze’s Nietzschean interpretation of Bergon resonates with the image of the creative genius of the dice throw or does it fall back on a classical, romantic, or idealist ontology? Part of the answer may come from comparing the image of being-as-chance promulgated by Deleuze in his interpretation of Nietzsche with the approach of Stuart Kauffman (Sherman 2008) founding director of the Institute for Biocom¬plexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary in Alberta who like Nietzsche, Bergson and Deleuze criticises causality-driven analytical reductionism suggesting that the arrow of causality is broken by the phenomena of self-organization and emergent behaviours. Such phenomena cannot be explained by the laws of physics as they currently stand, although at the same time they do not break any of these laws (such as entropy for example).


  1. “Evolution flies in the face of humanist, rationalist and idealist philosophy because there is no consciousness directing evolutionary creative process.”

    Yes, it’s true that “consciousness” does not direct evolutionary processes – but it does direct: humanist, rationalist, idealist and all other modes and methods of philosophy and activity as well, such as politics, for instance. That consciousness does direct these processes, as it surely does, certainly does not suggest that the theory of evolution has undermined them in anyway – but rather, these theories have been undone by the reflective operations of consciousness – including its reflection on one of its own, consciously contrived, theoretical products: evolution.

    Comment by Maureen — July 9, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  2. Super awesome article. Really.

    Comment by Cameron Saenz — May 28, 2010 @ 11:48 am

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