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Darwin and Sri Aurobindo

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: October 30, 2008

Darwin and Sri Aurobindo

The theory of evolution


When Sri Aurobindo was a student in London and later at Cambridge, Herbert Spencer was one of the most influential philosophers of the day. He coined the term survival of the fittest and taught that material evolution was universal, developed according to necessary laws, and was caused by the persistent pressure of an infinite and absolute force; T. H. Huxley was a prominent intellectual of the same time and place, a widely read and listened to defender of Darwin against the religionists, and president of the Royal Society, who concluded that human evolution was more dependent on ethical mentality than physical prowess, and coined the term agnosticism to accommodate the spirit of skepticism. And when Sri Aurobindo returned to India and was a young professor of French, Henri Bergsons philosophy of matter and mind (1896), and of intuition and creative evolution (1907) became influential in both Europe and America, and eventually garnered him the Nobel Prize. At the same time, the monistic philosophy of matter and mind of the contemporary German evolutionary biologist and philosopher, Ernst Haekel, was published in English in1900. This author and his work were among the very few sources ever cited by Sri Aurobindo. One may conclude from such historical observations that it was at least no accident, and perhaps it was the time-spirit of the early 20th Century and its destiny, that Sri Aurobindo gifted scholar, poet, and philosopher would bring to his interpretation of Vedanta the most interesting and revolutionary thought of the day. The time-spirit was avidly seeking a synthesis of knowledge about the physical universe, the phenomenon of life, and the workings of the mind. The theory of evolution provided a context for such a synthesis.

Let us enquire then, more specifically, into the nature of the questions posed by this compelling urge that defined the thought of the early 20th Century. In addition to existence itself, and the physics of the material universe that we have already reviewed, two of the most engrossing and intractable questions of science and philosophy flowed then and now from two fundamental intuitions that we take for granted: the evolution of life from simpler forms at earlier periods to more complex forms at later periods, and the emergence of human consciousness or mind, in the forms of mental awareness, thought and knowledge. We must presume, as believers in either spiritual or scientific materialism - and the interconnectedness of all things - that the latter phenomena of consciousness are the product of the same processes that produced the infinite varieties of the former: living organisms endowed with such perceptual faculties as sight and hearing. Based on innumerable observations of the structures of life, from the fossil record to the genetic code, Darwins general theory of evolutionary descent through variation and natural selection has repeatedly been confirmed as the most reasonable explanation for the emergence of all the structures of life, including mind. The problem remains, however, that we do not directly observe the mechanisms of evolution that have theoretically operated during vast periods of deep time, and we also have not been able to observe a direct relationship between the physico-chemical processes and structures underlying life and the less observable phenomenon of consciousness. Our knowledge is still incomplete, and the mind-body problem is therefore just as interesting and vexing for both science and philosophy today as it was for Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes.


What is most amazing, perhaps, is that these questions of origin and process have been with us for so long, and yet we still do not have satisfactory answers, in spite of such truly extraordinary advances in science and technology as particle accelerators, laser spectrometry, the electron microscope, and the information micro-processor. The processes of human consciousness that have apparently evolved in the last 40,000 years, and especially since the 5th century BCE, created tools of observation that greatly enhance our powers of induction and deduction, and yet we are not able to adequately observe and explain the most essential and fundamental aspects of our own nature. Such intractable problems of perception and understanding have been among the primary goads of modern philosophy and science at least since Humes Treatise on Human Nature (1734), Kants Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and Hegels Phenomenology of Mind (1807), but these were neither the first attempts nor the last to grasp the profoundest mysteries of life and mind. Among the earliest were Aristotles On the Generation of Animals and On the Soul (340 BCE), Parmenides On Nature and Being (5th Century BCE), and in India the Darsanas of the 6th and Upanishads of the 8th Centuries BCE. These attempts perhaps marked the beginning in recorded history of the human will to understand what still vexes and compels us some 3000 years later. The more recent attempts are well known: Darwin, Huxley, Bergson, Sri Aurobindo, and the many imminent neo-darwinians of our era.


There has been progress, without a doubt, since The Origin of Species (1858) and The Descent of Man (1871). Much that was not known then, about both the fossil record and genetics, has been discovered in support of Darwins theory during just the last quarter of the 20th Century. And since the heliocentric theory of Copernicus displaced the Ptolemaic and Platonic cosmology, immeasurable gains have been made in comprehending the universe as a whole. There has been a sort of vertical, qualitative, convergence of knowledge and technology, since the 17th Century and especially in the 20th Century, that has made most of the observable workings of nature and the cosmos transparent to human inspection and analysis. And there has also been, at the same time, a horizontal, quantitative, dissemination of knowledge that has informed humanity on a much larger scale than ever before. How many thousands would have read the works of Isaac Newton in his lifetime, or perhaps tens of thousands the works of Darwin, while today millions read the works of Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould? And what better indication of the perpetual quandaries presented by the facts of evolution and consciousness than the disagreements between those two contemporary experts on Darwins theory, Dawkins and Gould? 1


Darwin himself expressed the essential quandaries in The Origin of Species (6th Ed. 1872), although many of the speculations with which he attempted to address the issues as he perceived them may have less weight today, in the light of more concrete contemporary evidence and technologically informed speculation; yet the basic problem was already clear evolution implies a degree of complexity that exceeds our intellectual grasp. In his first treatises he opened the debate between the strict gradualist and adaptationist views, so popular today, and the more pluralist interpretations of his theory of variability, inheritance, and natural selection championed today by the critics of strict adaptationism. And because they continue to embroil the best minds in the field, it is necessary to examine this divergence for a better understanding of the on-going dilemma. What are the factors that determine the processes of variation and adaptation, what is the relationship between the genome of a creature and its environment, what is the relationship between genetic processes and the vast diversity of phenotypic structures and behaviors that we observe in nature? Are our mental creations really a product of genetic chemistry? These are questions that remain open to exploration and discovery today, long after Darwin and Sri Aurobindo pursued them.


Darwin tentatively observed and speculated, more than a century ago, that: Changed conditions of life are of the highest importance in causing variability, both by acting directly on the organization, and indirectly by affecting the reproductive system. It is not probable that variability is an inherent and necessary contingent, under all circumstances. The greater or less force of inheritance and reversion determine whether variations shall endure. Variability is governed by many unknown laws, of which correlated growth is probably the most important. Something, but how much we do not know, may be attributed to the definite action of the conditions of life. Some, perhaps a great, effect may be attributed to the increased use or disuse of parts. The final result is thus rendered infinitely complex. 2


The causes of variation, in Darwins strikingly perceptive view, are governed by unknown laws and are infinitely complex, and he admitted that we are not able to observe precisely what ultimately determines the outcomes of the processes of evolutionary change. We should remember that at the time of his writing nothing was known about the genome and the mechanism of heredity was attributed simply to the germ plasma. But, nevertheless, he confidently asserts that the net result of the unknowns, however complex, may be attributed in general to the process of natural selection: Over all these causes of Change, the accumulative action of Selection, whether applied methodically and quickly, or unconsciously and slowly but more efficiently, seems to have been the predominant Power.


From the processes that he was able to perceive, from the fossil record, from domestic breeding practices, and from embryonic development, etc., he could infer a sort of final cause or first principle that governs the process as a whole. We too can easily observe the same continuous patterns of variation and descent among the phyletic order of species, and we may assume there is one overriding law of nature to which such variation may be attributed. What Darwin meant by his omnipresent power of Natural Selection was clearly explained by him in the chapter of the same title in the Origin where he provides a framework for all future discussions of his hypothesis: Let it also be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life; and consequently what infinitely varied diversities of structure might be of use to each being under changing conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred (in the laboratory), that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should occur in the course of many successive generations (in nature)? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. 3


The sequence of events, life forms, lineages ascertained by us through empirical observation of the natural world throughout deep time is a closely related and interdependent descent of organisms, structures and functions, and because we perceive in it a continuum of outcomes, to which a great variety of natural processes have apparently contributed, we may confidently assign to this amazingly vast complexity of natural processes, along with Charles Darwin and his followers, one overarching explanatory term for the plethora of variations observed: the law of Natural Selection. After 150 years of unparalleled scientific progress Darwins comprehensive intuition of the matter still holds good. We know that evolution occurs, and we know that there is a process of selection at work in Nature. Moreover, Nature has, or perhaps is, the power to select optimal structural solutions to her problems of survival; she often apparently also prefers beautiful, as well as useful, solutions to name only two of the many qualities we value in nature; she has produced a vast variety of designs, from the simplest to the most complex, often with faculties of sight and hearing, and with intelligence and power, with the apparent purpose to preserve and replicate her creations of beauty and utility; and she has finally produced highly intelligent (if not quite omniscient), mental beings, capable of knowing and communicating, with depth and eloquence, her amazing achievements. With this scientifically validated understanding we may find ourselves confirmed in our sense of connectedness with all living things, as well as in our justifiable awe at the grandeur of the natural world in which our lives are grounded.

The similarity between the so-called theological argument from design, - which has been used by scientists and philosophers for millennia to prove the existence of an invisible intelligent agency (God) on the basis of an otherwise unexplainably wonderful and infinitely complex world of nature, - and this more economical scientific view which simply attributes the hidden power to Nature itself, is outstandingly evident in the work of Darwin, as well as in that of his more recent followers. Natural Selection serves the ultimate aim of survival just as Intelligent Design serves the ultimate aim of divine perfection. The ultra-Darwinists, such as Richard Dawkins (1982) and Maynard Smith (1999), for example, explain the mutual organization of all organic beings, as a function of the most fundamental processes of life from the simplest level of genes and chromosomes (the genome), extending out to the most complex structures and behaviors (the phenotypes) of organisms and societies (see fn. 10). From these principles we may infer a vastly unified field of infinitely diverse specialization. These principles of unity, mutuality, and purpose in nature seem to express most accurately the true meaning and spirit of Darwinism; the full understanding and description of their processes is not only a central scientific objective of the school but an inspired mission to reveal the meaning of life. And, as such, it has indeed endowed nature with both meaning and purpose.


The philosophical tendency to settle on an economical and natural simplification of causes and explanations, based on close observation, rather than to add additional magical, spiritual, or speculative explanations, characterizes the modern, scientific approach to knowledge in general. It is this tendency which most distinguishes it from the theological approaches of the eras that preceded it from Plato to Galileo. Occams razor, or the law of parsimony, has been applied rigorously and effectively in both science and philosophy, since it was first formulated in the 13th century Cathedral Schools of Europe, to eliminate supernatural causes and enhance the importance of observable and demonstrable causes.4 Thanks to ecclesiastical thinkers like Occam and Aquinas, the way was prepared between 1200 and 1600 for the full emergence of rationality and empirical science. It was an important, and at times perhaps obsessive, aim of Darwin and his followers, to establish the superiority of this way of thinking to the religious and supernatural thought still prevalent at the time they wrote. But the mysteries of natures processes, and the limitations of both the empirical and the speculative approaches to ascertaining certain knowledge, still remained just behind the assurances of the rational mind, and they remain today.


The dilemmas of evolution

In a series of short essays originally published in his monthly journal Arya around 1920-21, Sri Aurobindo stated, in an abbreviated form, many of the fundamental problems of evolutionary theory which he later considered more systematically in his major work, The Life Divine (1940). For example, in Involution and Evolution, he said this: The Western idea of evolution is the statement of a process of formation, not an explanation of our being (note the juxtaposition of process and being- terms that will define the fundamental problem of philosophy). Limited to the physical and biological data of Nature, it does not attempt except in a summary or superficial fashion to discover its own meaning, but is content to announce itself as the general law of a quite mysterious and inexplicable energy. The ancient (Eastern) idea of evolution was the fruit of a philosophical intuition, the modern is an effort of scientific observation. Each as enounced (sic) misses something, but the ancient got at the spirit of the movement whereas the modern is content with a form and the most external machinery. The modern scientist strives to make a complete scheme and institution of the physical method which he has detected in its minute workings, but is blind to the miracle each step involves or content to lose the sense of it in the observation of a vast ordered phenomenon. But always the marvel of the thing remains, one with the inexplicable wonder of all existence We know that an evolution there is, but not what evolution is; that remains still one of the initial mysteries of Nature. 5

This sums up the critical question with which we have begun this exploration, in order to put Sri Aurobindos philosophy of evolution in the context of contemporary scientific theory. Although there was a certain openness to the convergence of Western scientific and Eastern philosophical approaches to knowledge during the last decades of the 20th Century in the fields of natural science, this openness was certainly not the case a hundred years earlier. And in fact, as Sri Aurobindo pointed out in his essay, the evolutionary thought of the 19th Century had contributed significantly to that entire victory of the materialistic notion of life and the universe which has been the general characteristic of the age and with it the important corollary effect of the failure of the religious spirit and the breaking up of religious beliefs. 6


This dichotomy of approaches the spiritual and material, or philosophic and scientific constitutes the basis of the critique with which Sri Aurobindo began his philosophical endeavor to synthesize Eastern and Western thought on the basis of a deep reflection upon both scientific and spiritual truths. He sought a synthesis and a method by which to handle not only the problems inherent in the theory of evolution and the scientific method, but also a way to unify the basic principles of the structures of consciousness and the cosmos, as a solution to the two types of problem that we have identified the need for a more adequate understanding and explanation of the phenomena of nature, and the need to discover and develop a power of consciousness better equipped to attain such knowledge. In other words, he sought to advance both the subjective (knowing) and the objective (known) realms of knowledge.


He began his reflections, as we find in another of his abbreviated essays titled simply Evolution, with what appears to be a broad visionary grasp of both extremes of the problem the mechanics of evolution on one end, and their principles and meaning on the other end, and he then proceeded to define the unifying solution. For example, he wrote: The general idea of evolution was the filiation of each successive form or state of things to that which preceded it, its appearance by process of out-bringing or deploying of some possibility prepared and even necessitated by previous states and previous tendencies. Not only does a form contain the seed of the form that reproduces it, but also the seed of the possible new form that varies from it. By successive progression a world-system evolves out of the nebula, a habitable planet appears in an uninhabitable system, protoplasmic life emerges by some yet unknown process out of Matter, the more developed grows out of the less developed organism. Force in Matter is the unconscious Goddess who has worked these miracles by her inherent principle of natural adaptation and in the organism by the additional machinery of heredity; by natural selection those species which reproduce new characteristics developed by adaptation to the environment and favourable to survival, tend to propagate themselves and remain; others fall back in the race of life and disappear. 7


Then, after this seemingly accurate, contemporary account of the matter, corresponding closely to the views of both Spencer and Darwin, he provided a critical supplement based on the perspective of Indian philosophy: In the first place, the materialist theory of evolution starts from the Sankhya position that all world is a development out of indeterminate Matter by Nature-Force, but it excludes the Silent Cause it conceives the world as a sort of automatic machine which has somehow happened. Force in indeterminate Matter without any Conscious-Soul being all the beginning and all the material of things, Mind, Life and Consciousness can only be developments out of Matter and even only operations of Matter. More and more the march of knowledge leads towards the view that the three (Matter, Life, Mind) are different forms of force, each with its own characteristics and proper method of action, each reacting upon the other and enriching its forms by the contact. If this be the truth, then the action of evolution must be other than has been supposed. For example, the evolution of Life in Matter must have been produced by a Life-principle working in and upon the conditions of matter and applying to it its own laws, impulses, necessities. The other idea of a still mightier Mind working in Life and upon it has not yet made sufficient way because the investigation of the laws of Mind is still in its groping infancy. 8


In order to build his case for this more philosophical perspective on evolution which was also adopted by Bergson and Whitehead, and has in fact become more and more widely accepted today, Sri Aurobindo listed a number of exceptions to what has become known as the strict adaptationist interpretation of Darwin. Sri Aurobindos early observations actually support the more pluralistic stance and broader perspective on the question, which has recently been popularly championed by a diverse group of scientists at Harvard such as Gould, Lewontin, and Mayr. Then, Sri Aurobindo provided the metaphysical perspective that turned the theory on its head. Intelligence, consciousness, mind are not the outcome of a blind mechanical process; they are principles inherent in matter from the start. And with this move, Sri Aurobindo also turned the conventional spiritual point of view, along with the materialist point of view, on its head as well, in much the same way that Marx had done with the spirituality of Hegel, and Nietzsche with the idealism of Plato and Kant. Let us review and deconstruct Sri Aurobindos criticism of the questionable ideas of evolution and his own speculations, as he formulated them in 1920.

The dualistic dilemmas

  1. Survival of the fittest - The idea of the struggle for life tends to be modified (in the contemporary theories) This modification is a concession to reviving moralistic tendencies Not struggle for life only. The real law, it is now suggested, is rather mutual help or at least mutual accommodation. Struggle exists, mutual destruction exists, but as a subordinate movement, a red minor chord, and only becomes acute when the movement of mutual accommodation fails and elbow-room has to be made for a fresh attempt, a new combination. 9,10
  2. Heredity - Equally important are the conclusions arrived at by investigators into the phenomena of heredity that acquired characteristics are not handed down to posterity and the theory that it is chiefly predispositions that are inherited; for by this modification the process of evolution begins to wear a less material and mechanical aspect; its source and the seat of its motive-power are shifted to that which is least material, most psychical in Matter. 11 The propagation of acquired characteristics by heredity was too hastily and completely asserted; it is now perhaps in danger of being too summarily denied. Not Matter alone, but Life and Mind working upon Matter help to determine evolution. When the mind-world and life-world are ready, they are poured out freely on fit recipients. This is the reason why it is predisposition that is chiefly inherited. The psychical and vital force in the material principle is first impressed; when that has been done on sufficient scale, it is ready for a general new departure and an altered heredity appears. 12 (The evolutionary philosophy of Konrad Lorenz in 1970 seems to support this idea, as we shall see later.) 13
  3. Gradualism and punctuated equilibrium - Instead of slow, steady, minute gradations it is now suggested that new steps in evolution are rather effected by rapid and sudden outbursts, outbreaks, as it were, of manifestation from the unmanifest. Shall we say that Nature preparing slowly behind the veil, working a little backwards, working a little forwards, one day arrives at the combination of outward things which makes it possible for her to throw her new idea into a realized formation, suddenly, with violence, with a glorious dawning, with a grandiose stride? And that would explain the economy of her relapses and her reappearances of things long dead. She aims at a certain immediate result and to arrive at it more quickly and entirely she sacrifices many of her manifestations and throws them back into the latent, the unmanifest, the subconscient. 14
  4. Materialism and Idealism Again, the materialist theory supposes a rigid chain of material necessity; each previous condition is a co-ordination of so many manifest forces and conditions; each resulting condition is its manifest result. All mystery, all element of the incalculable disappears. Once more the conclusion is too simple and trenchant; the world is more complex. European thought already tends to posit behind all manifest activity an Unmanifest called according to intellectual predilection either the Inconscient or the Subconscient which contains more and in a way unseizable to us, knows more and can see more than the surface existence. Out of this Unmanifest the manifest constantly emerges. 15
  5. Vitalism, Idealism and Science Theories of vitalism, idealistic tendencies of thought, which were supposed to have been slain by the march of physical science, now arise, dispute the field and find their account in every change of scientific generalization which at all opens the way to their own expansion and reassertion. In what respects then is it likely that the evolution theory will be found deficient by the wider and more complex thought of the future and compelled to undergo essential changes? 16

Toward an integral deconstruction

  1. Mutual help is thought to be superior to struggle and competition. This is the typical pattern of binary, logocentric thought.17 The former turns out to be the product of the latter, however. In human societies the elite class benefits from technology that raises the standard of living for the workers to a comparable level of affluence, after centuries of struggle. But, as the dominant species of top feeders deplete the food chain base, they may again resort to heavy competition class warfare. In the sea a certain bottom feeder carries a parasite that drives it toward the upper water where it is eaten by a top feeder, and the parasite larvae mature into a worm in the intestines of the top feeder, to later nourish another bottom feeder: competition and mutuality converge on a point. On the horizontal plane, mutuality is a more prevalent pattern; on the vertical, it is competition. It is a matter of perspective, of x/y coordinates and complementarity, not an absolute. Darwin said the survival of the fittest meant only that variation and adaptation would naturally select those best fitted for survival within the niches available; he did not give it an exclusively competitive or cooperative economical twist. The opposite value, or consequence of failure to adapt, was extinction, not poverty or penalty.
  2. It is implied that the psychical (mental) factor in the empirically observable phenomenon of heredity is superior to the mechanical (physical) factor. What is observable, by inference, is that somehow an organisms characteristics are passed on from the parents to their progeny. What is passed on along this vertical plane of ascent/descent is apparently a combination of physical structures and patterns of individual and social behavior. How they are passed on is apparently through the horizontal processes of reproduction: cell division, insemination, and embryonic development first, then nurturing, growth, development and adaptation to the environment. The stages of the process seem to follow the vertical path: first primarily physical, then vital, then psychical, with reference to the passing on of predispositions in the individual. But in the horizontal, psycho-somatic world of the phenotype, where selection takes place, the life-world and mind-world of the shrews 50 million years ago for example one preferring the smell and feel of mud in its nostrils, another the cool winds and dry crackle of leaves in its ears, leads eventually to the evolution of hippos and tarsers respectively. Through predispositions which undoubtedly means inner, psychological drives niches are found, new patterns established, and later genetic variations eliminate former patterns and the structures that support the new patterns are selected. The current view seems to tend toward the idea that the physical is the carrier of the vital and mental behaviors, in the sense that the latter horizontal expressions transcribe the former, and the former, vertical transmission records in genetic script the history of the latter: the genotype and phenotype are perfectly complementary. In such a view, Sri Aurobindos intuition is understandable and essential.
  3. There may be an analogy between the spiral dynamics of the social, economic, and cultural human plane of development and the appearance of species along the path of mass extinctions and subsequent explosions of variation, but, like the analogy between bird wings and insect wings, there may be no direct homological relation. There is apparently both a gradual development toward difference and diversity on the horizontal plane of biological evolution during major intervals of time, and periodically a sudden extinction followed by relatively rapid variation into the open niches, on the vertical plane of deep time. In the human, socio-cultural domain civilizations rise and fall, achievements in science and technology are efficient on one arc of the spiral and deficient on another. New varieties of cultural expression emerge that contain elements of the old but also evident advances while some qualities recede. Some then say the past was superior to the future and others the opposite. The theory of evolution seems to imply the superiority of the future, but Stephen Gould and Jean Gebser dispute this idea. Gould (Full House, 1996) discounts progress on the grounds that many species have been more successful in the past, some more diverse or more plentiful, biological evolution is very gradual and simpler species are generally more successful than more complex ones; cultural evolution is Lamarkian, much more rapid than biological evolution, and directional; it follows the pathways of mind more exclusively, but some cultures have been more artistic, or more powerful, or more technological, or mythological, etc., and none have lasted more than a second in geological time. Gebser (The Ever-Present Origin, Eng. trans. 1985) argues that temporal progression is an illusion since the same principles and potentialities are ever-present and merely evolve to different levels of organization. And the levels he describes: archaic, magic, mythic, rational, integral are all on a higher, cultural scale determined by mind. These dissenting views are not static but they imply a different conception of time, which is possibly what Sri Aurobindo was indicating by focusing on leaps and discontinuities.
  4. Again, there are mechanical processes in nature, and there is obviously some kind of determinism. But it is not absolute; there is also novelty. It is the desire for control of nature through accurately predicted occurrences from predetermined causes, the scientific motive, which postulates a principle of mechanical determinism to explain the world. The motive behind such thinking and exploration is clearly the human beings mental and vital interests in achieving social and economic success. But the pursuit of knowledge to achieve this aim has shown again and again that there is no strictly materialistic determinism, or any other kind of absolute determinism. The universe is completely indeterminate on the quantum level, more constrained on the organized life plane where evolution primarily occurs but still characterized by surprising novelty, and comparatively very free on the mental plane, until it tries to organize life and body and then is almost totally constrained. Each plane has its laws and limits. And all three levels constantly interact and alternately predominate in the relationship. Each is limited by its vertical relationships to the others and operates horizontally according to the limitations and freedoms of its own principle. None is absolutely either determined or free. Therefore, in philosophy and psychology, the ideas of essence and existence, potential and actual, ideal and real, subconscious-superconscious, have been developed in the 20th Century to encompass the entire breadth and depth of the interactions of the three worlds, whose inner workings are largely unknown and unseen (occult), but whose outer forms and processes are known and theoretically necessary. The rational mind tries to account for the unseen with stable generalizations: the whole being, its form or essence, its potential, its good. As Aristotle said 2000 years ago, what we know about something is what each thing potentially is. The process of its becoming actual constitutes all the dynamics of the space-time physical, vital, mental complex we call Nature. In the end we are left with a very relative kind of understanding of the latter which in itself is ever-changing, which we reduce and enshrine in more or less eternal formulas and symbols, whether scientific or philosophic our abstract and rather superficial ideas which we pretend are unchanging.
  5. When Sri Aurobindo posed this question, Bergson had already published Creative Evolution in which he proposed Consciousness as the absolute principle of existence and lan vital as its corollary to matter - the force that creatively organizes the material world, moving toward intuitive consciousness of the absolute in the material manifestation.18 In itself this now appears to have been an extraordinary leap of insight, whatever its short-comings may be. But his approach was philosophical; on the basis of scientific knowledge combined with metaphysics, he proceeded through a critique of knowledge itself epistemology to an understanding of the evolution of spirit. He determined that the pattern of intellectual abstraction and fixation on stable forms, rather than process, is a limitation that has to be overcome if we are to really understand evolution; another faculty of intuitive knowing has to be evolved. He was followed by Whitehead, who associated himself with Bergsons critique of scientific thought, but developed a more spiritualized version of the world as an organic entity developing in dynamic relationship with an involved superconscient or ideal plane. The resonance between the thinking of these two process philosophers and Sri Aurobindos later philosophy of supra-mental evolution is quite astonishing. What all three attempted was a theory of reality based on the integration of the material and the spiritual planes of existence; Sri Aurobindo went even further and tried to manifest in practice the integral intuition as an evolutionary fact. In this developing world-view, neither matter nor spirit is necessarily privileged; each is a necessity for the other, and true knowledge, true life, and true matter can only be realized through the process of their actual integration in consciousness.


When we survey the field of evolutionary theory from a Darwinian perspective, the picture that emerges is of a vast continuum of life diversifying gradually over an immense span of time. If we concentrate on the similarities of form and structure we tend to arrive at a static conception of species and classes of species of more or less closely related organisms related in terms of genetic structure, organic processes and behaviors, faculties of perception, spatial radiation and temporal succession. At the higher levels of complexity the principles of intelligent behavior are widely shared, and at the very top we are all rational. If we concentrate on the processes of development, the interrelationships of entities and environments, the chemistry and sociology of reproduction, growth and extinction, we arrive at a more dynamic conception of on-going and open-ended change and diversification. Either way, we end with a general conception of identities and differences, of unities and diversities, of essences and existences as dual categories by means of which everything is known and understood.


But then we confront a problem. When we glance from our constructed knowledge back into the worlds of matter, life, and mind in which that knowledge is grounded and which it is supposed to explain, we find that we dont really know very much about what is going on there. The reality is astonishingly different from our well designed conceptions, which are in a sense true, nonetheless. Dogs and horses are intelligent, birds and bees organize their lives, termites process the detritus of forests, but do these facts really tell us anything about the dog or horse whose behavior we admire, or the sensory system of the birds and bees as they confront and shape their world and ours? Do we really know the lion or the giraffe; do we at all grasp the extraordinariness of the phenomenon of sight or of language, beyond their structures and functions, and names, the incredible fact that they exist? The faculties of sense perception - sight, hearing, touch, smell are working in every individual of those tens of thousands of species that we have categorized, right now as we read this, and at every level of the ascending hierarchy of lifes complexity, extending to every habitat on every continent, not the least of which are the diverse human habitats of the present and of many other previous civilizations. The immensity and marvel and incremental dynamic processes of that ubiquitous and intelligent life force, we must admit, are far beyond the grasp of our conceptual generalizations.

Our generalizations may enable us to understand certain patterns, predict certain occurrences, influence certain processes and outcomes, and they may enhance our ability to respect and interact with others in the world of which we are all a part. To the extent that they are true, our conceptions are also for the most part good, which is to say beneficial. We commonly use our knowledge to improve our conditions, or at least we strive to do so, even if it means harming others. And here we may again pause and reflect. For if many of the species of the animal kingdom who are at the top of the food chain are currently in danger with respect to their survival, largely due to our actions, and we know that survival is Natures primary purpose, then how beneficial is our conceptual knowledge, really? Does it enable us, for example, to avoid an impending disaster, to save an endangered species, to understand anothers feelings, to adequately evaluate the plight of those whose survival is currently or soon will be endangered? We know that we are relatively free to understand and to act accordingly, but also that our freedom and understanding are limited by numerous constraints. We do not know how far those limits can be stretched, nor whether our freedom will finally be able to save us.


And it is here that Sri Aurobindo began The Life Divine, as we have seen, and perhaps it is where all philosophy really begins at the boundaries of knowledge. At such a precipice, at times it has become possible for those with a sufficient understanding to be inspired by the theory of evolution, and to see beyond the limitations of mind and its philosophical formulations a ray of real hope. This was clearly the case with both Bergson and Sri Aurobindo:


The whole history of life until man has been that of the effort of consciousness to raise matter, and of the more or less complete overwhelming of consciousness by the matter which has fallen back on it. ...It was to create with matter, which is necessity itself, an instrument of freedom, to make a machine which should triumph over mechanism, and to use the determinism of nature to pass through the meshes of the net which this very determinism had spread. Everywhere but in man, consciousness has had to come to a stand; in man alone it has kept on its way. 19


It has to be noted that the human mind has already shown a capacity to aid Nature in the evolution of new types of plant and animal; it has created new forms of its environment, developed by knowledge and discipline considerable changes in its own mentality. It is not an impossibility that man should aid Nature consciously also in his own spiritual and physical evolution and transformation. The urge to it is already there and partly effective, though still incompletely understood and accepted by the surface mentality; but one day it may understand, go deeper within itself and discover the means, the secret energy, the intended operation of the Consciousness-Force within which is the hidden reality of what we call Nature. 20


1.Without wishing to express a bias toward either of these two authorities and their respective points of view, it may nonetheless be shown that Gould has given a poignant summary of their differences

as he sees them, in an article titled Darwinian Fundamentalism (The New York Review, June 12, 1997), where he writes, A movement of strict constructionism , a self styled-form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology of his compatriot Richard Dawkins Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selections ubiquity. The irony of this situation is twofold. First, Darwin himself strongly opposed the ultras of his own day. Second, the invigoration of modern evolutionary biology with exciting nonselectionist and nonadaptationist data from the three central disciplines of population genetics, developmental biology, and paleontology makes our pre-millenial decade an especially unpropitious time for Darwinian fundamentalism and seems only to reconfirm Darwins own eminently sensible pluralism.

1a. In all fairness, we should point out that each party to this debate derives his position from Darwin: the Dawkins school of thought characterized by gradualism derives from the Darwin who wrote in The Origin of Species, Part Two, concerning the imperfection of the fossil record, If numerous species, belonging to the same genera or families, have really started into life at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of evolution through natural selection. For the development by this means of a group of forms, all of which are descended from one progenitor, must have been an extremely slow process; and the progenitors must have lived long before their modified descendents (6th Ed. p. 83).

1b. Gould uses paleontological evidence to show that many species have in fact rapidly emerged in the fossil record relatively soon after major extinctions, but says that this doesnt contradict the Darwin who wrote, in the conclusion of Origin, I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification (p.303), and Darwin also wrote, apparently in support of the pluralistic stance, It is, however, probablethat the world at a very early period was subjected to more rapid and violent changes in its physical conditions than those now occurring; and such changes would have tended to induce changes at a corresponding rate in the organisms which then existed (p.90). The pattern of such explosions of new species following major extinctions has been amply documented, and provides an important basis for Goulds theory of punctuated equilibrium.

1c. For example, we read in Encyclopedia Britannica,The division of geologic history into a succession of eras and periods is hallmarked by major changes in plant and animal lifethe appearance of new sorts of organisms and the extinction of others. Several mass extinctions have occurred since the Cambrian. The most catastrophic happened at the end of the Permian Period, about 248 million years ago, when 95 percent of species, 82 percent of genera, and 51 percent of families of animals became extinct. Other large mass extinctions occurred at or near the end of the Ordovician (about 440 million years ago, 85 percent of species extinct), Devonian (about 360 million years ago, 83 percent of species extinct), and Triassic (about 210 million years ago, 80 percent of species extinct). Like other mass extinctions, they were followed by the origin or rapid diversification of various kinds of organisms. The first mammals and dinosaurs appeared after the late Permian extinction, and the first vascular plants after the Late Ordovician extinction. (From evolution. (2008). Encyclopdia Britannica. Encyclopdia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopdia Britannica.)

1d. But, as the ultra-Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett stubbornly argues in his book Darwins Dangerous Idea (1995), against the Gould-Chomsky position that language, by virtue of the rather sudden universal appearance of its structures in the human species, along with an equally sudden increase of brain size, may not necessarily be the result of gradual adaptation, No matter how suddenly the punctuation occurred that jogged our ancestors abruptly to the right in Design Space, it was still a gradual design development under the pressure of natural selection unless it was indeed a miracle Here Dennett, in his anti-religious passion, seems to forget that the issue is between gradualism and a relatively sudden process of speciation, not between natural selection and miraculous intervention! In any case, as Herbert Spencer wisely observed more than a century ago, such questions cannot be settled on the basis of either empirical data or logical deduction, which says more about the limitations of our knowledge than about the theory of evolution. If, however, the argument is between the processes of adaptation and natural selection versus the existence of innate structural principles, then as we have seen in the previous discussion of physics, it will in all probability be best resolved if we understand them as necessary complementarities.

2. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (6th ed., 1872), p. 73.

3. Ibid, p. 121-122

4. Occam's razor, also called the law of economy, or law of parsimony, the principle stated by William of Ockham (12851347/49), a scholastic, that Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate; Plurality should not be posited without necessity. The principle gives precedence to simplicity; of two competing theories, the simplest explanation of an entity is to be preferred. The principle is also expressed Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. (From Ockham's razor. (2008). Encyclopdia Britannica. Encyclopdia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopdia Britannica.)

5.Sri Aurobindo, (1st ed. 1971). The Supramental Manifestation and Other Writings (2nd Ed.), p. 138.

6. Ibid, p.320.

7. Ibid, p.320.

8. Ibid, p.316.

9. Ibid. p. 320;

10 John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary, (1999). The Origins of Life, p. 17. In his 1999 book on the origins of life, the British biologist John Maynard Smith gave a compelling analysis of the beginnings of cellular evolution, which features cooperation as an inherent principle of the most basic and original formative structures of life: We think that the first objects with the properties of multiplication, variation, and heredity were replicating molecules, similar to RNA but perhaps simpler, but not informational because they did not specify other structures. If evolution was to proceed further, it was necessary that different kinds of replicating molecule should cooperate, each producing effects helping the replication of others. We argue that, if this was to happen, populations of molecules had to be enclosed within some kind of membrane, or compartment.In existing organisms, replicating molecules, or genes, are linked together end to end to form chromosomes This has the effect that when one gene is replicated, all are. This coordinated replication prevents competition between genes within a compartment, and forces cooperation on them. Richard Dawkins, who follows a similar theoretical path in order to establish a case for a direct causal relationship between the smallest and the largest components of life, from the gene to group behavior, provides a corresponding image of a network of co-dependent life: Loci in germ-line chromosomes are hotly contested territory. the weapons with which they won, and the weapons with which their rivals lost, are their respective phenotypic consequences. These phenotypic consequences are conventionally thought of as being restricted to a small field around the replicator itself, its boundaries being defined by the body wall of the individual organism in whose cells the replicator sits. But the nature of the causal influence of gene on phenotype is such that it makes no sense to think of the field of influence as being limited to intercellular biochemistry. We must think of each replicator as the centre of a field of influence on the world at large. (Richard Dawkins, (1982). The Extended Phenotype, p.237.)

11. Ibid. p. 316

12. Ibid. p. 320

13. the idea that some motivated behaviours are the result of innate programs manifested in the nervous system had been proposed by James and McDougall in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These early instinct approaches fell into disfavour during the 1920s because of their proponents' inability to discriminate between instinctive and learned behaviours and because of the realization that labeling an observed behaviour as instinctive did not explain why the behaviour occurred. In Europe, however, a group of biologists interested in the evolutionary significance of animal behaviours kept the concept alive and continued to study the genetic basis of behaviour. Three of these researchers (the Austrians Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz and the Netherlander Nikolaas Tinbergen) were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 for their work on the subject. They were early entrants in the field of study known as ethology, which studies the behaviour patterns of animals in their natural habitat. Ethologists argue that the evolutionary significance of a particular behaviour can best be understood after a taxonomy of behaviours for that species has been developed as a result of observation in nature. They propose further that the significance of a behaviour is often clearer when observed in the context of other behaviours of that animal. Ethologists use naturalistic observation and field studies as their most common techniques. The research conducted by the ethologists showed that some behaviours of some animal species were released in an automatic and mechanical fashion when conditions were appropriate. These behaviours, known as fixed-action patterns, have several salient characteristics: they are specific to the species under study, occur in a highly similar fashion from one occurrence to the next, and do not appear to be appreciably altered by experience. Furthermore, the stimulus that releases these genetically programmed behaviours is usually highly specific, such as a particular colour, shape, or sound. Such stimuli are termed key stimuli or sign stimuli and when provided by a conspecific organism (a member of the same species) are known as social releasers. (From motivation. (2008). Encyclopdia Britannica. Encyclopdia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopdia Britannica.)

14. Op. cit. Sri Aurobindo, p. 320

15. Ibid., p. 318. This discussion of materialism and the unmanifest has to be elucidated by the Platonic and Medieval notions of the Idea (eidos) and the appearance (phaneros), or the temporal/actual and the eternal/potential aspects of reality. See: Marcuse (1968), Concept of essence in Negations for a detailed discussion of the evolution of this concept of Being, from Platonism through Phenomenology to Materialism.

16. Ibid., p. 317. This essay on Evolution provides the basis for a philosophical departure toward the thought of Bergson and Whitehead, the former vitalistic and the latter mentalistic elaborations of the philosophy of evolution, necessary steps toward the transition to a spiritual philosophy. Each one influences, qualifies, and attempts to elevate the pull toward a purely materialistic interpretation of the processes of nature.

17. The philosopher Jacques Derrida (L'criture et la diffrance [1967; Writing and Difference]) contributed to (20th Century philosophy) his poststructuralist project to deconstruct the binary structures of thinking on which Western culture appeared to be based and to expose the hierarchies of power sustained by such simple oppositions as the favouring of speech over writing or masculine over feminine. Derrida challenged the conventional cultural markers of authority, attacking logocentrism (the belief in the existence of a foundational absolute word or reality) and phonocentrism (lodging authenticity and truth in the voice of the speaker). (From:"French literature." (2008) Encyclopdia Britannica from Encyclopdia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite)

18. As we shall see, there is much in Bergsons Creatve Evolution that anticipates Sri Aurobindos general point of view, and that may well have provided the latter with a starting point for the elaboration of his own theory. For example, in the commentary on Heredity quoted here from the essay Evolution, Sri Aurobindo uses language and observations almost identical to Bergsons when he wrote: After having been affirmed as a dogma, the transmissibility of acquired characters has been no less dogmatically denied, for reasons drawn a priori from the supposed nature of germinal cells. But if, perchance, experiment should show that acquired characters are transmissible, it would prove thereby that the germ-plasm is not so independent of the somatic envelope as has been contended, and the transmissibility of acquired characters would become ipso facto conceivable But it is just here that the difficulty begins. The acquired chracters we are speaking of are generally habits or the effects of habit, and at the root of most habits there is a natural disposition. So that one can always ask whether it is really the habit acquires by the soma of the individual that is transmitted, or whether it is not rather a natural aptitude, which existed prior to the habit. (Eng.ed.1911, p. 78-79)

19. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (Eng. ed. 1911), p. 264,266.

20. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, (1st ed. 1939-40/) p. 844.