EcoMaterialisms: Bichat and Lamarck


This week’s EMC meeting was on Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). It was also my week to present and I had a lot of fun with these texts, building on our conversations from previous classes and trying to draw some connections to last year’s discussions.

Bichat: Physiological Researches upon Life and Death (1800)

Lamarck: Zoological Philosophy: Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals (1809)

Starting Points:     

  • Reiterating a Critique of Foucault
  • Organized and Brute Matter vs. Living and Dead Matter
  • Physical and Vital Forces: Lamarck vs. Buffon and Bichat
  • Living Bodies and their States: First Proposition
  • Living Bodies and their States: Second Proposition
  • Reactive Power vs. Intussusception

Reiterating a Critique of Foucault

I’d like to briefly return to the inadequacy I found last week in Foucault’s understanding of natural history in the classical age as “nothing more than the nomination of the visible” (Order of Things, 132). I suggested that, while Foucault argues that natural history limited itself to the surfaces of the visible, emptied of all but their most abstract qualities (i.e. lines, surfaces, forms, and reliefs), in Buffon and Maupertuis, at least, phenomenologically perceivable bodies were but the starting points for metaphysical-ontological speculation into the conditions of possibility for those bodies – and that categories and concepts like the interior mold and organic molecules are devices for thinking about those conditions.

I want to reiterate this point as we begin to discuss Bichat and Lamarck. At the beginning of chapter seven of part one, Bichat criticizes a number of physicians for proceeding from metaphysical suppositions to observable bodies, in favor of proceeding from observable bodies to metaphysical speculation. He writes, “Without the knowledge of the principle of life, cannot we analyze its properties? In the study of animals let us proceed as modern metaphysicians have done in that of the understanding. Let us suppose causes, and attach ourselves to their general results” (77). And Lamarck argues that what has so far limited natural science is the tendency to remain at the level of visible bodies. He writes,

This would, however, not really be a drawback for natural science, were it not for the steady refusal to see in the observed objects anything besides their form, dimensions, external parts, color, etc., but those who give themselves up to such a study are contemptuous of the higher ideals, such as the inquiry into the nature of the objects which occupy them, into the causes of the modification or variations which these objects undergo, and into the relations of these same objects with each other and with all other know objects, etc. etc. (Lamarck 14).

And later:

It is no doubt a very important matter to inquire into the nature of what is called life in a body; what are the conditions of organization necessary for its existence; what is the origin of that remarkable force which gives rise to vital movements so long as the state of organization allows; lastly, how the various phenomena resulting from the continued presence of life in a body may achieve their result and endow this body with the faculties observed in it. (Lamarck, 184).

Further, Lamarck suggests, this is the most difficult question: more difficult than the objects of physics, is the task of solving “the problem of the origin of life in the bodies possessing it, and, consequently, of the origin and production of the various existing living bodies” (184).

Organized and Brute Matter vs. Living and Dead Matter

To work through another thread from last week, we ended with the question of where minerals fit into Buffon’s ontology. This question was provoked by the following passage:

Instead of dividing matter into organized and brute matter, the general division ought to be into living and dead matter. That brute matter is nothing but matter produced by the death of animals and vegetables, might be proven from the enormous quanties of shells, and other relics of living bodies, which constitute the principal parts of stones, marbles, clays, marles, earths, turfs, and other substances that are commonly reckoned brute matter, but are, in reality, composed of decayed animals and vegetables. (Buffon 36).

Furthermore, Buffon argues, this position is illustrated by Nature’s facility and activity in the production of organized, i.e. living, bodies, the destruction of which is simply the disaggregation of their respective molecules. And, Buffon, writes, “These particles continue separate till they be again unified by some active power” (38).

According to Guido Giglioni, this view was actually quite common as Lamarck, drawing from Buffon and others, argued in his book Hydrogeology that, “Without exception the raw compounds which form most of the earth’s external crust and continuously modify it through their changes result from the remains and residues of living organisms” (91). And in his System of Invertebrate Animals, Lamarck argues that, “what people do know even less is that these [living beings], through their remains, give rise to all the bodies compounded of brute matter that we see in nature” (70). And in Zoological Philosophy, he writes,

I shall again repeat that if it is true, as can hardly be doubted, that all compound mineral substances such as earths and rocks, and all metallic, sulphurous, bituminous, saline substances, etc., arise from the remains of living bodies, — remains which have undergone successive decompositions on and under the surface of the earth and waters; it is equally true to say that living bodies are the original source from which all known compound substances have arisen. (Lamarck 258).

Giglioni suggests that it is safe to say that according to Lamarck’s chemical and geological views, no specific force could produce inorganic substances. Therefore, it must be the slow, incessant breakdown of organic bodies that is behind the formation of inorganic elements and minerals. Giglioni writes,

While organic beings were described in terms of self-replicating structures, inorganic substances were seen as the result of slowly decaying living bodies. Contrary to some contemporary mineralogists, Lamarck claimed that there could be no original natural matter. Limestone, for instance, was the result of innumerable superimposed generations of dead coral polyps, millepores, madrepores, astroites and other organisms…Far from looking at matter as a living structure…Lamarck understood the material universe as an inherently self-decomposing and decaying system in constant need of external stimuli to preserve movement and life. (Giglioni 43).[1]

Physical and Vital Forces: Lamarck vs. Buffon and Bichat

        However, before turning to the dynamic interrelation of Life and Death in both Lamarck and Bichat, I want to, yet again, return to another question from last week: the construction of special laws and forces for understanding the processes inherent to living bodies. This question arose in our discussion of Buffon’s interior molds and its analogical relation to gravity. He writes,

It is apparent…that powers exist in Nature, like that of gravity, which affect the most internal parts of matter, without having the smallest relation to its external qualities. These powers…are beyond the reach of our sense; because their action is exerted upon the intimate structure of bodies. It is evident, therefore, that we can never obtain a clear idea of them, nor of their mode of acting. Their existence, however, is not less certain, than that, by means of them, most natural effects are produced, especially those of nutrition and expansion, which must be owing to a cause that penetrates the most intimate recesses of the original moulds; for, in the same manner as gravity pervades the whole parts of matter, the power which pushes forward or attracts the organic particles of food, penetrates the internal parts of organized bodies. (Buffon 42-43; my emphasis).

Paul Farber, in his essay “Buffon and the Concept of Species,” notes Buffon’s desire to take up Newton’s suggestion that other classes of forces could be introduced into the explanation of nature. Farber writes,

The interior mold resembled gravity in the sense that both forces were revealed only through their effects, and that their causes were not known. The functions that they performed, however, were radically different. Newton had written of gravity as a universal force, one common to all matter, and, in principle, a measure of its mass; whereas Buffon described the interior mold as a collection of individual forces, influencing some organic molecules and not others. The mode by which the two forces organized matter also differed. Gravity was a universal property of all matter which acted uniformly, in contrast with the interior mold, which was a teleological force that arranged organic matter according to an intrinsic plan. (Farber 264).

In chapter seven of part one, under the heading “Difference Between Vital Power and Physical Law,” Bichat, too, the powers of life as exceeding, and, in fact, distinct from physical laws. He writes,

In considering the powers of life, we shall perceive in the first place a remarkable difference between them and the laws of physics. The first incessantly vary in their intensity, in their energy, in their development, are continually passing from the last degree of prostration, to the highest pitch of exaltation, and assume under their influence of the most trifling causes a thousand modifications…On the contrary the physical laws are invariable, the same at all times, and the source of a series of phenomena at all times similar. (Bichat 77-78).

At stake here, it seems, is the familiar anxiety over a method and/or theory which would reduce organisms, in particular, and life, in general, to their physical-chemical components; and vital powers serve the function of insuring against such reductions as the “instability of the vital powers, this disposition, which they continually have to change, impress upon all the physiological phenomena a character of irregularity which particularly distinguishes them from those of physics” (Bichat 78).

Lamarck, however, won’t have any truck with the creation of special laws for understanding living bodies: “in order to bring this vital force into existence,” Lamarck writes, “and endow it with its recognized properties, nature has no need of special laws; those which control all other bodies are amply sufficient for the purpose” (251). And the advertisement for Bichat’s French editor, funny enough, notes a similar problem in which critics have “regretted that [Bichat] constantly placed life in opposition to physical laws, as if living beings were not bodies before they were vegetables or animals” (v). What’s at stake here is the affirmation of an immanent field of forces and relations, while elaborating the differences in how this field operates on different bodies:

This course of study however is very different from that which has hitherto occupied the attention of savants; they had observed that the results of the laws of nature in living bodies were quite different from those produced in lifeless bodies, and they attributed these curious facts observed in the former to special laws, although in reality they are only due to the difference of the conditions between these bodies and in bodies that are destitute of life. They did not see that the nature of living bodies, that is, the state and order of things which produce life in them, give to the laws which regulate them a special direction, strength and properties that they cannot have in lifeless bodies; so that, by their omission to reflect that one and the same cause necessarily has varied effects when it acts upon objects of different nature and in different conditions, they have adopted for the explanation of the observed facts a route altogether opposite from what they out to have followed. (Lamarck 249).

Living Bodies and their States: First Proposition

I want to focus, separately, on the two parts of the passage I’ve underlined and I want to come around to some preliminary connections to Henri Bergson’s elaboration of élan vital in Creative Evolution (1907) – and not because these connections are well thought out, but because I find them interesting. The first proposition is that the “state” and “order of things” of a living body “give to the laws which regulate them a special direction, strength and [property]” (Lamarck 250). This is, I think, absolutely essential to understanding the dynamic interplay between interior and exterior in Lamarck’s ontology as well as his understandings of life and determination. Defining active life Lamarck writes,

Whatever may be the state of organization of a body and of its essential fluids, active life could assuredly not exist in that body without a special cause capable of exciting its vital movements…it can no longer be doubted that this cause which animates living bodies is to be found in the environment of those bodies, and thus varies in intensity according to places, seasons, and climates. It is in no way dependent on the bodies which it animates, it exists before they do and remains after they have been destroyed. Lastly, it stimulates in them the movements of life, so long as the state of these bodies allows; and it ceases to animate them when that state opposes obstacles to the performance of the movements which it stimulates. (Lamarck 186; my emphasis).

Active life is, therefore, an impersonal vital force found in the environment of a living body, yet immanent to the physical laws affecting all bodies. Furthermore, this force does not have an infinite degree of freedom that would allow for the total determination of that body (i.e. the exterior does not fully determine the interior): it must negotiate with the body’s state and order of things, animating it so long as the body’s state allows, ceasing to animate when it does not. Moreover, this active life is “a power which is incessantly forming combinations, increasing their complexity and adding new principles to them, according as the circumstances are favorable” (253).

Elaborating upon his own impersonal vital force, élan vital, Bergson strikes an uncanny Lamarckian chord in highlighting how this force is both (1) “at the mercy of the materiality which it has had to assume” (141), while (2) striving toward infinitely varied expressions of work. He writes,

[A]ll life, animal and vegetable, seems in its essence like an effort to accumulate energy and then to let it flow into flexible channels, changeable in shape, at the end of which it will accomplish infinitely varied kinds of work. That is what the vital impetus, passing through matter, would fain do all at once. It would succeed, no doubt, if its power were unlimited, or if some reinforcement could come to it from without. But the impetus is finite, and it has been given once and for all. It cannot overcome all obstacles. The movement it starts is sometimes turned aside, sometimes divided, always opposed; and the evolution of the organized world is the unrolling of this conflict…Of themselves, therefore, and without any external intervention, simply by the effect of the duality of the tendency involved in the original impetus and of the resistance opposed by matter to this impetus, the organisms leaned some in the first direction [i.e. of the plant], others in the second [i.e. of the animal]. (Bergson 277).

While the connection between Lamarck and Bergson is, to me, simply interesting, it also effectively raises the question of a tension that exists in Lamarck’s work between organic development as a serial and mechanical succession of states and an at least marginally indeterminate futurity of the organism. And I’ll cite Bergson once more when he writes, “the role of life is to insert some indetermination into matter. Indeterminate, i.e. unforeseeable, are the forms it creates in the course of its evolution. More and more indeterminate, also, more and more free, is the activity to which these forms serve as the vehicle. A nervous system…is a veritable reservoir of indetermination” (139-140).

Living Bodies and their States: Second Proposition

Let’s turn, now, to the second proposition that “one and the same cause necessarily has varied effects when it acts upon objects of different nature and in different conditions” (250). Whereas the first proposition was essential to Lamarck’s understanding of interior/exterior, life, and determination, this second proposition, I would suggest, is essential to understanding that, contra gradation theories organismic faculties (i.e. that the faculties of irritability, sensibility, feeling, etc., were diffused throughout the world, just in varying degrees), “Lamarck’s theory of evolution does not assume one continuum of life, but a plurality of developments, each independent of one another” (Giglioni 40). That is, Lamarck’s evolutionism is a difference not in degree, but in kind, and it is the “state” and “order” of the kinds of faculties which are or are not possible:

I venture to affirm that grave injury results to the progress of physiological knowledge by the thoughtless supposition that all animals without exception possess the same organs and enjoy the same faculties; as though nature were everywhere forced to employ the same methods to attain her end. (Lamarck 189).

[B]etween crude or inorganic bodies and living bodies there exists an immense difference, a great hiatus, in short, a radical distinction such that no inorganic body whatever can even be approached by the simplest of living bodies. Life and its constituents in a body make the fundamental difference that distinguishes this body from all those that were without it. (Lamarck 194).

[I]rritability is faculty peculiar to animals; that all animals possess it in a high degree in some or all of their parts and that an energetic orgasm is the source of it: we see moreover that this faculty is entirely distinct from that of feeling; that the one is of very different character from the other, and that since feeling can only result from the functions of a nervous system provided as I have show with its center of communication, it only occurs in those animals which possess the required system of organs. (Lamarck 229).

Lamarck moves from a general critique of gradationism, to the great hiatus between organic and inorganic bodies, to his consummate argument that organismic faculties, and the peculiar nature of those faculties, depend upon and are determined by the structure of the organism (e.g. whether the living body has a functioning central nervous system). Giglioni suggests that Lamarck “used the distinction between orgasm, irritability and sensibility to shed light on the principal bifurcations in the physical universe, pointing, on the one hand, to the two mains kinds of organic life (plants and animals), and on the other, to the distinction between inorganic (dead) and organic (living) bodies” (40).

More interesting than the traditional “difference of kinds,” however, I think what we have here is a tension between both the generalization and the radical singularizaiton of organismic structure-faculty (i.e. generality: all Organisms X have Structure Y; therefore, they all share in a general Faculty Y; singularity: no such formula could be proposed in advance). Further, there’s something here about tendency.

Working against the influence of mathematical and statistical methods in the life sciences, Bergson revisits the question of the distinction to be drawn between the plant and animal kingdoms. Biologists have called the distinction artificial, he suggests, because “there is not a single property of vegetable life that is not found, in some degree, in certain animals” and vice versa (Bergson 117). He writes:

There is no manifestation of life which does not contain, in a rudimentary state –  either latent or potential,– the essential characters of most other manifestations. The difference is in the proportions. But this very difference of proportion will suffice to define the group, if we can establish that it is not accidental, and that the group, as it evolves, tends more and more to emphasize these particular characters. In a word, the group must not be defined by the possession of certain characters, but by its tendency to emphasize them. From this point of view, taking tendencies rather than states into account, we find that vegetables and animals may be precisely defined and distinguished, and that they correspond to two divergent developments of life. (Bergson 118).


When a tendency splits up in the course of its development, each of the special tendencies which thus arise tries to preserve and develop everything in the primitive tendency that is not incompatible with the work for which it is specialized. (Bergson 132).

What both Lamarck and Bergson seem to be working out – even if in very different, and perhaps unsatisfying, ways – is the singularity of a structure’s relationship to active life and its capacities and tendencies towards expression in a living body (e.g. in the development of the faculty of ‘feeling’ in the more complex animals). Deleuze, in his essay “Bergson 1859-1941” in Two Regimes of Madness, writes the following:

[T]o the extent that we find ourselves before products, to the extent that the things with which we are concerned are still results, we cannot grasp differences of nature for the simple reason that there aren’t any there: between two things, between two products, there are only and there only could be differences of degree, of proportion. What differs in nature is never a thing, but a tendency. A difference of nature is never between two products or between two things, but in one and the same thing between the two tendencies that traverse it, in one and the same product between two tendencies that encounter one another in it. Indeed, what is pure is never the thing; the thing is always a composite that must be dissociated; only the tendency is pure, which is to say that the true thing or the substance is the tendency itself. (Deleuze 26).

The singularity of a structure, moreover, is historical; it is durational and, as such, reveals itself in process, constituted in space as a this, but only for a certain amount of time.

Reactive Power vs. Intussusception

I want to conclude with a few of Giglioni’s observations on the dynamic between Life and Death in Lamarck’s works – in which we touch upon another theme from last week, the trace of death in life. He writes:

In his chemical, geological, botanical and zoological views, Lamarck advocated a theory of decaying matter rather than living matter. He characterized orgasm, irritability and sensibility – the forms which life takes on in the physical universe – as momentary interruptions of nature’s ordinary course toward death and destruction. (Giglioni, 19).

Far from looking at matter as a living structure…Lamarck understood the material universe as an inherently self-decomposing and decaying system in constant need of external stimuli to preserve movement and life. (Giglioni 43).

What is intrinsic is the tendency manifested by organic structure to undergo processes of breakup and disintegration –  in a word, a tendency to death. (Giglioni 44).

[I]f this is the case, another ontological priority – certainly a more disquieting one – looms large in Lamarck’s natural philosophy: in the material universe, death appears to be more original than life…death becomes the most natural tendency in the universe (a tendency towards entropic stability), while life is an accidental and temporary deferral of inevitable decay. Life comes from without in the form of an excitatory stimulus and death from within as a return to the original order of things. This means that an unrestrainable tendency to decomposition and death permeates matters and is just postponed by the interplay of excitement and reaction, so much so that it is not unreasonable to define life as an accident which prevents the whole cosmos from collapsing into a state of inertia and immutability. (Giglioni 45).

Death as ontologically prior; life as an accidental and temporary deferral of inevitable decay, a return to the original order of things (and I think we could turn to the Freud-Lacan-Žižek nexus mentioned last week): I think this is a point on which Lamarck and Bichat agree. Writing on Bichat in the EMC collective google doc, Shyam notes:

[I]t’s true, [Bichat] draws a very conventional distinction between the ‘vitality’ found in vegetative functions like breathing, circulation, digestion, growth, etc. (‘organic life’) and the vitality found in higher-order functions like motor-sensory activity and intellection (‘animal life’).  But, in doing so within the individual organism (and in particular, the human organism), he adds gradation to the individual’s ‘life’: or phrased better, he makes it so that ‘life’ is not even the property or domain of the individual at all, but rather the property and domain of the component tissues and organs.  He insists therefore that the ‘organic life’ of an organism that is as complex and vital as the human being actually outstrips the ‘life’ that ends with the ‘death’ of that organism: for example, even after you die, your hair and nails continue to grow, and even your heart and intestines and the like continue to operate for some hours or days.

The point is that life is no longer ‘imprisoned’ within the organism (i.e. the individual organism is no longer the ‘atom’ of biology, the most irreducible ‘unit’ of life). (Shyam Google Doc: 10/10/15).

For Lamarck as well, life, as I’ve tried to show, is “in no way dependent on the bodies which it animates, it exists before they do and remains after they have been destroyed” (186). How Lamarck and Bichat understand the placement of the organism within this dynamic, I would suggest, makes all the difference.

For Bichat:

Life consists in the sum of the functions, by which death is resisted.

In living bodies, such in fact is the mode of existence, that whatever surrounds them, tends to their destruction. They are influenced incessantly by inorganic bodies; they exercise themselves the one upon the other, as constant an action; under such circumstances they could not long subsist, were they not possessed in themselves of a permanent principle of reaction. This principle is that of life; unknown in its nature, it can only be appreciated by its phenomena: an habitual alternation of action and reaction between exterior bodies, and the living body, an alternation, of which the proportions vary according to the age of the latter, is the most general of these phenomena. (Bichat 10-11).

Bichat’s reactive principle is a negative relationship in which the organism maintains its coherence and integrity through its vital capacities to exclude those inorganic bodies tending towards the organism’s destruction.

On the other hand, Lamarck’s concept of intussusception – a concept borrowed and repurposed from the medical sciences of his time – indicates a world in which environment and organism are in direct and constant interrelation (I think Stacy Alaimo’s concept of transcorporeality would be helpful here); where the vital force can be seen as the progressive internalization of external stimuli; a process through which the environment is transposed and recreated within the organism itself (Giglioni 23). Contra Bichat, Lamarck’s environment, with its subtle fluids, fosters the vital reactivity of nature. “Life is not hindered by, but appropriated from the environment” (Giglioni 25).

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