Natural History and the Question of ‘The Organism’ [Presentation]

I presented this paper at the “Abstraction” graduate conference at UC Irvine last March. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint that went along with it:

What I would like to do today is trace a line of thought from the 18th century Natural History of Pierre Maupertuis and the Comte de Buffon on the one hand, and the 19th century Biology of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck on the other; and I do so aware of Foucault’s argument in The Order of Things that such an exercise is a waste of time. His reason is this: for Natural History, ‘Life’ does not yet exist as an analytic, only ‘living beings’ distributed across a non-temporal and homogenous surface orderable according to their identities and differences. At the beginning of the 19th century, with the emergence of Biology, this surface begins to be dissociated and an opposition arises: differences proliferate on the surface while, deeper down, they begin to fade, merge, and mingle in that invisible focal unity called ‘Life’, from which the multiple derives. For Natural History, order is the given and difference is what must be explained; for Biology, difference is the given and order is what must be explained; and between the two is what Foucault describes as ‘an essential rupture’.

Put another way: grounded in the depth of Life, Biology implies genetically linking differences through anatomical disarticulation; grounded in a somatic phenomenology and metaphysics of recognizable forms, Natural history entails taxonomy, the cataloguing of identities and differences of a given, ordered surface. These are the grounds on which Foucault claims that, “Natural history is nothing more than the nomination of the visible.” He is sure to tell us that of course, when we look at Natural History, there are a diversity of inquiries other than attempts at classification; and of course there are many kinds of analysis other than that of identities and differences; but these singular and divergent projects are nonetheless structured by the same historical a priori, the non-temporal, homogenous surface across which living beings are distributed.

Well, at the risk of wasting time, I want to trace this line of thought anyway, and I want to do so through what might be called “the question of the organism”; that is, the question of how an organized body comes to be, a central concern to all three of our authors. My purpose is not so much to claim that Foucault is wrong, only to see if we might ask a different set of questions about these thinkers; questions I will elaborate in my conclusion, but which can be prefaced as questions directed at the emerging fields of neo- and eco-materialism and the theoretical analytic of ‘Life’.

Maupertuis published The Earthly Venus anonymously in 1745 with the intention of developing a materialist explanation of organic reproduction and generation. He did so through the production of a bi-parental model of heredity that effectively displaced the theory of preformation, the then dominant explanation of embryogenesis. Preformationists maintained a number of theoretical commitments, including: (1) the organism is already fully formed within the embryo; (2) embryonic development is the simple enlargement or unfolding of that organism, rather than a novel formation; (3) the process of development can then be defined quantitatively; and (4) the embryo originates from the mixture of seminal fluids given off by both sexes (what was known as the ‘double semence theory’). On the matter of (4), however, preformationists were split between the ovists and the spermists; specifically, on where they located the generative force of embryonic development. For the spermists, the animalcule was located in the sperm and the female seminal fluid provided the material conditions of development. For the ovists, the animalcule was located in the egg, its unfolding catalyzed by the seminal fluid supplied by the male. The former locates the agent responsible for an infinite number of generations carried on from father to father, the latter from mother to mother.

To both, Maupertuis poses two seemingly simple questions: “If the fetus were just the vermicule swimming in the seminal fluid of the father, why would he at times resemble the mother? If he were nothing but the mother’s egg, what would his face have in common with his father’s?” Through the empirical observation that offspring display traits of both parents, Maupertuis’ critique exposes a logic of non-differential repetition at the base of the two mono-parental models. The problems of organic generation and reproduction not only remain, he argues, but becomes even more obscure if we assume that an organism is already formed within either the first mother or father of a species, rather than produced successively through the mutual influences of both sexes.

The mono-parental model of preformation supplanted, Maupertuis begins to outline the conditions through which bi-parental heredity might be possible. His first move is to rework the double semence theory: seminal fluid is no longer understood to be homogenous, but rather corpuscular, composed of what he called ‘seminal seeds’, particles destined to form the heart, the head, the entrails, the arms and legs, etc. Yet, Maupertuis must be able to explain how these parts come together to form the organism; that is, contra Foucault, the problem is how something like order appears. Interestingly, to address this problem Maupertuis turns to 18th century analyses in chemistry of chemical substances and their respective tendencies towards repulsion and/or attraction with each other. He writes, “These relations mean that whenever two substances have a tendency to join each other, they become united, and if a third substance arises that seems to have a stronger attraction, it unites with that one, causing the other to let go.” If such a cohesive force exists in Nature, Maupertuis argues, then there is no reason to assume it does not play a role in the formation of the embryo. It is important to note, therefore, that not only is ‘order’ the problem here, but that this problem leads Maupertuis from a substance- to a force-based ontology of relation.

This model of organic generation and reproduction would have a significant impact on Buffon. In the second of his thirty-six-volume encyclopedia, Natural History, General and Particular, Buffon takes up these questions at length. Published in 1749, just five years after Maupertuis’ treatise, volume two opens with remarks on the complexity inherent to the small portion of matter of which the living body is composed and the wonder provoked as a result of the observer’s incapacity to have complete knowledge of a living body’s complex interrelations of combination, arrangement, cause, effect, and principle. But this isn’t even the coolest part, Buffon tells us! He writes,

[T]he greatest miracle is not exhibited in the individual. It is in the successive renovation, and in the continued duration of the species, that Nature assumes an aspect altogether inconceivable and astonishing. This faculty of reproduction, which is peculiar to animals and vegetables; this species of unity which always subsists, and seems to be eternal; this generative power, which is perpetually in action, must, with regard to us, continue to be a mystery so profound, that we shall probably never reach its bottom. (2-3)

We might be tempted, as many have been, to read this passage as evidence of Buffon’s affirmation of fixed, eternal species. It is important, however, that we pay attention to his coordination of renovation, duration, and subsistence, an appearance of being eternal to the finite observer. In the context of his larger project, ‘species’ is not for Buffon an essence or entelechy, but a statistical coherence, a recognizable form in the constant succession of organisms through time. This is where we see Maupertuis’ contribution to Buffon’s work because in order to understand this coherence, Buffon constructs two concepts: ‘organic particles’ and the ‘interior mold’.

Both concepts help Buffon understand the methods employed by ‘Nature’ in the renovation and transmission of organized existences. The simplest of Nature’s methods, he claims, is to assemble in one body an infinite number of organic particles, perfectly similar in figure and substance, to the whole of that body of which they are constituent parts. Put another way, and to connect to Maupertuis’ ‘seminal seeds’, an organism just is a particular arrangement of organic particles, which are themselves singular corpuscles or, better, monads of a substance entirely immanent to itself. Again, in this swarm of organic particles that Nature is, Buffon must be able to explain how these particles are arranged in such a way that something like form appears; and he does so through his concept of the interior mold, a concept that, in effect, names Maupertuis’ cohesive force.

The interior mold penetrates the most intimate structures of living matter, Buffon argues, effectively concentrating, distributing, and facilitating the organic particles that constitute the form of an organism’s body. Linked to his notion of ‘species’, and therefore neither an essence nor an entelechy, the interior mold indicates a statistical coherence of form through time, a means by which the natural historian can trace genetic links between individuals through a tendency that is thoroughly historical. The difference is small, but significant: ‘species’ as an abstract form that determines particular organic instantiations versus an abstract lure around which organic particles may come to cohere; the former a static and eternal entity, the latter a dynamic and historical process of emergence. Finally, Buffon suggests that the interior mold is a force relative to gravity in at least two ways: first, it is a force beyond the reach of the senses, acting as it does on the interior structures of living matter; second, and related to the first, one can only measure the force of the interior mold by the effects it produces, i.e. the appearance of form. The difference, however, is that while gravity affects physical bodies in general, the interior mold is specific to living matter.

We should keep this last point in mind as we turn to Lamarck, but first a comment: both Maupertuis and Buffon begin their meditations with the claim that they do not approach their audiences as metaphysicians, but as anatomists. However, if we take this rhetorical gesture seriously, we would nonetheless have to insist that they are anatomists of the virtual, that is, of the actualizable and differenciating agencies beneath phenomenologically perceivable bodies. While both begin on the order of the perceptible, where Foucault would have them, they, in the same moment, shift to the register of the imperceptible to trace the conditions of possibility for the former. On this account, Maupertuis and Buffon appear much closer to nonlinear models of population dynamics in contemporary biology than to the taxonomy of, for example, Linnaeus. Using similar analytics of ‘attraction’ and ‘tendency’, these models track how such forces bring singular particles to cohere. As with our natural historians, a ‘species’ or an organism is not defined by essential traits, but by the morphogenetic processes that give rise to it. If we can make this connection, it is not impossible that we might consider the relation between Maupertuis and Buffon with Lamarck.

Returning to Buffon’s distinction between gravity and the interior mold. The positing of a ‘special law’ for living beings was and continues to be a familiar theoretical gesture; an attempt to establish independence from the hegemony of physics and chemistry and attendant forms of physicalist reductionism and causal determinism. The intervention of Lamarck’s 1809 treatise Zoological Philosophy is the claim that such a need hinges on an impoverished understanding of both matter and force as well as, and perhaps more importantly, the relation between them. Writing of the proto-vitalist tendency to establish such special laws, Lamarck writes,

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 ought to have followed. (249; emphasis added)

In Buffon, matter is configured as an accessory, rather than a principle, in the organization of the living body; that is, the interior mold is that which concentrates, distributes, and facilitates matter into particular arrangements. In Lamarck, on the other hand, the material arrangement of a body matters as to which forces it is capable of internalizing or, to use Lamarck’s term, intussuscepting; a process in which those forces are transposed and recreated within the material arrangement itself. In Buffon, the death of an organism or species is the result of a weakening of the interior mold’s capacity to maintain coherence, leading to the disaggregation of a body’s organic particles. In Lamarck, it is an enervation and crisis of a relation between a material arrangement and particular forces in its environment.

Lamarck’s intervention interests me for two reasons, which I will state briefly before elaborating upon their importance for the emerging fields of neo- and eco-materialism and the theoretical analytic of ‘Life’ so commonly invoked. First, in his configuration of the force-matter relation, Lamarck develops a model of nonlinear causality that maintains indeterminacy within material arrangements in general, whether understood as ‘living’ or ‘non-living’. Second, in his rejection of a life principle specific to living matter, Lamarck makes all forces immanent to a single field, what he calls ‘the environment’, and yet maintains a pluralist ontology of force. In fact, throughout his work, Lamarck repeats the claim that we do not yet know, nor might we ever know, all of the forces distributed within an environment.

In our three authors, we have seen an interesting set of questions revolving the relations between ‘the empirical’ and ‘the speculative’, difference and identity, the perceptible and the imperceptible, and so on. These are all central questions to those working with and in the neo- and eco-materialisms. However, what have also been imported, too often uncritically, are particular organicist configurations of ‘Life’ that coordinate and privilege vitality over enervation, power and affectivity over exhaustion and endurance, and interrelation and interconnection over dis-relation and disconnection; the latter terms being the double of Life, i.e. ‘Non-Life’. Reading Lamarck’s intervention into the work of Maupertuis and, specifically, Buffon helps to reveal that the analytic of ‘Life’, as well as its attendant coordinates, expresses at least three things: (1) [Rei Terada] that such “ontological yearning can perpetuate infantile and/or masculinst wishes for invulnerability”; (2) that such ontological work has, in large part, been what Beth Povinelli describes as ‘biontology’, a regional plane of existence that has been transformed into a global arrangement, thereby obscuring and naturalizing the particular scale at which it is working; (3) that ‘Life’ is entirely arbitrary and, therefore, an open question for such work.

To conclude, I want to end with one more potential opened up by Lamarck’s work and that is the collaboration it makes possible between the Humanities and Social Sciences, on the one hand, and the Sciences on the other. In shifting the focus of analysis to the relation between the material arrangement of bodies and the forces that circulate within the environments of those bodies, and by leaving the relevant forces to be analyzed open, Lamarck leaves us to suggest that this is exactly what those of us here do, if only in part: we measure or, perhaps better, trace the effects of forces like power, discourse, racism, colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial arrangements, normativity, anthropocentrism, and so on, on particular material arrangements we call bodies. Where the public health sciences might help us to understand one dimension of the dumping of toxic waste or of ‘food deserts’ on particular low-income and racialized bodies, we can supplement such data with an analysis of the dimensions of power which constitute that relation, using analytics like ‘exhaustion’ and ‘endurance’ to understand what it means to maintain coherence in the context of late liberalism.

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