Creationalism in a new key

Martin Helick (cf059@FreeNet.Carleton.CA)
Wed, 19 Jul 1995 16:14:18 GMT


A Biological Metaphor

(From: "Thoughts at Mid-Century" by R. Martin Helick)

One of the more unfortunate side-effects of Victorian
determinism was the Darwinian hypothesis that evolution is
an eternal battlefield with the vanquished condemned to
oblivion, the victor made to endure further challenge until
it too will have been swept away. Far more elegant, far more
satisfying to the spirit but alas, far too epic for easy
acceptance was Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution and his
thesis that however violent and brutal the evolutionary
process may be, it is in its essence creative rather than
discriminatory, its function something other than to purge
the world of the helpless and the unfit.

In the course of his discussion, he made some interesting
observations about the generic differences between vegetable
and animal life. He began with the now-familiar assumption
that evolution, however we choose to define it, had its
beginning in a proto-organic form so elemental that only be-
cause it had the power to reproduce itself could it be said
to be alive. The exact characteristics of this primordial
organism are of course unknown; we can only say that it was
something far less complex than the simplest unicellular
plant or animal known to us today, quite possibly nothing
more than a fortuitous array of molecules.

After millions upon millions of years, this sub-life evolved
into organisms with recognizable morphologies. They were
undoubtedly autotropic, taking their sustenance directly
from their environment; there was as yet no chlorophyl to
synthesize starches and cellulose, possibly neither proteins
nor amino acids, possibly not even a carbon base. As time
went on and survival mechanisms became more refined, the
evolutionary impulse or, as Bergson put it, l'elan vital,
underwent a scission, splitting into two divergent paths,
creating in the one, organisms that we now define as vege-
table, in the other, organisms that we define as animal.

Today, the distinction between vegetable and animal forms is
obvious. An animal has mobility; an animal has an organized
nervous system and therefore a definable consciousness; an
animal, at least in the highest phyla, bears its young warm
and breathing. A plant, on the other hand, has neither
mobility nor consciousness and it bears its young by means
of seeds and spores, which show no sign of life until they
germinate. And finally, a plant has the power to create
food while an animal does not.

As we descend the phyla, however, we notice that these
distinctions become less and less pronounced. There are
animals that are immobile, such as the coral polyp and the
sponge, and there are vegetable forms that are extremely
mobile, such as the bacteria. A well-articulated conscious-
ness exists only in the Arthropods and the Vertebrates; in
the remaining animal phyla, consciousness becomes less and
less centralized until, in the Protozoa, it approaches a
consciousness similar to the consciousness of the corre-
sponding vegetable phyla.

Conversely, as we ascend the phyla, consciousness becomes
increasingly diffused; there is arguably a semblance of
consciousness, whether real or imagined, in some of the more
exotic molds and ferns; it is however absent in the grasses,
shrubs and trees. Accompanying this diffusion of conscious-
ness is a corresponding passivity in the reproduction
process. The lower forms reproduce aggressively, by fission
or by the discharge of spores; the higher forms, as often
as not, must wait for insects to cross-fertilize them and
for birds to scatter their seeds. On the animal side of the
ledger, the opposite is true; the fish is more aggressive
than the earthworm, the bird more aggressive than the
than the fish, the lion more aggressive than the bird and
man the most thoroughly aggressive of them all.

The ability of a plant to produce and to store food is a
property of the phylum that it occupies. Bacteria, yeasts
and fungi are parasitic; they, like animals, depend upon
other kinds of life for their survival; forms such as algae
and ferns, while they are capable of photosynthesis, have
little ability to store what food they create. It is only
after we reach the Angiosperms at the very top of the phyla
that food is retained to any extent, often in prodigious
quantities, far in excess of what they themselves can use.

A fruit tree, for example, neither needs nor uses the nour-
ishment in the pulp of its fruit. It is true that the pulp
attracts animals that in turn carry the seeds and distribute
them. But far more is done than needs to be done, and in
the case of the larger fruits, the pulp is often separated
from the seed and the seed ignored. Tuberous plants such as
beets and potatoes are even more generous with their bounty,
sometimes extravagantly so. Given good soil and favorable
growing conditions, it is possible to imagine that every
shred of the plant's identity has been directed towards the
production of food in outrageous quantities and with total
disregard to what finally happens to it, whether assimilated,
devoured or left on the ground to rot.

It would seem that life in the general sense is every bit as
purposeful as life in the specific sense, and it is here
that the creationalists are on something close to solid
ground. Whoever or whatever the prime mover may be, if
evolution is a macrocosmic phenomenon as well as a micro-
cosmic one, then the culling that occurs because of the
"survival of the fittest" is not cause but effect. According
to Bergson, this is because the determinant is not a series
of random encounters but an all-pervasive force (l'elan
vital) that engenders a negative change of entropy to every-
thing that it touches and suffuses all living things with
the vision to change and the energy to grow. The organisms
that fall by the wayside are not vanquished, as the more
extreme Darwinians would have it, but are quietly marginal-
ized, all of the while each and every species is thrust
towards its own perfection, some succeeding, some failing,
the collective whole growing in purpose and splendor, the
most advanced phylum of either kingdom the most glorious
attainment of the whole.

If the role of the vegetable kingdom is to create food from
the sun and the water and the carbon dioxide in the air, the
role of the animal kingdom is to transmute that food into
expendable energy, in the lowest phyla by absorption and a
primitive gut, in the higher phyla by an intricate and
assymetrical array of organs, muscles and connective tissue.
In the lowest phyla, the nervous system is rudimentary
and diffuse, capable of providing for little more than basic
survival, in the higher phyla, complex motion, sexuality,
and patterns of instinct and finally, the terrifying leap
through the darkness to socialized behavior, intellect,
self-knowledge and civilization. And that of course brings
us face to face with ourselves, something that at least to
our knowledge, no other creature has been able to do.

It has been a long and dangerous journey for a lumbering
two-legged beast with neither claws for protection nor fur
for warmth, but by some miracle or series of miracles we
managed and the claim that we are therefore superior to all
other living things is not an altogether empty boast. But
we have only to turn on the television or open the morning
paper to understand that however much we have attained, we
still have a way to go, that the mind that creates can also
be the mind that wills destruction. And that just as an
overburdened branch can snap from the weight of too much
fruit, so an overexpanded and overrarified consciousness
can crash inwards upon itself when the primordial realities
that once defined it are violated or taken away.

A man may plow and seed a field. He may choose what part of
of his acreage is to be given to the growing of the grain
and he may make plans as to what he is going to do with the
grain when it ripens. But he does not cause the grain to
grow, certainly not the transitive sense, as he necessarily
must do when he lays out an irrigation ditch or adjusts a
plow. He can only trust that it will sprout and grow because
it has grown in the past and therefore will grow again. And
when he commits the seeds to the earth, he commits a great
part of his initiative with them.

This well could be man's tragic flaw, and the burning of the
rainforests and the draining of the wetlands not just the
symptoms of an ugly hubris but an assault, both physical
and metaphysical, upon our very survival. However privileged
we may think ourselves to be, however technologically adept,
plants can feed themselves while we cannot and even the most
carniverous of us, man or beast, is beholden to the silent
largesse of the vegetable kingdom for every act that we

Here is something not too far removed from the Jungian idea
of collective unconscious. Not only does man possess an
unconscious himself, perhaps the consciousness of the entire
animal kingdom is rooted in and nurtured by the great
unconscious of the vegetable world. The ancient Druids
believed something like this. Perhaps they were not too far
wrong. Who can say?
Author, Martin Helick. Try me at 1-412-371-7128 or 1-412-244-1255
or at Box 82607 Swissvale PA 15218 or at