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Samuel Butler: “All thinking is of disturbance, dynamical, a state of unrest tending towards equilibrium.”[1]

The "tree of life" by progressive evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (1866)


In Vibrations (1885), Samuel Butler reflects that he had made three contributions to the theory of evolution:

  1. In Life and Habit (1877) Butler had established the relation between heredity and memory.
  2. In Evolution Old and New (1879) he had reintroduced teleology into organic life
  3. In Unconscious Memory (1880) he had suggested an explanation of the physics of memory and made a connection between consciousness and evolution.[2]

Butler's theory of vibrations, which is outlined in Notebooks (1885), represents an extension of his evolutionary scheme. Charles Darwin had proposed natural selection but was unable to explain how units of inheritance are transmitted. Darwin put forward the theory of pangenesis, which proposed that genetic characteristics are passed on through generations by particles of inheritance called gemmules.[3] Darwin suggested that an organism’s environment could cause modifications to the gemmules which are passed through the genitals of the parent to the next generation (this was a modification of Lamark's theory and an adaptation of a similar theory by Herbert Spencer)[4].

The theory had some credibility in the 19th century but continued to lose ground as the examination of evolutionary evidence became more granular. In 1900 Darwin's theory became obsolete following the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s (1822-1884) work. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mendel had studied the reproductive behaviour of plants over generations and identified units of heredity (which he called “factors”). William Bateson (1861-1926) devised the term genetics to describe these units of heredity, which led to the eventual discovery of the encoded script within all living organisms, known as chromosomes.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Back in 1885 Butler is struggling with the problem of how traits of heredity are transferred from one organism to another. He intuits that it has something to do with information, but what could the medium of transmission be?

Butler hypothesises that there is a universal substance which runs through everything and which, vibrating at different frequencies, takes on different forms. In Butler’s words: “[…] the characteristics of the vibrations going on within it at any given time will determine whether it will appear to us as (say) hydrogen, or sodium, or chicken doing this, or chicken doing the other.”[5] The universal substance has some relation to the notion of Luminiferous aether, the substance that was believed to act as a medium through which light waves passed [6] and which will later, in the popular imagination become the medium for any ineffable thing (including radio waves).

Butler then, imagined the universal substance to be in a state of vibration. This vibration constitutes matter itself and the frequencies of the vibrations constitutes particular kinds of matter (it is an immediate medium). The universal substance modulates difference within the material world and because it communicates differences, the universal substance is both “mental and physical". In Butler the vibrations constitute a network of communication, patterns which establish the conditions for reproduction and adaptation: “May we imagine” writes Butler “that some vibrations vibrate with a rhythm which has a tendency to recur like the figures in a recurring decimal, and that here we have the origin of the reproductive system?”[7]

Frequency variation in zebra stripes


The polymath Gregory Bateson (William Bateson's son) in his collection of texts Steps to an Ecology of Mind, makes a connection between his father and Samuel Butler which identifies modulations of communication in nature as registers of difference:

“My father was a geneticist, and he used to say, ‘It's all vibrations,’ and to illustrate this he would point out that the striping of the common zebra is an octave higher than that of Grevy's zebra. While it is true that in this particular case the ‘frequency’ is doubled, I don't think that it is entirely a matter of vibrations as he endeavoured to explain it. Rather, he was trying to say that it is all a matter of the sort of modifications which could be expected among systems whose determinants are not a matter of physics in the crude sense, but a matter of messages and modulated systems of messages. It is worth noting, too, that perhaps organic forms are beautiful to us and the systematic biologist can find aesthetic satisfaction in the differences between related organisms simply because the differences are due to modulations of communication, while we ourselves are both organisms who communicate and whose forms are determined by constellations of genetic messages.”[8]

A decade later, Gregory Bateson acknowledges again that he and his father had been following the same course in relation to biological and mental variation, which both operate under the order of difference:

“[…] if we separate off, for the sake of enquiry, the world of mental process from the world of cause and matter, what will the world of mental process look like? And [the elder Bateson] would have called it, I think, the laws of biological variation, and I would be willing to accept that title for what I am doing, including, perhaps, both biological and mental variation, lest we ever forget that thinking is mental variation.”

Gregory Bateson identified a continuity of enquiry between Butler, his father and himself which circled around the problematic of systemic order, and which is resolved by a cybernetic reading of homeostasis and negative entropy (the communication of variation): “We (a thin line of thinkers from Lamark, to Fechner, to Samuel Butler, to William Bateson) knew that mind must in some way enter into the larger scheme of explanation. We knew that ultimately the theory of evolution must become identical with a resolution of the body/mind problem.”[9]



In 1906 Gregory Bateson’s father, William Bateson wrote:

“We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing. The orderly relations of their parts are as much under geometrical control as the concentric waves spreading from a splash in a pool. If we could in any real way identify or analyse the causation of growth, biology would become a branch of physics.”[10]

William Bateson established the modern science of genetics by reviving the theories of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)[11] Mendel had identified recessive and dominant traits in successive generations by crossing varieties of pisum sutivum (peas). Mendel was able to ascertain the ratio at which these dominant and recessive traits are inherited, which established hybridisation - evolution as organised statistically. Mendel conducted experiments which carefully selected particular strains for hybridisation and allowed other specimens to cross-fertilise naturally and established statistical results for each type of group.[12] Working with Mendel's extensive empirical research and thorough methodology, William Bateson was able to argue specific diversity on a more solid basis than had previously been possible.[13] This granulated approach was closer to Lamark than the orthodox Darwinian approach (which favoured chance as the agent of adaptation, or germ theories similar to those proposed by Darwin and Herbert Spencer).[14] The Bateson-Mendel emphasis allowed for genetic change within a biological system to be transmitted on the level of information, as opposed to the conversion of energy within a closed entropic system. The distinct difference deserves note: dynamic equilibrium requires an exchange of energy whereas homeostasis requires an exchange of information.[15]

From the start of his career Gregory Bateson carried his father’s approach into the heart of his own work, allowing the accommodation of key ideas in relation to pattern, symmetry, and repetition which derived from his father’s work on genetics.[16]

In later life Gregory Bateson would make the relation of evolutionary adaptation and information explicit: “My father coined that word [“genetics”] in 1908 – it was still necessary to call the elements of Mendelian heredity ‘factors.’ Nobody could then see or would risk the notion that these must be ideas or chunks of information or command.”[17] In Gregory Bateson’s early work as a biologist he had researched the emergent symmetry of pigeons and fish “Even then, I think that the fact of communication and the fact of regularity, symmetry, etc., in anatomy, were going hand in hand.” but it was only twenty years later, when he started his cybernetic research that Bateson was able to recognise the homology between different systems, and that the “regularity in the anatomy of flowering plants was comparable to the regularity which linguists found in language.” Bateson, when referring to his father’s work, often outlines ways in which the elder Bateson anticipated homeostasis and negative entropy and intuited evolution and mind as different levels of abstraction within a larger evolutionary system.

William Bateson by Arnold Forster

In Problems of Genetics (1913) William Bateson argues that specific diversity (genetic mutation) allows for variation within a given species. For William Bateson, specific variation is evident in the fossil records of organisms from vertebrates to bacteria: “In all these groups there are many species quite definite and unmistakable, and others practically indefinite.”[18] It is evident that the evolutionary line is not as simple to read as might be first supposed. As evidence continued to amass after Darwin posited the theory of natural selection, and as this data was analysed and studied, it became increasingly apparent (to William Bateson at least) that variation is neither “evenly distributed” within nature or “arbitrary” and that variation occurs for a number of reasons, which all relate to specific variation.

When this variability is broken down it can be attributed to a number of factors: In part a result of hybridisation; in part a consequence of the persistence of hybrids by parthenogenetic reproduction – in which reproduction occurs without fertilisation (this is common in bees, ants, plants, and reptiles); it might be in part due to polymorphism – in which case alternative phenotypes are produced within the same group; or variability may be due to the continued presence of individuals representing various combinations of Mendelian allelomorphs – which indicate alternative forms of the same genes (here a gene is understood as a unit of heredity).[19]

It is also the case that species “gradually derived from a common progenitor”[20] continue to thrive in the same environment, they do not render each other extinct, in which case it is a question of difference rather than fitness. Furthermore, a variation is sometimes so common that it loses all definition; take British Noctuid Moths, “Many are so variable that, in the common phrase, ‘scarcely two can be found alike’ ’’.[21] Variation, therefore, takes place in a multiplicity of local forms for a number of different reasons.

But, having said that, an alligator cannot give birth to a photocopier.

If the differences are multifarious, what keeps differences from being totally arbitrary? What accounts for the fixity within some species and great variety in others? To beg the same question in cybernetic terms, what restraints and thresholds are in place?

In order to address that question William Bateson, like Butler had done a generation before him, must come up against the problematic of a concept which did not yet exist: negative entropy. The very fecundity of the natural world and the very complexity of variation within it argued against the entropic model of heat death, whereby heterogeneity within a system decreases, and also argued against the entropic logic of “the survival of the fittest”.[22] William Bateson, in Problems of Genetics(1913), allows that natural selection and specific diversity both play their part, but the challenge to the orthodoxy of natural selection, which in the time of William Bateson was meeting increasing number of anomalies, was genetic code’s flexibility, which allowed for both fixity and variation. The elder Bateson held that “the phenomena of variation and stability must be an index of the internal constitution of organisms, and not mere consequences of their relations to the outer world.” The notion of an index which informs structure is a good deal more precise than Samuel Butler, who searched similar territory by supposing that every organism contains: “a little unwritten history of the universe from its own point of view” but William Bateson, to use "stochastic" in its etymological sense, was still unable to hit his target in the centre.[23]

William Bateson: “As soon as it is realised how largely the phenomena of variation and stability must be an index of the internal constitution of organisms, and not mere consequences of their relations to the outer world, such phenomena acquire a new and more profound significance.”[24]

The notion that the transforms which occur in evolution are executed through the transmission of code gained support over time.

By 1943 Erwin Schrödinger‘s What Is Life? lectures suggested that chromosomes contain the coded script of living organisms, a decade before being given empirical credence by Watson and Crick. In the same series of lectures Schrödinger made the relation between genetic code and negative entropy explicit. [25]


This brief overview of William Bateson’s understanding of specific diversity makes it clear that, like Butler before him, William Bateson is unable to make a specific relation between negative entropy, information, and evolution. But a full theorisation of the role of negative entropy is still some distance away. This is why, at this stage in the Fabulous Loop de Loop, we encounter a number of thinkers who repeatedly stumble over the issue of entropy.

To clarify this issue, I will compare William Bateson’s approach to the entropic conundrum with that of another influential voice in the evolutionary discourse at the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Bergson.

William Bateson had held that animals and plants are "systems through which matter is continually passing". This notion of the continuity of existence seems, on the face of it, close to Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution[26] but there are significant differences of emphasis and substance which I want to investigate further. These differences centre on how energy and information is distributed within a system.

Bergson faces the same dilemma as his contemporaries, how does one account for adaptation and the growth in complexity of organisms without violating the second law of thermodynamics? For Bergson entropy is at the very centre of adaptation, it is that force which exercises upon matter an increased degradation and disorder. For Bergson, entropic forces make matter "unmake itself".

In order to square the circle between a universe which is unmaking itself and a universe which is generative, Bergson makes a distinction between entropic matter and a vitalistic consciousness. But this is not a hard and fast dualism, Bergson understands consciousness and matter to be two divergent entities which are preserved within the continuity of duration (Bergson describes a co-dependent duality, a productive equilibrium).

Bergson made a thumbnail sketch of his theory in a 1911 lecture thus:

“If, as I have tried to show in a previous work (Creative Evolution), matter is the inverse of consciousness, if consciousness is action unceasingly creating and enriching itself, whilst matter is action continually unmaking itself or using itself up, then neither matter nor consciousness can be explained apart from one another. […] I see in the whole evolution of life on our planet a crossing of matter by a creative consciousness, and effort to set free, by force of ingenuity and invention, something which in the animal still remains imprisoned and is only finally released when we reach man.”[27]

Bergson’s creative evolution is very energetic. For Bergson life is separated into two distinct halves (“two Kingdoms”)[28]:

  1. Vegetable life which stores solar energy in the form of potential, stored energy (which Bergson calls “explosives")
  2. Animals who take energy from the plants (or from other animals who have exploited plant energy). Between the vegetable and the animal: “The one became more preoccupied with the fabrication of explosives, the other with their explosion.”[29]

For Bergson, consciousness is characterised by action: “To execute a movement [of an animal], the imprisoned energy is liberated. All that is required is, as it were, to press a button, touch a hair-trigger, apply a spark: the explosion occurs, and the movement in the chosen direction is accomplished.”[30]

I note here that Bergson describes each “explosion” as a “choice” (a selection from different possible actions). Choice is selective, it affords survivability, because simply put, the organism that makes the “correct” choice survives.

“But life as a whole, whether we envisage it at the start or at the end of its evolution, is a double labour of slow accumulation and sudden discharge.”[31] Matter, whether animate (plants) or inanimate (coal and other stores of potential energy) “hold it available at need as kinetic energy.”[32]

Bergson thinks in equally thermodynamic terms about what he calls “genetic energy” which is

“[...] expended only at certain instants, for just enough time to give the requisite impulsion to the embryonic life, and being recouped as soon as possible in new sexual elements, in which, again, it bides its time. Regarded from this point of view, life is like a current passing from germ to germ through the medium of a developed organism. It is as if the organism itself were only an excrescence, a bud caused to sprout by the former germ endeavoring to continue itself in a new germ. The essential thing is the continuous progress indefinitely pursued, an invisible progress, on which each visible organism rides during the short interval of time given it to live.”[33]

For Bergson the three disciplines of anatomy, embryology, and palaeontology seem to confirm the theory of evolution, that living beings must be adapted to the conditions of the environment: “Yet this necessity would seem to explain the arrest of life in various definite forms, rather than the movement which carries the organization ever higher.”[34]

William Bateson, Samuel Butler and Lamarck would at this point argue for specific diversity as an explanation for greater diversity and complexity, but Bergson takes a route which is more in line with proponents of orthogenesis (progressive evolution).[35]

Bergson: […] “why, then, does life which has succeeded in adapting itself go on complicating itself, and complicating itself more and more dangerously?” Here Bergson identifies an impulse which drives every organism to take “greater and greater risks towards its goal of an ever higher and higher efficiency.”[36] Bergson describes a struggle in which different evolutionary lines, compelled by this impulse, assume different forms.

Where Butler and William Bateson describe an evolution where consciousness is co-extensive with the system of which it is a part, Bergson, by contrast, outlines a dynamic dialectic in which consciousness drives the engine of change. For Bergson, matter is the medium of life, the carrier of consciousness from one state to another.

Bergson: “Now, the more we fix our attention on this continuity of life, the more we see that organic evolution resembles the evolution of a consciousness, in which the past presses against the present and causes the upspringing of a new form of consciousness, incommensurable with its antecedents.”[37]

In relation to the issue of entropy, Bergson is moving in the opposite direction to Butler and William Bateson, whose concepts have a closer relation to homeostasis and cybernetics. In the cybernetic view of adaptation, order is consolidated within the organism in incremental stages so that non-conscious actions can, ultimately, evolve into reflexive action (steps in an ecology of mind). The cybernetic world view does not need to presuppose a consciousness that acts on entropic matter in order to give it vitality. If order and disorder within a homeostatic system are intrinsic to that system, it is an unnecessary complication to add consciousness as a corrective to entropy. It is clear that Bergson’s Creative Evolution opposes the development of the cybernetic evolutionism which Samuel Butler and William Bateson were working towards. Butler and Bateson both opposed a distinction between mind and matter by recognising that the line between matter and consciousness are arbitrary. For Bergson human consciousness is the crowning achievement[38], again, this is at odds with the post-humanistic position of cybernetics, where the bloated intelligence of humans can be seen as the harbinger of ecological peril.

In the preceding chapters, I have described how Samuel Butler, William Bateson, and Henri Bergson struggle with the nineteenth century energy crisis, as they try to square the circle of evolution and human consciousness. I've also made clear that Gregory Bateson sees the resolution of that crisis in cybernetics – which allows for “homeostasis” as a precise expression of “equilibrium” in evolution. Butler and the elder Bateson agree with Gregory Bateson that the evolution of organisms and the evolution of consciousness are realised by incremental factors which undergo a process of selection. They also understand order as internal to the system. Henri Bergson, by contrast, sees consciousness as a force exterior to matter. Bergson’s “mind energy” passess through matter to bring it to higher forms of perfection. The zenith of this process – which has most successfully exploited the potential energy stored in pants and other organisms – is human consciousness. Bergson’s creative evolution is a highly thermodynamic system, by contrast to Butler, William Bateson and Gregory Bateson, whose system is homeostatic.

I will return to Bergson’s Creative Evolution in the final chapter of The Fabulous Loop de Loop, because even in the ecological landscape of 1960s counterculture, Bergson’s entropic-vitalistic model of mind and ecology were prevalent (as were other transformative ecological theories such as the theory of the Noosphere). For now, it is sufficient to say that the understanding of negative entropy as the unifying principle was far from universally recognised. The problem of entropy will continue to be a stone in the shoe as we hobble into the 20th century. I will make clear in the next chapter that Kenneth Craik came closer to resolving the problem of energetics at the heart of adaptation, as he engaged with a thematic which is by now familiar: the relation of the machine to the organism, or the relation of design to purpose, which is tied in a knot that the new conception of negative entropy will attempt to untie.

  1. Excerpt From: Samuel Butler. “The Note-Books of Samuel Butler”. Apple Books. p155
  2. Samuel Butler, Notebooks (1885)
  3. Charles Darwin The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication 1868
  4. Herbert Spencer, Principles of Biology 1867
  5. Butler, Notebooks, V: Vibrations ,1885, p.66
  6. Huygens, Christiaan, Treatise On Light (1678)
  7. Samuel Butler, The Universal Substance, in Notebooks chapter V p. 67
  8. Bateson(StEM 237) Gregory Bateson: The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia In STEM 233- Here Bateson is citing: Beatrice C. Bateson, William Bateson, Naturalist, Cambridge
  9. Bateson
  10. William Bateson, "Gamete and Zygote," in William Bateson, F.R.S.: Naturalist, His Essays and Addresses Together with a Short Account of His Life, Caroline Beatrice Bateson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928)
  11. after whom William named his son, Gregory.
  12. Mendel's published work (1866) does not give a precise name to these generational traits which were christened 'genes' by William Bateson.
  13. William. Bateson, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, a Defence; with translation of Mendel’s original Papers on Hybridisation; Cambridge University Press 1902 , p 8 | William Bateson:“These experiments of Mendel's were carried out on a large scale, his account of them is excellent and complete, and the principles which he was able to deduce from them will certainly play a conspicuous part in all future discussions of evolutionary problems.”
  14. Allowing for adaptation. The dispute between theory of Gregor Mendel and William Bateson and Darwinian natural selection persisted through to the 1970s, at which time the seeming contradiction was reconciled in evolutionary genetics (Lipsit)
  15. (the energy transference – equilibrium – model as opposed to the information transference – homeostasis– model).
  16. Peter Harries-Jones, A recursive Vision. Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson(2002), p19
  17. Bateson Sacred Unity 185 (1976)
  18. William Bateson. “Problems of Genetics.” iBooks. (13)
  19. William Bateson. “Problems of Genetics.” iBooks. (24)
  20. William Bateson. “Problems of Genetics.” iBooks
  21. William Bateson. “Problems of Genetics.” iBooks
  22. A phrase coined by Herbert Spencer in Principles of Biology (1864)
  23. The term Stochastic derives from a series of arrows fired at a target. After the arbitrary action of firing the pattern is revealed on the surface of the target (see Bateson Glossary)
  24. William Bateson. “Problems of Genetics.” iBooks.
  25. Erwin Schrödinger What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. lectures delivered under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in February 1943. In chapter five, Schrödinger states:"[The living organism] feeds upon negative entropy', attracting, as it were, a stream of negative entropy upon itself, to compensate the entropy increase it produces by living and thus to maintain itself on a stationary and fairly low entropy level."
  27. Henri Bergson, Mind-Energy: Lectures and Essays, Translated by H. Wildon Carr, 1920 [1975] p.23
  28. Bergson, Life and Consciousness, p19
  29. Bergson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911), p19
  30. Henri Bergson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911) p19
  31. Henri Bergson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911) p19 Note: General Semantics follows a similar energetic model: plants take solar energy, which is converted into kinetic energy which is imbibed by animals (affording animals the capacity to be “space-binding”); In Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics the introduction of language into human society allows humans to become “time binding”, see Why "The Mp is not the Territory"
  32. Henri Beragson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911) p19
  33. Henri Bergson Creative Evolution, 1911 p.27
  34. Henri Bergson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911) p24
  35. the term "orthogenesis" was introduced by Wilhelm Haacke in 1893 and popularized by Theodor Eimer in 1898.
  36. Henri Bergson, Life and Consciousness, in Mind-energy (1911) p24
  37. Henri Bergson Creative Evolution, 1911 p27
  38. "[the evolutionary process] has not found [higher intelligence] with instinct, and it has not obtained it on the side of intelligence except by a sudden leap from the animal to man. So that, in the last analysis, man might be considered the reason for the existence of the entire organization of life on our planet." Bergson, Creative Evolution p185