restricted access Speculative Evolution: Darwin, Freud, and the Whale
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Speculative Evolution
Darwin, Freud, and the Whale

What follows is speculation, often far-fetched speculation, which the reader will consider or dismiss according to his individual predilection. It is further an attempt to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to see where it will lead.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle1

As everybody recognizes today, Charles Darwin represents a turning point in the history of modern science and, more generally, in the history of Western thought. To begin with, it was Darwin who invented that new branch of modern science called biology—the science of life. In point of fact, although the term “biology” had already been coined in the early years of the nineteenth century by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the German Naturphilosoph Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus, it was only with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 that the very notion of ‘life’ gained its modern and scientific definition. Therefore, it was only at that time that biology, i.e. the science of life, was born. Before that date, as Michel Foucault among others has strongly emphasized, nothing of the sort existed: neither life nor, by consequence, biology.

Historians want to write histories of biology in the eighteenth century; but they do not realize that biology did not exist then, and that the pattern of knowledge that has been familiar to us for a hundred and fifty years is not valid for a previous period. And that, if biology was unknown, there was a very simple reason for it: that life itself did not exist. All that existed was living beings, which were viewed through a grid of knowledge constituted by natural history.2 [End Page 71]

Thus, following Foucault’s footsteps, one might say that the birth of modern biology coincides with the discovery—or, literally, the invention—of life. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to deny that Darwin was the one who first determined the scientific meaning of what we call ‘life’ and, by the same token, established the scientific framework of what we call ‘biology.’ As the highly influential twentieth-century biologist John Maynard Smith has stressed, “we shall regard as alive any population of entities which has the properties of multiplication, heredity and variation. The justification for this definition is as follows: any population with these properties will evolve by natural selection.”3 This is to say that Darwin’s principle of “natural selection” is still today the only possible way we can scientifically speculate about life as such, or about anything “alive.” Accordingly, as the historian of biology Jean Gayon has pointed out, Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection is still today the only possible foundation for a unified science of life. It is only thanks to natural selection that a consolidated and cohesive field of scientific research such as biology—that is, the science of life—exists nowadays.4

In this paper, I will not focus on the conceptual history of natural selection, nor will I analyze the semantics of ‘life’ as I have already done elsewhere.5 Instead, taking my cue from Darwin himself, I will initially attempt to clarify why the theory of natural selection cannot give us any full explanation for life and evolution, as its underlying assumption is, precisely, a certain ignorance of life and evolution. After that, I will present an alternative explanation for life and evolution, offered by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the Darwinian sovereignty of life is changed into the sovereignty of death over nature, without escaping the trap of ignorance. Lastly, I will put forth the idea of a clinical approach to life and evolution by briefly mentioning a couple of intriguing remarks made by Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault. At that point, I will ask the riddle of the Whale, the riddle that threatens all speculations on life and death: Read me if you can. It is not only a challenge proposed to the reader, it is a true riddle. Yet, can a riddle be true?

1. Darwin: or, the Ignorance of Life

When speaking of Darwin...