Creative Evolution? The Quest for Life (On Mars)1

Sarah Kember

The current quest for life is both material and metaphorical, and is particularly characteristic of the shifting boundary between technoscience, art and media. It raises questions of definition which are ongoing and contested within, for example, biology, computer science and philosophy. It also raises questions about the existence and evolution of cosmic and computer entities. Through the topical prism of the quest for life on Mars, and using Bergson’s concept of life in Creative Evolution, this paper questions a number of conflations (alien life and artificial life, becoming and evolution, space and time) in order to set up a set of contingent relationalities (artificial life, evolution and space; alien life, becoming and time) which serve the following argument: not everything that evolves is creative. Indeed, as I will show, much evolutionism is highly conservative in that it serves to contain potentially new forms of life within existing parameters. It is, arguably, necessary to recognise this if creative evolution (Bergson’s time or becoming) is to remain a goal. This paper sets out to differentiate between conservative and creative evolution in order to highlight the role of becoming in the quest for life. Once alien and artificial life, becoming and evolution, time and space have been disentangled (if not wholly separated), then the quest for life (if not the quest for life on Mars) is a quest for invention and change rather than familiarity and stasis in life itself, in knowledge and in politics. Rather than advocating Bergsonism per se, the paper seeks to connect Bergson’s philosophy of life and his critique of scientific knowledge with a trans/disciplinary feminism invested in change and able to recognise the traffic between realms once tenuously ascribed to nature and culture. Here, between Bergson’s inventive life and the novel ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies envisaged within trans/disciplinary feminism, the aliens really are becoming. In other words, this paper tentatively suggests that the quest for life might be more usefully pursued by looking more at time and less at space.

Alien life

The question of the existence of life on Mars is multifaceted: scientific, philosophical, political, economic and cultural. It is itself, as a question, at once vital (contemporary, relevant) and inert. On the one hand it seems to have endured for too long to have any substance, and, on the other hand, it persists, as it were, in the background, at least until the media proffer the diverting activities of the space agencies with their robots and their rhetoric. 2003-4 witnessed a fragile coalition uniting space race participants against the demise of the space agencies (NASA proclaiming ‘we’re back’), Big Science and the media-friendly thrill of discovery — ; not to mention the war on terror (strange how resonant ‘we’re back’ is with ‘we got him’). There is pleasure in terror here in space; visual pleasure, narrative pleasure, the pleasure of cashing in, potentially, on massively deferred gratification and life-time investments. Not to mention the pleasure of Hollywood as conjured by The Guardian‘s Tim Radford, describing NASA’s second (robot) Opportunity:

To make a safe landing, Opportunity had to hit the Martian atmosphere at just the right angle, survive a sudden burst of intense heat as it ploughed through the thin air of the planet, open a parachute, then fire a set of retro rockets, and finally inflate a set of airbags to cushion its impact with the arid rocks of Mars. One engineer called such a descent ‘six minutes of terror’. (Radford, 2004a: 8)

Space, according to Radford (2004b), is the renewed final frontier (superseding cyberspace, superseding space, superseding the West). But the old frontier metaphor is by no means the only one to receive yet another reincarnation. Derived from medical and popular discourse Braidotti’s configuration of the monstrous-mother-machine (1994) has re-surfaced on Mars. Mars has always been — ; and here lies the challenge and the succession of failed missions — ; the hostile, barren, red/dead planet on which life was as likely as little green men. ‘Martian’ is often synonymous with alien monstrosity and the Martian environment is hostile not only to alien/animal life but also to machine/robot life. What the European Space Agency (ESA) created in the form of Beagle 2, Mars has destroyed. Despite repeated calls and flyovers from the Mars Express mothership,2 despite her desperate search for even ‘weak signals’ or signs of life from her ‘little probe’, it remained lost in space and it was pronounced dead with effect from February 2nd 2004, even though the ‘father’ of this machine, OU scientist Colin Pillinger, has vowed to try again. Curiously, it is at about this point in the story that the metaphors get rather mixed. According to Pillinger: ‘The Beagle project has demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that we are playing in the Premiership . . . We’ll go for a second voyage of Beagle 2’ (in Sample, 2004: 4).

Again, during the post-Christmas 2003 search (Beagle 2 would officially have come to life on Christmas day) Pillinger declared: ‘we must play to the final whistle . . . it only takes a fraction of a second to score a goal’ (in Sample 2004: 4). Pillinger was not alone in his deployment of the football metaphor. Of the failure of Mars Express to communicate with Beagle 2, David Southwood, director of science at ESA declared: ‘It is a setback and it makes me feel very sad . . . But it is not the end of the story . . . We have more shots to play’ (in Sample, 2004: 4). The space race is here configured as (if not Arsenal vs Man U) Europe vs the US, Beagle 2 vs Spirit and Opportunity (referee!), Mars Express vs Mars Odyssey. Allowing for Mars Express’s spectrometer images of water ice as a discovery (if not ‘the most exciting discovery about humanity’s place in the universe since Galileo and Copernicus proved that the Earth goes round the Sun’ [Murray 2004: 1]) — ; which NASA’s Orlando Figueroa does not, and allowing for the complex interrelation between science, journalism and public relations which somewhat blurs the boundary between fact, opinion and pure hyperbole, the score would appear to be predictable.

Spirit and Opportunity — ; described as six wheeled robot rovers weighing as much as two people (each) and with stereoscopic eye-level cameras — ; are of course, ‘in effect, only geologists’ sent to search for signs not of life but its prerequisite, water. Beagle 2 — ; described as ‘an oversized wok packed with sophisticated instruments’, a sound-track from Blur (Brit-Pop) and some coloured spots by Damien Hurst (Brit-Art) — ; ‘would have been the first working biologist on Mars’ (Radford, 2004a: 8). But is it ‘Park Life’ (Blur), present life or future life which is being sought? And what exactly qualifies as life? Tenses slip (the tricky concept of Martian time may be partly responsible for this, as 1 year = 687 earth days) and only the most tentative definitions are offered: ‘I consider life as being any kind of organism that can reproduce itself’, Pillinger is reported as saying (in Prigg, 2004: 2). Mention is made of simple amoebic microbial life-forms; not intelligent ‘life-as-we-know-it’ then but primitive ‘life-as-it-could-be’ (Langton, 1996) or rather could-have-been. Dr John Murray of the Mars Express team suggests that:

Anything we find there will be extremely primitive, hardy micro-organisms that can cope with extreme cold and harmful ultraviolet rays . . . Martian life could be found in the form of fossils that died out long ago. Or it could survive in certain suitable zones. The search will be a little like opening a window on the Earth billions of years ago. (Murray, 2004: 1)

Clearly then, the quest for life on Mars is in part (the other parts being political and not equal) synonymous with the concept of life itself — ; including its geography (and its sustainability). According to David Southwood:

It would really change our view and probably our whole feelings about the universe if we found that life had started, faltered and then stopped on Mars; because that tells us that life must be everywhere in the universe, that there’s nothing special about the Earth. Though it also suggests that its [sic] fragile, which could also affect our view of ourselves. (in Arthur, 2004: 1)

Within the discourse of artificial life, the alien and the artificial were always (arguably too) closely aligned in an elsewhere somewhere ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. Not least because of the many problems experienced in ‘scaling up’ to intelligent behaviours (Maes, 1997), alifers schooled in science fiction may possibly rejoice at the resurgence of Mars as a back to basics metamorphic alife environment in which life-as-we-know-it could re-evolve or, better still, life-as-it-could-be could have been.

Space may well be the renewed final frontier and NASA with its ‘Spirit’ and its ‘Opportunity’ may well, unlike ESA with Beagle 2, be ‘back’, but my intention here is not to get lost in space. My primary concern is with time, duration, the movement of (the question of) life between notions of alienness and artificiality, and between notions of evolution and becoming. My purpose is to un-conflate what has been, and what often still is, conflated across a range of discourses, including, principally, artificial life and philosophy: alien and artificial (Ray, 1996, Langton, 1996); evolution and becoming (Doyle, 2000, Grosz, 1999 and Ansell Pearson, 1999). I aim to do this not in order to make false distinctions and yet more dichotomies but precisely in order to access this (sense of) movement, or change in life, in knowledge and ultimately in politics. What follows then is an outline of how and where this conflation takes place and what is problematic about it. My mission, so to speak, is to challenge the way in which alien life, becoming and time have been subsumed by their counterparts in a way, I will suggest, that still advertises but fails to deliver change.

Artificial life

According to what we read about the recent second space-race activities of NASA and (vs) ESA (such as the water at the south pole ‘discovery’), the quest for life on Mars would appear to be progressing well. But it was in fact NASA’s failure to produce actual alien life (or even evidence of it) during the first space race that so heavily influenced, or indeed instigated, the field of artificial life. In ‘An Approach to the Synthesis of Life’, Thomas Ray makes a point which is often echoed by other science fiction inspired alife scientists: biology, he suggests, ‘should embrace all forms of life’ (1996: 111) and not just life on earth. Ideally, ‘a truly comparative natural biology would require inter-planetary travel, which is light-years away’. Short of that, ‘a practical alternative to an inter-planetary or mythical biology is to create synthetic life in a computer’ (111). The aim of Ray’s work (including the influential computer programme Tierra, in which he claims to evolve code as if it were organic) is to synthesise, not simulate life (i.e. to make it rather than just model it) and to generate increasing levels of diversity and complexity. This aim presents him with what he calls the ‘semantic’ problem of redefining life ‘in a way that does not restrict it to carbon-based forms’. There is a tautology then in the construction of artificial life — ; in order to create artificial life it is first necessary to define life as artificial; as having no necessary attachment to conventional carbon-based forms. For Ray, life is a facet of self-replication and ‘open-ended’ evolution, where open-endedness refers to the emergence of structures or processes which were not designed or programmed in.3 And yet, while criticising Richard Dawkins’ earlier efforts (in Biomorph, again a computer programme written to synthesise the evolution of un/natural forms) for not achieving open-endedness, Ray, like Dawkins, seems to seek an evolutionary end-point — ; to recreate that stage in evolution referred to as the origin of biological diversity (where Dawkins himself was interested in the re-evolution of segmentation).

I regard these evolutionary end-points as being coterminous with Bergson’s (rejected) concept of finalism; an approach to the theorisation of evolution, associated with Lamarck, which regards it as ‘the realisation of a plan’ (Bergson, 1998: 45). As a teleology of the evolution of life, finalism is rejected along with mechanism, an approach (associated with Darwin) in which nature is ‘conceived as an immense machine regulated by mathematical laws’ (45). For Bergson, these approaches converge in that they are both ‘reluctant to see in the course of things generally, or even simply in the development of life, an unforeseeable creation of form’ (45). Thinking in terms of evolutionary end-points or finalism contradicts the rhetoric of open-endedness in alife and leads, I will argue, not to creative evolution but to something far more conservative. In (Deleuzian) philosophical terms, artificial life (alife) describes not the open-ended relation between the virtual and the actual but rather the pre-forming of the possible in the real. Alife is, in other words, largely devoid of the invention which characterises creative evolution, bringing to realisation something which already existed in a prior or nascent state. As Keith Ansell Pearson states:

The process of the virtual actualising itself is an inventive one in the sense that what gets actualised does not simply come to resemble the virtual. Where the process of the realisation of the possible involves rules of resemblance and limitation, the process of the actualisation of the virtual does not. The reality of the virtual never gets exhausted, but provides a ‘reservoir’ for evolution to reinvent perpetually its inventive character. (1999: 150)

Ultimately, and through a combination of finalism and mechanism, alife lacks what Keith Ansell Pearson refers to as a (convincing) ‘principle of contingency’, a principle which is fundamental to Bergson’s concept of creative evolution in which there are, simply, no end-points: ‘Evolution is characterised by increasing complexification for Bergson not on account of any plan but simply owing to an original impulse that has divided into divergent lines of evolution’ (155). The quest for the alien through artificial life is then, I suggest, hampered by a ‘false’ evolutionism — ; genetic, mechanistic, teleological, accelerated — ; and, perhaps, by a fixation on (outer) space at the expense of time. Alife claims but fails to produce new and divergent life-forms; evolution here signals the re-evolution of life-as-we-know-it or of existing and familiar forms in computer (as in cosmic) space. The discourses of alife, evolution and space are conservative in as far as no thing changes (literally, there are no new things) and in as far as they serve to contain change. If alienness is predicated on difference then artificiality, as I see it, reinforces sameness and the status quo. It does so against at least one of its stated aims: to synthesise life-as-it-could-be or to evolve life from the bottom-up.

Like Ray, Christopher Langton, the originator-‘father’ of alife, sees no reason why biology should be restricted to the study of carbon-based life on earth, and, like Ray, he accepts that ‘since it is quite unlikely that organisms based on different physical chemistries will present themselves to us for study in the foreseeable future, our only alternative is to try to synthesise alternative life-forms ourselves’ (1996: 39). Science fiction and the promise of alien life and other worlds, in combination with the failure of NASA and other space agencies to actually deliver them, does seem to have informed the synthetic impulse in artificial life. Alife may then be characterised as a kind of DIY (Do It Yourself) ‘inter-planetary or mythical biology’ (Ray, 1996). Moreover, as a synthetic approach to biology, alife aims to do more than ‘simply’ recreate ‘the living state’. It aims to synthesise ‘any and all biological phenomena, from viral self-assembly to the evolution of the entire biosphere’. The open-endedness of the evolution in question is held in the tension between what Langton calls ‘life-as-we-know-it’ and ‘life-as-it-could-be’ (40), or between what is familiar, predictable and knowable and what is not. I contend that this tension breaks down and that alife re-evolves life in accordance with its own end-points and on the assumption that life is, at root, calculable.

In his article on ‘Becoming-Silicon’, Richard Doyle speaks of ‘the odd rhetorical imbroglios of “life” that traverse both contemporary science and science fiction’ and of a particular demand made by one of the replicants in Blade Runner (‘more life, fucker!’) as a map of ‘the transversal movement of that old infection of the earth’ (2000: 840). The simulation and synthesis of life (in alife) — ; the modelling of life-as-we-know-it and the making of life-as-it-could-be – are a factor of its conceptualisation and re-production as genetic information. Life for Ray and Langton is essentially characterised by self-replication, self-organisation, evolution and emergence. These are criteria derived from biology and principally the metaphorics of genetic code. Such a rendering of life has, for Doyle, too easily slipped into talk of reification (of the molecule, the gene) or reduction (the reduction of life to information). Instead, what Doyle perceives as a key rhetorical effect of the notion of code is mobility: ‘rather than tied to the interior of a sovereign organism and its life, the essence of an organism is, like any other code, able to be deployed in any context — ; that is, it is deterritorialized’ (2000: 841). And while the ‘contingent emergence of molecular and computational thinking is hardly a simple occasion for celebration’, it effects a kind of externalisation in which we ‘swap’ essence for becoming: ‘vitality emerges between the nodes of a network, intermezzos oriented towards the future (“It’s evolving”) but constituted out of contingency (“What is it becoming?”)’. Here, evolution and becoming serve each other’s ends a little too unproblematically; the ‘becoming-informatic of life’ reminding us of the ‘enormous capacities for difference that are living systems’ and ‘each new pragmatics mobilised by a molecular biology founded on the “secret of life”‘ foregrounding the fact that ‘we don’t know what life can do’ (842-3). For me, the value of contingency, of not knowing what life can do, lies initially in its exposure of the illusion of determinacy; the idea that we do know what life can do. Furthermore, as I will discuss later in the paper, it indicates a change in ways of being, knowing (including scientific knowing) and doing, which become based less on the mastery by certain subjects of their chosen objects and more on inter- or rather ‘intra’-subjective relationalities such as those envisaged within contemporary feminisms.

Evolution and becoming

So what is the relationship between evolution and becoming, or how might we begin to address this question as a subsidiary of the question of life (on Mars) and the desire for alien/artificial life which is so inflected with sameness and difference? For Bergson (as for Doyle), mobility or movement is the key to becoming and to what he terms ‘creative evolution’, but mobility can be imitated, copied, simulated as it is, he says, in cinema and as it is in scientific and philosophical knowledge alike. Bergson, writing early in the 20th century, desires a philosophy which sees in movement and duration the ‘very stuff of reality’ (1911: 287), which responds intuitively to reality as a perpetual becoming. Unlike intuition, the intellect cannot grasp perpetual becoming since it, like our senses, ‘is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter’. So we ‘pluck out of duration those movements that interest us’ and while this serves us well practically, it fails to capture ‘true evolution, the radical becoming’ (288). While becoming is varied (qualitative, evolutionary, extensive),4 we perceive it only in general and by means of images representing a succession of apparently discrete states. Where photography, for example, fixes our perception of these apparently discrete states in a snapshot, cinema knits them back together in a semblance of mobility. This for Bergson is basically a trick which cinema shares with ordinary knowledge, so: ‘whether we would think becoming, or express it, or even perceive it, we hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematograph inside us’ (306).

In terms of evolutionary becoming, the apparent succession of states from infant to adult to old age are ‘imaginary stops’, cuts across the reality where the reality is the movement itself (and not its cinematic imitation). To argue against the use of states to build up a transition, or to maintain that there is more in movement than a series of states, is to challenge philosophical and scientific habits alike (where science is like ordinary knowledge, only more precise). It is also to retrieve time (rather than space) as not a degradation or diminution of form, given from all eternity, but as a progressive growth and a continual invention (evolution) of ‘forms ever new’. Within a contemporary biotechnological context, the continual invention of forms ever new pertains to novel epistemologies and ontologies which may be understood not in terms of their static self-identity and teleology but in terms of their relationality and differentiation, where relationality is that much more complex than that of cause and effect. What is important to an understanding of the relation between evolution and becoming in time, is that the cinematic/philosophical/scientific method (Bergson) fakes it, producing false problems precisely such as causation or determinism, predicated as they are on the division of reality and the separation of forms, and indeed producing a ‘false’ evolution which reflects this division of reality and separation of forms.

The main target of Bergson’s notion of false evolution is the nineteenth century evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, whose method, not untypically classificatory for its time, ‘was to cut up the present evolved reality into little bits, though the little bits must themselves have been evolved, and then re-compose the reality with the fragments. So positing in advance everything to be explained’ (Wildon Carr, 1911: 75). It is not, Bergson reminds us sternly, ‘by dividing the evolved that we shall reach the principle of that which evolves’ (386). Three main theories of evolution are found lacking, including neo-Darwinism ‘according to which the essential causes of variation are the differences inherent in the germ borne by the individual, and not the experience or behaviour of the individual’ (Wildon Carr, 1911: 77), which would be neo-Lamarckianism and also problematic. Lamarck’s theory of evolution as the inheritance of acquired characteristics was well known and accepted by ‘a certain number of biologists’ in the early 20th century. According to this ‘doctrine’, variation resulting in a new species ‘springs from the very effort of the living being to adapt itself to the circumstances of its existence’ (Bergson, 1998: 76). Such an effort may be unconscious but may also imply an act of will, an admission of internal and psychological principles of development. Where this may work in terms of variations in size (like the growth of a muscle through exercise) it fails in terms of change in form (like the development of the eye in vertebrates). If an internal activity is appealed to here, ‘then it must be something quite different from what we usually call an effort, for never has an effort been known to produce the slightest complication of an organ’ (77). Bergson seeks ‘a deeper cause’ (78) of variation, which does not quite resolve itself into neo-Darwinism, the doctrine which denies that of the transmissibility of acquired characteristics by reference to the nature of ‘germinal cells’. Bergson is prepared to go further with the neo-Darwinist account of germ-based variation than with the Lamarckian account of acquired characteristics but stops short at the point of ‘regarding the differences inherent in the germ as purely accidental and individual’ (85). How, he asks, could the same small variations, possibly incalculable in number, ‘have ever occurred in the same order on two independent lines of evolution’ if they were merely accidental? (65). For him, the cause of these differences is deeper: it is the outcome of ‘an impulsion which passes from germ to germ across the individuals’, and therefore is not accidental but capable of appearing ‘at the same time, in the same form, in all the representations of the same species’ (85). Where change itself may be accidental (since mutation works in different directions in different members of a species), the tendency to change is not. There is, for Bergson, ‘an original impetus’ of life which passes from one generation of germs to the next: ‘This impetus, sustained right along the lines of evolution among which it gets divided, is the fundamental cause of variations, at least of those that are regularly passed on, that accumulate and create new species’ (1998: 87).

A mechanistic theory of evolution — ; such as Darwin’s theory of adaptation through natural selection acting upon (accidental and individual) differences in germ cells — ; is one which proceeds by means of division and the calculation of causes and effects. It ‘is one which means to show us the gradual building-up of the machine under the influence of external circumstances intervening either directly by action on the tissues or indirectly by the selection of better-adapted ones’. But even if this theory can explain ‘the detail of the parts, it throws no light on their correlation’ (88). Less inclined towards anthropomorphism than the notion of finalism ‘which says that the parts have been brought together on a preconceived plan with a view to a certain end’ (88), mechanism still proceeds according to a distortion of this model in that ‘it also holds that nature has worked like a human being by bringing parts together’ (89) or by developing analogous structures across species. In other words, the mechanism of adaptation seems like a plan (an organism’s solution to an environmental problem); accident seems rather like design; Darwin seems rather like God. As Ansell Pearson puts it: ‘Even Darwinian conceptions of evolution remain wedded to transitive models, with “adaptation” playing the role previously occupied by purpose and “selection” playing the role formerly assigned to God’ (1999: 157). Moreover, both mechanism and finalism, Darwinism and Lamarckism, ‘do away with time’ since here, ultimately, “all is given” (Bergson, 1998: 45). In doing away with time, mechanistic and finalistic approaches to evolution preclude the process of invention which Bergson places centre stage:

In Creative Evolution Bergson endeavoured to steer a course beyond the opposition of mechanism (neo-Darwinism) and finalism (neo-Lamarckism), both of which reduce the past and future to calculable functions of the present, and developed a conception of evolution which placed the emphasis on the creation of forms and the continual elaboration of the ‘absolutely new’ through ‘invention’. (Ansell Pearson, 1999: 146)

Neo-Darwinism, or more specifically, ultra-Darwinism, based as it is on Doyle’s ‘rhetoric of the code’, is for me then still a kind of ‘false’ evolution which needs to be distinguished from becoming — ; which, I suggest, is ‘true’/creative evolution. What is more, it is still possible to speak of this false evolution in terms of causation and determinism, a fixation on the metamorphosis or succession of states and in terms of the imitation of movement. The rhetoric of the code does lead to mobility, as Doyle suggests, but this is an imitation mobility, as in the cinema. It is an imitation mobility in as far as it is based on the self-identity of the gene as object and not on the gene’s relationality with other genes and with the cellular environment.

One way of demonstrating the prevalance of neo-Darwinian false evolutionism is through contemporary art, and in a recent paper I examined the false evolutionism of alife and transgenic art. I looked in particular at Karl Sim’s Galápagos and Eduardo Kac’s Genesis. There is a certain configuration of Darwin and God here, and this is why these pieces were selected. Both artists are representative of their fields but it is clearly not possible to give an exhaustive account of their work here, or indeed to do justice to their respective areas which are always to an extent heterogeneous. Part of a lineage including Ray’s Tierra and Dawkins’ BiomorphGalápagos (1997) is described as an interactive media installation allowing users to evolve 3D animated forms. Like its predecessors, it is an instance of, but not an interrogation of, Darwinian evolution in which virtual organisms selected from a bank of computers survive, mate, mutate and evolve, and in which the sovereign subject is neither the interactivity of the users/computers nor the emergent strangely familiar (robot-like, crab-like or with jelly fish fronds) forms which never come to matter – in the double sense of the word. These forms don’t matter in the sense that they are relatively unimportant and also in the sense that they don’t materialise. They have no flesh, no body but also no environment. The computer does not function epigenetically as a cell does and so the forms have no context, no relationality other than that of genotypic cause and phenotypic effect. Sims rehearses Crick’s contested Central Dogma; the one-way flow of information from DNA to protein. The sovereign subject then is evolution itself. As one commentator put it: ‘in Galápagos the [evolutionary] process itself is the real art’ (Fifield, 1997).

In Genesis (1999), Kac also places his faith in (genetic) evolution, in this case to re-inscribe a sentence from the Bible (‘let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’) and all that it implies. By translating it into Morse code and then DNA base pairs, Kac inserts this sentence — ; in the form of an ‘artist’s gene’ — ; into one strain of bacteria (containing ECFP or Enhanced Cyan Fluorescent Protein, a derivative of GFP or Green Fluorescent Protein). When placed in a petri dish with ECYP (a yellow protein) and exposed to UV radiation (courtesy of user interactivity involving a light switch), the bacteria mutate. Albeit that the original sentence is replaced with nonsense, not new sense as would appear to be the aim of the piece, we do get colour combination and the possibility of green bacteria, the forerunners of the green rabbit (Alba) and successors to a green dog (GFP K9) who never quite came to be.

Here then, genetic mutations and artificial selections (selections made by viewers on purely aesthetic criteria) give rise to forms apparently new — ; fabulous animated 3D forms which succeed each other rapidly on computer monitors (and which may be subject to varying ontological claims) or organic forms which look more familiar (bacteria, rabbit, dog, monkey . . . human?), except in as far as they are green, the new hosts of the jellyfish’s highly mobile green fluorescent protein (GFP). GFP is used so widely in test case transgenic experiments across art and science that it has given rise to what, for me, is the beguiling possibility that one day ‘we’ may all become green (if not little and men). And yet in both cases there is an (almost) inescapable sense of a template; of the containment of life-as-it-could-be by life-as-we-know-it; of accelerated evolution going nowhere fast and producing absolutely nothing new — ; perhaps, after Bergson, because of our fixation on change as the interval between entities and not the thing which links them together. In fear and anticipation of the next phase of evolution or the species to supersede humans we manage only to imitate this phase of evolution (the love of Darwin paralleling the love of God and descending into a ‘sterile belief’ [Jacob 1982]) and to replicate ourselves (humanism is a very hard habit to break, especially it seems when you are trying to do it). In this, Bergson’s false evolution, there is a retention of sameness not a reaching to difference, and there is conservatism not creativity. In tracking this conservative evolutionism (note, I am referring to a discourse and practice, to a highly contested aspect of theory here but not to evolution as process) across the related fields of alife, genomics and evolutionary psychology (Kember, 2002), it is all too easy to miss out on the possibilities of creative evolution and to divide evolution and becoming. It is as common a practice to conflate as to divide these concepts.

Why then is it important — ; for ‘inter-‘, or as I would prefer ‘trans/’disciplinary 5 theory and practice — ; to address this problem? Precisely because creative evolution and becoming are discourses, practices, processes of change, where ‘false’/genetic evolution is not. Where reality is constantly changing (an observation which seems rather less trite in the context of Bergson’s work), it is doing so increasingly in ways which make our conceptual tools (designed for practical purposes, according to Bergson) decreasingly useful. Science and technology studies and trans/disciplinary feminisms in particular are working hard and taking risks to redesign those tools — ; to think out of the box (and it is a big box) which holds nature/culture, subject/object, matter/discourse and so on in different compartments. Where trans/disciplinarity, by virtue of the boundary work it does, potentially enables us to think out of the box, interdisciplinarity simply enables us to put more things in it. Creative evolution doesn’t seem to fit in the box at all — ; it does seem to reconfigure agency through radical not causal relationality, through Barad’s intra-activity (2000) not inter-activity, and through extensivity not extension. But there are, of course, problems with it and I am not advocating Bergsonism. There is, as one problem, the matter of matter, which in Bergson’s account (unlike, for example, Whitehead’s and the recent work on vital processes which it has stimulated [Fraser, Kember and Lury, 2005]), seems to resist movement and be antithetical to change. In this respect it forms a dichotomy with life and becomes oddly resonant with the Platonism Bergson otherwise seeks to depose; a Platonism which is at the heart of artifical life, with its foundational distinction between form and matter. For Langton, ‘life is a kind of behaviour not a kind of stuff’ (1996: 53), but the stuff of life is of renewed concern within contemporary trans/disciplinary praxis. Bergson aligns matter with intellect (and action), and life with intuition (and speculation), arguing that we cannot understand or come to know life via the intellect because the intellect is the product of (the evolution of) life. It is in vain ‘that we force the living into this or that one of our moulds. All the moulds crack’ (Bergson, 1911: x) — ; and what he places particular emphasis on is the need for a philosophy which reconnects knowledge and life. So, what life has to do with it is (for Bergson) to be the key to the nature of (intuitive vs intellectual) knowledge. This life is revealed as duration, as time, not in space (sadly, in terms of the quest for life on Mars) and not by forms. Forms are seen as merely cuts across the flow, or ‘views that our mind takes of the living reality of which it is a part’ (Wildon Carr, 1911: 15). Life is regarded as neither matter nor mind but as creative evolution. According to Wildon Carr in his commentary on Bergson, ‘life is a flowing, a real becoming, a change that is a continuous undivided movement’. He adds: ‘a thing that lives is a thing that endures not by remaining the same, but by changing unceasingly’ (18). Life is movement and matter isn’t. Matter is like a thought which breaks the readers’ absorption in a good story and sends them off in a different direction, for Bergson a downward rather than upward direction, a descent rather than an ascent. The ascending movement (of life, of creative evolution) produces change, difference, aliens so to speak (the aliens really are becoming). Speaking of life on earth (‘small and weak compared to the mass of dead matter it has moved within’), Wildon Carr offers some reassurance that ‘the descending movement may be here [on earth] more powerful than the ascending movement, so that life on this planet may be only arresting a descent’. But still, ‘in other worlds it may be otherwise, for even in the universe that science reveals worlds are being born’ (89). Perhaps, then, there is still some hope for the quest for life on Mars.

Physical science, like ordinary and philosophical knowledge, falters in this account. It fails to comprehend movement (which it only imitates) and/as life because it deals with matter. This matter/life (and for that matter imitation/original, false/true) distinction is of course problematic even if it is polemical and does not preclude a sense of things that endure not as isolated objects in space but as the time that links them together (albeit as one universal subject). By means of a discourse which is ultimately more spiritual than material, Bergson nevertheless indicates an alternative method for doing science (as philosophy and as art/culture), which despite inevitable limitations, has some affinity with, and perhaps even ‘usefulness’ to (although Bergson rejects any and all notions of utility as the province of the intellect), existing movements within contemporary feminism, science and technology studies and (even) cultural studies.In ‘Bergson and Creative Evolution/Involution’, Keith Ansell Pearson also points out that ‘the problem with this conception of evolution is that it is in danger of falling into a mystical vitalism and spiritualism with evolution itself getting reified by being treated as a kind of transcendent spiritual force or mind-energy conceived independently of its contingent actualisation in and through duration’ (1999: 152). The point is underlined by Elizabeth Grosz, for whom one of the main limitations of Bergson’s philosophy is its refusal ‘to accord to matter itself the indeterminacy and openness that it attributes to life’ (1999: 22). Despite questioning this distinction between matter and life which allows creative evolution (as life itself) to become transcendent and abstract, both Ansell Pearson and Grosz seek to validate, as a form of becoming, the kind of abstract, informatic, genetic ultra-Darwinism7 which characterises the field of artificial life. In doing so they ultimately collapse (Darwinian) evolution and becoming in a way which Bergson himself did not but in a way which is consistent with Deleuze’s Bergsonism (2002). For Grosz then, Bergson or the Bergsonist view fails to realise that information as well as matter becomes, and for her the informatic approach of artificial life is open-ended and does offer ‘direction without destination’ (19). But there is, in fact, as Ansell Pearson demonstrates, some recognition of the becoming of information in Bergson’s account of neo-Darwinism. What remains for me is the problem of the separation of information and matter.

Bergson speaks of ‘an impulsion which passes from germ to germ across the individuals’ and of an original impetus of life ‘passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations’ (1998: 85, 87). Ansell Pearson is right to align such statements with the (highly contested) genetic ultra-Darwinism of Richard Dawkins, for whom, famously, organisms or individuals are merely the vehicles, carriers, ‘survival machines’ for their sovereign ‘selfish’ genes (1989: 20). Alife is a biotechnology which employs to an extent, like Bergson does, a (neo/ultra) Darwinian/Dawkinsian philosophy of evolution which privileges ‘not the thing produced or evolved but the activity of evolution itself, that which is responsible for the generation of new forms’ (Ansell Pearson, 1999: 153). Bergson here seeks to avoid a finalism or teleology which alife (despite a similar desire) fails to avoid. There is, of course a question mark over the extent to which Bergson, due to his own residual humanism, succeeds in avoiding it too:

Bergson grants primacy to movement over solidified forms. But is he in danger of taking the invention of the form of man too seriously? I have argued that his concept of ‘creative evolution’ remains informed by a residual perfectionism, to the extent that one might locate in his thesis a metaphysics of presence in which ‘man’ is the privileged life-form, an apotheosis of the entire movement of matter and spirit, because in the becoming of his being the virtual finds its actual. (Ansell Pearson 1999: 159)

Bergson’s humanism, his finalism, resides in the equilibrium of the virtual and the actual in ‘man’. From this apparent end-point Ansell Pearson turns back to the vitality and open-endedness of Bergson’s general ‘non-organismic mapping of evolution’ (159) which does, as he rightly extrapolates, reside in ‘genetic energy’ but which also brings with it Bergson’s critique of Darwin’s mechanism — ; his cause and effect rationality — ; and his own spiritualism (manifested in the replacement of accident by design and by the division between life and matter). For me, then, Bergson’s legacy does not reside in the mechanistic and spiritual realms (a tidy contradiction) of artificial life (itself an oxymoron) and abstract geneticism — ; or rather, it does, but only in limited and problematic ways. Instead, I prefer to follow the example set by Grosz in Becomings and to seek to identify some ‘intellectual tools’ through which further research may be undertaken, ‘research which highlights and takes seriously the temporal foundations of both matter and culture’ (1999: 3). Such a task is oriented not so much towards the elaboration of Bergsonist concepts in new (biotechnological) contexts but towards a perhaps simpler stress on methodology in and across contemporary fields of inquiry: ‘Time and becoming remain unreflected and undertheorised, except in rare and isolated cases, in the history of Western thought’ (Grosz, 1999: 2).

Approaching agency

Like Bergson, all of these fields of inquiry still fall into the dualisms and the categorisations they recognise as ‘false’ (and Bergson’s insistence on ‘true/false’ [evolution] is just one of the many I’ve knowingly taken up). It is very hard to think out of that box, and even if the intellect/intuition distinction in Bergson is a little too stark, we might recognise his emphatic critique of ‘the defiant attitude that we seem to assume when in science we treat facts and things as outside, external, discrete existences, which we range before us, analyse, discriminate, break up and re-combine’ (Wildon Carr, 1911: 45). We might also recognise how, now as then, changes in biology could give rise to a methodology, epistemology and ontology premised on a more sympathetic (intuitive) attitude,8 which ‘is the feeling of the intimate bond that binds the individual to [the] reality’ not seen ‘as something other than our life’ or as something hostile to overcome (Wildon Carr, 1911: 44). Creative evolution leads for me to an important consideration of the relation between evolution and becoming and to an important emphasis on radical relationality through which agency is reconfigured (outside of the terms of positivism, Bergson’s mechanism/finalism, and ultimately perhaps even humanism).

It is Karen Barad’s approach to the question of agency which coheres directly around a novel (inventive) methodology, epistemology and ontology and which might usefully be considered alongside a Bergsonist critique of science and philosophy of time. In ‘Re(con)Figuring Space, Time, and Matter’ she sets out to ‘dislocate’ the Euclidean concepts of space ‘as a container/context for matter in motion’ and time, ‘divided up in evenly spaced increments marking a progression of events’ (2001: 76), which pervade much of Western — ; including feminist — ; epistemology. Feminist concepts of social location, of the ‘view from somewhere’, effectively challenge the dominant masculine myth of disembodied and transcendent knowledge but at the same time reinforce this container model of space. Barad’s concept of agential realism (see also Barad, 2000) reformulates agency as a factor of either nature or culture, free will or determinism and as the sole possession of human beings by offering a framework which takes account of both the discursive and material aspects of social practices:

Agential realist analyses insist on the examination of the production of the very nature of the materiality of non-human beings alongside their human counterparts as well as the processes by which these distinctions are produced. It also brings to the fore consideration of the possibilities of non-human and cyborgian forms of agency. (2001: 81)

This then is a processual, dynamic and non-dualistic concept of agency focused not on the division of reality (in time) and the separation of forms (in space) but on radical (spatio-temporal) relationality. This relationality is not interactive (as between separate and statically defined ideas and entities) but rather ‘intra-active’ (as between connected and fluidly defined ideas and entities). Drawing on the work of physicist Niels Bohr, Barad suggests that intra-actions describe physical-conceptual phenomena and not the division of subject and object which characterises Newtonian physics. Where, as she points out, Newtonian physics is identified with mechanism (cause and effect determinism), ‘Bohr’s general epistemological framework proposes a radical revision of such an understanding of causality’ (84). Since he refuses the division of subject and object he inevitably renounces causality and calls into question the nature of physical reality. Barad responds to this question with her notion of agential reality or reality which is (dynamically) agentially intra-active. Just as agency is a process and certainly not a possession exclusive to human forms, neither is it purely temporal. Rather, it is a matter of change occurring not in time and space but of space-time. Change is always already physical and conceptual, it and ultimately impinges on power. It occurs through iterative intra-actions ‘through which temporality and spatiality are produced and reconfigured’ (90). They are reconfigured through the constant unmaking and remaking of boundaries through which things/phenomena are (contingently) defined and others are made possible (or, strictly speaking, virtual). There is in Barad’s scheme no end-point to the process of change (materialisation is not the ‘end product or simply a succession of intermediary effects of purely discursive practices’ [90]) and no finalism (especially of the humanist kind). Where her concept of agential realism might benefit from (an engagement with) a more coherent philosophy it clearly challenges any attempt to separate questions of space, time, (life and) matter. While it has less to say than philosophy does about what space, time, life and matter are, the attempt to re(con)figure them through the (post-humanist) notion of agency and agential realism potentially contributes a great deal to the ongoing (including feminist) politics of evolution and becoming. What Barad calls the ‘topological’ dynamics of space, time and matter are opposed to more static geometrical concerns. It is not enough, for Barad, to talk about responsibility in terms of positionality ‘or other efforts to locate oneself within the relevant social horizon’ (102). Neither is it enough to imagine that boundaries can be merely dissolved or traversed rather than continually re-made to effect inclusions and exclusions. Information, for example, does not pass through matter ‘as if it were transparent, innocently traversing all borders whether those of nation-states or different computer platforms’ (103). Information is not mobility without bounds or limits, or other material constraints including those of who does and who does not have access to it. Where geometrical concerns such as these do not suffice, topological dynamics (being agential matters) ‘require an ethics of knowing and being’ and, I would add, doing:

Intra-actions have the potential to do more than participate in the constitution of the geometries of power, they open up possibilities for changes in its topology, and as such, interventions in the manifold possibilities made available reconfigure both what will be and what will be possible. (2001: 103)

It is this virtual ethics of intra-active knowing, being and doing which I’ve sought to emphasise and to connect with ongoing trans/disciplinary and perhaps especially feminist political projects. This is an ethics continually in process of actualisation and lacking in author/ity and determinism. It is necessarily difficult to conceive or express or represent. I return here to Wildon Carr’s idea of sympathy. The key to an art, science or philosophy which reconnects with life is, for him, the artist’s, scientist’s or philosopher’s entry into the very life of the subject by sympathy — ; or by something never perfectly expressed, ‘though the imperfect expression may reveal to us more than we could see without it’ (49). This is, I suggest, an important point which connects with Braidotti’s work on conceptual risk-taking and creativity. It raises issues about both theoretical and practical work beyond the ‘critical’ or ‘reflexive’ or ‘inter’ anything (disciplinary, activity, face). Creative sci-art and theory, like creative evolution, moves, changes, differentiates. The sci-art described in this paper, like false or conservative evolution, is ultimately static, though of course I’m describing a tendency in alife and transgenic art which can be and is ‘resisted’. The signs of (real) life, of becoming in alife, may well be, then, in the eschewing of false problems like (genetic) causation/determinism, like metamorphosis as a succession of states, and like the accelerated/imitation evolution of information entities which never come to matter.

Finally, this work of what Wildon Carr calls sympathy sounds to me not altogether unlike, for example, Haraway’s notion of affinity (1991) and it is certainly risky in the sense employed by both Braidotti and Stengers (Braidotti, 2002, Stengers, 1997). I have previously written about risk as an agential boundary process in the encounter between (cyber)feminism and the new biology (Kember, 2002) and would maintain that, on historical and political grounds (feminism has ‘evolved’ a relation with biology and the question of who, what if not where all this movement is for remains literally vital), risky affinity or sympathy remains very much a feminist project invested in change. It enables, for example, creative and conservative evolution (alienness and artificiality) to be productively disentangled, if not wholly distinguished, and highlights the movement of life or rather, movement as life. So, is there life on Mars? Yes, in this schema, of course there is life ‘on Mars’ because there just is life. But obviously not as we — ; currently — ; know or see it.


This paper has, perhaps, placed too much emphasis on philosophy at the expense of Mars. I refer, therefore, to a recent press article which began with the statement that ‘finding life on Mars has proved an elusive dream for decades. But scientists now believe they may be able to do it for themselves’ (McKie 2004: 14). This idea of DIY life on Mars, or of turning the red planet into a blue planet with streams and fields and ‘earthly’ creatures, is referred to as terraforming and is, apparently, the latest idea from NASA. In fact, terraforming, as Metta Bryld and Nina Lykke have shown, is a long held (life-long) astro-military ambition, and one which works to (re)form the boundaries of science, science fiction and marketisation. The current race to develop commercial space flights (Glaister, 2004: 2) and space tourism is surely not unconnected with the race to terraform new (tourist) destinations which, like other alternative worlds (and entities) such as those visited in the context of alife, would (have to) be not altogether unfamiliar. Bryld and Lykke unearth a text (Borisenko and Romanov, 1982) promoting (‘as a symbol of the Soviet space enterprise’) a military cosmodrome built in Kazakhstan in the 1950s. This, they argue, anticipated, or rather helped to establish terraforming as the re-creation of life-as-we-know-it in a lifeless, barren environment — ; in this case in the desert. ‘As the terraforming evolves through all the hardships brought about by the extremely ‘hostile’ environment, the vast desert gives way to what the authors perceive as an oasis, a garden city, a town of roses and rockets, already halfway out of this world’ (2000: 99).

This ‘new world, a new Earth, floating in the nothingness of the universe’ establishes, it transpires, not so much an exodus (from earth) as a return (to earth) re-envisioned through the panspermia perspective. The notion ‘that life might indeed have been seeded on our own planet by higher beings from the stars’ is surprisingly widespread (see Crick, 1981) and not only ‘made Earth into a model for other, as yet lifeless celestial bodies’ but demonstrates the rather fruitless circularity of origin and evolution which I have described as being conservative — ; an apparently evolutionary progression (as the majority of Bryld and Lykke’s interviewees regard it [85]) which amounts to a regression to an originary state. There is then, of course, the gendered politics of panspermia as a generator of life without end. Here, the earth (or other planet) is ‘impregnated’ by life-bearing spores shooting almost indiscriminately from one celestial body to another in space: ‘The necessary precondition for conception was simply that the planet receiving the semen should be ready to ‘shelter organic life’. As a result of this interstellar migration . . . life in the universe had no end’ (2000: 103).

Although life might eventually die out on one planet (say, Mars), it could re-surface here or in any number of other places generated by the ‘volcanic force’ of the parent planet. This sense of the movement of life (if not movement as life) renders earth and Mars (and so on) equivalent and is another problematic indication of, in this case, the gendered separation between life and matter. It is also, as Bryld and Lykke point out, indicative of the eternal force of colonisation. In the current context of terraforming Mars the indigenous Martian life-forms which still promise to appear ‘after decades of disappointment’ would be unceremoniously ousted, colonised, terratorialised. And this, as one dissenting (female) NASA astrobiologist complains (McKie, 2004: 14), is surely not the point. Essentially concerned with the means for recreating life-as-we-know-it elsewhere, terraforming forecloses on the virtuality of life-as-it-could-be (by making it seem possible), and where evolution isoften like this (I’ve discovered), it isn’t necessarily like this.


1 This article originated as a conference paper: ‘Is there life on Mars? Configurations of the alien and artificial in contemporary technoscience’, presented at What’s Life Got To Do With It? Feminist Studies Meets Cultural Studies Meets Science and Technology Studies, organised by Maureen McNeil, Jackie Stacey and Celia Roberts, University of Lancaster, 11 June 2004.

2 Recall ‘mother’, the space ship in Alien.

3 See N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman for a definition of emergence:

Emergence implies that properties or programs appear on their own, often developing in ways not anticipated by the person who created the simulation. Structures that lead to emergence typically involve complex feedback loops in which the outputs of a system are repeatedly fed back as input. As the recursive looping continues, small deviations can quickly become magnified, leading to the complex interactions and unpredictable evolutions associated with emergence. (1999: 225)

4 For Bergson, qualitative movement includes ‘that which goes from yellow to green’ which differs from ‘that which goes from green to blue’. Similarly ‘that which goes from flower to fruit is not like that which goes from larva to nymph’ — ; these are different evolutionary movements. Finally ‘the action of eating or of drinking is not like the action of fighting: they are different extensive movments’ (1998: 304).

5 For Karen Barad (2000), trans/disciplinarity is a more effective term than inter- or multi-disciplinarity (approaches which merely draw from an array of disciplines) because of the materially and discursively responsible boundary work it does, and because it does not attempt to erase historical and institutional specificities.

6 Cultural studies, like most new media studies, is somewhat shy of the whole field of technoscience and can demonstrate interdisciplinary constructionism in much the same way that artificial life can demonstrate multidisciplinary naturalism. I have questioned the extent of the boundary work which takes place in these disciplines (see Kember, S. ‘Doing Technoscience as (New) Media’ in J. Curran and D. Morley (eds) (2005) Media and Cultural Theory, Routledge).

7 Neo-Darwinism is generally understood to refer to genetically informed Darwinism and Bergson clearly refers to research on ‘germ cells’. In a contemporary context it tends to refer to post-1953 Darwinism informed by Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the structure of DNA. Ultra-Darwinism refers to a particular and controversial type often termed fundamentalist and associated with genetic determinism, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

8 Sympathy is Wildon Carr’s term and intuition is Bergson’s. I find both terms problematic not least because of the gendered connotations which do not appear to have been intended by either author. There is not, in my view, an effective term or expression in current use which adequately conveys the ‘attitude’ Wildon Carr refers to.


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Sarah Kember is a Reader in New Technologies of Communication at Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK. She is the editor (with Mariam Fraser and Celia Lury) of Inventive Life: Approaches to the New Vitalism (Sage, 2006). Most recently she has written a novel – The Optical Effects of Lightning – which attempts to do science and fiction differently. She also wrote Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life, but that was ages ago (Routledge, 2003). She is currently working on a piece of non-fiction entitled ‘Media, Mars and Metamorphoses’.