Emily Herring

Arthur D. Darbishire’s Bergsonian Biology

Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire (1879-1915) is known to historians of biology for his participation in the Mendelian/Galtonian debate on the nature of heredity during the first decade of the 20th century. During his short career from 1901 to his death, Darbishire studied heredity in Oxford, Manchester and Edinburgh, through mouse-breeding experiments, shifting from an anti-Mendelian position to a more nuanced and middle-ground but unorthodox view. Prompted by his independent and critical attitude (“One’s attitude as an investigator,” he wrote, “should be one of continual, unceasing and active distrust of oneself”) and influenced by Samuel Butler’s spiritualistic take on evolution, Darbishire developed high ambitions. According to his sister Helen, his “cherished desire was to make a contribution towards biology in the strict meaning of the term”. Darbishire wished to rethink the very foundations of the life sciences in order to steer clear from the mechanistic and materialistic tendencies biology had inherited from 19th century physics.

Preoccupied by the relation between the phenomena being observed and the interpretation of said phenomena, Darbishire also wished to find a way to measure the distance between different biological theories and reality. It is therefore not surprising that, with such an agenda, Darbishire was extremely enthusiastic when encountering, around 1911, the anti-mechanism, anti-determinism and special form of vitalism of the world-famous French philosopher, Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson confirmed some of the ideas Darbishire had already formulated and gave him new resources to criticise early 20th century biology. This paper examines how Bergson’s Creative Evolution constituted a major contribution to Darbishire’s philosophy of biology. In the posthumously published and unfinished An Introduction to a Biology (1917), it became clear that Bergson’s philosophy of life, as well as his theory of knowledge, contained, in Darbishire’s opinion, the potential for building new methodological principles for a new biology. In earlier writings, Darbishire had argued there was an inevitable gap between scientific fact and reality, and urged biologists to acknowledge this by practicing self-criticism. This idea was reinforced in Darbishire’s mind by Bergson’s theory of the origin of human intelligence. Bergson held the paradoxical view that human intelligence had evolved in such a way that it was badly equipped to understand evolution. Darbishire went one step further than the French philosopher, and used Bergson’s evolutionary explanation of the origins of human intelligence to devise a criterion to decide between good and bad biological theories.



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