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How Philosopher H. Bergson Helped Biologists Get Creative About Evolution

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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The lecture

In the first decades of the 20th century, French philosopher Henri Bergson was an international celebrity. His philosophy of time, or “duration,” was discussed in most intellectual circles and he was also popular with the general public. People would climb up the side of the building to listen in on his lectures at the College de France in Paris, and it is said that a lecture he gave in New York City in 1913 caused the first ever traffic jam on Broadway. In 1907, he published Creative Evolution, a book in which he discussed a burning question of the day, biological evolution, from a philosophical perspective. The book was rapidly translated into several languages and became an international bestseller. Among Bergson’s wide readership were many biologists including zoologist Julian Huxley (the grandson of Thomas Huxley who was also known as “Darwin’s bulldog”), geneticist Arthur Darbishire, and animal behavior scientist Conwy Lloyd Morgan.

What can a philosopher like Bergson teach us about the history of biology? The fact that many 20th-century biologists admired Bergson, and integrated his philosophical reflections about life into their scientific theories about life, clashes with the traditional representation of the 20th century as the era of extreme scientific specialization and of the definitive separation between science and philosophy. In this talk I propose to use the little-studied case of Bergson’s reception among the biologists of his time to think about the relationship between science and philosophy, both in the history of 20th-century biology, and, more generally, in our current state of affairs in which the humanities are often devalued. Bergson will help us think about how scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge can be viewed as complementary.

The speaker

Emily Herring is a historian of biology and philosophy. She is using the collections at the Linda Hall library for her research on the reception of French philosopher Henri Bergson in French and British biology. Emily grew up in Paris and is currently finishing her PhD at the University of Leeds in the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science. She received a BA from the Sorbonne in 2012 and an MA from Paris Diderot University in 2014. She has recently published articles on one of the British Bergsonian biologists in her study, Julian Huxley, in the Annals of Science and on a little-studied case of 20th-Century institutionalized Lamarckism in the Revue d’Histoire des Sciences.

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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