Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII.: EVOLUTION AND DISSOLUTION. - First Principles
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CHAPTER XII.: EVOLUTION AND DISSOLUTION. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles 
First Principles, 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867).
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EVOLUTION AND DISSOLUTION.
§ 93. An entire history of anything must include its appearance out of the imperceptible and its disappearance into the imperceptible. Be it a single object or the whole universe, any account which begins with it in a concrete form, or leaves off with it in a concrete form, is incomplete; since there remains an era of its knowable existence undescribed and unexplained. Admitting, or rather asserting, that knowledge is limited to the phenomenal, we have, by implication, asserted that the sphere of knowledge is co-extensive with the phenomenal—co-extensive with all modes of the Un-knowable that can affect consciousness. Hence, wherever we now find Being so conditioned as to act on our senses, there arise the questions—how came it thus conditioned? and how will it cease to be thus conditioned? Unless on the assumption that it acquired a sensible form at the moment of perception, and lost its sensible form the moment after perception, it must have had an antecedent existence under this sensible form, and will have a subsequent existence under this sensible form. These preceding and succeeding existences under sensible forms, are possible subjects of knowledge; and knowledge has obviously not reached its limits until it has united the past, present, and future histories into a whole.
The sayings and doings of daily life imply more or less such knowledge, actual or potential, of states which have gone before and of states which will come after; and, indeed, the greater part of our knowledge involves these elements. Knowing any man personally, implies having before seen him under a shape much the same as his present shape; and knowing him simply as a man, implies the inferred antecedent states of infancy, childhood, and youth. Though the man’s future is not known specifically, it is known generally: the facts that he will die and that his body will decay, are facts which complete in outline the changes to be hereafter gone through by him. So with all the objects around. The pre-existence under concrete forms of the woollens, silks, and cottons we wear, we can trace some distance back. We are certain that our furniture consists of matter which was aggregated by trees within these few generations. Even of the stones composing the walls of the house, we are able to say that years or centuries ago, they formed parts of some stratum imbedded in the earth. Moreover, respecting the hereafter of the wearable fabrics, the furniture, and the walls, we can assert thus much, that they are all in process of decay, and in periods of various lengths will lose their present coherent shapes. This general information which all men gain concerning the past and future careers of surrounding things, Science has extended, and continues unceasingly to extend. To the biography of the individual man, it adds an intra-uterine biography beginning with him as a microscopic germ; and it follows out his ultimate changes until it finds his body resolved into the gaseous products of decomposition. Not stopping short at the sheep’s back and the caterpillar’s cocoon, it identifies in wool and silk the nitrogenous matters absorbed by the sheep and the caterpillar from plants. The substance of a plant’s leaves, in common with the wood from which furniture is made, it again traces back to the vegetal assimilation of gases from the air and of certain minerals from the soil. And inquiring whence came the stratum of stone that was quarried to build the house, it finds that this was once a loose sediment deposited in an estuary or on the sea bottom.
If, then, the past and the future of each object, is a sphere of possible knowledge; and if intellectual progress consists largely, if not mainly, in widening our acquaintance with this past and this future; it is obvious that we have not acquired all the information within the grasp of our intelligence until we can, in some way or other, express the whole past and the whole future of each object and the aggregate of objects. Usually able, as we are, to say of any visible tangible thing how it came to have its present shape and consistence; we are fully possessed with the conviction that, setting out abruptly as we do with some substance which already had a concrete form, our history is incomplete: the thing had a history preceding the state with which we started. Hence our Theory of Things, considered individually or in their totality, is confessedly imperfect so long as any past or future portions of their sensible existences are unaccounted for.
May it not be inferred that Philosophy has to formulate this passage from the imperceptible into the perceptible, and again from the perceptible into the imperceptible? Is it not clear that this general law of the redistribution of matter and motion, which we lately saw is required to unify the various kinds of changes, must also be one that unifies the successive changes which sensible existences, separately and together, pass through? Only by some formula combining these characters can knowledge be reduced to a coherent whole.
§ 94. Already in the foregoing paragraphs the outline of such a formula is foreshadowed. Already in recognizing the fact that Science, tracing back the genealogies of various objects, finds their components were once in diffused states, and pursuing their histories forwards, finds diffused states will be again assumed by them, we have recognized the fact that the formula must be one comprehending the two opposite processes of concentration and diffusion. And already in thus describing the general nature of the formula, we have approached a specific expression of it. The change from a diffused, imperceptible state, to a concentrated, perceptible state, is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; and the change from a concentrated, perceptible state, to a diffused, imperceptible state, is an absorption of motion and concomitant disintegration of matter. These are truisms. Constituent parts cannot aggregate without losing some of their relative motion; and they cannot separate without more relative motion being given to them. We are not concerned here with any motion which the components of a mass have with respect to other masses: we are concerned only with the motion they have with respect to one another. Confining our attention to this internal motion, and to the matter possessing it, the axiom which we have to recognize is that a progressing consolidation involves a decrease of internal motion; and that increase of internal motion involves a progressing unconsolidation.
When taken together, the two opposite processes thus formulated constitute the history of every sensible existence, under its simplest form. Loss of motion and consequent integration, eventually followed by gain of motion and consequent disintegration—see here a statement comprehensive of the entire series of changes passed through: comprehensive in an extremely general way, as any statement which holds of sensible existences at large must be; but still, comprehensive in the sense that all the changes gone through fall within it. This will probably be thought too sweeping an assertion; but we shall quickly find it justified.
§ 95. For here we have to note the further all-important fact, that every change undergone by every sensible existence, is a change in one or other of these two opposite directions. Apparently an aggregate which has passed out of some originally discrete state into a concrete state, thereafter remains for an indefinite period without undergoing further integration, and without beginning to disintegrate. But this is untrue. All things are growing or decaying, accumulating matter or wearing away, integrating or disintegrating. All things are varying in their temperatures, contracting or expanding, integrating or disintegrating. Both the quantity of matter contained in an aggregate, and the quantity of motion contained in it, increase or decrease; and increase or decrease of either is an advance towards greater diffusion or greater concentration. Continued losses or gains of substance, however slow, imply ultimate disappearance or indefinite enlargement; and losses or gains of the insensible motion we call heat, will, if continued, produce complete integration or complete disintegration. The sun’s rays falling on a cold mass, augmenting the molecular motions throughout it, and causing it to occupy more space, are beginning a process which if carried far will disintegrate the mass into liquid, and if carried farther will disintegrate the liquid into gas; and the diminution of bulk which a volume of gas undergoes as it parts with some of its molecular motion, is a diminution which, if the loss of molecular motion proceeds, will presently be followed by liquefaction and eventually by solidification. And since there is no such thing as an absolutely constant temperature, the necessary inference is that every aggregate is at every moment progressing towards either greater concentration or greater diffusion.
Not only does all change consisting in the addition or subtraction of matter come under this head; and not only does this head include all change called thermal expansion or contraction; but it is also, in a general way, comprehensive of all change distinguished as transposition. Every internal redistribution which leaves the component molecules or the constituent portions of a mass differently placed with respect to one another, is sure to be at the same time a progress towards integration or towards disintegration—is sure to have altered in some degree the total space occupied. For when the parts have been moved relatively to one another, the chances are infinity to one that their average distances from the common centre of the aggregate are no longer the same. Hence whatever be the special character of the redistribution—be it that of superficial accretion or detachment, be it that of general expansion or contraction, be it that of re-arrangement, it is always an advance in integration or disintegration. It is always this, though it may at the same time be something further.
§ 96. A general idea of these universal actions under their simplest aspects having been obtained, we may now consider them under certain relatively complex aspects. Changes towards greater concentration or greater diffusion, nearly always proceed after a manner much more involved than that above described. Thus far we have supposed one or other of the two opposite processes to go on alone—we have supposed an aggregate to be either losing motion and integrating or gaining motion and disintegrating. But though it is true that every change furthers one or other of these processes, it is not true that either process is ever wholly unqualified by the other. For each aggregate is at all times both gaining motion and losing motion.
Every mass from a grain of sand to a planet, radiates heat to other masses, and absorbs heat radiated by other masses; and in so far as it does the one it becomes integrated, while in so far as it does the other it becomes disintegrated. Ordinarily in inorganic objects this double process works but unobtrusive effects. Only in a few cases, among which that of a cloud is the most familiar, does the conflict produce rapid and marked transformations. One of these floating bodies of vapour expands and dissipates, if the amount of molecular motion it receives from the Sun and Earth, exceeds that which it loses by radiation into space and towards adjacent surfaces; while, contrariwise, if, drifting over cold mountain tops, it radiates to them much more heat than it receives, the loss of molecular motion is followed by increasing integration of the vapour, ending in the aggregation of it into liquid and the fall of rain. Here, as elsewhere, the integration or the disintegration is a differential result.
In living aggregates, and more especially those classed as animals, these conflicting processes go on with great activity under several forms. There is not merely what we may call the passive integration of matter, that results in inanimate objects from simple molecular attractions; but there is an active integration of it under the form of food. In addition to that passive superficial disintegration which inanimate objects suffer from external agents, animals produce in themselves active internal disintegration, by absorbing such agents into their substance. While, like inorganic aggregates, they passively give off and receive motion, they are also active absorbers of motion latent in food, and active expenders of that motion. But notwithstanding this complication of the two processes, and the immense exaltation of the conflict between them, it remains true that there is always a differential progress towards either integration or disintegration. During the earlier part of the cycle of changes, the integration predominates—there goes on what we call growth. The middle part of the cycle is usually characterized, not by equilibrium between the integrating and disintegrating processes, but by alternate excesses of them. And the cycle closes with a period in which the disintegration, beginning to predominate, eventually puts a stop to integration, and undoes what integration had originally done. At no moment are assimilation and waste so balanced that no increase or decrease of mass is going on. Even in cases where one part is growing while other parts are dwindling, and even in cases where different parts are differently exposed to external sources of motion so that some are expanding while others are contracting, the truth still holds. For the chances are infinity to one against these opposite changes balancing one another; and if they do not balance one another, the aggregate as a whole is integrating or disintegrating.
Everywhere and to the last, therefore, the change at any moment going on forms a part of one or other of the two processes. While the general history of every aggregate is definable as a change from a diffused imperceptible state to a concentrated perceptible state, and again to a diffused imperceptible state; every detail of the history is definable as a part of either the one change or the other. This, then, must be that universal law of redistribution of matter and motion, which serves at once to unify the seemingly diverse groups of changes, as well as the entire course of each group.
§ 97. The processes thus everywhere in antagonism, and everywhere gaining now a temporary and now a more or less permanent triumph the one over the other, we call Evolution and Dissolution. Evolution under its simplest and most general aspect is the integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; while Dissolution is the absorption of motion and concominant disintegration of matter.
These titles are by no means all that is desirable; or rather we may say that while the last answers its purpose tolerably well, the first is open to grave objections. Evolution has other meanings, some of which are incongruous with, and some even directly opposed to, the meaning here given to it. The evolution of a gas is literally an absorption of motion and disintegration of matter, which is exactly the reverse of that which we here call Evolution—is that which we here call Dissolution. As ordinarily understood, to evolve is to unfold, to open and expand, to throw out, to emit; whereas as we understand it, the act of evolving, though it implies increase of a concrete aggregate, and in so far an expansion of it, implies that its component matter has passed from a more diffused to a more concentrated state—has contracted. The antithetical word Involution would much more truly express the nature of the process; and would, indeed, describe better the secondary characters of the process which we shall have to deal with presently. We are obliged, however, notwithstanding the liabilities to confusion that must result from these unlike and even contradictory meanings, to use Evolution as antithetical to Dissolution. The word is now so widely recognized as signifying, not, indeed, the general process above described, but sundry of the most conspicuous varieties of it, and certain of its secondary but most remarkable accompaniments, that we cannot now substitute another word. All we can do is carefully to define the interpretation to be given to it.
While, then, we shall by Dissolution everywhere mean the process tacitly implied by its ordinary meaning—the absorption of motion and disintegration of matter; we shall everywhere mean by Evolution, the process which is always an integration of matter and dissipation of motion, but which, as we shall now see, is in most cases much more than this.