PRINT Summer 1988



THE GREEK WORD “MORPHOGENESIS,” which means “birth of form,” would have had a curious sound to classical ears. The understanding of the time would have questioned how forms could be born—weren’t they timeless? By looking at the world, the ancient Greek could see that this was so. Take cows, for example: each cow is born and dies, but the form of the cow is always the same, and it somehow passes from animal to animal with only marginal distortion. The form “cow” is a timeless container through which each individual cow flows; anyone interested in cows should consider the form, and not the shapeless content that moves through it.

This concentration on forms the ancient Greeks called “theory,” and it was the foundation of their philosophy and science. According to theory, the timeless forms were stored somewhere, ordered according to a logical system. Try reimagining heaven as a set of cupboards. The “higher” forms are stored in the higher cupboards, the “lower” ones below. Logically, one can recover each form from the shelves, one after the other, as they stand arranged in heaven. A potter, say, who wants to mold clay into a shape, must deduce how to reveal something already present in the heavenly cupboard.

We don’t do things this way today—instead of discovering shapes, we “invent” or “create” them. Our artists are “creative” (or at least they hope they are). Part of the reason may be that we no longer think of forms as timeless. Since the classical period, the world has grown older by far more than the 2,000 or so years that have passed in the interim; we have learned to measure its age in tens of billions of years. In this context, man, that inhabitant of the island of meters, seconds, and other dimensions comprehensible in human terms, can no longer serve as the measure of all things. And from this perspective, forms show themselves to change with time—they become unstable. Over millions of years the body of the cow changes with evolution; the current shape of the universe is a transitory stage between its shape just after the big bang and the state into which it is heading. According to the second principle of thermodynamics, that state will be without form, since the universe tends progressively to lose all its forms to entropy.

Now if forms can change with time, theory may be understood not as a contemplation of form but as a shaping of it. This is where morphogenesis becomes an issue. In art, in fact, it develops into an absolutely basic problem. Art becomes, among other things, a way of “creatively” producing hitherto nonexistent forms. Instead of imitating forms (mimesis), it invents them (poeisis). The artist becomes godlike.

That doesn’t last long, however, since morphogenesis poses the question of how a new form is born. Is it possible to create something absolutely unprecedented? Given that we can’t get to where we’re going from any place other than where we are now, that seems unlikely—the greatest leap (and great leaps are certainly achievable) will contain some trace of its jumping-off point. As I have written in these pages before, we have two principal ways of creating new form. First, several old forms can be combined into a new one. The method is old: the ancient-Greek Chimera, for example, combined the forms of a goat, a lion, and a serpent. (Presumably there was a Chimera somewhere in the heavenly cupboard.) And today we have the geep, a genetically engineered derivation of the goat and the sheep. Alternatively, something new can be added to an old form—to a chess game, for example, one might introduce a new piece (an elephant, say) between the knight and the castle, completely changing the game. The first model we might call “variational creation,” and it is the method of a lot of the work now being done with computers. The second—“true creation,” or perhaps “transcendental creation”—seems more the province of the “genius”; we might suppose that an artist—or a genetic engineer, or any kind of “creator” for that matter—is the more godlike the more he or she has access to it.

If we study the matter closely, however, we find we are in trouble. First, consider biological morphogenesis as an example of variational creation. Every shape in which Earth’s living beings could manifest themselves is encoded within the existing genetic information as a potential, a virtuality. Some of these shapes become apparent, become real, with the passage of time, which produces variations in the shapes of these living creatures and thus realizes some of their different possibilities of form, whether by chance or, as in the case of the geep, through other complex factors. Since the sum of the Earth’s genetic information is limited, the sum of these virtual shapes is limited, but it is a very large sum. It is probably larger than the sum of the molecules that constitute the universe.

The duration of the universe is also limited—eventually it will lose all form, both its own and those it contains. (The forms of life on Earth will disappear much earlier than those of the stars and planets.) Thus many of the possible shapes of the Earth’s living things will certainly never become apparent, will never be realized, even if we were to accelerate evolution through computer-assisted genetic engineering. Thus it appears that variational creation may never exhaust its virtualities. It constitutes, then, a very challenging commitment.

Now consider transcendental creation. We have said it involves the combination of a new element with an old form. But where does that new element come from? It must be preexisting, for it is impossible to add to the universe’s sum of matter and energy. To be “new,” then, it must simply be new to the form with which it is to be joined. The two kingdoms of animals and plants, for example, never cross over into each other. Something like an exchange may occasionally happen—certain algae, for example, seem to serve as sensory organs for certain oysters—but this is more an example of cooperation than of true intermingling. Now if you could put sight into wheat, or leaves into horses, would that not be transcendental creation? You would have added something new—a “noise,” to use the language of modern communications—to an old form, to produce a new one.

Since wheat equipped with eyes, or horses with leaves, may be expected never to arise from natural evolution, the person who created them would be a godlike artist, a genius. But let’s not get too excited about this. If you produced horses with leaves (horses capable of photosynthesis), you would have made something much less interesting than, say, horses equipped with wings (horses capable of flying). In the first case you would have broken the rules of evolution; in the second you would have stretched those rules to the limit. But if variational creation is in effect inexhaustible, why do we need to resort to transcendental creation? By what right do we break the rules of the game, and at what risk? And even if the consequences were negligible, games are more fun when we stick to the rules; to win by breaking them is not to win at all.

Art, of course, is not only biology, and we tend to accept and even to expect its breaking of the rules. As the creator of form, the artist is committed against the universe’s tendency toward the indistinctness of entropy. Of course nature does produce variety of form—the Earth’s life is proof—but with the millennia these forms will lose their individuality, and in any case they are produced by chance. We have tended to want our artists to be geniuses, expressing their spirit through the “transcendental creation” of new forms. Those men and women who work with computers to vary preexisting forms, for all kinds of reasons besides esthetic ones, have seemed less “original” to us. But they are no less concerned with the proliferation of forms than is the genius. And their creation of form is methodical and deliberate, even in its play with chance. For all the interesting work being done with computers today, there remains a residual reluctance to accept them as a medium of expression; eventually, however, we may come to see them as infused with spirit.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paolo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographic, Arles. He has written various books on modern communications.