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Theory of Extensio and unity of life

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A text by Eugène Michel

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Human being is constantly developing himself.
Norbert Elias


The usual way to think life seems contradictory: we accept its unity and, in the same time, we separate radically three worlds: plants, animals and human beings.

The evolution is the answer. After the first cells and microorganisms, appears the separation between mushrooms, plants and animals. Each form of life develops a specific physiology upon few basic biochemical reactions. The continuity of life is also proved by community: the different forms of life depend totally one on each others.

Our theory of Extensio started with an analysis of human cultural development. But quickly, it met the continuity between plants, animals and human beings. The main principle of the theory is obviously available for all forms of life: the evolution goes in the direction of the extension of the relational field because it decreases the dependence on a limited environment that will be deficient in its role of supplier.

So, the work of our theory is to describe how a specific form of life extends its relational field.

In the simplest systems, the extension is due to the number. It’s easy to imagine the first cells in water duplicating themselves with separation. The loneliness of the cells shows their fragility. It’s logical that the evolution created the attachment of cells one to each others and upon solid surfaces. Then, the phenomenon that Georges Chapouthier calls the “mosaic effect” occurs: cells are integrating themselves in more complex systems. The spreading begins.  We will call “spreading”, the attempt of occupying permanently a surface. The fixing on a substrate seems a good idea to build more complex systems that will be more stable. But of course that won’t stop the evolution of unfixed forms of life.

Plants are directly using light for their activity. Animals are using previous forms of life and... plants or other animals. Using light is easy: you just have to wait that sun comes ! But the evolution turned toward hunting strategies. It’s not surprising that specialised cells  such as muscle fibers and neurons appeared: a cable connect sensation to motion. Fight or flee is the choice. Animals with social organisation and animals with words are the result of the constant increase of number of neurons and their connexions.

For human beings, oral and written words are making a radical difference: the exchange of productions appears. The theory of Extensio analyses how these exchanges have progressed: occidental human development can be described with four different stages made possible by the acquisition of new tools : senses in the maternal stage, gestures and speech in the family stage, speech and reading in the collective stage, reading and writing in the individual stage.

In summary, we get the following table in which the categories must not be seen as completely separated:

Forms of life Cells Plants and mushrooms Animals without words Animals with words
Non-social animals Animals with social organisation Human beings
Type of extension Surface occupation Surface occupation + Territory Surface occupation + Territory + Internal competition Surface occupation + Territory + Internal competition + Production for exchange
Consequences Number Number + Spreading Number + Spreading + Research of efficiency


The evolution is mainly based on the increase of specialisation and complexity. It doesn’t mean that previous forms are disappearing. Plus the fact that symbiosis is the rule. The most complex forms can’t exist without the previous ones. The extension of a form of life is not separated from the extension of the other forms. In example, animals can be seen has another chance of extension for bacteria.

In this discussion, we propose the concept of “spreading”. Spreading mustn’t be seen as a metaphysical concept. There is no intention in life. Spreading is a general definition of life for just logical reasons. Everything happens from two facts: life begins with reproduction which needs supplies. Life has started because a closed volume stable for a short time was receiving supplies. At that point, as soon as a more stable volume was appearing because it was just a little more complex, the need of supplies increased. The relationship with the environment is fundamental right from the beginning. The role of an environment is to contain the useful supplies.

But the first consequence of reproduction is multiplication. The shortage becomes soon inevitable if the newcomers are no more dispersing themselves in the ocean or if their supplies become complex. So the evolution will go in the direction of the systems that extend their relational field, which includes both physical extension and better ability to use the environment. The improvement of getting supplies makes the selection toward new species. Epigenetic (i.e. after birth) improvement is the characteristic of human beings. Some other animals get an epigenetic transmission but its improvement seems much slower. The invention of writing is a revolution because it definitely orientates human beings toward productions for exchanges, especially with the invention of money.

In conclusion, we can say that extension of life chronologically develops three steps: first, number ; second, spreading ; third, efficiency. Those three coexisting steps can be detected in the stages of cultural development that we have formulated: the “family” stage is near of number (having many descendants), the “collective” stage generates spreading (including private property), and the “individual” stage researches efficiency. Of course, production for exchange started at the family stage but it reaches its maturity in the individual stage. Nowadays, anyone must be able to evaluate its personal capacity of production and must improve it during his whole life. In the family stage, immutability is the main ideology. Norbert Elias is right to insist on the fact that the idea of development for children, adults or countries is recent.

Saying that human beings follow no different principle than other forms of life can be disappointing. But the consequence is rather democratic: anyone, at any stage of development, needs to feel that his life is in extensio, which means that his relational field is increasing, which means that the person gets, in a way or another, number, spreading and efficiency. Not so easy to realise at any time of the life ! The theory of Extensio – as we have seen in previous articles – formulates that the wisdom is that we help one each others to gently balance between habitus and inventus.

Eugène Michel
© July 2011

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