Sunday, September 23, 2012

Culture as Phenotype and Evolution's Crystal Ball

The issues are in the tissues.

A massage therapist once shared with me that piece of trade wisdom.  She was making a point about the interplay between mental and physical discomforts. She was not the first to link the two.

Scottish Psychiatrist R. D. Laing in the 1960s and '70s, following onto Freud and Jung, proposed that earliest experiences in life inform not only personal psychopathologies but also the myths of the tribe. He was interested particularly in myths that share a pattern with prenatal and early postnatal developmental histories and suggested that the mythic tales might recapitulate the adventures of zygotes, embryos, and fetuses.

Uterine Endometrium Adopting
The Newly Arrived Blastocyst
In The Facts of Life, Laing cites the story of King Sargon. As an infant, the future king was placed by his parents in a reed basket and sent down river. He drifted until AKKI, the gardener, rescued him, and AKKI then raised the foundling to adulthood. The adult Sargon then stepped into the world to become king of Assyria. Laing, as have others, pointed out the parallels between this story and that of the biblical Moses. The infant Moses also was placed by his parents in a basket and set adrift, was adopted and raised by his rescuer and eventually left the home of the rescuer to assume a position of prominence.  Laing could have included among his examples a more contemporary hero, Superman, whose parents placed him as an infant into a "basket"—a rocket ship—and sent him downstream—through interstellar space—from the doomed planet, Krypton, to Earth, where the Earthlings Jonathan and Martha Kent discovered and adopted him. The Kents raised the infant, whom they named Clark, to adulthood. The adult Clark Kent then relocated from Smallville to Metropolis, where he assumed his superhero identity.

The stories recapitulate the journeys and development of the zygote, embryo, and fetus, suggested Laing. That is, the stories parallel the prenatal story: A zygote, encased in a membrane, called the zona pellucida, travels downstream—down the fallopian tube—until, as a blastocyst, it is adopted by the uterine endometrium. Attached to the uterus, it matures into a fetus, and at the requisite time it is born into the world.

Laing also cites correspondence between Freud and Jung in which the psychoanalysts discussed another natal motif, that of the doppelganger, the hero's atrophied and subordinate twin. Examples of hero/doppelganger pairs include Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Romulus and Remus, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Cain and Abel could be cited. The psychoanalysts interpreted the weak or unfortunate twin as representing that lost, discarded companion, the placenta.

Although Jung is most associated with the notion of a collective unconscious, Freud, too, toyed with the idea of a sort of phylogenetic memory. In a manuscript he shared with colleague Sandor Ferenczi, published posthumously as A Phylogenetic Fantasy, Freud speculated that some psychopathologies developed as reactions to conditions encountered by our ancestors during the ice ages.

From DNA to Phenotypes

The arrival of the first neurons provides the embryo with a mechanism, prospectively, that can record experiences, that is, with a memory. But the developmental stages prior to the appearance of the first neurons must record experiences by other means (if at all). Some other means must come into play also if phylogenetic memory can be a realistic prospect.

Aside from neurons, the physical medium that manages information during development and from ancestor to descendant, is DNA. As an organism develops, epigenetic regulatory mechanisms, such as methylation, preserve patterns of genetic expression and repression--patterns of genes being turned on and off. Such control systems enable a single genotype to produce the many cell types that make up the body of a complex organism. The zygote possess all of the genes needed for nerves, muscles, skin and the other tissues that make up a body. The necessary genes express themselves or get expressed, and repressed, in a predictable sequence as the organism develops. The differentiation and the stabilizing of the differentiated types is managed by epigenetic regulatory mechanisms.

It turns out that epigenetic controls work in much the same way during evolution. They enable relatively slight genomic variations to produce the Earth's wealth of species. DNA turns out to be highly conserved during evolution, with epigenetic mechanisms shouldering much of the responsibility for the diversity of phenotypes. This is so much the case that some researchers have proposed that science adopt the model of a "universal genome," referring to the stock of DNA that is conserved across species. In Universal Genome in the Origin of Metazoa (Cell Cycle 6:15, August 2007) researcher Michael Sherman argues precisely for such a common genome. His case rests largely on the presence of genes in descendant species that are present already in remote ancestral species.

Sherman's insight was anticipated in 1999, in an article by researcher W. H. Holland that appeared in Nature (Vol 402, Supplement, December 2, 1999) titled The Future of Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Holland says,

"So many examples of [DNA] conservation have now been found that it is no longer considered surprising. We can now state with confidence that most animal phyla possess essentially the same genes, and that some (but not all) of these genes change their developmental roles infrequently in evolution."

Holland's assertion looks increasingly on target, as researchers catalog a growing number of genetic "toolboxes" and "master genes" common across species.

What goes unremarked in "universal genome" proposals is that they imply a state of affairs that conflicts with science's current view of nature.

Namely, such proposals imply that evolution constitutes the unfolding of pre-programmed developmental stages, which implies that evolution is a process of development, an ontogeny.

And that implies that DNA harbors information about not only the evolutionary past of species, but also about the evolutionary future of species, in the same (or in some similar) way as it harbors information about not only the developmental past—e.g., totipotent and pluripotent cell phenotypes—of a fetus but also about the kid's developmental future. And just as myth and ritual, the "deep grammar" of culture, can express or encode developmental stages, as Laing and others have suggested, so too might they express or encode evolutionary stages, past and future.

Evolution's Crystal Ball . . .

Leveraging this insight, the star larvae hypothesis proposes its own interpretations of tribal lore.

+ Ascension
= Stellar Metamorphosis
Astrology, for example. Why did ancient peoples the world over attach so much significance to the night sky's twinkling dots? Stars served navigators as references, but beyond that what inspired the ancients to conclude that those dots held sway over human fortunes and misfortunes? The dots gave off no heat, nor any sound. They could not be touched. They emitted no scent. Why imagine that they had any practical consequences at all?

The star larvae hypothesis suggests that the history of astrolatry, astrotheology, astral religion, and astrology, the last with its persistent following, all express an intuition of humankind's collective calling, which is to participate in the stellar life cycle. The star larvae hypothesis takes the star as biology's imago and so gives stars a stake in human affairs. The varieties of astral concern suggest that the ancients intuited an intimate relationship between stars and humans.

Another oddity is the religious sentiment that takes the astral world to be one of prospective human habitation, whether in the flesh or in the spirit. What possessed the ancient world to conceive of the skies, turf of the twinkling dots, as not only a hospitable, but an essentially utopian, habitat, something to long for and work toward? The association of heaven with the sky and the promise of human ascension to it, in their various forms, via flesh or soul, are peculiar religious conventions. From what wellspring of imagination do such wild ideas arise?

The star larvae hypothesis suggests that the mytheme of "heaven above" anticipates the literal ascension of space habitation. Heaven, the astral planes of the occult traditions, and other intuitions of rarefied, extraplanetary realms reveal something in DNA that looks forward to a celestial, weightless world.

Traditional Rendering of Transhumans
Folkways also report a grade of extraterrestrials intermediate between humans and stars, the angels. These winged, weightless entities get rendered variously, but a persistent form is that of the putto, the winged infant. What is behind the convention that uses flying babies to represent evolved spiritual beings?

The star larvae hypothesis suggests that the putto is an evolutionary signpost, that the infantilized extraterrestrial anticipates the morphology of human descendants in space, which the hypothesis expects to become radically neotenous, due to the effects of weightlessness on the developing organism.

. . . Reveals Also The Past

A related folkway, with precedents that include the incubus, the succubus and the dove that impregnated the mother of Jesus, is that of the Ancient Astronauts, extraterrestrials who screwed with human culture and human genes.

UFO enthusiasm and conspiracy theory dovetail here, where extraterrestrials breed with humans or otherwise modify human stock to create a hybrid race. Conspiracy theorist David Icke proffers a model in which this hybrid race conceals its reptilian nature, constitutes the ruling class of the Western world, and sports a bloodline that winds its way back to ancient Babylon, or at least to that cold-blooded Vlad, the Impaler.

It turns out that about 8 percent of the human genome consists of nonhuman DNA. These alien DNA sequences are viral, evidently inserted into the human genome by infections suffered in antiquity. Viral DNA sequences, such as these, that become part of the host genome, are widespread among creatures. They are called endogenous retroviruses.

At the cellular level, it turns out that only about 10 percent of the cells in a human body are human. The other 90 percent are bacterial, symbionts without which human metabolism would cease. Researchers studying the complex ecology of the body have coined the term microbiome to designate the body itself as a complex ecosystem harboring dozens of species.

So, the human body plays host to alien genes and cells. But did the aliens arrive from outer space? The circumstantial evidence continues to grow.

Stowaway on a Meteorite
From the ongoing discovery of more, and more complex, organic molecules in space, to the discovery of extremophile organisms that survive in environments to which terrestrial selection pressures could not have forced adaptation, to apparent remnants of micro-organisms in meteorites, the circumstantial case for panspermia—the infall of viruses and micro-organisms from space—becomes more solid every day. The Ancient Astronaut stories might be onto something, even if the extraterrestrials that penetrate human bodies in no way resemble the expected humanoids.

Culture As Phenotype

The point of all this is to suggest that the evolutionary program is available for reviewing and previewing through myth and lore, and perhaps through psychopatholology, as is the developmental program, which is to suggest a reappraisal of evolutionary psychology.

The star larvae hypothesis suggests that DNA carries, or transceives, information pertaining to the psyche's archetypal forms—heroes, demons, initiatory transformations, and so on—just as it carries, or transceives, information pertaining to the anatomical forms of mouths, hands, hearts, and so on. This is a conservative formulation. It shouldn't rock any boat in the world of evolutionary psychology. It adheres to the scientific dogma of materialism and method of reductionism. It suggests a sub-discipline: Evolutionary Archetypal Psychology.

Where comparative mythology finds cross-cultural patterns—ubiquitous mythemes—parallel characters, plots, and storylines—there evolutionary psychology should propose evolutionary causes while recognizing that information about potential form—that is, about possible future forms—commingles with information about extant and extinct forms.

(This formulation also recalls the Platonic doctrine of Forms, which regards this world as the translation of abstract potential into a set of physical actuals. The physical forms are determinate variations, or particularizations, of indeterminate potential. As the Platonic Form of "triangle" includes three angles, excludes curvature, and is indeterminate regarding area, the genome of a species of shark, or the genotype of a particular shark, includes fins, excludes lungs, and is indeterminate regarding spatial volume. Specific cultural renderings of, say, the heroic journey, similarly represent particularizations of indeterminate, archetypal forms. The stories share common patterns but vary in detail by local custom.)

If ethology and/or sociobiology and/or gene-culture coevolution and/or evolutionary psychology and/or behavioral ecology and/or niche construction are to be taken seriously as science (sorry, but the evolving vocabulary seems more politically correct than scientifically expedient, though one can hardly blame the scientists, because the notion of behavior's genetic roots aggravates sociocultural tensions—see for example the recounting of sociobiology's reception at Harvard in Promethean Fire, by E. O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden), then culture must be seen as a phenotype, which is to say that history is in the genes, which is to find the issues in the tissues.