Inheriting the consequences

Here’s a lesson from biology. It’s not a biology lesson but a cursory, semi-informed look at scientific research that, I for one find, inspiring or possessing (non-scientific) existential value for further meditations.

There’s lots of lessons to learn, because there are lots of questions that are looking for answers.

Am I afraid of spiders, or snakes because people around me, inadvertently perhaps, taught me as an infant to fear them? Recent headlines suggested that scientists have discovered that my fears may be based on memories inherited from an ancient (perhaps prehuman) ancestor. Could that be true?

Is it nature or nurture? It’s an old debate. What conditions us more, our biological inheritance or our social conditioning? Are intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, tolerance, kindness, mental health, etc a result of our genes or our up bringing. “Both” is a legitimate answer but leaves pending the question of which is the deciding factor. Can one of them override the other?


It seems that generally, the nature faction tends to be home of “the right wing” and the nurture side of the debate supported by “the left”. There are exceptions but the reasons behind that basic split aren’t hard to understand.

Of course there are those who discover themselves trapped by both. As it says in Chapter 4 of the Inner Look:

IV Dependence
The second day:
1. Nothing that I do, feel, or think depends on me.

2. I am mutable and depend on the action of my surroundings. When I want to change my environment or my “I,” it is my environment that ends up changing me. Then I seek the city or nature, social redemption or a new struggle in order to justify my existence. In every case it is my environment that leads me to choose one attitude or another. In this way, my interests and my surroundings leave me here.

Aaaaahhh monkey business and so much more.

Me, I’d nominate Darwin for sainthood. Not so far fetched an idea from a Siloist perspective. Consider this fragment from chapter 13 of the Internal Landcsape.

XIII. Provisional Meanings

7. I want those saints who do not fear but truly love. I want those who day by day seek to conquer pain and suffering with their science and their reason. And in truth I see no difference between the saints and those who, through their science,
encourage life. What better examples could there be, what guides superior to these?

But, as important and revolutionary (and perhaps saintly) as he is, he was far from the first person to talk about biological evolution. And it wasn’t only his grandfather Erasmus Darwin who had decades before published ideas about how life’s origins, development and transformations. Erasmus, a doctor, inventor and naturalist, was also a poet and his last work on the subject of evolution was a book-length poem, The Temple of Nature, that traced a path from micro-organisms to civilizations . And Erasmus was also only one in a long line of thinkers, some scientists, others mystics, some both, who tried to understand how we got to where we are.

At the time of Darwin’s birth one of the competing and very influential theories was that of the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Among things that made his theory attractive was the moral implications people saw in its key ideas. The first was that life was driven to develop from the simple to the complex. It was a tree with more primitive forms as the roots and the most recent shoots, the more complex, more perfected versions. Modern evolutionary theory seems it more as a bush than a tree. No higher or lower, just more or less better adapted to the challenges of a specific environment. The simple bacteria living in deep sea vents aren’t a lower form of life. Just try to survive in their environment if you’re so smart.

The most famous of Lamarck’s ideas is that acquired characteristics can be inherited. He said that as a creature tried to survive in a changing environment the characteristics it developed through that effort could be inherited by their offspring. So if a giraffe had to stretch its neck to reach high-up leaves it’s young would be born with longer necks. If a horse had to run fast (to escape a predator for example) its offsprings would be fast horses. If you worked hard at something your kids were be better at it.

Those two ideas underlie how, more or less most, non-scientists today understand evolution. But biologists have long rejected the idea of teleology, of purpose and direction. They’d say life is not trying to get anywhere. It doesn’t have an aim, the apparent direction of evolution is just the result of particular organisms or populations struggling to survive and reproduce. If there’s a mutation (for longer necks for example) and it’s a useful adaptation (those giraffes get more, and more nutritious, leaves) those critters will have more offspring and the mutation could spread.

For scientists this idea of passing along acquired traits soon gave way to Darwinian ideas. With the rise of modern genetics we could even point to the specific mechanisms (genes, chromosomes, and eventually DNA) that underpinned Darwin’s notions.

There was good reason to reject teleology as an explanatory principle since it meant that you could just explain things by saying it was your god’s plan. It really seemed to undercut coming up with natural (scientific) explanations.

Of course when it comes to teleology many of us might feel that rejecting purpose or direction is prejudice based on unjustifiable and unscientific metaphysical assumptions for which there can be no evidence. In other words “who the hell says we can’t use teleology to explain things”.

So, for a long time the last traces of Lamarckism (outside of persistent misunderstandings by non-scientists) seemed to have died an ignoble death with the help of Soviet Communism’s rejection of modern biology, including the existence of genes, Stalin’s support of the work of Lysenko — who tried to reform Soviet agriculture on the basis of ideas similar to Lamarck’s. Like the Nazi rejection of Jewish physics, ideological imperatives replaced scientific research and ended badly for them (the Nazi’s the Soviets, Lysenko, etc).

But as time went on and the modern synthesis of genetics and Darwin’s theories proved itself again and again there are also appeared examples of something else going on. Something not explainable within the confines of that model. No it wasn’t, as “creation science might have it the hand of god. Nor was it that Lamarck and company were right all along — at least not quite. But evidence was mounting that traits could be inherited by mechanisms outside of mutation, and genetic drift. Those mechanisms are clumped together under the impressive name of epigenetics. That is something outside, above or on top of the (epi) the gene.

Current research has revealed a number of epigenetic mechanisms. That is the environment and the outcome of actions, can have effects that are inherited and actually modify the work of the genes. That doesn’t mean that giraffes have long necks because their ancestors had to stretch up to reach leaves, or that if you lift weights your kids will have big muscles. But it is quite possible that you inherited that fear of spiders from encounters your ancient (maybe pre-human) ancestors had with prehistoric poisonous critters. Though it might be closer to the truth to say you inherit an increased sensitivity rather than you inherit the memory of a fear. These mechanisms may also explain why identical twins who share the same genes can have very different behaviour.