January 31, 2009 | Leave a Comment
I am a web developer by profession, trained in fine arts. My specialty in web design is creating websites and website features that enhance communication, eliminate barriers to cooperation, empowering individuals to accomplish social and political-change goals. I work with more than 1,000 organizations across the United States, teaching leaders of organizations how to use these new tools to break down barriers to change.
I also run a firm that serves over 400 businesses by building, maintaining and marketing their websites. Trained in the art of online organizing by Moveon, I advanced to the position of volunteer national coordinator. There I learned firsthand how to combine a focused, goal-based business frame of reference with a deep desire to encourage societal transformation.
My background is fine arts. As an artist, I specialize in brush and ink. The way that I have exercised my art also involves the breaking down of barriers. First, I seek to let go of conscious control of subject and process and allow my unconscious to determine the path and content of my productions. Second, the content itself, when successful, creates bridges between separated concepts, connections between not-obviously-related ideas.
I am not suggesting this qualifies me to be a person that shows how three different academic disciplines, separated by publishing opportunities, faculty, geographic space and academic traditions are, with no awareness, speaking the same language. Still, consider that an artist trained to transcend barriers and communicate the experience of transcending barriers might be a useful translator when it comes to communicating how evolutionary biology, neuropsychology and anthropology are working with an identical, describable dynamic.
A theorist is a storyteller stringing together patterns of relationship and information into narrative threads that can be explained and understood as a sequence of events. What the theorist may be forming into narratives may have little to do with sequence. Experience is multilayered, characterized by a number of nested and non-nested hierarchical levels violated by intralevel connections, often, if not usually, in a context characterized more by simultaneity than sequence. Observing the work of theorists in different disciplines is to understand their struggle of cramming outside-the-box, non-narrative experience into sequences of sentences that reflect how humans talk to themselves and to one another.
Artists are often trained to communicate non-narrative experience through narrative or non-narrative media. This is one of the things that makes art nurturing. Art provides a window into the non-narrative experience of being human. I would argue that non-narrative experience is most of our experience. That so many of us are so unfamiliar with our non-narrative selves suggests why our academic disciplines are so separated from one another. We are not trained to make connections, particularly when it involves connecting to the non-narrative, simultaneous nature of existence. Still, theorists seek to understand how things work and translate those workings into an understandable story.
As an artist/theorist, let me translate three existing stories, theories that explain how humans are humans in evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuropsychology, and show how these three stories are the same story by making up a new story that combines the three. Confined to words and sentences, this is a challenge. I have spent more time over the years seeking ways to translate or explain the ideas that my theory represents than I have spent time working on the theory. Yet, that is not exactly true. To seek ways to communicate pattern is also to experience the pattern. Over and over again, looking for a new way to tell the story, I stumbled across new aspects of the source content. Theory, as in art, is about experience and communication. Separating the two is perhaps impossible.
The study of social structure explores the polarities of female choice, with commanding, self-assured females relating to relatively cooperative males at one end arcing over to highly dominant males controlling procreation opportunities through guile and/or violence. We observe this spectrum in our great ape cousins, with the bonobo alpha female (the alpha male is often her son) leading egalitarian, roving bands contrasted with a dominating gorilla male managing a mostly cooperative harem of females. The same paradigm carries over to humans. Only, the human species exhibits both polarities at once. It’s not so obvious today because those of us in the West and the ancient East have been immersed in patrifocal, patrilineal social structure for several thousand years. Nevertheless, how we evolved as a species and how we transform as a society have everything to do with social structure dynamics and how we travel between the two social structure polarities.
The anthropological literature describes a number of environmental variables believed to encourage a community or species’ adherence to one of the two social structures. In this work, I seek to show how social structure can be explained by evolutionary biological processes of sexual selection and heterochronic theory in combination with neuropsychological discoveries. Heterochronic theory describes the influence of changing rates of maturation and timing on species over time.
Just as there is an arc of behaviors consonant with matrifocal social structure on the left and patrifocal social structure on the right, there is also an arc of features associated with whether an individual or species exhibits maturational delay or maturational acceleration. Maturational delay can manifest as neoteny or the prolongation of ancestor infant features into the adults of their descendants. The classic example is our chimp-like progenitors having babies with big eyes, large heads relative to body size, small jaws, playful dispositions, tendencies to express affection and an inclination to be curious. Over millions of years, those features manifested later and later in individual ontogeny until modern human adults looked and behaved a lot like our ancestors’ children. The reverse of this process is called acceleration. With acceleration, ancestor adult features withdrew to earlier and earlier ontogenetic stages over time until ancestor adult features appeared in the infants of their descendants.
When describing how humans evolve and transform, it is not useful to separate neoteny, acceleration and social structure. The reason this is the case is because human maturation rates are modified by a number of different environmental variables that simultaneously change social structure in a predictable, complementary fashion. When heterochronic theory is describing changing rates and timing of maturation, it is also describing how social structures regulate the speed of transformation and reversals of direction. In other words, whether a human society exhibits matrifocal or patrifocal features has everything to do with which heterochronic dynamic is engaged by which sex within a social structure.
This has a lot to do with neuropsychological discoveries that a mother’s testosterone levels regulate the testosterone levels and maturation rates of her progeny. A high-testosterone mother (inclined toward matrifocal social structure) gives birth to high-testosterone daughters and low-testosterone sons (the standard matrifocal paradigm). A low-testosterone mother (tending toward patrifocal social structure) births low-testosterone daughters and high-testosterone (patrifocal prototypes) sons. In addition, let us assume that the same applies to estrogen, though there has been little research on how estrogen proclivities are passed to progeny. Let’s say that a high-estrogen mother gives birth to high-estrogen daughters and low-estrogen sons. A low-estrogen mother births low-estrogen daughters and high-estrogen sons, mirroring in an opposite fashion the testosterone dynamic. Hypothesizing this to be true, an extremely potent hypothesis engages.
A twin paradigm is established. Maturation rates manifest as different social structures depending on which sex is provided choice when picking a mate. High-testosterone, accelerating females mating with low-testosterone, neotenizing males engender matrifocal social structure with commanding females choosing among cooperating males. This paradigm is enhanced when the females in addition exhibit high estrogen, males maintaining relatively low estrogen. Estrogen drives sexual selection and focuses on the features of a child. Estrogen enhances discrimination and caring. Match a high-testosterone female with a high-estrogen female and you get a very discriminating, commanding female seeking childlike qualities in her mate. You have the two sexes essentially evolving in two different directions, ontogenetically neotenizing and accelerating their ontogenetic stages in opposite directions. At the same time, the two sexes are manifesting as complementary opposites.
The reverse dynamic is evident in a patrifocal social structure. High-testosterone males, maturational-accelerated males, pick low-testosterone, maturational-delayed females exhibiting neoteny or the features of children. If, in addition, the males are high in estrogen relative to the females, then the males will be even more dramatically inclined to sexually select those females with childlike characteristics. Not incidentally, the low-estrogen females will be more inclined to participate in female infanticide, a hallmark of patrifocal society. Again, you have the two sexes evolving in two different directions while neotenizing and accelerating ontogenetic stages in opposite directions, female neotenizing, males accelerating, the reverse of the matrifocal paradigm.
Evolution unfolds in a pattern of the sexes exhibiting complementary opposite hormonal constellations, with maturation rates moving in opposite directions, flipping processes when a society changes from matrifocal to patrifocal.
When observing patterns playing across several disciplines, one sees the same dynamics manifest in the observations of handedness distributions in studies conducted by neuropsychologists. Handedness is closely associated with cerebral lateralization, which is informed by heterochronic dynamics. Observing those at the left end of handedness distributions, the random-handed or those without a gene for being right-handed (which is the same as having a tendency to have a smaller right cerebral hemisphere), is to observe humans with matrifocal tendencies, the ancient humans, the humans before the emergence of speech, cerebral lateralization and right-handedness. At the right end of the arc of handedness are the extreme right-handers, the patrifocal. Most of us sit somewhere in the middle.
Humans, over generations, move left or right along this handedness arc, depending on what influences them or their parents to exhibit maturational delay (neoteny) or maturational acceleration. There are a number of impact points, such as the mother’s womb, where testosterone and estrogen levels are impacted and maturation rates and sexual selection proclivities are repressed or enhanced, and even reversed.
We now have two complementing dynamics powering social change and evolution, pushing and pulling individuals closer and further away from ancestral infant or adult stages.
Mother’s testosterone levels > progeny maturation rate > social structure proclivity > evolutionary trajectory.
Mother’s estrogen levels > progeny ability to exercise aesthetic discrimination and caring behavior > social structure proclivity > evolutionary trajectory.
I hypothesize two feedback loops allowing multiple impact points between ontogeny and society and environment. Mother’s testosterone level > progeny maturation rate > social structure proclivity > mother’s testosterone level. Mother’s estrogen level > progeny ability to exercise aesthetic discrimination and caring behavior > social structure proclivity > Mother’s estrogen level. The environment can intervene at all three levels of both loops by either influencing maturation rates and timing (via testosterone) or by influencing the intensity of mate selection criteria (via estrogen), thus modifying the trajectory of social and human evolution.
Social structure (anthropology), maturation rates and sexual selection proclivities (evolutionary biology) and neurological observations (neuropsychology) all focus on an identical process as they seek to understand human and societal evolution. An artist trained to see connections and transcend barriers, an artist that also designs systems to encourage social change, has an advantage in looking at not-obvious-connections among different academic disciplines. That advantage has to do with assumptions. As a working advocate for social change, I assume we’re all connected and all the same.