An aspect of neoteny just struck me that has never crossed my mind before.  It perhaps suggests a basic principle in evolution.  I’m not sure.

Two days ago, I posted a piece exploring a paradox of recapitulation that focuses on an odd possibility.  When a species is in an accelerated phase and withdraws adult features backward over generations to eventually appear in the infants of descendants, adults may exhibit features of ancient forebears.  If the species lineage had in the past gone through a similar cycle, then that genetic inheritance would have been available, emerging when a similar hormonal disposition became engaged.

Haeckel may have been focused on that very dynamic as he obsessed on recapitulation as a source of new behavioral and physical characteristics.  What strikes me now is that though recapitulation (acceleration) is not considered at this time as a relevant description of evolutionary process, it does seem to be half of a process that results in a seemingly natural biological dynamic that not only withdraws species backward through ontogeny to conception but at the same time carries forward or prolongs features of this planet’s earliest species forward into adults.

There are two waves or currents moving through time.  One takes contemporary species and slowly turns them into future embryos.  The other current takes former species still existing as past and current species embryos and carries them forward into contemporary adults, their second journey though ontogeny, in the opposite direction.  Except, I’m not sure when or where the journeys end.

I find myself nudged to think out of time.  To make sense of this process, I feel encouraged to take time out of the equation of evolution to view evolution as the behavior of a single being.

Perhaps, as in physics, time is a variable when exploring evolution that has to be integrated into theory.  Trying to understand which level that evolution operates at, gene vs. individual vs. species, etc., and arguing over the results, may occur because we have not taken time into consideration when exploring species transformations.

Consider all evolution of life on earth as the behavior of one single being.  Let’s adjust time in the approach we take and instead see only phases of one being.  There is no father and son, nor mother and daughter.  They are the same being at different stages of development.  The death of an individual is a pruning or clipping or sloughing off of a cell or skin.

In this single being, life on earth, there are two strong forces that feed each other content, growing information where information did not formerly exist.  One force slowly takes the features of the current aspect of the being and pushes in backward, downward, earlier and earlier in ontogeny to reproduce species lineages as a sequence in the maturational process.  Human forebears appear in our ontogeny with salamander-like, ancient precursors, manifesting as early embryonic phases.

At the same time, of course, neoteny prolongs embryonic features to appear later and later in ontogeny with a succession of individuals and species.

Deeply peculiar is that the embryonic stages being prolonged to appear later in ontogeny over time are aspects or features of earlier species now recapitulated to appear as embryos.  In other words, and it seems easier to make sense of this if viewed as a single being, evolution involves the emergence of novel features, the “digestion” of those features to appear early in ontogeny, and to have those same features reappear, transformed.

Several things are implied and I’m having trouble wrapping my head around them.

I’m imaging that, over time, there is a back and forth, back and forth of features (and behaviors) as embryonized ancient species rebound to head forward in ontogeny to at some point recapitulate to work their way back down again and then back up.

Second, ontogeny (growth, development and maturation) may be a process characterized by the use and reuse of information as neoteny and acceleration propel features back and forth along the ontogenetic (and species) pathway.  Looking at all life as a single being, I imagine an astonishing compulsion/struggle/play to find ways to capitalize on the information being absorbed.  Shoved forward and backward, past manifestations inform the present.

Third, that which is earliest in our ontogeny, the exponential growth that follows conception, both characterizes the earliest species on the planet and at the same time represents forces struggling to appear later in ontogeny through neoteny.  There is a very real way that the first life on earth that lived long enough to reproduce and create our lineage exists right now, in our body, as the beginning of this individual’s ontogeny.

The content or process of growth after conception (at this moment, thinking out of time, I’m having difficulty separating content from process) IS the very content/process of existence in our ancient forebears.  Time disappears as we realize the past has been integrated into the present in the form of a body that manifests all that has preceded.

Consider this.  We are a highly neotenized species engaged in a neoteny surge featuring a social democratization of creativity with similarities to conception.  Stages of growth immediately following conception are at the same time stages of our planet’s ontogeny.  The planet’s early species are being used to propel individual ontogeny.  As we prolong infant features into adults, exploding creativity into society, horizontilizing culture, we are investing the present with that which invested earliest life with life.

Ontogeny is not just a concept that describes the growth of individuals.  Ontogeny is evolution of life on our planet.  That single life has exhibited many stages, with transformations occurring at many levels, not the least of which is the pulling backward and forward, backward and forward of that which is novel or unique.

Time, when integrated into physics, offered a handle on relations across great distances.  Integrating time into an understanding of biology, treating evolution as the behavior of a single being, may provide biologists an ability to understand a single life.


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