Where you draw the line between individual and species or individual and society has a lot to do with our ability to understand ourselves and evolution. This line is not an arbitrary line but characterizes what we perceive as the primary unit. As humans, we maintain individual self awareness and so view the world as composed of those units that create the foundation of the structure of our world.
Dawkins and his colleagues have played with the gene as the foundation unit and have come up with some interesting conjectures. Though I disagree with many Neo-Darwinians that behave compelled to believe that the level of the gene is the only important level of selection, I agree that there is usefulness in taking a gene perspective. What interests me now is not just the Neo-Darwinist perspective, or even the Gould position that evolution occurs in numerous levels, including gene, individual, species, groups and larger systems. The idea that is playing with me at this time is that using units to explore evolution strips the process of the dynamic hidden at its core.
I’m feeling that just as in physics, in biology, by assuming that there are patterns that play across the whole matrix being explored, we can find overriding principles. Natural selection is not a description of overriding pattern. By stating that all variation is random, that the progeny that emerge have no connection to environmental influence, the theory of natural selection is not true. Individual progeny exhibit features and behaviors based upon both parents’ experience and that individual’s experience in the womb. This leaves natural selection noting that individuals that don’t procreate don’t have their features passed on. This is not an overriding pattern in biology. This is a statement of truth across all scales of experience. What does not procreate, does not procreate. This is truth. But is it useful?
An overriding pattern is a principle, once embraced, that illuminates the operation of the whole. In physics, we have observed an evolution of overriding principles as theorists have explored relationships in time.
Time is important. So is the scale at which we are exploring experience. We might conclude that because time and scale are so integral to physics, they may be necessary to understanding how biology evolves.
So, let’s explore biology by adjusting time and scale, and by scale I also mean where we choose to assign identity. As humans committed to the notion that individuality is the unit of experience with which nature and society builds, as a species committed to the idea that there is a past, present and future, we might consider stepping outside the individual as a unit, and time as split, and see what results.
If physics benefited from a conjecture that time is relative and everything is connected, why not biology?
I would start with the notion that our genes are programmed to embrace information generated by the environment that then adjusts ontogeny, modifying features and behaviors. These adjustments are inheritable. There is pattern to the fashions that genetic/environment information is passed on, the most obvious being that developmental stages are liquid, sloshing forward and backward along ontogeny through generations, modifying maturation, changing features and behaviors.
Now take down the walls between individuals and consider that what we call the environment is but another aspect of a single system. As information passes back and forth between individuals, influencing features and behaviors, there exists consciousness, a consciousness not characterized by our idea of time. There is not past, present and future informing a decision-making process featuring a focus on an individual. In this larger system, past, present and future exist simultaneously because the system is hypersensitive to the information passed back and forth between individuals, individuals with ontogenies that manifest the back and forth, forward and backward records of evolutionary trajectories of the past.
In other words, within each individual is the record of his or her evolution to that point. Individuals relating and sharing information influence each other’s features and behaviors. Each individual relies upon that information to make informed decisions on which direction to evolve. We might even surmise that an individual’s genetics are a profoundly incomplete record of what is necessary to grow and reproduce in a healthy fashion. The genetics of other individuals, individuals sharing useful information, may be integral to the genome of other, different individuals and species. In other words, a community has a shared genome that informs the evolution of each individual, all together.
The concept of individuality disappears when we consider that we only evolve by taking into consideration the influence and genetics of individuals in both our and other species in our community. The concept of time disappears when we note that species’ pasts are present in individual ontogenies that reveal, via maturation, the succession of features that comprised our forebears.
What benefits are there to adjusting identity and time to embrace the system as a whole? Perhaps we’ll discover we’re not alone.