Oyama Passage

February 15, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Maturation Rates

“To adopt Dawkins’ gene’s-eye view for a moment, we can see that it would make sense for a gene to take advantage of any developmental opportunity, without caring whether the influence originated inside its organism’s skin or outside it.  Viewing this widely ramified network of interactions in terms of extended phenotypes rather than of developmental systems, however, has several disadvantages.  First, if a gene’s phenotype may be part of another organism’s body, then any organism’s genotype would seem to be distributed as well.  Just what genes were part of that genotype, furthermore, would change with time, since different genes would ‘manipulate’ this particular body at different times.  Second, even if one retains a more mundane view of genotype roughly as that complement of genes enclosed within the skin, the organism in Dawkins’ account is not only something of an epiphenomenon to genetic wheelings and dealings (as it already seems in many sociobiological accounts), but a mosaic epiphenomenon to boot, created to run by its own genes and by the genes of multiple others.  The concept of the developmental system, on the other hand, incorporates the insight that a given phenotype is a product of quite a bit besides its own genes without doing away with the individual organism itself.  It is ironic to me that biologists who begin by being enthralled by the forms and workings of plants and animals sometimes end up analyzing them out of existence.”  (Susan Oyama, The Ontogeny of Information:  Developmental Systems and Information, 2d ed., rev. and exp., with a Foreword by Richard C. Lewontin (Durham, N.C.:  Duke University Press, 2000), p. 177.)

Reading Susan Oyama’s books on the battle among current genetic paradigms offers an experience not unlike observing wars among Western origin myths.  It feels less about which model is more useful and more about which views of the world feel intuitive to the theorists.  Intuitions often have social structure sources, informed by hormonal predilections.  That feels in play regarding genetic theory.  I find myself siding with Oyama, when I can understand her, but her tone suggests someone involved in a venture that is not fun.  She seems disgusted with the astonishing number of colleague-published accounts based upon hidden assumptions rather than upon observed conditions.

She cites dozens of academics I’m not familiar with, describing interpretations of genetic/environmental relationships in ways I find unfathomable, yet her point is clear.  Most male academics think that every living being in the world operates according to a set of instructions, less so by the relationships they form or the environment that they live in.

At this point, I feel comfortable interpreting the genetic algorithm outside the venue of individuals, as noted in the passage above.  Consider looking at any individual’s genes as shared resources of the larger system.  This view is accompanied by not looking at the individual as the level and context through which evolution operates.  This creates an opportunity to observe evolution outside our human obsession with noting parts, not wholes.

Natural selection as it emerged from the evolution theory synthesis in the mid-twentieth century often does not satisfactorily explain what we observe.  I believe one reason is that we are obsessed with interpreting the world from the scale of the individual, which happens to be the scale in which we as split-consciousness beings (self-aware beings) seem to spend most of our time.

Another reason is that implications of the new discipline, evolutionary developmental biology, are only beginning to be understood as regards the effects of social structure and the environment on maturation rates.

Both issues relate to autism.  The autistic often do NOT view the world from split-conscious awareness, but from a primary-process, presplit-consciousness orientation.  There is a world out there that exists outside materialistic, reductionist, cause-and-effect-relationship frames of reference.  A question is:  How do we integrate autistic and neurotypical paradigms?

If autism is a condition that can be partially explained by understanding how humans, species, ecosystems and systems in general mature, then perhaps we should be paying less attention to natural selection as a theory that offers solutions and more attention to alternative theories that concentrate specifically on maturation.


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