‘It’s in her DNA’ !?

This current cliche means no more than that family tradition and nurturing environment from an early age foster the development of skills through which someone displays exceptional aptitude and ability. Thus it is often said of young sporting personalities and musicians. However, taken literally, it would suggest there is something of the doctrine of Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), present in the popular mind.
There has been a similar stubborn hardiness with teleological phrases when describing the anatomical attributes or behaviour of animals by naturalists. J.B.S.Haldane said that for the biologist, teleology is like a mistress who cannot be publicly acknowledged but also cannot be completely renounced. The problem is that teleological reasoning appeals to a principle of purposive causation which differs from the blind causation of natural science. For example, if eyes are to function in the dark depths of the ocean, we might expect to find large apertures to admit the scarce amount of available light and such indeed can be found in some vertebrate and invertebrate species. And so one is apt to say the eyes have large pupils in order to permit vision in near darkness. Or if you examine the limb patterns of mammals, the basic plan is modified for swift propulsion in horses, or aquatic manoeuvrability in whales and dolphins. The majority, but by no means all evolutionary biologists, feel that such reasoning can be replaced by strictly causal reasoning. Dawkins phrase and title of his book, The Blind Watchmaker, captures this reductionist outlook. Another of his books, Climbing Mount Improbable, also looks at examples of the growing complexity of organisms over time and offers explanations in terms of random mutation and natural selection. This, of course, is in line with Darwin’s considered view that there is no evidence for progressive development in evolution. Against this are various versions of the argument from design, or in the absence of a designer, the self-organising properties of macromolecules. I have written of these matters in an earlier post, Some Thoughts on Neo-Darwinism. D’Arcy Thompson was among many who remained puzzled by how evolution could be reconciled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics which stated that less probable configurations ( ie more complex ones) would tend to pass to more probable ones (ie less organised ones). Human history, as well as natural history, at least in its happier periods, offers a counterweight to the imperiousness of the Second Law.
Shaw in his preface to Back to Methusalah records that August Waismann cut off the tails of mice for some generations and finding that all descendants had normal tails, adduced this as evidence against the inheritance of acquired characteristics. I found Shaw’s remark that what was needed was a stimulus to each mouse which was so traumatic that the tail broke off in reaction, both amusing and pertinent. One thinks of lizards, not that they afford any direct evidence of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Waismann’s most well known idea is the independence of germ cells (spermatozoa and ova) and soma (tissues and organs), but it is possible that they are not as absolutely independent as he insisted. Such at any rate is what I would want to suggest, on the grounds that living things find ways of greater integration both individually and over the generations.
I have to acknowledge considerable sympathy for Jung’s hypothesis that there is a collective unconscious. He noted similarities in the themes of myths and fairy tales from all over the world, and suggested there was a racial memory if not for specific events, then in a general disposition to make sense of human experience in terms of these recurring mythical themes. It seems to me Freud had similar views, for example in his book, Moses and Monotheism, in which he identifies usurping kings as bolstering their legitimacy by producing or having produced for them, fictitious genealogies. He concludes that Moses was an Egyptian not a Jew, a surprising and untestable hypothesis but not by any means wholly implausible.
My next two posts will be poems which contain illustrations of some of these themes with a few clarifying notes.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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