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This is an overview of the basic perspectives of the field of scientific inquiry known as Biogenetic Structuralism, which I have found especially meaningful in terms of the contemporary convergence of science and religion.
As a human enterprise, science is broadly divided into the physical, biological and human sciences. The human sciences include things like psychology, sociology, anthropology and world religions; they are sometimes called "soft" science and hardly considered real science by those who work in areas such as physics, chemistry, astronomy. As a development in the human sciences, Biogenetic Structuralism dates from around 1970. It calls itself "Anthropology Plus" because while it centers on cultural anthropology, it does so in the context of brain and nervous system studies and of biological evolution. Because its perspectives are essentially both evolutionary and non-dualistic, it is highly relevant to the immense transition global humanity is currently experiencing.
The first book to have appeared spelling out its perspectives was called simply Biogenetic Structuralism by Charles D. Laughlin, Jr. and Eugene G. d'Aquili (Columbia University Press, 1974). While I don't understand all of it, what I do understand makes extremely good sense. It "feels right." As I've said before, I seem to be a "born" biogenetic structuralist. The following is an overview of the main points in that initial book's nine chapters. It's not easy material to follow, but in terms of the contemporary convergence of science and religion it is well-worth whatever effort we can give it.
Chapter I. Introduction to Structuralism. The authors begin by noting that "like Existentialism in the 50s, structuralism seems to be the topic of the decade (1970s)." They are referring, of course, to the world of the "human sciences." They claim that worldwide interest in the anthropological thought of Levi-Strauss and in the linguistic thought of Noam Chomsky "have made structuralism a watchword for many." Chomsky is still alive in 2007, which shows how recent all this is in terms of scientific research and helps explain why it remains unfamiliar to most of us; it takes a while for scientific discoveries to filter down to the popular level.
Definition. A structural system is a collection of things which is self-regulating and self-transforming: an inter-related group of changes that follow specific "laws" (or "principles") while preserving the original unity of the transforming system. "Self-regulating" means that the changes are internal, not external. These ideas come basically from Jean Piaget's Structuralism (Routledge and K. Paul, 1971). Piaget died in 1980.
To this understanding of structuralism as the "principles by which a system is self-regulating and self-transforming," the authors add a dynamic (developmental) emphasis, and apply this "biogenetic" (or evolutionary) view to the central nervous system of humans, as well as to cultural systems. So their context is nothing less than the whole cosmic process. They see anthropos as a significant part of a participatory cosmos.
Philosophically, orthodox Structuralism goes back to H. Bergson (1907), Whitehead (1929) and von Bertalanffy (roughly 1950s and 60s). Bertalanffy was concerned with what came to be called "Systems Theory" and these philosophical ideas eventually were applied to social studies by people like Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss and his student C. Levi-Strauss, who applied them to studies of human culture.
The basic structuralist idea is that systems of things only make sense in terms of the principles which govern the relationships of their components. One key principle is that there are both surface and deep levels to cultural systems and that we tend to be unconscious of the deeper levels. A second key principle is that, specifically at the deeper levels, the components of a structural system occur in pairs of opposites. (And since these can only be reshuffled in so many ways, only a finite number of transformations can result.)
While surface patterns in systems (cultural or whatever) vary due to extrinsic factors, deeper patterns don't. There are innumerable languages, for example, but despite their enormous "surface" differences they all have the same basic ("deep") structure. Speakers tend to be unconscious of the deeper structures regulating the language they are speaking, just as people generally are unaware of the deeper unconscious components regulating their behavior.
A second important idea which distinguishes Biogenetic Structuralism from Levi-Strauss' earlier ("semiotic") form of structuralism is that it sees reality not only as dynamic but also as wholistic (or non-dualistic).
(Note that non-dualism follows from the dynamic view: if the cosmos is developmental, then the anthropos-cosmos relationship is obviously wholistic as well as participatory. The issue, ultimately, with regard to the anthropos-cosmos relationship, is one of episteme: our understanding of understanding. This topic is dealt with nicely in the last chapter of the third Biogenetic Structuralist book, Brain, Symbol & Experience [see blog entries #1 and #7].)
Like much else of significance in our world undergoing an immense transition, neurological science began around 1875. And although much information was acquired in the 100 years since, "virtually none of it," say the Biogenetic Structuralism authors, was incorporated into the human sciences of anthropology, linguistics or sociology.
Note that, in this broader context of "Anthropology Plus," the word "structure" has several meanings. It can refer: 1) to the surface features of a system; 2) to the deeper relationships of components in a system (about which we are usually unconscious); and 3) to the literal (or physical) arrangements in the brain and nervous system. It is this neurological information that the authors want to make use of in connection with anthropology.
Looking ahead: Chapter II deals with primate brain size, Chapter III deals with pre-human brain development, and Chapters IV and V, the heart of this initial text, focus on the neurological basis of human consciousness. The remaining four chapters are concerned with applications of these perspectives to scientific research (VI), psychopathology (VII), sociology (VIII) and anthropology itself (IX). Fascinating stuff!
Chapter II. Cerebral Organization and Kladogenesis. This chapter has to do with the evolution of brain size in animals. A clad is a branch of the evolutionary tree where all the members have the same ancestor. "Kladogenesis" refers to the fact that, in mammals and primates generally, body size tends to increase over evolutionary time and the bigger the body, the bigger the brain. But bigger isn't necessarily better. For example, we know that Neanderthals had bigger brains than some contemporary humans, and that some humans today have brains only half the size of others, with no loss of their characteristically human qualities.
Chapter III. Cerebral Adaptation and Hominid Evolution. As early as 1886, the French physician and neurologist A. Vulpian noted that the difference between the human brain and the brain of the higher apes is minimal: "We are much closer to apes than apes are to monkeys." But it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that it was established (by J. L Holloway, Jr.) that complexity, not size, is what makes the difference. Hard to believe it was really that recently!
There was a controversy in neurology from the 1930s to the 1970s, with regard to whether brain functions have a specific "seat" (the "localists" view) or are spread out over much of the brain (as the "generalists" hold). The Biogenetic Structuralism authors take a middle position. Note that what follows deals with the major adaptive systems of pre-hominids and hominids; they are not yet talking about the specifically human brain.
The central idea here, without which most of what follows makes little sense, is that pre-human animal brains contain Association Areas; these are localized areas of the brain associated with those brain sites which are linked with each of senses. A major function of these areas is understood to be what the authors call "adaptive gnosis." That is, the Association Areas deal with information from the environment relevant for the survival of the individual and species.
Gnosis refers to re-cognition of objects in terms of in-born information and previous experience which is stored in the Association Areas. The recognition has an affective component, and this is what makes it adaptive for survival: if negative, the object can be avoided, if positive the object may be approached. Note that this "affect" depends on the links of the Association Areas with the limbic system (part of our inheritance from reptile ancestors); it also serves a prerequisite for primate socialization.
Four important systems of the primate brain, constantly referred to in further works, are described:
1) The Visual-Limbic System, by which most conditioned learning takes place. Sight and the visual Association Areas strongly connect with emotional responses (affect, feeling, cathexis ["what we hold to"]) which are invested in the things of the external environment that are visually encountered. The Visual-Limbic System underlies motivation and such things as imprinting (in birds), and the primate infant attachment to mother and group cooperation; it thus allows for socialization.
2) The Visual-Soma-Esthetic-Motor System. It links vision and touch with the motor Association Areas; it is responsible for orientation in space and also is pre-adapative to tool-use and tool-making.
3) The Frontal and Frontal-Visual System. Jane Goodall in 1964 reported that chimps are capable of primitive tool-use and tool-making, where relationships must be perceived and organized both temporally and spatially, and irrelevant elements ignored. This is an activity of the "anterior convexity" of frontal lobe; it allows for sequential ordering, dis-attention to irrelevancies, goal-directed behavior, problem-solving and space-and-time relationships.
4) The Frontal-Thalamic System. This system allows for subject-object (or self-other) awareness.
All four of these Association Areas are found in pre-human primates. There is also a specifically human Association Area (present also, but only in rudimentary form, in chimps): the Inferior Parietal Lobule (or Parieto-Occipital). "Its importance," say the authors, "can not be over-estimated."
The Parietal Lobule includes the angular gyri (a ridge on the cerebral cortex) and involves what are referred to as cross-modal associations.
In animals generally, the Association Areas for each of the senses are linked separately to the brain, but in humans there are "cross-modal" connections between the various Association Areas. These cross-modal connections allow human learning to be to some extent independent of the limbic (affect or emotion-bound) linkages.
Note that it is sense-data involved in the perception of an object to some degree independent of emotion which is the basis for conceptualization or categorization; i.e., for seeing similarities and being able to group things into classes or groups in their absence. This ability is related to the representation of groups or classes via artificial (arbitrary, non-iconic) signs; i.e., to our capacity for language.
It was not known until the 1960s that the human brain exhibits "hemispheric asymmetry of function," i.e., that we have a left-brain and right-brain. One side (originally called "dominant") controls language, logic, perception of quantity and "symbols" (in the sense of representation of classes of similar objects). The other, "non-dominant," side has a specific wholeness or "gestalt" (Jungian "Intuition") function.
As I've said, none of this is easy, but it's well-worth whatever efforts we can be give to it.
Chapter IV. Cognitive Extension of Prehension. Together, Chapters IV and V are the core of the book. They deal with the neuro-anatomical basis of human consciousness. As I see it, these ideas go a long way to resolving philosophy's age-old mind-body problem by helping us to see that "there is no problem." Thanks to this neurological perspective, we can see that dualism, whether philosophical, scientific or religious, is an unnecessary imposition on our human self-understanding. It was understandable in earlier times; today, thanks to neurological science, it's just not needed anymore.
The term "prehension" refers to the kind of knowledge pre-human primates have, and the "cognitive extension of prehension" refers to the specifically human kind of knowing based on it. Human consciousness only makes sense in terms of prehension, which is why the preliminary Chapter III is so important for understanding these two core chapters (IV and V).
Whitehead describes prehension as having three factors: a subject (knower), an object (the known, data) and how (i.e., the "way in which") the knower knows the known. He probably was talking about humans, but the same ideas apply to pre-human primates. Note that the "how" does not refer to the technological "means by which" but rather to the "mode in which" the knower knows the known.
This "mode in which" the knower knows the known is described by 18th-century philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He realized that a knower understands the known as being connected (or related) in one of only three ways: that they are like one another, or they are near one another (in space and time), or that one is the cause of the other. Note that these three ways or modes of knowing are all relational. The authors call similarity and nearness "immediacy" (or "simultaneity") and describe "causality" as "things flowing one from another."
They define "prehension" for higher primates in terms of two things: 1) the input of data through the senses to the brain; and 2) the simultaneous association of that data with data already stored in memory within the brain. For life's survival, the incoming data is compared with what's already known. Note that the stored data generates expectations, and that those expectations are themselves capable of being, and constantly are, modified.
In pre-human primates, the stored data is located in the various sense Association Areas described above; in humans it is spread out more, "like a holograph, where the whole is in each part by way of interference patterns."
The authors note with honesty that the use of holography as a model for brain information storage is simply the latest in a series of attempts to make sense of brain activity in terms of technology; earlier models included clock, switchboard and computer. They also refer to the stored information, the "seed crystals for human behavior," as the "cognized environment," distinct from the "external environment."
It's probably not obvious, but that distinction they are making is, in more familiar language, the distinction each of us makes all the time between the external world and ourselves as conscious participants in it. While it may seem to get in the way, the neurological jargon-- if we can stay with it-- greatly helps in our understanding of the mystery that we are. And especially in our self-understanding as "the cosmic process become conscious of itself."
An important point, for example, is that the "stored information," even that which is in-born, constantly gets modified via life-experience; expectations are matched up with unexpected data, and modifications of our cognized environment result. Equally important is that these modifications are physical ("anatomical") changes in the physical links and electrochemical activities in the brain. The process is called the Empirical Modification Cycle; it has a central place in the scientific understanding of our personal and cultural development.
Over-riding all this is one more process, equilibration ("diachronic equilibrium" or "equilibrium with duration"): in the continual monitoring of sense data with the stored information, so that only unexpected data is retained. It's the retention of this new information that modifies the stored data. Again, it may not be obvious, but these ideas provide us with the beginnings, at least, of a neurological understanding of how our life-experiences change us.
The authors note that the conventional understandings found in Learning Theory, of classical and operant conditioning, may lack validity simply because those ideas were formulated without taking neurological information into account. As understood from a Biogenetic Structuralist perspective, any learning that takes place either confirms or modifies a pre-existing neural structure. Some modifications are retained only for a short time, others are more permanent. (These ideas are related to an understanding of sleep; too much to talk about here!)
The authors use the jargon phrase "common sense" to refer to prehension in primates. When prehension is extended beyond common sense it becomes cognition. Their main point is that in humans, the concepts, causes and expectations can be about non-present things: the same kind of comparison-activity takes place as in prehension, but in the cognitive process the data comes from within the organism's brain and nervous system. Perception of the immediacy and/or causality of things not present in the external environment obviously has high survival value.
This comparison of components of stored information, rather than from in-coming sense data, is true "cognition" ("consciousness" or "human intelligence"). It is clearly less stimulus-bound, and thus allows for the reformulation of stored information-- in terms of decisions, novelty, creativity, newness.
Language apparently evolved to communicate this kind of non-externally present information, and only primates with human (or close-to-human) intelligence can have language. (Chimps seem to have some kind of non-verbal language ability. )
The authors define awareness as "an extremely heightened experience of direction, causality and purposiveness." This is an important statement. As I see it, it almost identifies human awareness with the (Jungian) Thinking function and, thus, with the basis for the contrast between stasis and dynamis. It implies that human awareness is not something distinct from the developmental aspect of the world but that personal consciousness is what the evolution of the universe is all about. The next chapter enlarges on this fundamental point.
Chapter V. Neuro-gnostic Models: Structure and Content. Chapter V, on the nature of human consciousness, expands on the understanding of how sense data is processed in terms of how it fits with previous information already stored in the brain and nervous system. The basic idea is that any sense data that enters the brain is immediately compared with already-there previously stored sense data.
A main point the authors make is that any "already-there" models (structures) are made up not of some non-material 'substance' but of the links and networks of the brain's matter (neural cells) which are themselves based on genetically determined structures. They are saying that basic human neuro-gnosis is inborn, the result of primate evolution, so that the mystery of consciousness (awareness, cognition, intelligence) comes from the material DNA base.
It's especially important to note that this rejection of mind-body dualism is not a reduction of mind to matter; it presumes the non-traditional understanding of matter which emerged in 20th century science. Just as Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics do, so Biogenetic Structuralism sees physical matter as something quite different from what it was assumed to be in the pre-20th century rationalist and positivist stages of science.
The authors distinguish neuro-gnosis and neuro-gnostic structures. By neuro-gnosis they mean what we usually call awareness or consciousness: the "informational content" of the models (neurological structures), that "of which we are aware." Neuro-gnostic structures refers to the media of nerve cells and their networks in which this information "is coded" and by way of which "it can be modified." Our inherited gnosis-ability is the result of a newly emerged evolutionary complexity. ("New" in terms of primate evolution). In brief, neuro-gnostic structures are the brain cells-and-networks and neuro-gnosis is the consciousness resulting from their activity.
The authors also make the point that this distinction is directly analogous to the structure-and-function distinction in other areas of physiology where organs and organ-systems are understood to function together for specific effects. The activities of our brain cells and their physical and electrochemical linkages result in conscious awareness in the same way that the components of the respiration-oxidation system, for example-- mouth, nose, lungs, heart, veins, arteries, all transmitting oxygen to the cells-- result in those energies which we call "life." The life of any living thing is itself a mystery; the human mind (soul, psyche) is no less so!
It's important to keep in mind that the neuro-gnostic structures are not something static, but rather a dynamic field of electro-chemical reactions. Yet again, the importance of seeing reality dynamically rather than statically is apparent. Consciousness is that inner version of the world which is there for our (individual and species) survival and which, for that reason, has both cognitive and affective aspects.
In humans, the structures are in the "dominant" lobe, but in fact it is all one big complex reality. The "wiring" is stable; and while much is learned (acquired), there is also much that is built-in. Built-in knowing includes categorization or conceptualization. This is an important understanding for anthropologists because it allows them to make sense of the view which sees the diversity of human cultures as "always and everywhere" similar at the deeper, "structural" level.
Just as human bodies are much the same everywhere, both externally and internally, and we call their workings "life," so the human brain is "externally" (anatomically) the same everywhere, and we call its workings "neuro-gnosis" (or "psyche" or "consciousness"). That is, humans are universally similar in things like reasoning ability, emotions, image-making and group behavior. The authors offer five groups of evidence for this in-born, characteristically human, neuro-gnosis: from C.G. Jung, C. Levi-Strauss, Linguistics, Ethology and Learning Theory.
Jung's work is mentioned first. The authors say his ideas were "ahead of its time." Levi-Strauss' work came later (1940s); his main point was that "human cultural institutions have very similar structures." The authors add: Biogenetic Structuralism exists to say "And this is due to the human brain and nervous system." Hard to imagine that this basic insight about human nature dawned on us less than fifty years ago!
Levi-Strauss was first to note that social "principles" especially manifest as binary opposites. (So do Jungian archetypes, according to the authors, although that's not obvious to me). Language has a deep structure, just as do the universals of logic and of archetypal imagery.
Additional evidence for neuro-gnosis appears in ethological data (re bird migration and bird song) and in Learning Theory. (The data, about pigeons pecking keys, is painfully dull to deal with, but its implications are important in terms of what's called "learning preparedness" or "inborn neuro-gnosis.")
An especially significant implication of all this, in terms of the convergence of science and religion, is that humans are prepared ("genetically wired") to learn via certain patterns of knowing such as story and myth. Another is that latent neurognostic structures require specific kinds of stimuli (a la Maria Montessori) in order to be activated.
We have an inborn drive not only for food and sex (for the sake of life-survival of individual and species), but also for gnosis itself. We have an inborn drive for understanding the meaning of sense-data, and this results in our abilities for things like problem-solving and tool-using.
That is, we need to understand, to predict, to make sense of things. The same cosmic process that produces atoms and molecules, and living things when the temperature is low enough, produces conscious awareness when the neural complexity is high enough. For the survival of life, the cosmic process urges us to neuro-gnosis. Biogenetic Structuralism called this in-born impulse, given to us by the universe, the "cognitive imperative."
There are three main ways in which the cognitive imperative 'urges' us to process (organize) sense-data for personal and collective survival; each has some fascinating implications:
1) We 'order' (or organize) reality in terms of "I and not-I." (This is the most basic polarity, based on the fundamental drive to ordering via pairs, which itself is based on space perception and is manifest as images and myths. The authors say these ideas can be appreciated only by familiarity with Levi-Strauss' views.)
2) We 'order' reality into causal sequences. And, the authors note, when there is no obvious initial source to a sequence, the brain and nervous system makes up one. (They also point out that if we are unable to order into pairs and/or sequences, we experience fear. And they note that the scientific enterprise is characterized by holding back on making up causes. This seems to me an especially fruitful area to explore in terms of the convergence of science and religion which I hope to deal with in future blog entries.)
3) We also 'order' the reality of our communal lives into flexible social structures in preparation for disasters. (This is the Boy Scout ideal: "be prepared." It's an obvious Sensation-activity. And since sequencing is a Thinking-activity, the cognitive imperative would seem to be quintessentially "masculine" in the contemporary cultural sense.)
In contrast, the three ways in which we relate to reality seems quintessentially "feminine." Of the three kinds of sense-data knowing, one is the social drive (relating to con-specifics); another is relating to things (objects), with resulting feel-good or feel-bad affects (such as a mild "mastery euphoria" or depression (and even depression has survival value: by reducing violence when an alpha male needs to move down the hierarchy for a younger male to take his place); a third way of relating is to specific things, as negative phobias (snakes, insects, etc.) and positive soteria (such as the mother bond and sex-objects).
Needless to say, these two central chapters (IV and V) of the 1974 Biogenetic Structuralism text are tremendously challenging. But they also are, as I've said, utterly fascinating. And their relevance with regard to the convergence of science and religion is enormous. Having been a teacher for forty years, I know that much (maybe most) of this conceptual material is not retainable on first hearing. So in my next blog entry I will offer a summary of the main ideas which, in conjunction with this overview, will help interested readers "hang in there."
The remaining four chapters of the 1974 text spell out some applications of the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective. What follows are just a few sentences about each chapter, to round out this overview and offer some hints about the far-reaching aspects of this perspective.
Chapter VI. Evolution and Empiricism. This chapter is about the development of science. The main point is that "science" is an everyday human activity and that it proceeds exactly as does the development of human consciousness. The essentials of the "scientific method" are the alternation of induction and deduction, exactly like the Empirical Modification Cycle for individuals and cultures. A scientific hypothesis for unexplained data holds the same place in the progress of science as do symbols in the process of personal growth and development.
Chapter VII. Structuralism and Language Acquisition. The introduction to this chapter offers a good summary of the main ideas of this first book on Biogenetic Structuralism, and deals more than previous chapters with those ideas specifically in terms of cultural anthropology.
Chapter VIII. Psycho-pathology and Evolutionary Structuralism. This chapter helps make sense of pathological states from a Biogenetic Structuralist point of view. It includes sections on schizophrenia, clinical depression, alcoholism, phobias, obsessive-compulsive traits and the "more or less permanent" learning deficit which can result when a person "does not receive appropriate input during a given critical period."
Chapter IX. Implications for Social Science. The final chapter deals specifically with ideas about the need for the scientific field of Anthropology to get its act together. If I've understood it right, it is saying that there is no such thing as "culture" in an objective or reified sense. That is, that "culture" has no reality apart from the brain and external environment (any more than consciousness has). And that maintaining (in either case) that it does, simply separates Homo sapiens from all other species; it is yet another form of scientific and religious dualism and precisely one which allows for human exploitation and degradation of the environment. The authors call for the end of "culturology," as they call it, and for the establishment of a "nomothetic" (i.e., laws- or principles-based) Science of Humanity.
As I've said, fascinating stuff!
Tuesday, June 19, 2007