Saturday, November 10, 2007

#23. Ontogenetic Development

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I called my previous post (#22) "The Other Half of Person" to stress the point that there's more to the mystery of our selves than our individual consciousness.

The focus of many of my earlier postings has been the evolutionary and neurological perspectives of contemporary science which allow us to see that our individual consciousness is not something separate from, but an integral part of, the evolving universe-- and that each of us, as an utter unique expression of the cosmos process, is called to make a personal contribution to it.

In each entry I've also tried to show how I see these scientific findings about ourselves as individuals converging with some of humanity's core religious values.

Now I want to expand the context to include the social, communal and relational aspects of the mystery which we are, the "other half" of our reality as persons.


Some readers may feel that seeing ourselves in a cosmic and evolutionary context is already a big enough challenge.

But that immense transition in human self-understanding, which began at the end of the 19th century and is essentially a shift from the static worldview of past centuries to the evolutionary perspectives of modern science, also includes the shift from a personal and private to a social and communal self-understanding.

Just as the words "science" and "religion" mean something more nowadays than they once meant, so does the word "person." So I want to look now at another area within the Biogenetic Structuralism perspective, one which especially helps us to understand the social and communal aspects of ourselves: cultural anthropology.

When we see person in the broadest possible scientific perspectives of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution, the resulting communal and social aspects of our self-understanding allow us an even richer sense of the convergence of contemporary scientific perspectives with the insights of humanity's core religious insights than we have if we are looking only at the individual aspects of the mystery of person.


But the findings of cultural anthropology are even less familiar to the general public than those coming from contemporary brain and nervous system studies.

I'm often asked, for example, by persons who know of my interest in evolution whether I think evolution is still going on in human beings. When I answer, "Yes; it's called culture," I usually get blank stares. So the transition I'm making now in these blog entries, from an neurological to an anthropological focus, may not be clear to readers.

The problem is that we're just not attuned to thinking in terms of culture, let alone thinking of humanity's cultural development as a continuation of the cosmic evolutionary process that produced stars, galaxies, plants, animals and ourselves. It's tough enough for many to grasp the fact that human consciousness has emerged from the cosmic process; seeing cultural development as also part of the cosmic process is even more challenging.

But as I said in the previous post, it's only when we can see that the social-relational nature of personal consciousness is also a part of evolution of the universe-- from the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies and stars to the emergence of life on Earth and the development of the primate brain-- that it becomes clear why culture is such an important concept in the converging perspectives of science and religion.


In moving from an neurological to an anthropological focus we need to keep in mind the distinction between the primal emergence of conscious awareness among our animal ancestors several million years ago and the growth and development of individual consciousness as it takes place in every human being today.

That first kind of conscious emergence is called "phylogenetic." It's what happened in that group ("phylum," in a broad sense) of mammals out of which primates and eventually humans arose. It's the transition from the second to the third stage of complexity in the cosmic process as it takes place on Earth.

To make sense of phylogenesis we need to think about primate brain structures in terms of things like the cognitive extension of prehension and cognized environment, and I have talked about those concepts in many previous blog entries. The key idea is an understanding of the neurological structures of the primate brain which allow for the adaptation of the individual and the species to the external environment.

Biogenetic Structuralist researchers use words like "assimilation" and "accommodation" to describe what's happening in the brain of individuals as they take in and/or adjust to what's encountered in their world. And they note that it's always for the sake of survival.

The second kind of conscious emergence, which the Biogenetic Structuralists refer to as "ontogenetic" development, has to do with the normal pattern in the development of self-awareness in individual human beings. ("On" and "ens" are Greek and Latin for "being.") It's this ontogenetic development-- ontogenesis-- that's a principal focus of cultural anthropology.


While the findings of neuro-physiology help us to understand the phylogenetic emergence of human consciousness, the perspectives of cultural anthropology help us to understand the emergence and growth of self-awareness as it occurs in every human being.

That phylogenetic emergence was a transition from the second to the third level of complexity in the cosmic process, which first happened, probably in Northeast Africa, about two and half million years ago. In contrast, the ontogenetic development of human consciousness begins with the embryological development of every human child and continues throughout the life of each of us.

Biogenetic Structuralism sees three distinct stages to the ontogenetic development of consciousness. And, as I've said earlier, it's here-- in our perception of the growth and development of the "other half of person"-- that the convergence of understandings from the human sciences and from global humanity's religious insights begins to take on an even richer and fuller sense than previously.

So my focus in the next few blog posts will be on cultural anthropology, especially on how the Biogenetic Structuralist researchers see the development of human consciousness in terms of social and communal relationships taking place in three separate stages.


To get a good sense of our communal and relational aspects we need to see something of how personal consciousness develops in each individual, of what ontogenesis is all about.

As I've said, the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective sees it taking place in three stages. And even from the brief descriptions of these stages which follow it becomes immediately apparent that they are of great significance in terms of global humanity's religious perspectives.

It might be better to call the stages "phases" since, while they are sequential, there's also a great deal of overlap.

And of course, as with everything connected with Biogenetic Structuralism-- or indeed with any specialized branch of science-- there's a lot of jargon to deal with. "Ontogenesis," as a term for the growth and development of personal consciousness, is a good example. And you may remember from earlier postings that these researchers like to use the Greek term, gnosis, for consciousness itself. They also use the term neuro-gnosis to emphasize that it's the structures and functions of the nerve cells in the brain which are the basis for our conscious gnosis.

So our topic here is ontogenetic neuro-gnosis-- or even neuro-gnostic ontogenesis. (It's no wonder these scientific findings haven't filtered down to the popular level!)

And even finding simple and clear names for the three stages seems to have been a problem.

Biogenetic Structuralists refer to the first phase of ontogenetic development as "received gnosis" but they also talk about it as "beliefs." The second stage of personal conscious development is simply called "experience" or "personal experience." And the third phase is referred to as "transpersonal" or "contemplative" experience.

Needless to say, that word "contemplative" will rings bells for anyone interested in religion and spirituality. I hope it can serve for now as a hint, at least, of the extent of the convergence of the perspectives which I think can be found in Biogenetic Structuralism's understanding of cultural anthropology and humanity's religious traditions.


I will describe those stages or phases in the ontogenetic development of our personal self-awareness within the cultural context in the next few posts.

Meanwhile, I want to step back a moment to emphasize that we need to keep in mind that we're trying to see that ontogenetic development of each human individual in the very largest context possible: nothing less than the entire cosmic process as it takes place at three levels of increasing complexity.

I spelled out that long view in post #8 (Background to Biogenetic Structuralism) and more specifically in post #16 (Our Own Inner World). Here's a quick review.

The first level is that of matter: from the Big Bang and the evolution of galaxies, stars and planets. The second level is that of life: the emergence of life on Earth several billion years ago and the development by way of fish, reptiles and mammals, of the primate brain. And the third level of complexity is that of mind: the emergence of personal self-awareness several million years ago.

As I've said above and stressed in the previous blog entry, we also have to take into account the fact that there's an "other half of person," what we call it "culture"-- our social, communal and relational side.

And we need to keep in mind that, from the anthropological perspective, "culture" means whatever humans do that's not controlled by our genes and instincts.

It includes anything and everything that needs to be "passed on" from more experienced persons to the younger and less experienced for the survival of life: all the learning, skills and information which need to be passed on precisely because they are not part of our instinctual or genetically-based behavior.

My purpose in reviewing this "largest possible context" for human cultural development is to make the point that it's only when we can see ourselves in this very large cultural context that we can understand our place in the scheme of things specifically in terms of dealing with our contemporary concerns. I have in mind things such as equality, peace and justice issues and environmental problems.

The issue is still life's survival, just as it was in the original phylogenetic emergence of consciousness several million years ago.

When Al Gore acknowledged the Nobel Peace Prize, he observed that the ecological crisis is a spiritual issue. "It is," as he said, "a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity."

I couldn't find a better example of the need for an understanding of the contemporary convergence of scientific findings and humanity's core religious insights.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.