MENTAL ONTOGENY RECAPITULATES MENTAL PHYLOGENY


RODNEY CHANG, 1978

 

Long ago some primordial soup received the miraculous type and dose of energy to activate the chemical ignition necessary to initiate life. Actually, it probably occurred time and time again before the environment remained stable and proper enough to sustain it and permit the biological code to develop to a highly complex state of being able to reproduce itself. Talk about the odds of such a combination occurring in such a chaotic world!

Once a self-sustaining chemical/physiological code had developed, it probably never diverged much from a central course of refining sophistication. All living things today rely on identical biosystems to sustain their species-specific evolutionary and morphological differentiation. All living things have similiar solutions to the same life-supporting problems of appendicular support (skeletal system), locomotion (muscular system), digestion (adding new foreign material to one's own composition), respiration (breathing in life-sustaining gases), circulation (transporting energy, nutrients, defenses and waste products throughout the body), nervous system (awareness and interaction with the immediate environment), endocrine system (regulatory hormones), and the urogenital system (removing waste products and reproducing one's type). All the cells that compose the larger organism have intracellular microsystems handling these these basic requirements of maintaining life.

Along with all the physical biochemistry must go the intricate coded information to run these infinite reactions. Thus emerged the biochemical beginning of the thing we refer to as a living "thinking" entity. We "think" to maintain homeostatsis or equilibrium and growth in our life; an individual cell accomplishes the same tasks vital for itself to succeed in remaining alive. How can there not be a hidden continuum between the autoregulation via the nervous system of a single cell and the supposedly complex realm of human emotions?

Nature's sense of practical economics in organic functional design and creation has left all things with a common ancestry - the cell. Darwin, in the nineteenth century, introduced the theory of animal evolution that included man derived from the apes. He claimed that through adaptive differentiation and "survival of the fittest", all living things that inhabited this planet, past and present, are antecedents of something simpler or at least similiar.

But along with this physical evolution went the species specific mental information coding or "memory". Although all animal brains have the basic functional parts, morphological proportions and shapes vary drastically across animal classes. Compare the proportionate different our brain size to that of the earthworm! But the basic requirements of regulating the biological systems of circulation, respiration, and so forth, form a central intelligence core that cannot be denied as existing in any and all living things. Although secondary adaptive needs tax and cause evolution in the nervous system of an organism, the automatic or autonomic life-supporting regulators continue with a silent commonality. We (via our automatic nervous sytem) are not alone.

As things evolved physically, so did their minds (nervous system). Modified neural development had to evolve in order to support changing adaptive morphology. It is interesting to speculate, what came first - the physical mutation or the mental one? Anyway, as a living thing, plant or animal, changed to be more fit to compete in a particular ecological niche, the brain mechanism had to adapt to the added level of environmental complexity. As each step's problem on the path of morphological evolution is solved through "natural selection", so must the intelligence hardware evolve and progress accordingly. Who's to say whether or not the essence of each sequential step of mental development is not recorded and stored in the developed progeny of evolution? In fact, Ernst Haeckel, in the late nineteenth century, coined the phrase, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." That means the chronological and physical development of an embryo/fetus reveals the sequence or unfolds the stages of animal evolution. For example, gill-like slits are noted during the early weeks of human fetal development. And the environment is similiar to that inhabited by one's simpler ancestor - it's aqueous. All animal fetuses during the first days of development look remarkably alike. Can it not be that, to support such physical structures at relatively similiar early morphological development, only the similiar evolved mental operations are necessarily concomittantly developed and operating to sustain the established stage of fetal physical form?

MENTAL ONTOGENY RECAPITULATES MENTAL PHYLOGENY. As the stages of evolution unfold as the fetus develops, so do the corresponding stages of mental development. At the age of five days, the thinking development of the fetus may be no different from that of whatever lower form of life had the comparable mental capacity and limitation. I'm not saying that we go through a stage of life with the mentality of a fish and everything else along the line of evolution, but I am also not denying my belief that there are common threads of behaviors interwoven through the essence of living things... from the "simple" amoeba to us - and beyond.

Through studying other forms of life we may discover unknown parts of ourselves. The Chinese assign animal types to people born at different times of the year, cartoonists interject anthropomorphism into living animals and convincingly succeed in it. Every living thing for the artist has "character'. Could it not be that all this concoction of human feelings is only an erroneous interpretation of a simple fact that our emotional involvement with other species of the world is not our creation but a natural consequence of a mental origin from identical ancestral fathers?

With the passage of time, the diverse forms of living life and form evolved. As the body changed into a particular form to accomodate to a particular environmental niche, so did the mental genetic material. By tracing the phylogeny of physical living change one can also restage the development of living mentality through time. And like exploring the soil sediments for the records of phsyical change, so can one submerge back into time to explore the depths of our mental origin. But we should not only discover how other living things are similiar and different from ourselves but also use the revealed and recognized behavior as a possible revelation about our own essence. Locked within the phrase "mental ontogeny recapitulates mental phylogeny" is the record of our mental evolution, from the single cell to our present consciousness. Words like "trance" and "sleep" are very humanistic; could they not really be describing subhuman thought processes that were pioneering directions of our subhuman ancestral past? Could not worms also "sleep" and moths also go into a "trance" hovering around the porch light? I hypothesize that within the realm of Freud's "unconscious state" is a fathomless body of separate levels of consciousness, each corresponding to a specific evolutionary development of our mental heritage. Many of our altered mental states may just be the manifestation of the remaining or residual mental past of ourselves.

Freud divides the human mind into the conscious and the unconsious. It may not be as simple as that. There seems to be a dynamism between the two contrived parts, so that, in actuality, they are one and the same at different simultaneous peak levels of mental activity. For example, many times something we experience is so powerful that we experience it simultaneously as real and as fantasy. An example is disco dancing. We can appreciate the mastery of bodily movements to craft good dance style, yet at the same time lose ourselves in an euphoric realm unknownst to other dancers. We seem to always relate to the world with different simultaneous mental states. We can love and hate at the same time, create and destroy, laugh and cry. Who's to say how many specific and discrete levels of thinking is operant in order to be or remain in "love"? Everyone knows that human emotions are complex thought processes, but that doesn't necessary mean that any thinking organism other than ourselves is only capable of simplistic thought processes.

Here is the theory. Along with the evolution of our bodies to the beat of environmental adaptation marched the development of our cognitive processes. And, like the recapitulation of our physical origin during our fetal life stages, so blossoms forth our evolutionary history of mental change. Our minds are not just a polished and finished human product, but an amorphous entity of intelligent mechanism adequate to support long past different ancestral forms of life. All these levels, whether conscious or unconscious, today play their vital part in keeping us not only in psychological equilibrium and in environmental harmony, but alive.

 

Pygoya, Portrait for "Primal Instincts" Show, 1985