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August 19, 2019

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    Introduction to "Organumics," an Excerpt

    July 15, 2019

     

    The Introduction to Ben Callif's forthcoming Organumics: An Epigenetic Re-Framing of Consciousness, Life, and Evolution (August 1, 2019), excerpted in its entirety. This material is copyright protected. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author or publisher is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the book and author Ben Callif with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

     

     

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    “So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller still to bite ’em, and so proceed ad infinitum.”

    —JONATHAN SWIFT

     

    The Revolution of Evolution

     

    In contemporary society, there are many valuable ideas percolating and developing in laboratories and the halls of academia that remain unknown to the general public. Epigenetics is one of these—one of the most revolutionary ideas to arise in biology in the last century—but far too few people seem aware of it, much less understand it. One important aspect of epigenetics is the notion that personal experience and the experiences of our ancestors affect our biology. These changes can be expressed variably in our lifetime and can also be passed on to future generations. Epigenetics is only now becoming a hot topic in scientific research, even though the idea arose in the early 1940s,[1] approximately ten years before the helical structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was discovered. Although the field is relatively new, epigenetic researchers have already made an array of stunning discoveries. Some of the most interesting and novel findings that are emerging from the field include the idea that our environments and experiences profoundly alter our genetic expression and that biological inheritance extends far beyond the transfer of DNA from parents to children—a concept broadly known as epigenetic heritability.

     

    As controversial as evolution still remains in some segments of the population, epigenetics is equally as debated in scientific circles. It is well substantiated that epigenetic phenomena occur, but many experts in the fields of development, biology, and evolution debase the concept as the unscientific conclusions of poorly designed experiments. Even those who accept the results of recent epigenetic experiments tend to treat them with trepidation. In the minds of some scientists, the biological changes observed in these studies are too small to affect the process of evolution.[2] While a healthy skepticism is necessary for the proper practice of science, it is worth noting that evolution by natural selection was also met with staunch criticism by the old guard.

     

    The theory of evolution by natural selection and the field of epigenetics both seem to induce similar kinds of cognitive dissonance in people. This could be because it is difficult for humans to notice the constant changes our perspectives, memories, and bodies go through. Similarly, but perhaps more understandably, we cannot directly observe the extremely slow and consistent process of natural selection. This inability to recognize gradual change is partly because of a perceptual bias known as change blindness. Change blindness is the psychological term for how difficult it is to notice changes on the timescale of seconds, let alone years or millennia.

     

    The resistance to these macro-level changes, however, can also be connected to the limitations of the modern-day human perspective. In the past, religious mythologies contained pantheons of gods or hierarchies of angels that represented the way in which humans are embedded within much larger organized systems.

     

    The objective mindset brought about by the scientific enterprise seems to conflict with the mythologically-based subjective framework that is passed on through religious tradition. The newfound objective infrastructure of perceptual reality (grounded in the impersonal, at-arm’s-length scientific paradigm) has yet to replace these religious hierarchies with a comparable concept to unify the various Levels of Description (LoDs)[3] that are imperceptible to individual human consciousness, like the unconscious emotions that motivate and guide all of our behavior or the psychic forces that synchronize human thought, purpose, and action into organizations of all sizes—like interpersonal relationships, families, companies, governments, societies, and beyond. Until such an all-encompassing framework can be reconciled with mythological thought, science and religion will continue to contradict each other.

     

    It is always possible that science will reverse entirely and proclaim the research on heritable epigenetics as unexplainable nonsense, or as the overinterpretation of experiments with poor controls and confounding variables. But, as the evidence continues to grow, it seems highly likely that an epigenetic concept of heritability which is not solely dependent on random genetic mutation will revolutionize our way of thinking about not just evolution, but the human experience in general. For example, it has been shown that rats can inherit specific memories from their parents and grandparents, and there are preliminary studies which suggest that such heritability can happen in humans as well. In some creatures this epigenetic heritability can be maintained for hundreds of generations. These results hint at a hidden influence on our thoughts and behaviors—the thoughts and behaviors of our ancestors.

     

    Since the field of epigenetics is so young and full of disagreement, professional researchers are wary to disseminate specific findings or even the general theory to the public. The fear of stepping from experimentally validated facts into pseudoscience is understandable, as many scientific laity have already been hijacking epigenetics to support their own non-scientific beliefs[4] (and yet, these pseudoscientists may be on to something when they claim that epigenetics has the capacity to revolutionize not just evolution, but the understanding of human nature). This book alone will certainly not clear up all the confusion and disagreement. Rather, this work is intended to be an empirically-based extrapolation of what the future may hold for heritable, epigenetic expression patterns, which ostensibly allow experiences to pass from generation to generation. If such epigenetic theories turn out to be even remotely true, they have deep implications for philosophical topics like the origins of life, the progression of biological evolution, and what it means to be a conscious organism.

     

    This Book

     

    To simplify and compartmentalize, this book is split into two parts. The first part is my best attempt at a light, easily understandable, and meaningful overview of the basic biological concepts that lead up to epigenetics for a general audience. The idea is to give non-scientists a grasp of the mechanisms constantly operating within our bodies while simultaneously providing enough interesting factoids and trivia to entertain those with some background in biology. Part one will compile evidence that a view of evolution solely focused on genes is wholly incapable of explaining heredity and natural selection.

     

    Part two will build on the scientific knowledge from part one to both explain epigenetics and to explore the implications of epigenetics that are more philosophical and speculative rather than scientific and realistic.

     

    Part two will continue the pattern of part one, with a mix of interesting science and important facts related to epigenetics and evolution. This includes discussions of how memory and behavior seem to be heritable across generations (Chapters 8 and 9) and the idea that identity itself is likely inherited to some degree as well (Chapter 10). The concept of Levels of Description (LoDs) will be introduced to describe the embedded and seemingly infinite dimensions of reality that we use to describe the perceptually inaccessible layers of the universe, which will lead into a discussion of consciousness and its relation to biological evolution (Chapter 11). Finally, my term organum (Chapter 12) will be introduced as a self-directed, self-contained unit of replication subject to natural selection.

     

    Organumics, Life, and Consciousness

     

    This book is in part a response to the current tension between molecular biology and our human Level of Description (LoD). Neo-Darwinian theorists proclaim that the gene is the main substrate and primary unit of natural selection. However, from the human perspective, we play this role. As this book will discuss, NASA defines a living organism as a self-contained system that undergoes natural selection. And yet, according to the modern synthesis, we do not directly undergo natural selection, the genes that compose us do. Organumics attempts to resolve this tension by expanding the definition of life from organism to organum—an extension that takes into account the collective and stratified nature of life. Individualism is still a vital component of this theory, but only within the context of an infinitely connected and inseparable universe of collaboration—a single organum always exists within a group that composes a larger organum, and all organa are themselves composed of groups of smaller organa.

     

    The seemingly infinite number of organa in the universe occupy overlapping and hierarchically embedded LoDs. Indeed, the word “organum” literally means a medieval polyphonic plainsong made up of multiple voices chanting harmoniously, and this is exactly the idea that organumics intends to portray about biology—that all life is a harmonic composition of interdependent units occupying the same space and time, but on different levels. The course of this book will describe how this framework implies that there is an arbitrary, but explanatory line to be drawn between the first living things and the first conscious things. Epigenetics creates a path to see that life (organa) arose when consciousness began the process of self-replication. But before all of that, we need to start at the beginning with the history of evolutionary theory, molecular biology, and the genetic revolution. We can’t see where we’re going until we know where we are and how we got here. Let’s begin.

     

     

     

    [1] Conrad H. Waddington, “The Epigenotype,” International Journal of Epidemiology 1, no. 1 (February 2012): 10–13, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyr184.

     

    [2] David Haig, “Weismann Rules! OK? Epigenetics and the Lamarckian Temptation,” Biology and Philosophy 22, no. 3 (June 2007): 415–28, https://doi.org/10.1007/ s10539-006-9033-y.

     

    [3] Levels of Description (LoDs) refer to the different levels or dimensions with which we conceptualize our reality. Things in one LoD are nested within things in another LoD—for example, the way that galazies are made of solar systems and solar systems are made of planets. This embedded pattern seems to extend infinitely in all directions (up and out as things get bigger, down and in as things get smaller. See Chapter 11 for more about levels of description.

     

    [4] David Gorski, “Epigenetics: It Doesn’t Mean What Quacks Think It Means,” ScienceBased Medicine, February 4, 2013, https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/epigeneticsit-doesnt-mean-what-quacks-think-it-means; Adam Rutherford, “Beware the Pseudo Gene Genies,” The Guardian, July 19, 2015, www.theguardian.com/science/2015/ jul/19/epigenetics-dna--darwin-adam-rutherford.

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