Ontogeny, Phylogeny, and Minds
February 28, 2011 1 Comment
I’ve been thinking often about the ontogeny (embryonic development) of knowledge happens again and again in human minds. I also know that Gould explicitly denied darwinian individuality to ideas, thoughts, and, separate from the human organism, minds. But Gould’s discussion of heterochrony and neoteny in Ontogeny and Phylogeny (his breakout book from 1977) is very relevant to the development of knowledge within minds.
Ideas have roots in an ancestral form. The transmission of this form can have errors (misunderstandings or innovations akin to DNA mutation, recombination, or direct alteration), but its material is hereditary. Two primary methods of ontogenetic variation are Neoteny and Heterochrony. Both of these terms are originally intended to compare related species, but they can compare demes or individuals as well, though the differences will be harder to detect. I suggest below that they can be used to contrast ideas, knowledge, ideologies, and minds.
Neoteny – Adults resembling infants or fetuses
This is essentially the obviation of adult features in sexually mature individuals. e.g. large eyes, small stature of miniature breeds of mammal. This is often perceived as ‘cuteness’.
Ideological neoteny should be seen as a regression of sorts, or a reversion. There’s a temptation to think of this as a pejorative of sorts but it’s important to ovoid this temptation. In ideas as in organisms, forms termed adult may not be most beneficial. A ‘juvenile’ state may be most optimal and neotenic individuals may reap this advantage.
It’s important to note too that this phenomenon can often operate on surface features only. e.g. Asian males (a human deme) tend to have a ‘juvenile’ pattern of facial hair into adulthood. But their bone structure, brain, and sexual organs are essentially identical to other males of the species. Ideologically, this can be seen as the appropriation or alteration of name-tokens for ideas (that have an effect on their attractiveness) as opposed to alteration of their deep structure.
It’s fitting to note here that Charlton has studied the concept of psychological neoteny. See “The rise of the boy genius“. This is distinct from the ideological or intellectual neoteny I’m proposing here.
Note that sexual maturity might equate here with being able to talk about an idea and that reproduction might be communicating an idea.
Heterochrony – 1) differing developmental timelines or 2) differing developmental growth rates
This will be more complicated and difficult to analogize and I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it here.
To identify heterochrony, it’s much more important that we delineate an anatomy of ideas. Once this anatomy is set, we’ll be able to analyze which parts develop at differing rates (or, essentially, not at all) in different minds.
What could be a useful anatomical deconstruction of an idea? What comes first (blastocyst?)? What next? HOw does it grow? etc.