DO YOU KNOW YOURSELF?
A TALE OF GENETICS, ENVIRONMENT AND CHAOS
A work-in-progress documentary film, by Daniel B. Arvizu & Shenny A. Madrigal.
Darwin’s baby follows the venture of an illustrator and a cartoon science-philosopher in their pursue to uncover one of the great mysteries of human identity, the extent to which biological mechanisms influence human behaviour. Is there a dimension where the inbuilt program of the mind ends and the self begins?
With the participation of Dutch science philosopher and writer. C.J.J. Buskes.
The original Soundtrack by Italian composer, guitarist and improviser Alberto N. A. Turra & Singer-songwriter Sarah Stride.
Darwin’s baby was selected for a development grant by the Sundance Institute in 2020.
Recent psychological experiments have shown that people generally have a poor knowledge of themselves. What’s more, that our self-image has little to do with our actions and perceived identity. Apparently, the answer we give to the question, –Who are you?– it may be an illusion.
By the time the ancient greeks had inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi –Know thyself– the paramount importance of the injunction was well established.
But regardless of the ancientness of the command, the question. –Who are you?– or more precisely, –Why are you the way you are?– are questions that in our days (in the post-darwinian revolution) can be answered in the most exciting ways ever imagined.
Our species has just recently achieve the capacity to look at itself from a new perspective, other than the philosophical o theological one, but instead from a biological one.
Since its inception, just some decades ago, the subfield of evolutionary biology has exposed the tight hold that biological mechanisms have over our existence. A hold which in turn is influenced by an intensely, entangled interaction with the environment.
As the field has grow and expanded, research has shown how broad the province of environment is. Environment as the food you ingest; environment as in the sociocultural context; environment as the ecosystem; environment as in the emotional dimension; environment as all of the above, but experienced by the ancestors. Environment is still being defined.
To complicate matters further, there is a third character in this process, an unknown and unpredictable force which will influence the way the events will unfold. We will call it “Chaos” for convenience. In every mutation; in every cell duplication, in every enzyme manufactured, in every synapses, chaos is on duty.
As if they were braiding a braid, the interactions between the biological dimension, the environment and the decisive influence of chaos, shape us.
Thus, –to Know Thyself–, you should –Know thy species first–.
YOU CAN'T SPELL –COMPLEX LIFE– WITHOUT EUKARYOTE
ODE TO EUKARYOTE
It may seem as an overstretch going all the way back to the eukaryotic origins in order to understand the ways of our species. But the foundations laid down at the origin of life, the relationships that were established, the agreements, the associations, all the mechanisms that regulate the parts involved, are still in place, active and well.
Look at you.
Fully clad in flesh and bone.
It’s been a long road, for you to built this form.
Do you remember?
All those millions years ago, when you were swimming along friends and foes.
No one knows how you two came to get along.
(Around two thousand million years ago)
The globe is teeming with your brood.
Oh chimeric Eukaryot
I’m afraid to ask, but, are we just a bunch of cells and microbes on a trench coat ?
This is attested by the collection of microbes, –bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea–living in and on body organs, such as the oral cavity, mucosa, skin, mammary glands, the gastrointestinal, respiratory and urogenital tracts.
A number of essential body functions are taken care of by these microbes, assisting us with digestive processes, helping us manufacturing vitamins, influencing and helping regulate our immune system, even in many cases protecting us against diseases.
The relationship is even more shocking when confronted with the fact that only a percentage of our bodies is build up from human cells, a recent estimation pointed out to only the 50%, while the rest is composed by the microbiome.
When we are born, we are born amnesiac.
There is no way we could be aware of the long road our genes have traveled.
All the alliances we've made, and how many times we have parted ways.
Though, our inner self is very aware.
FROM EUKARYOTE TO HOMO SAPIENS
THE LONG ROAD
Most of our history we have had a contentious relationship with microbes, since it was impossible to understand their nature only through clear cut reasoning. It was only through technological advances that their true value was recognised.
The grim reality is that roughly half of all species on earth are parasitic, this is reflected in the substantial number of species that in an attempt to curb parasites chose to reproduce sexually, in spite of being a costly process, and in many cases even disadvantageous.
It is in this regard that the poem "The Hollow Men" of T.S. Elliot is commonly quoted;
Living complex organisms are made up of independent entities, built upon the integration of many different structures and systems working as modular components, each one with its own set of rules, needs and priorities. Subordinating their own interest to a common purpose, at least most of the time.
Evolutionary biologist David Haig defined individual organisms as –social selves– collective entities, made up of genomic constitutions, with non-identical evolutionary interests.
Richard Dawkins think of the body as a colony of genes, and the cell as a convenient working unit for the chemical industries of the genes.
While on her part, Lynn Margulis thought of the individual as a colony of collaborating bacterial genes.
Our first clue, living organisms aren’t unified entities: each individual is a multitude.
"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper"
I don't get it.
Is the individual the painting? Meaning, the piece of artwork. Or are we just the canvas?
Is the phenotype the pigment and the genes the sitter?
Then, who is the hands' painter, the microorganisms or the genes?
But then again, who is the brush?
By contrast, there is the other category of microorganisms, which are openly detrimental to our health, –the parasites–, viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and worms.
This sort of microbiome evil twin, has had an enormous influence over our journey. Wether decimating populations, or shaping our behaviours, whether manipulating us or through the sociocultural rules established in order to avoid being decimated by.
FROM BIPEDALISM TO THE NUCLEAR BOMB
–"Every living organism, every organ of every organism, not to mention tissues and molecules, whether or not they are still in use, bears the accumulated imprints of multiple past lives. Never permitted the luxury of starting from scratch to produce the perfect solution, natural selection recycles workable solutions for a "good-enough" fit, meaning simply: better than the competition""–.
We share a range of features with all organisms.
Beginning with cells, the central unit of life. All living organisms are made up of cells, and within their cells there is DNA, the primary unit of heredity. The biochemical functions of animal, plant, fungi, and protist's cells are all alike.
As vertebrates we share having a backbone with fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
As tetrapods, we share having a body structure with four limbs. This includes amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
As mammals we share having modified sweat glands into milk-producing glands, for feeding the offspring; the presence of fur or hair; specialised teeth and the neocortex region in the brain, among other characteristics.
As primates we share the enhanced sense of vision; fingernails and hands capable of grasping as an example.
Is in this last stage, where one of our most distinctive traits arose, the capability of walking upright.
Bipedalism created a domino effect that would drastically changed the future of our species, and without hesitation, we can also attest that changed the face of planet earth forever
As great apes we share having a larger brain; opposable thumb and lacking external tail.
As members of the Hominin Lineage, we share with all the extinct species bipedal locomotion, smaller blunt canines and altricial birth with long juvenile dependency, and so forth.
In order to know thyself, one should know where one comes from.
But how could we even suspect how remote and complicated our origins are?
YOU ARE HERE.
The german philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously killed god.
Has evolutionary biology killed free will?
Scientific understanding on DNA has evidenced the continuity between the species with scientist and researches constantly stressing that the differences are a matter of degree rather than nature
After the decoding of the human genome it was clear that genes influence behaviour, or to expressed precisely, as Prof. Sapolsky explains;
–(…) all behavioural traits are affected to some degree by genetic variability–.
Our genetic heritage holds much more influence over our behaviour and personality than it was previously thought.
Behaviour haven't escaped the ruthless pursuit of natural selection; behaviour evolves, just as the anatomy or the physiology of the organisms. Our thoughts, actions and reactions are reined by biological mechanisms, honed over millennia.
How can we best understand the paradox between the uniformity of the species, with the uniqueness of the single organism?
There are some biological and environmental features, already identified, which account for some of the differences between individuals, some of these even relatively known to the general public. Such as the genetic foundation, the distinctiveness of each spermatozoa and each egg. As well as the vulnerability throughout ontogeny, meaning, the conditions in which the gestation period takes place. Alike, the environment in which the organism develops; the kind of care the organism receives, whether if it is neglected, underfeed, intellectually stimulated, abused or protected; the order of birth, the age and social standing of the caregivers, among others.
So, what are we? When we think about what we are as human beings, I always think that there are five components:
We’re the product of our genetics.
We’re the product of our environment, or indeed our grandparents environment, that makes a difference to who we are, that give marks in our DNA that changes who we are. So we really don’t even understand at all what environment really means.
We’re also the product of ageing, we’re the product of our ageing.
Luck plays a huge role.
And then probably at least as humans (…) is the metaphysical aspect (…)
ARE WE BORN INTO A FATE?
Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.”
While most of the attributes above mentioned are nowadays popularised as highly influential in the setting up of an individual's personality, recent findings in subfields of evolutionary biology, had shed light into the many ways our personality and behaviour are biologically dictated, whether due to hormonal activity; or influenced due to the size of a specific brain structure; or by way of a deficit or excess of a particular chemical, just to name a few sources.
The impact over the behaviour and personality of the individual due to minor details as the above mentioned, is towering, reaching crucial characteristics such as sexual orientation; levels of aggression; forgiveness or jealousy among others. Even those that we generally regard as to be of socio-cultural nature, such as xenophobia; competitiveness; political beliefs; the aesthetic preferences in landscape; or even our personal taste in food.
Thus, are we good with the old debate of nature versus nurture?
Not really. We now know there are elements of truth on both sides, as we have seen, nature and nurture interact to the extent that seems impossible to differentiate one from the other.
Still, the big question remains in place, are we born into a fate?
Behaviour does not happen in a vacuum, it is entirely context dependant. It would be the context (environment) the ultimate force at shaping the organisms configuration, and it would be also the context (environment) the causal agency of the organism’s behaviour.
Defining environment has been a challenge. Research has shown that environment also involves the reality of the ancestors. The events that your grandparents faced, ultimately will have an influence over the way your genes behave, and in turn, the way you are.
Self-knowledge is rare, and most of the times is a sort of a mirage; psychological research has shown that very often, the perception of what individuals hold true about themselves, commonly corresponds to the very opposite of their actions, which is also true for societies. A great deal of the behaviours and personality traits that are socially objectionable, reprehended or even loathed, have biological underpinnings; so shall we wish to avoid them, reduce them, or eradicate them in modern societies, we need to understand them better.
Indeed, it would seem that history repeated itself, or at leas as Mark Twains said “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” After the discovery, and later decipherment of inscriptions and tales, carved in tablets, orthostates, stones and rocks from the ancient world Hume’s view will find supporting evidence.
Should we abandon all hope seeing how eerily close are the scenes of current wars to the ones depicted in the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin?
HUMAN NATURE HUH?
There is no consensus regarding human nature, even its existence is hotly debated. Yet, there are patterns in human behaviour and recurrences in the historical events that suggest otherwise.
This concept was beautifully described by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
"It is universally acknowledged, that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages; and that human nature remains still the same in its principles and operations.
The same motives always produce the same actions.
The same events follow from same causes…”