we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

The Great God Pan, Intelligent Designer? Part-1

A short selection from Essay Two in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.

Organisms consist of germ cells that transmit heritable information and somatic cells that carry out ordinary functions. Germ cells are not altered by environment, learning, or the morphological changes of a lifetime. This information is lost after each generation. —Weismann’s germ plasm theory [1]

Does the activity of undifferentiated DNA that is ‘set aside’ for recombination and reproduction in the widely distributed genepools of countless interacting species bear any resemblance to the activity that goes on in the stories and imagery that we humans have set aside as cultural models? Well, for one thing, as anyone who lives in a healthy democracy can attest, the creativity of our human playfulness at building political and technological models is directly proportional to the tolerance with which this play is met in ‘the real world’. Ideally, for both Man (at play in his arts) and Nature (at play in gene pools), the morality of life’s more consequential transactions is judged more severely, and our play less so. But differences are not hard to find either. For instance, when comparing human with genetic ‘blueprints’, we think our human models are more ‘like the real thing’; and while behaviours may vary in ways that are reminiscent of gene recombination, they are strung out with the help of language into storylines that are often hard to tell from ‘real live’ events.

It’s worth looking at this more closely. First of all, each brilliant idea that comes out of the human imagination is judged to be so only after it’s been taken off the drawing board and tried out in the real world. Up until then it’s just another novel arrangement of rehearsed experiences awaiting whatever true discovery might come out of the uncertain results of a ground-truth experiment. [2] Nature too is very good at trial and error, and in fact much more ‘fearless’ about it than we are. Not only that, but I will be arguing later that those sexual traits which reproductively define a species, and thus its place in the ecological ‘story’, might be viewed as a kind of rudimentary language; it’s all a matter of scale. And of course, even if we agree that human invention uses a more realistic model space than Nature does (and to be clear let us refer to Nature’s version from now on as ‘design space’) might this have disadvantages as well as advantages? Dogen’s teachings will be called upon to shed some light on this question later.

If anything has changed from August Weismann’s time, it’s that we now know the delimiting of Nature’s genetic design space is well served by the primaeval convenience that nucleic acid has a separate chemical nature from protein. Like Darwin, Weismann did not know about the structure and distribution of DNA, but he and others of his time intuitively felt that without germ-line isolation (a systematic withdrawal of DNA ‘seed stock’ from direct ecological engagement) evolution would have no way forward. Further genomic and ecological details come to light every day, but however we constitute it, Weismann’s Barrier represents the setting aside of a nebulous safe domain within the totality of physical and biological action, so that the death of organisms doesn’t defeat, but rather enables, phylogeny. What get played with in this safe zone are the ontogenies of possible future generations: recycled ‘blueprints’ for localized lives that can’t experience their altered continuity. It remains for phylogeny, the dispassionate, enduring, and global selection for both stability and novelty, to accommodate life and death.

I began by saying the three-phase evolutionary dynamic (ontogeny, phylogeny, and gene pool variation and recombination) has no counterpart for us to compare it with in non-subjective terms, so it follows that we shouldn’t try to visualize the process with some kind of mental map or flow chart. [3] Ontogeny is as familiar to us as losing our baby teeth. But phylogeny is a boundless leaping in pure faith, and genepools are a ghostly dreaming. Rather, I leave it to you to relate however you can to a dynamic that involves ‘habitual’ programs being ‘abstracted’ from overt expression to enable preservation, variation, recombination, and finally ‘re-iteration’ in the real world of unpredictable selection pressures. I hope you will find the full evolutionary dynamic to be somewhat less difficult after all, with this ‘personal’ approach. Phylogeny is pure invention: a Pan-piped ramification of eco-logical solutions where ‘dreams’ are altered by consequences, ‘ends’ are subverted by means, and ‘hopes’ die with each iterative ‘act’.


1. Abercrombie M., Hickman G. J., Johnson M. L. 1973. A Dictionary of Biology. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd. — This is my paraphrasing; but see entry: Germ-plasm, p. 124. Weismann (1834-1914) did his seminal work before DNA’s structure and its distribution among all cell types was fully understood. Like Darwin, he relied on his intuitive feel for evolutionary dynamics.

2. In 1965, Donald T. Campbell introduced the idea of “blind variability, selective retention (BVSR)”, which has spawned a growing interest in looking at cultural creativity as a Darwinian process. By proposing evolutionary parallels to mental ‘model space’, and even to human language, we complete this thought by making Natural selection itself, ‘psychological’.

3. Just to show how entrancing our representations of the incomparable can become, consider the following: If we look at the three-phase evolutionary dynamic (phylogeny, ontogeny and gene pool variation and recombination) in a biblical context, as “through a glass darkly”, then the global and creative nature of phylogeny might appear as “God the Father”; ontogeny might be “God’s offspring” who takes a mortal form (suffering both birth and death); and then there’s this “holy” feeling we get when we look at the “ghostly” undefinable through the dark glass of representation itself. I’m sure the fathers of the Christian church knew nothing of genetics and natural selection, but I’ve always wondered: what were they trying to communicate with this “trinity” mental construct?

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