A short selection from Essay Three in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.
However a phenotype develops, however genetic algorithms conspire with environment to produce, maintain, and alter an organism over its lifetime, or perhaps even pass on some of these epigenetic alterations in the womb, such short term adjustments, like learning itself, are incommensurable with the changes that happen on the time scale of evolution. The devil may be in the details but a wide view also has its place, and natural selection can’t really be appreciated without recognizing a largescale-emergent logic that selects for stability but also embraces change. Take the case of vegetative reproduction: while asexual stem cell regeneration is more efficient at covering ground than reproduction by pollinated seed is, it’s less efficient at not only dispersal, but variation. Sex is a kind of variation selection—a readiness to adapt.
In any case, however you look at it, even if somatic cells alone can regenerate a plant, and even regenerate with variation, the undifferentiated nature of these stem cells still qualifies them as inter-generationally reserved ‘germ plasm’. And as long as the peculiar expressions of unreserved DNA don’t translate as permanent innovation down the line, I can say that the role of Weismann’s Barrier, as a ‘pawl in the evolutionary ratchet’—where genepool isolation commits a body to play out its irreversible ‘experiment’—still holds true today in the sense that a genepool is the ‘design space’ for functioning bodies, and novelty is known to arise only from chance errors here, not from environmental pressures that activate, deactivate, or irreversibly delete existing potentials. Biologists could not have known a century ago what we know today about development and heredity, but Weismann’s contribution to biology has a feel of Truth about it not unlike Gautama’s contribution to psychology: growth, maintenance and death belong to a playfully recycled ‘self’ that can’t experience its wider continuity, for life’s magic can only be appreciated from the perspective of a death-transcending environmental ‘host’. In the last section of this book, after we explore in detail this ‘evolutionary ecology’ of the body-mind, we’ll be in a position to revisit Gautama’s First Noble Truth: “Suffering is part of life”. Why do we so easily get stuck in our thoughts and attitudes, and then speak of ‘enlightenment’ when we experience getting un-stuck? Is there some reason the verbal and artistic model spaces of cultural evolution must be, in a practitioner’s terms, ‘stickier’ than Nature’s genepool design space?