"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Not Out of Africa: Alan Thorne's challenging ideas about human evolution


Not Out of Africa
Alan Thorne's challenging ideas about human evolution

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f2/Sapiens_neanderthal_comparison.jpg


Anthropologist Alan Thorne holds casts of two of the skulls that have fueled a controversy about how and when early man reached Australia. The delicate skull at right, of a hominid known as Mungo Man, predates the larger, thicker skull on the left by tens of thousands of years, a reversal of expectations that has challenged traditional theories of evolution.
She came to him in 1968, inside a small, cheap suitcase — her burned and shattered bones embedded in six blocks of calcified sand. The field researchers who dug her up in a parched no-man's-land in southeastern Australia suspected that she was tens of thousands of years old. He was 28. Almost every day for the next six months, he painstakingly freed her remains from the sand with a dental drill, prizing out more than 600 bone chips, each no larger than a thumbnail. He washed them carefully with acetic acid, sealed them with a preservative, and pieced them together into a recognizable skeleton.

Looking closely at skull fragments, bits of arm bone, and a hint of pelvis, he became convinced that two things were true. First, the bones were human, Homo sapiens for sure, and they had held together a young woman. As he assembled this "monster three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle," Alan Thorne, then a lecturer in the department of anatomy at the University of Sydney, began asking himself whose bones they might actually have been. He had no idea that many years later, the answer to that question would rock the world of anthropology.

    Something else about this woman became clear early on— she had been important and powerful. The pattern of burn marks on her bones showed that after she died, her family burned the corpse, then smashed the bones. Later, they added more fuel and burned the bones a second time. This was an unusual ritual. Ancient Aboriginal women were typically buried without fuss. Thorne wondered if her descendants had tried to ensure that she did not return to haunt them; similar cremation rituals are still practiced by some Aboriginal groups today. As hours and days and months passed, he found himself thinking of her as a living, breathing person who'd spent her life encamped on the shores of Lake Mungo, in New South Wales. If this Mungo Lady turned out to be as ancient as field researchers thought, she would be the oldest human fossil ever found in Australia. To Thorne she was already the most mysterious.

In 1968 most anthropologists thought they had a grip on human evolution: Big-browed, thick-skulled humanoids had descended from walking apes. These hulking creatures were eventually replaced by the more advanced, fine-boned humans of our species— Homo sapiens. Throughout Australia, anthropologists had found only big-browed, thick-skulled fossils. That made Mungo Lady a puzzle. Lab analysis of her remains suggested she was 25,000 years old— old enough to be a grandmother to those specimens— but her skull bones were as delicate as an emu's eggshell. Thorne began to realize that she might be telling him a different story than the one he'd read in textbooks— that the delicate, fine-boned people had reached Australia before the big-brows.

    That was an exotic thought, and now, many years later, it is fueling the debate within anthropology over a single huge question: Where did Homo sapiens come from? Most researchers accept a theory referred to as "out of Africa." It holds that numerous species of hominids— beginning with Homo erectus— began migrating out of Africa almost 2 million years ago and evolved into several species. Then a new species called Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated between 100,000 and 120,000 years ago to Europe, Asia, and Australia, consigning all the earlier hominids it encountered to extinction.

    Thorne preaches a revolutionary view called regional continuity. He believes that the species his opponents insist on calling Homo erectus was in fact Homo sapiens, and that they migrated out of Africa almost 2 million years ago and dispersed throughout Europe and Asia. As he sees it, there was no later migration and replacement: "Only one species of human has ever left Africa, and that is us."

    Why does this matter? Because if Thorne and his camp are right, much of what we think we know about human evolution is wrong. In the world according to Thorne, the human family tree is not divided into discrete species such as Homo erectus, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. They are all Homo sapiens. Yes, Thorne agrees, from the outside all these hominids look different from each other, but so do humans today— a Korean, a Nigerian, and a Dane hardly resemble each other. Our ancestors displayed great variety, but they were similar in the only way that mattered: They were the same species, which meant they could have sex with each other and produce fertile offspring.

Mungo Lady started Thorne down the road to regional continuity. Six years after he reassembled her, Thorne and three assistants unearthed another small-boned skeleton only 1,600 feet from where she had been found. At burial, this body had been laid on its right side, knees bent, arms tucked between its legs. Certain features— the skull, the shape of the pelvis, and the length of the long bones— told Thorne he was looking at Mungo Man, which thrilled him. As a general rule, female skeletons are more delicate than male ones, so doubts about the uniqueness of Mungo Lady's delicate bones would be quashed by having an equally delicate male counterpart to study.

    Thorne's colleagues took their best guess at this specimen's age, as they had with Mungo Lady in 1968, based on radiocarbon dating and analysis of stratigraphy. They dated him to 30,000 years ago. As the oldest humans ever found down under, the finds were considered so important that the Australian government declared the sandy, bone-dry crater that was once Lake Mungo a national park in order to honor— and protect— the site. To the Aboriginal tribes, the pair became precious symbols of their early peopling of the continent.

    But Thorne assigned a meaning to the bones that resonated beyond Australia. To his mind, the presence of two such unusual skeletons suggested that the peopling of the Pacific was a richer, more complex process than anyone had ever imagined. Anthropologists had long assumed that the first Homo sapiens to reach Australia were fishermen who left Indonesia and got blown off course, ending up on the new continent. Thorne began to wonder whether the first journey from Indonesia to Australia was not an accident but an adventure, undertaken with confidence by intelligent, mobile people. Mungo Lady and Mungo Man closely resembled skeletons of people living in China at the same time. Had these people migrated in boats to Australia? Had there been successive waves of immigration by different peoples over tens of thousands of years? To imagine such things, Thorne had to abandon familiar notions of early man as a blundering primitive.

    He had already begun to do so. In the months he'd spent piecing together those braincases, he had begun to think of them as his elders, worthy of respect, capable of thought and imagination. That supposition was not an outrageous one for an Australian anthropologist to make. From childhood Thorne had grown up on a continent that was home to one of Earth's oldest continuous cultures. He'd learned a great deal about Aboriginal culture while working his way through college as a reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald. From where he stood, the ways of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were not so different from those of modern Aborigines. He could easily picture two different tribes settling near Lake Mungo, one from nearby Java, another perhaps with roots in China. And once the two parties were encamped around the lake, it was not hard to imagine them crossbreeding.

    Those who believe in regional continuity tend to have a view of sexuality that is more generous and more inclusive than that of the out-of-Africa proponents. In the latter view, Homo sapiens led a kind of search-and-replace mission as they spread around the planet; these researchers believe that members of the new species would not have been able to successfully reproduce with members of earlier species, no matter how hard they tried. Thorne thinks that's nonsense. "European scientists have dominated this field for 150 years," he says. "And they've got a big problem in Europe. Namely, they've got to account for those Neanderthals. My opponents would say that Cro-Magnons"— humans identical to us who lived during the Ice Age— "simply 'replaced' Neanderthals with no intermingling. That's the part I object to. 'No intermingling.' Now, I ask you, does that sound like the human beings you know?"

    In the early 1970s, these ideas were pure speculation. Thorne had no proof of anything. The bones had told him what they could and then lapsed into silence. So he tucked them away and went on with his career. Three decades later, the bones spoke again.
Dueling Theories

Graphic by Matt Zang

In 1997 Thorne finally got the tool he needed to explore Mungo Lady and Mungo Man further. European scientists reported that they had successfully extracted fragments of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the remains of Neanderthal skeletons unearthed in Germany, Croatia, and Russia. This was stunning science; the Neanderthals had died out 35,000 years ago, and yet researchers had been able to harvest genetic matter from their bones as if they'd expired yesterday.

    It was the beginning of a revolution in paleoanthropology. Geneticists were hooking up with bone men everywhere. They were focusing on mtDNA because the mitochondria, which lie outside the nucleus, are easier to study— in a human cell there are only 37 mitochondrial genes compared with 100,000 genes found in the nucleus— and because it is the only DNA anyone has been able to isolate and interpret in ancient fossils. For reasons not yet understood, mtDNA survives the ravages of time better than nuclear DNA. And it has another interesting attribute: It's inherited only through the maternal line. Scientists seized upon this characteristic to try to build genetic family trees. Almost two years ago, geneticists working in Sweden and Germany reported studying the mtDNA of 53 living people from around the world. Within this small sample, they found that Africans shared a characteristic sequence of mtDNA, and that everyone else carried at least some portion of that sequence in their cells. The research suggests that all living humans had their roots in Africa. But Thorne doesn't put much stock in this report. He thinks the conclusions are questionable because samples taken in Africa today could be from people whose ancestors were not African.

    When the first Neanderthal studies were published in 1997, Thorne had already retired. He had traveled the world for 30 years, excavating sites and filming science documentaries for Australian television. His face and his ideas were as well known in Australia as Carl Sagan's once were in the United States. At the request of the Aboriginal council, Thorne still safeguarded the Mungo fossils. Because three more-sophisticated dating technologies were now available, he ordered new tests on 13 of the individuals in his care, and the results gave him a shock.


Skeletal Puzzle: Near the site where Mungo Man's skeleton was excavated, Alan Thorne demonstrates the strange pose in which the body was buried 60,000 years ago.

Center: In his right hand, Thorne holds a cast of Mungo Lady's charred skull; in his left hand, a cast of Mungo Man's skull.

Last: This bone chip is similar in size to the 350-odd chips from which Thorne pieced together Mungo Lady's skull. "Every day I'd sit down and I'd find 10 or so pieces that fit together. I could only work on her 50 minutes at a time, when my mind was fresh. Any longer and they all started to look alike. She took me six months."


    The ages came back first. Using the new technologies, his team found that the small-boned Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were actually 60,000 years old— twice as old as anyone had guessed. Thorne saw these dates as a crushing blow to the out-of-Africa theorists. No matter what his opponents said, there wasn't enough time on their 120,000-year clock for Homo sapiens to leave Africa, dash up to China, evolve from rugged Africans into small-framed Asians, invent boats, sail to Australia, march to the interior, get sick, and die. How much simpler everyone's life would be, he thought, if anthropologists could agree that some of the players in this drama had reached China 1.5 million years ago and continued to evolve there.

    After the dating, Gregory Adcock, a doctoral student in genetics at Australian National University, decided to check all 13 fossils for mtDNA. But first he set up stringent procedures. It's easy to contaminate specimens: More than once, scientists have been embarrassed when the "ancient DNA" they extracted turned out to be their own. To avoid this catastrophe, Adcock alone handled the specimens. He alone traveled between two testing labs. He sampled his own DNA and Thorne's to use as a control. Before sampling the ancient specimens, he tested five modern human and animal bones to make sure he'd perfected handling techniques. Then he drilled into each fossil and took a sample from the bone's interior, where no one could ever have touched it. Of more than 60 samples he analyzed, he reported only three contaminations. Ten of the 13 yielded DNA.

    The results were nothing less than remarkable: Among the 10 successful extractions was the world's oldest known human DNA— plucked from none other than Mungo Man. (No DNA was recovered from Mungo Lady, perhaps because she had been cremated.) Mungo Man also appeared to mock the findings of previous scientists: His mtDNA signature did not match anyone's, living or fossil, on Earth. There was no evidence that he was genetically related to ancient Africans.

    The findings were published in January 2001 by Adcock, Thorne, and five other researchers. What followed was intense disagreement. "People just fell over when they read this new stuff," says Alan Mann, an anthropologist at Princeton University and a moderate in the human-origins debate. "The people at Mungo were totally modern looking and were expected to carry the DNA we have, but they didn't. I think that makes for an incredibly complicated story. It's a stunning development."

    Thorne's critics were underwhelmed. "Alan is great at generating media interest. He's a former journalist, you know," says Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, a staunch advocate of the out-of-Africa model who is accustomed to his phone ringing off the hook every time Thorne fires another volley. "He has done some important work. I'm not saying his work is bad or wrong or whatever. Obviously, I have a different interpretation of it."

    Stringer and his colleagues laid into Thorne. First, they said it was unlikely that 10 of the 13 skeletons had yielded mtDNA. This was an unprecedented success rate, so they believed that there had to be contamination. Even researchers at Oxford University, in one of the world's finest labs, had contaminated specimens. Then they said that mtDNA lines died out all the time; the Australians were making much ado about nothing. This part was true: Twenty-five to 30 percent of mankind's mtDNA has been lost over the past million years when women gave birth to boys or didn't reproduce at all.

    Thorne concedes that mtDNA has evolved greatly over time, and all scientists working in this area have to be cautious. But as long as everyone is using mtDNA analysis as a basis for speculation, he asks why his work is regarded with such suspicion. Mungo Man and his alternative complement of genes were alive enough to make it to Australia and contribute to the peopling of a continent. Modern Aborigines didn't inherit Mungo Man's mtDNA, but they have certainly inherited the characteristics of his skull. "Eventually, all these people intermingled, and that's why the Aborigines have such diversity," he says.

    Stringer, for his part, maintains that the out-of-Africa model could account for a settlement in southern Australia 60,000 years ago. Africans, he says, would have had to travel only one mile toward Australia each year for 10,000 years to make that possible. In other words, the Homo sapiens who left Africa 100,000 years ago would have reached Indonesia with plenty of time to sail to Australia.

    In New York, Ian Tattersall, one of Thorne's closest friends, has long quibbled with his stance. "We've agreed to disagree," says Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. "I have a lot of respect for him; I just think he's barking up the wrong tree." Tattersall argues that Neanderthals were so obviously a separate species that Homo sapiens could not have bred with them.

    Thorne says his lifelong study of animals has taught him otherwise. In captivity, for example, jaguars have mated with leopards and pumas and produced fertile female offspring— although all three animals supposedly belong to different species. Polar bears and brown bears, wolves and coyotes, dromedaries and Bactrian camels also cross-mate. Darwin himself dismissed species as a term that is "arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience."

In recent months Thorne and his team have examined every human fossil from Australia and Asia they could get their hands on. They're retesting their Mungo Man work, hoping to confirm the findings and fill in some of the remaining gaps in the fossilized man's mtDNA profile. To satisfy their critics, they are allowing three rival labs to analyze Mungo Man extractions. Results will be available by the end of this year. When they are, they will most likely be debated. This science is still too inchoate for either side to declare victory.

    Whatever the outcome, the bones from Lake Mungo have created change in Australia. The nation has committed to returning Lake Mungo and its environs to the Aborigines. Soon elders of the tribes living around Lake Mungo will decide when they will assume management of the land, artifacts, wildlife, and tourist trade. In 1991, standing near the metal stake that marks the spot where Mungo Lady was found, Thorne returned her bones to the elders of those tribes. At the time, elders debated whether to rebury her or preserve her. Thorne argued for the latter. "If you do away with her bones," he told them, "I'll always be right. You won't be able to refute my work. Someday there will be an aboriginal Alan Thorne, and he'll have a different way of looking at these bones. You have to give him that chance." The council voted for preservation. Today Mungo Lady inhabits a safe that can be opened only with a key, of which two copies exist. Aboriginal elders hold one; Thorne was presented with the other.

    Despite Thorne's proselytizing, only a small fraction of the world's anthropologists accept his theories. But he couldn't care less. These days, he draws inspiration from the old Sherlock Holmes maxim: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

    He points out that regional continuity is by far the simpler theory and can much more comfortably account for all the complicated twists and turns in the genetic evidence of human evolution now coming to light. "It argues that what is going on today is what has been going on for 2 million years, that the processes we see today are what have been going on in human populations for a very long time. You don't need a new species that has to extinguish all the other populations in the world. This is why out-of-Africa is the impossible, and regional continuity is not only not improbable but the answer and the truth."





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Monday, 25 May 2015

Cyberfetus Rising - The Star Larvae Hypothesis: Nature's Plan for Humankind


Cyberfetus Rising
The Star Larvae Hypothesis: Nature's Plan for Humankind (Addendum )

 https://farm9.staticflickr.com/8094/8530581838_d12d661d38_k.jpg

NeotenousTechnology decommissions the specialized adaptations of the adult body. The neoteny that results illustrates gene-culture coevolution. In outer space that process will deliver a posthuman form anticipated by the religious figure of the cherubic angel, or putto, the celestial infant.

 





Living in the weightlessness of outer space, humankind's extraterrestrial descendants will have removed themselves from their terrestrial kin not only geographically, but also physiologically and psychologically. Their bones and muscles will atrophy to wisps under the influence of weightlessness, while their brains hypertrophy, becoming super enriched. This physiological one-two punch will juvenilize extraterrestrials. ETs will enjoy retarded biological development.

The creatures that result from these changes will resemble human infants more than they will resemble human adults. That is, weightlessness will induce, elicit, or evoke a neotenous response to the environment of outer space. Space colonists, a small inbreeding population, will be isolated reproductively from their contemporaries on Earth. These several circumstances set the stage for a posthuman speciation.

Why is youth associated with flight?Juvenile skywalkers are common in popular folklore and fables. The stereotypical UFO alien, for example, with its fetal allometry (big head, small limbs); Peter Pan, the eternally youthful high-flyer; the cosmic fetus that closes out Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, and other fantasy figures link juvenile forms with life in the sky.

Perhaps the most explicit renderings of extraterrestrial tots are the putti, the flying babies of Renaissance and Victorian art. Babies in the clouds are curious representations of spiritual entities, evolved beyond the merely human. The evolutionary program might be expressing itself culturally.

Why babies in the clouds?Among the flying babies, the St. Valentine's Day Cupid seems eager to advance the evolutionary program. As a symbol, the figure of cupid combines neoteny—retarded development— sexuality, and weightlessness, a sure-fire recipe for speciation. Neoteny itself has a well-established propensity to launch species. As Ecologist Ramon Margalef notes in Perspectives in Ecological Theory, "The opening of new spaces to colonization creates new opportunities for the development of new species; such evolution does not take a slow and regular path but proceeds through neoteny or other nonhabitual or poorly understood evolutionary paths."


What space is more likely to trigger nonhabitual modes of speciation than outer space?

Human evolution generally already has been neotenous. Humans are the juvenilized descendants of apish ancestors, according to some evolutionary theorists, including paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. And the neotenous trend is likely to accelerate under the influence of weightlessness. Humankind's extraterrestrial descendants might not develop beyond the form of the fetus, the embryo or even the zygote—the newly fertilized egg—eventually, this trajectory being dictated by the pattern of development common to all complex organisms.


The archetypal putto, shown here on Greek stone reliefs
The archetypal putto, shown here on Greek stone reliefs.
The archetypal putto, shown here on Greek stone reliefs















Each complex organism begins life as a single-celled zygote, which divides into an undifferentiated clump of cells before the cells give rise to specialized tissues. As the organism develops—as its ontogeny unfolds—it acquires more of the anatomy and morphology characteristic of its adult form. The tails, fangs, and wings that grow more conspicuous during development constellate into a distinctive bodily form, the adult form of the species. Rat, boar and ostrich embryos share a common form, initially, then differentiate into their specialized adult forms.

(Nineteenth-century German naturalist, Karl Ernst von Baer recognized this developmental trend of differentiation from a general form into a specialized one. Among biologists, Von Baer's observation has replaced the so-called biogenetic law of Ernst Haekel as the favored view. Haekel's law, which asserts that during development organisms pass through the adult stages of their ancestors, is summarized in the well known formula, "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." This formula persists in popular contexts, but scientists today dismiss it as discredited. In 1988 the president of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "The biogenetic law is as dead as a doornail" ["Ontogeny and Phylogeny Recapitulated," American Scientist, May-June 1988]. According to von Baer's law of progressive differentiation, neotenous descendants resemble the juvenile form of their ancestors—in contrast to Haekel's law, which predicts that neotenous descendants will resemble ancestral adults.)
Comparative Embryology - the Differentiation of Form from a Common Origin
All complex organisms share a common morphology—initially. They acquire their distinctive, specialized adult forms as they develop. By retarding development, neoteny produces adults with juvenile features. This de-differentiation of morphology provides adaptive advantages in rapidly changing environments, including, one has to suppose, high-tech environments.


In unstable, rapidly changing environments, neoteny enables organisms to jettison adaptations that have outlasted their usefulness. As for the environmental changes that promote human neoteny, technology seems to be in the mix. The work of anthropologist C. Loring Brace provides an example of the evolutionary effects of technology. Brace discovered adult human skeletal remains that are peculiarly retarded—they're toothless. Brace explains the connection to technology: "Human skeletal collections from the Neolithic and subsequent periods contain the remains of individuals who had survived for years in a completely edentulous [toothless] state. No such evidence is available for any human population that did not use pottery.

Pounding, grinding, and milling tools also become common late in the Pleistocene . . . and it seems likely that this may also have contributed to the relaxation of Pleistocene levels of selection, which had maintained large amounts of tooth substance." (Brace, C. Loring, Karen R. Rosenberg, and Kevin D. Hunt, "Gradual Change in Human Tooth Size in the Late Pleistocene and Post-Pleistocene," Evolution, 41(4), 1987, pp. 705-720. See also, "Human Teeth, Small Already, Continue to Shrink," The New York Times, August 30, 1988.)

Food-processing technologies reduce the need for big teeth, biology's natural grinding and milling tools. Big teeth become unnecessary and unable to return the metabolic investments that they require, once automation technologies, such as pounding, grinding, and milling tools, become available.


Technology Extends, then Supplants, the Body

"The first tools were probably conceived initially as simple extensions of the human body," surmises David Barash in The Hare and the Tortoise: Culture, Biology, and Human Nature, "the club a stylized and more powerful hand and fist, the bowl and pouch more efficient cupped hands, the flint scraper a heavy-duty fingernail. . . ." Marshall McLuhan made the same observation. His opus, Understanding Media, he subtitled "The extensions of man." Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard defines the same relationship in The Postmodern Condition: "Technical devices originated as prosthetic aids for the human organs or as physiological systems whose function it is to receive data or condition the context."

As physical capacities get extended technologically, the body parts to which they correspond atrophy, as teeth do when they compete with food-processing technologies. L. Frank Baum, author of the early OZ books intuited this effect. The tin woodsman of Oz was ordinary flesh and blood, originally. But as he worked his ax would rebel and chop off parts of his body. A tinsmith replaced each severed part until the woodsman was remade entirely of tin. Technology had supplanted the body completely. Mircea Eliade cites another version of this motif, in The Two and the One:

"The celebrated 'rope-trick' of the fakirs and conjurers creates the illusion that a rope rises very high in the sky, and the master makes his pupil climb it until he disappears from view. The fakir then throws his knife into the air and the young man's limbs fall, one after another, to the ground."

Here the blade's—technology's—cleaving of body parts is associated with ascent. And the motif is pervasive. Though associated mostly with India, Eliade finds examples in cultures as far flung as those of China, Mexico, and Ireland.

The technological environment is a milieu of gadgets whirring and chugging in space and time in lieu of human bodies. Freud, for one, welcomed the concommitant prosthetic effect. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he declares, "With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent."

"It is often said that nothing makes sense except in the in the light of history, meaning cultural change over a few centuries. More accurately, nothing makes sense except in the light of organic evolution, which encompasses a tightly linked form of cultural and genetic change and spans hundreds of thousands of years."

— Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson
Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of the Mind



"Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly amongst those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness."

— Jean Baudrillard
on Disneyland, in Simulations


Evolutionary pressures for metabolic economy allow tools to supplant the specialized—adult—body parts that they functionally simulate (and outperform). By extending the functions of specialized body parts, technology relaxes selection pressures for the maintenance of those parts. McLuhan called the process, "autoamputation." Hence, technology and neoteny proceed hand in hand.

This ability of tools to shape the human phenotype finds a more formal theoretical foundation in the gene-culture coevolution model of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. Humankind was synthesized by "a sustained autocatalytic reaction in which genetic and cultural evolution drove each other forward," Wilson and colleague Charles Lumsden propose in Promethean Fire. "This largely unknown evolutionary process we have called gene-culture coevolution: it is a complicated, fascinating interaction in which culture is generated and shaped by biological imperatives while biological traits are simultaneously altered by genetic evolution in response to cultural innovation."

Although Wilson and Lumsden tend to restrict their use of "culture" to behaviors, clearly the concept must include artifacts, implements, devices—technology. The notion of "epigenetic rules" that they use to link genes and social behaviors in a feedback relationship applies as readily to the linking of genes and the crafting and use of tools. In this view, a species that modifies its environment technologically—that is, one that constructs its niche—becomes locked into an evolutionary feedback circuit in which it and its technologies mutually shape one another, symbiotically. Recently, this insight has inspired much research among evolutionary biologists working under the banner of Niche Construction.


Techneoteny—The Primary Mode of Gene-Culture Coevolution

Neoteny and technology feeding off each other—techneoteny—appears to be humankind's primary mode of evolution. Neoteny is an adaptation to the manufactured environment. This adaptation sometimes is called domestication.

What was true of the grinding tools and pottery of neolithic cookery should apply to subsequent generations of technologies: they each should contribute to the autocatalytic cycle of neotenous gene-culture coevolution. If we fast forward from the Pleistocene to the present, we see the techneotenous gyre tightening and taking a greater toll on the more highly differentiated gendered phenotype, the male phenotype. Though technology tends to be associated with the prerogatives of the masculine, it produces environments increasingly hospitable to the feminine.

Havelock Ellis noticed the connection already at the end of the nineteenth century. In his Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, he observes, "Savagery and barbarism have more usually than not been predominantly militant, that is to say masculine, in character, while modern civilization is becoming industrial, that is to say feminine, in character, for the industries belonged primitively to women, and they tend to make men like women." This feminization is neotenous, Ellis contends, citing what he calls the "infantile diathesis" of women: "When women differ from men, it is the latter who have diverged, leaving women nearer to the child-type. Women are nearer to children than are men [and] the child represents a higher degree of evolution than the adult."


Trends in Allometry: Terrestrial human ontogeny reads from left to right. Post-terrestrial post-human phylogeny reads from right to left. Trends in Allometry: Terrestrial human ontogeny reads from left to right. Post-terrestrial post-human phylogeny reads from right to left.



The ancient world recognized the link between the industrial and the feminine. Some early practitioners of metallurgy, for example, built their lore on a mythos of gestation and incubation. "Very early on we are confronted with the notion that ores 'grow' in the belly of the Earth after the manner of embryos," Mircea Eliade comments in The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structure of Alchemy, "Metallurgy thus takes on the character of obstetrics. Miner and metalworker intervene in the unfolding of subterranean embryology: they accelerate the rhythm of the growth of ores, they collaborate in the work of Nature and assist it to give birth more rapidly." Eliade goes on to cite the traditions of the Atonga, who "have a custom of throwing into the furnace a portion of the placenta to ensure the success of the smelting."

"The common defect of all mystical systems previous to that of the Aeon whose Law is Thelema is that there has been no place for laughter. But the sadness of the mournful Mother and the melancholy of the dying Man are swept into the limbo of the past by the confident smile of the immortal Child."

— Aleister Crowley
Little Essays Toward Truth


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein assigns a more overtly anthropomorphic form to the industrial feminine. Critics conventionally interpret the story through the lens of its Promethean subtitle, but critic Steven Lehman interprets it as an allegory of male womb envy. He argues, "[Dr. Frankenstein's] problem—and it is the central thematic problem of the novel—is that modern science obviates the biological gender distinctions upon which our psychology and society have been built." (Lehman, Steven, "The Motherless Child in Science Fiction: Frankenstein and Moreau," Science Fiction Studies, No. 56, 1992, pp. 49-58.) Technology cures Dr. Frankenstein's womb envy by enabling him to give birth to artificial life. It allows Victor Frankenstein to mother the prototypical problem child. If technologies are extensions of the body, then inventing must be a birthing.

Angels: Intrauterine Extraterrestrials of TechneotenyMore recently, male womb envy has taken a digital turn. Computer programmers have adopted the creation of "artificial" or "virtual" life as a technical grail. Bold programmers claim that their growing, replicating, and adapting software constitutes a new life form. Such Frankensteinian aspirations maybe express the male urge to deliver life, but, despite any joy that they might derive from their ersatz motherhood, the men of industry craft their own undoing.

In The Mechanical Bride McLuhan renders an image of male impotence at the hands of industry: "Under complex conditions of rapid change, the family unit is subject to special strain. Men flounder in such times. The male role in society, always abstract, tenuous, and precarious compared with the biological assurance of the female, becomes obscured. Man the provider, man the codifier of laws and ritual, loses his confidence." Given the dire circumstances, a men's movement may have been inevitable. Poet Robert Bly, a central figure in the men's movement of the 1980s, winces at the link between industry and immaturity:
"If you walk from Boston to Labrador, you’re more mature when you arrive; If you drive, you’re more infantile when you arrive. The Industrial Revolution brought central heating and the automobile. Not only does maturity fail, but a positive movement toward regression is taking place. There’s a connection between technology and infantilism. It’s sad." (Interview in EastWest, March 1986, p.72.) Despite technology’s more immediate undermining of traditional male roles, the specialized roles of male and female seemed destined ultimately to converge on the generic child type. "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them," as the prophet foresaw.


"In a real man a child is hiddenand wants to play. Go to it, women, discover the child in man! Let woman be a plaything, pure and fine, like a gem, irradiated by the virtues of a world that has not yet arrived. Let the radiance of a star shine through your love! Let your hope be: May I give birth to the overman!"

— Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra


Myth and folklore typically describe the first human as an androgynous creature, then account for the androgyne giving rise to gendered descendants. Similarly, a fertilized egg—first human—is not obviously male or female, but differentiates along gender lines as it develops. And myth and folklore also often describe a reintegration of the genders that restores the original, undifferentiated, androgynous form. Native, neotenous, extraterrestrials will act out this alchemical script, as they revert phenotypically toward infantile morphology.

Mircea Eliade makes note of a mythological connection between the androgynous form and divinity: "Certain apocryphal texts use paradoxical images to describe the Kingdom or the overturning of the Cosmos occasioned by the coming of the Saviour. It is to be noted that these images are used side by side with those of androgyny and of a return to the state of a child."

Today family members gather around the electronic hearth to consume as a unit popular cultural fare, with adults content to watch cartoon shows and children eager to imbibe celebrity sex scandals. Psychological de-differentiation drives cultural de-differentiation. "Being There," Jerzy Kozinski's parable of the divine naif, captures the trend. The novel's protagonist, "Chauncey Gardiner," grows up in seclusion, nursed by a TV. The tastes, concerns, and socialized personality of a normal adult never take root in him. The plot expels a disoriented Gardiner into the adult world, his only social skill being his ability to rattle off folksy platitudes. Ironically, innocence proves disarming. Gardiner ascends the political ranks and lands in a position of magical influence. He assumes a political function along the lines of the Reagan administration's White House astrologer, Ms. Joan Quigley, an oracle.

"Being There," in its movie form, suggests the next stop in humankind’s neotenous evolutionary trip. Director Hal Ashby takes liberties with the novel when the infantile Chauncey Gardiner makes clear the allegory by walking on water. By deifying the naif, the weightless conclusion of "Being There" points to a way around humankind's terminal regression. Gravity yields to levity.



weightless evolution
angels in space


 Space Colony: The Extended Womb

Technology's extension of the body would seem to culminate in a comprehensive surround. Within an all-encompassing synthetic-prosthetic environment, biological metabolisms will stop investing in specialized adaptations left over from wild, ancestral environments. The encapsulated ecosystem of the space colony is that comprehensive environment—the body extended in toto. The Freudian project of human industry aims at the construction of an immortal mother. Within an immortal mother, biology can remain eternally embryonic. This is where the feminine energies inherent in industry complete their project, as the collection of industries takes the form of a comprehensive synthetic womb. Weightlessness adds the finishing touch of authenticity. Evolution is preparing to spawn intrauterine extraterrestrials. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse, in Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Utopia, saw the logic in technology's potential to complete itself by turning inside out and liberating libido from its discontents:

"The achievements of repressive progress herald the solution of the repressive principle of progress itself. It becomes possible to envisage a state in which there is no productivity resulting from and conditioning renunciation and no alienated labor: a state in which the growing mechanization of labor enables an ever larger part of the instinctual energy that had to be withdrawn for alienated labor to return to its original form, in other words, to be changed back into energy of the life instincts. It would no longer be the case that time spent in alienated labor occupied the major portion of life and the free time left to the individual for the gratification of his own needs was a mere remainder. Instead, alienated labor time would not only be reduced to a minimum but would disappear and life would consist of free time."


"Based on the evolutionary facts, we may define society as the nurturing life-system that generates and extends the neotenous traits of humanity with every generation. The perspective of evolution shows us that our neotenous, extended childhood, our lifelong youthfulness, becomes the single most commanding fact upon which to design all social and productive relations. The child, as Simone de Beauvoir has so well said, surpasses the adult by the wealth of his possibilities, the vast range of his acquisitions, and his emotional freshness. Throughout human history neotenic processes were sustained and succeeded within the evolutionary matrix because social organization rapidly evolved to support the demand of prolonged childhood, to afford the protection, nurturing, learning, and interpersonal support and collaboration essential to the continuing development of human potentialities."

— Ashley Montague
Growing Young


On Earth, the transition from womb to world is a traumatic one. In the weightless exowomb of the space colony, human descendants might not notice the transition—a smooth glide from one buoyant comprehensive life-support environment to another. In weightlessness the purported benefits of underwater birthing will be put to the test. The psychological effect on future generations of the elimination of the trauma of birth is a tangential topic ripe for speculation.

"Biological evolution is to a large extent a history of escapes from the blind alleys of over-specialization, the evolution of ideas a series of escapes from the tyranny of mental habits and stagnant routines. In biological evolution the escape is brought about by a retreat from the adult to a juvenile stage as the starting-point for the new line; in mental evolution by a temporary regression to more primitive and uninhibited modes of ideation, followed by the creative forward leap (the equivalent of a sudden burst of 'adaptive radiation'). Thus these two types of progressthe emergence of evolutionary novelties and the creation of cultural noveltiesreflect the same undoing-redoing pattern and appear as analogous processes on different levels."

— Arthur Koestler
Janus: A summing up


But this much seems evident: the developmental transition from Freudian psychology's Pleasure Principle to its Reality Principle, a transition that in the Freudian model accounts for much psychological distress and dysfunction, might not occur at all in a space-based civilization. A fetal mentality could remain unchallenged and unadulterated in an environment that reproduces with sufficient fidelity the life-support functions of the womb. The weightless technologically comprehensive environment of the space colony recalibrates all standards of psychological and physical adaptation, because it promises to radically truncate psychological and physical development through radical neoteny.

Weightless encapsulation will unchain neotenous de-differentiation. An extreme prospect is that of the unfettered expression of oncogenes. These genes would seem to be natural vehicles for neoteny, because their job is to retard cellular differentiation. Masses of undifferentiated tissue occur twice during the lives of complex organisms: once early in embryologic development and later in the form of the cancerous tumor. Both occurrences involve oncogenes. In the course of embryologic development, cells differentiate into the diverse tissues of the adult organism. But tumors don't differentiate. They remain undifferentiated tissue. What’s more, given a sufficiently supportive culture, these undifferentiated masses—neoplasms—behave oddly. They don't die. This peculiarity of tumors contributes another mythical dimension to the star larvae hypothesis. It suggests a literal heavenly immortality.

"Prominent among the kinds of cell lineages potentially immortal in culture are cancerous ones; hence the study of such cells in culture has been vigorously pursued in recent years," writes William T. Keeton of Cornell University in the college textbook "Biological Science" (third edition, 1980, W. W. Norton and Company). "The HeLa cell line is derived from a carcinoma of the cervix of a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of her cancer in 1951. This was the first stable, vigorously growing line of cultured human cells used in cancer research. Today HeLa cells are found growing in medical and research laboratories the world over."

"Culture" denotes a manufactured environment that preserves its occupants in a state of arrested development, whether it be the cosmopolitan milieu of the neotenous urbanite or the petri dish of the laboratory tumor. Cancerous neoplasms in this context appear to be premature posthuman extraterrestrials, as if they were mutations waiting for appropriate environments (weightless cultures) in which to emerge as evolutionary players. As bodies and technologies fuse, and today's virtual reality systems evolve into semisynthetic skins that mediate molecular exchanges between body and environment, evolution in space will erase all distinctions between Gaia and Techne. Both will be subsumed into a generic, extropic stuff, an amorphous technorganism.

"To 'green' Mars, to colonize other planets, or to live for extended periods in space will, of course, require far more than just human settlers and machines. It will require organized, efficient communities. Living together will be as crucial to the colonization of outer space as symbiosis and diversity were to the Paleozoic Era colonization of dry land. Life in space, if it is to occur, will require physical alliances, including new symbioses, among differing life-forms."



This prospect suggests all kinds of alien morphologies and the potential for a new endosymbiosis. The original endosymbiosis was the process by which ancient bacterial cells, prokaryotes, merged to form the first eukaryotic cells, the complex cells that make up plant and animal bodies. The juvenilizing effects of weightlessness presumably will retard all species, not just humans. Assuming that our descendants haul their pets and possibly livestock into space, the several species will revert together and converge on the common embryonic form. And the tendency already is in place. What earlier was referred to as "techneoteny" is essentially the process of domestication, which is technology-driven juvenilization. House cats are domesticated felines, companion dogs are domesticated canines, and humankind is the domesticated primate. 

Each species is neotenous relative to its wild ancestors and contemporaries and is a potential contributor of genes to an aggregate descendant that will stand in complexity to its constituents as our cells do to the prokaryotes, the simple bacteria. The convergence of species inside a weightless solid-state environment will set the stage for an exo-Cambrian explosion of evolutionary novelty. The animal rights and humane farming movements might be setting the stage for, or be early expressions of, such an interspecies convergence.

Already we can see that silicon will play a leading role in the transition, and, in good science-fiction form, could even replace carbon in part or whole as the main building block of organisms—though at that point biology will have evolved/metamorphosed into something postbiological. The reappearance of silicon at the end of biology mirrors its initiating role, a parsimonious symmetry.

Ultimately, the microscopic devices known collectively as nanotechnology, acting as intracellular prostheses, could enable coils of DNA to control technological systems remotely. Nanotechnologies, if realized as advertised, could function as prostheses for the tools of molecular genetics. They might obsolesce RNA molecules, amino acids, ribosomes, and the other machinery of protein synthesis. The overlooked dimension of nanotechnologies is their potential to translate genetic blueprints for cells, organs, and organisms directly into microprocessors, supercomputers, and space colonies—and other prosthetic extensions of cells, organs, and organisms.


Something superhuman is weaning itself of its dependence on human beings.

That thing is the local expression of the universe's ontogeny. The religious vision turns out to be merely clairvoyant, not transcendent—Heaven is the sky, a weightless niche for the habitation of angels.


 The feminine extraterrestrial carried by neotenous attendants.

Neotenous Extraterrestrial in Mythic Rendition

The solarized feminized extraterrestrial carried by neotenous attendants.


The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which  













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