3/1/06

Ontogeny Recapitulating Phylogeny: Fun While It Lasted

Okay, okay, we all know that Ernst Haeckel's 1866 theory of biogenetic law has been widely discredited, and possibly used to justify all manner of dastardly misconceptions over the last century, but man, what a beaut: the notion that the development of the human embryo echoes the evolution of humans as a species? C'mon - that's as close to poetic mysticism as your average biologist is gonna get.

I have a soft spot for the idea (right below my vestigial gill slits), mainly because similar connections had already been occurring to me for a long time when I first read it.

"Hey," I'd think, driving home in the evening, spotting a distant ridge of trees silhouetted by the sunset. "It kind of looks like torn paper. How about that?"

And who among us has never looked down from a tall building and noted how much the traffic on the streets below resembles blood cells pumping through arteries, like the arteries of those same folks making up the miniaturized hoo-hah?

It's a classic case of academic isolation and all-too-human thirst for recognition. Haeckel embellished his drawings that "proved" the stages of embryonic progression corresponded to progressively complex members of the animal kingdom (fish, lizards, chicken, rabbits). Big whoop. Showing that a lie was used to prove a theory does not *disprove* that theory, much like being paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

I, for one, still think there's something to it - at least in the wildly generalized form I'm talking about. There has to be a reason that cities function like the organisms within them, with skeletons of topography and companies supplying residents with salaries like lungs supply air, and telecom nervous systems and outstretched fingers reaching out into the surrounding districts.

No way that's coincidence.

Ever seen a nebula, viewed from galaxies away, suspended in the blackness like a curl of fog, luminous particles separated by empty space? Ever seen a neuron in a brain cell?

Ever felt an idea wash over your mind, permeating the folds like waves crashing onto a beach?

I see these things.

And I bet you do too, or maybe you'll see them more now. There are patterns in this universe, and they recur. I don't *know* that, but I believe it. And I believe in the human tendency to notice those patterns and wonder about them. I think that's one of the best things we've got going for us.

*****

So this site I was just reading... it's fascinating. It charts the development of children's drawings through ages 2-14 according to a couple of kid-development experts.

When we're little, we begin by scribbling, because it's fun. Soon we draw shapes that represent objects we see, then we try to show them in accurate spatial relationship to one another - sort of like maps. Next we do detail, then perspective, and by pre-teenagerhood we're working with shadow, motion and realistic coloration. At this point, both researchers agree, most kids will give up on drawing.

Kids get hung up on performance and aptitude, comparing their art to that of their peers, or to what it "really" looks like in "real" life. They decide they're just "not good at art," and move on to other subjects.

Personally, I think I'm at that critical stage. I know I'm not the best writer ever, and I know there is a lot to learn. I'm not really inclined to give up on it, though, because I really *want* to be good, or at least better, and because it's fun. Like scribbling.

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So where are we as a people? Most people in this poll I heard approximated that humanity, on the whole, is a teenager. Talented, temperamental, torn. Just old enough to realize that not everything we're capable of doing is something we *should* do, and broad-sighted enough to see that there are a number of things we kind of suck at.

But will we give up? Will we just declare that we're "not good at" the art of creating a successful civilization, and that we should accept our shortcomings as cruel, universal Destiny?

I doubt it. Not us. Knowing really is half the battle, as G.I. Joe remound us, and I say any species that gets far enough to criticize itself is on the right track.

Besides, a people who recognize, share and reflect on likenesses between forests and plant cells, irises and black holes, nautilus shells and logarithmic equations - and embryos and animal kingdoms, even when they're wrong - can't be all bad.

I think we're basically alright. How bad could we be? After all, from really close up or really far away, we're beautiful.

We look just like the world itself.

3 comments:

penelope said...

Love this idea very much. And I'm proud of you for finally writing it. :)

Colin said...

Thanks, babe.

Anonymous said...

awwww... Sweet! They're all twitter-painted!**

FABULOUSLY written Colin, really, really. And wholly absorbing. Gonna be ruminating on this one for days!

xo Wee

** Best phrase in a Disney movie EVAH! (From Bambi)