I recently saw the new X-Men movie and out came this question: Aren’t we all mutants? I checked Merriam-Webster for a formal definition and Wikipedia for more technical details. As mentioned in my last post words unlike numbers can change meaning with usage and context. So leaving behind the slang of popular culture, i.e., mutants have some different genes from the rest of us that result in super powers, leaving this behind in the sci-fi world in which I have been comfortable since the mid-1950s, let me discuss another relevant passage from Langer’s Mind v. III, p. 97 and following. In brief, she presents the idea that evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) proceed in many directions at once with different components advancing before others but within an equilibrium set by adaptive requirements. Evolution is powered by mutations in the genetic heritage. We assume these appear randomly and some data support this. Many mutations have little impact on development and functioning; the genes carried little significance or their context was the more determining factor. Some mutations impact ontogeny adversely and some suggest these are in the majority, and some mutations increase adaptation. And until it happens and lives are lived, no one knows whether a mutation is neutral, harmful, or helpful.
Langer says further that like the giraffe’s neck, the elephants trunk, or (my thought) dinosaur size, the human cerebrum with its symbolic capacity has outpaced other structures and functions and thus poses some risk for a maladaptive outcome despite its obvious advantages, some potential to destabilize a balanced ontogeny and phylogeny. Now this is interesting. Reptiles dominated the landscape as they increased in size and power until conditions changed, and then insects and small mammals ascended to populate the landscape. Like a gene, adaptability is constrained by the animal’s context. Reptiles suffered with Gaia’s climate changes as meteors struck the earth and volcanoes facilitated the cooling of this planet’s crust. Human phylogeny looks pretty good but what about the changing developmental context?
Langer suggests that our cerebral activity outstrips other vital actions at times and this can pose its own risks. She presents the notion that our mental activity continues long after and independently of somatic necessities. We think and feel more than we need just in order to adapt, survive and procreate. Further that symbolization at its inception (even for nerds today) is exciting, that this ability to construct virtual realms and to communicate about topics displaced in time and space is intoxicating, and that in our excitement, we may neglect some important reality based principles. In a paradoxical way science uses mathematics to ensure that our symbolic capacity stays in balance, in sync with reality orientation.
The greater risk to balanced development lies in our carrying out symbolic activity disregarding reality testing, not in the admitted fantasy of science fiction or other art, but in spirituality. Primitive religion “bespeaks, I think, a darkly apprehended intuition that lurks in an excessive spiritualization of man, a tendency to develop a mental life in defiance of the biological mainstream and let the physical stock degenerate or even cease” (p. 127). She cites the rather uncontrolled numbers of human sacrifices in ancient Mesoamerica that contributed to the vulnerability of these civilizations. I will also cite the Inquisition, any attempt to denigrate the integrity of scientific thinking and work, and all attempts to rule others according to God’s law as some group or individual with weapons understands it.
Sometimes we presume our thoughts and feelings are not only realistic but validated by greater powers than our own and so others’ thoughts and feelings are at best irrelevant, at worst a “sin,” at least wrong. Perhaps as we engineer changes in Gaia’s richness and our own ambient, we enter a context where our adaptability will suffer.
Aren’t we all mutants? Yes, so be careful.