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Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006
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In response to Cycle Hype or Genotype: The History Wars



Dr. J. A. Quaytman is a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches at California State University. She has worked in the field for over 30 years and has a private practice in northern California. Her specialities include psychological trauma, substance abuse/dependence and family dysfunction. Her last piece, Michael Jackson: Another Seduction, appeared in 2005, Vol. 4, No. 5.


Once again I am hooked by your latest in fascinating, if messy, fishing expeditions, that of your latest editorial, “Cycle Hype or Genotype”. Of course it is the ultimate hubris to claim that anyone can predict with great specificity the rise and fall of a given civilization, nation or species. And it’s true that the complexity of human communities would make such exact “prognostications” nigh impossible. But I must say that your discussion’s internal blueprint for understanding the behavioral connection between any civilization and the genotype of that society’s individual members is a bit fuzzy. As a consequence, you seem to be asking the reader to dismiss a theoretical construct that has considerable merit. One of the current hypotheses discussed in Evolutionary Psychology, Systems Theory, and Sociology, to name but a few fields, is how the individual’s genetically encoded reactions to threat, satiation, curiosity, etc. are played out at the community or group level. Why wouldn’t a group of the same living creatures reflect the same need, concerns or, in this case, life cycle, as their individual members? Individuals are, indeed, born through a process of fertilization and in utero development, and they then grow up, hopefully, only to reproduce, mature, age and die in that same relatively predictable cycle. In a parallel fashion, the individual’s society also begins as a fertilized ‘egg’, if you will, inseminated by the shared beliefs, behaviors, art and music of its early founders. And that civilization will either die prematurely, much as an individual may be spontaneously aborted (miscarriage) due to any one of a multitude of teratogens, or will continue despite the regular death rate of its individual members. Heraclitus, his numerous and obvious errors aside, did have a sense that this natural cycle of birth, growth, reproduction and death is played out in both the microsystemic (individual animals, plants, the human) as well as the macrosystemic arena (cities, nations and biomes). The later historians you mention (Fukuyama, Schlesinger) had the benefit of the more recent concepts spelled out in General Systems Theory (von Bertalanffy; Gray et al) who demonstrated clearly the isomorphic nature of all life forms or configurations …that is, all living systems function similarly despite their differences in physical structure. Thus, the idea of applying a variety of principles which govern individual reactions to those of a group has a fairly long standing tradition. These civilizations that remain viable for protracted time periods, continuously reproduce as well as evolve in order to adapt to changing environmental conditions. And we see the varied permutations of this macrosystemic life cycle in the past and present. Some are lost for eons only to be discovered during some paleontologist’s dig (e.g. Troy, the Etruscans), while others continue across the millennia (eg. Egypt or China). This vast difference between the relative longevity of various civilizations indicate the unique ‘genotype’ of each, if you will, and its ability to adapt to a variety of environmental pressures.

However, your initial annoyance-driven nattering at those arrogant historians appears to be a very thinly veiled ruse, no more than a convenient vehicle drawing your audience into deeper questions: Is the human truly governed by a ‘genotype’ that inevitably directs him to war, aggression? And, if so, does this evolutionarily successful species actually have a choice in how it responds to such genetic pressure? And how are the threads of power and greed interwoven in the historical tapestry of the bellicose human? These are issues truly worthy of our attention at this point in our species’ evolution.

General Systems Theory speaks eloquently to the instinctual reactions of all living systems – from single-cell animals to complex life forms – in response to a perceived threat. And neurobiological research has actually located the physiological structures responsible for those survival responses. The three reactions most often noted and discussed in regard to survival are the ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ behaviors, and these potential actions seem to be ‘hard wired’ into an identifiable area of the human brain, the limbic system. However, this limbic system is tied, via a complex set of connective tissues, to the frontal lobes of the human…and those frontal lobes are responsible for what we describe as ‘executive functioning’. Executive functions include decision making based on the ability to anticipate future events and external responses to our current behaviors. Thus, the modern human does have a ‘set of brakes’, if you will, on this behavioral equivalent of a runaway train. If this set of brakes is present in the individual human, it is also available to our species as a collective, given the principle of isomorphism.

Another of the slippery slopes you walk in this discussion is your rather vague description of the human genotype, including an absence of those pesky factoids which might actually help support some of your basic underlying assertions. Thus, you create an opaque, confusing quality about the issue at hand. This is the same error made by some of those smug historians you cite (also frequently found in the rhetoric of the man we know as “W”), and this almost always results in a furrow etched between my eyebrows. First of all, it appears that the majority of human genotypes are heterozygous in nature, meaning there is more than one possible expression or response to any given genotype. And it should be noted that, in addition to the genotype, an individual (or society’s) phenotype is equally salient to this topic. Just as a genotype refers to the actual genetic material underlying any given characteristic (e.g. eye color), a phenotype refers to how the genetic material is observably expressed. If we look at eye color as a characteristic, it is well known that an individual can have a genotype consisting of genes for both brown and blue eye color. This is known as heterozygosity . . . the presence of varied genetic material underlying any given characteristic. In this case, an individual with both blue and brown genes most often presents with brown eyes, as brown is the dominant gene; the actual observable eye color is the phenotype. Therefore, the phenotype for any characteristic is not necessarily the same as the genotype. However, in the case of a blue eyed individual, it is likely that the phenotype is the same as the genotype, as the gene for blue eye color is recessive, and an individual must have both blue eye color genes for that outward appearance.

Human behaviors may operate similarly, with both a ‘genotype’ and ‘phenotype’ to be considered. And we can use the example of human sexual behavior to illustrate this possibility. From Kinsey to Masters and Johnson, and through the more recent researchers, it appears that humans can meet their sexual needs through a number of orientations – bisexuality, heterosexuality and homosexuality. However, it appears that the vast majority of our species is actually bisexual in nature, meaning that we are capable of experiencing sexual gratification with a variety of partners. Nevertheless, it is likely (given current studies) that a minority of humans are either exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual. Thus, many of us, if not all, have a choice in our method of sexual expression, and this is ultimately pragmatic. This ensures that we will not be deprived of that strong reinforcing type of satisfaction, should our group of companions change radically. The sexual attitudes of a society’s majority are likely a simple reflection of what may be necessary or helpful to ensure the species’ overall viability.

And now, back to this most recent of your fishing trips, and that attractive fly you attached to the hook at the end of your line. Bait consisting of those easily digested historical ‘worms’ is much more palatable than the deadly fare found in a hook full of warmongers. And who could blame you for the initial disguise, given the current global polarization about the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. I must assume you wished to lure a portion of your audience into the deeper debate… those with a murky understanding of genetics causing them to err, just as those historians erred in over-generalizing basic, but complex constructs. Such individuals may mistakenly believe that aggression is the inevitable result of some homozygous genotype…a unidirectional, one-way-only response to threat. I suspect this was your motive, as you do prod the reader with a hope that we have the capacity to “learn”, to refuse the pursuit of power through the venue of war. And you quote Ortega y Gasset’s statement “… that every life is a reaction to the basic insecurity of life”, poetically echoing the current scientific research. Yes, humans want to control their lives, to predict the future in pursuit of such control, and that drive is part of our species’ viability. The better our predictions, both in terms of what is satisfying as well as what is dangerous, the more likely we can avoid early death, extinction.

But with this knowledge, we can also see the paradox of a response such as the decision to go to war. Over the course of what we know of human history, war has certainly been one human behavior that walks the razor’s edge in terms of our species’ survival. On the one hand, it can threaten us with annihilation. The threat of global human eradication posed by the nuclear arms race in the last century terrified both the east and the west during the Cold War, perhaps even to the point of causing the collapse of the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, war has been, in evolutionary terms, both a form of self-defense and group preservation as well as population control. And, in more recent times, it has served that latter function all too well. Is war an evil necessary for our species to continue . . . is it needed to cull out the excess population and its demand on a finite set of resources? Perhaps not, as other more effective behaviors have evolved during the lifespan of the human. But a clearer understanding of the powerful, genetically driven need to survive must really be gained in order to “refuse” to opt for war. For example, is the world prepared to control population through effective contraception methods? There are no such laws in the United States, and the relatively recent population explosion of the East – China and India in particular, as well as some areas of South America – seem to be laboring under such a question. Although China has actually codified a policy on reproduction for several decades now – the ‘one child only’ rule – it is clear that this is often circumvented in a number of ways, although it has helped to stabilize their population growth rate. Another question of equal importance, especially in the industrialized nations, is: Are we willing to surrender our luxurious, comfort and gadget driven life styles for that of a simpler, more planet friendly type? Is an easy, no-effort, no-pain existence equated with safety and power over our environment in the shared psyche of these nations? Do these societies suffer some collective ‘disconnect’, and ignore the threat of deforestation, global warming, and famine resulting from this massive denial. Evolutionary theory states unequivocally that humans are genetically driven to reproduce, however, an equally important construct in that theory is that we, as well as all species, must adapt to our environment. Can our genetic codes sniff out the current clues of impending disaster? Does humankind need to shift its priorities from the seduction offered by consumerism and raw power, to that of global cooperation and a more sophisticated definition of true control? Can we counter the urge to reproduce without constraint, so that, paradoxically, we will survive? And if we do, will such a decision provide the necessary pressure to prevent war? Excuse the mixed metaphor, but your fishing expedition was not devised to catch some scaly but benign, water bound creature, but, in truth, to lasso the unbridled warhorses of St. John’s apocalyptic vision“. . . and behold a pale horse, and his name . . . was death.”


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