UNLOCKING THE EPIGENETIC CODE
Written for MAYBE DAY 2022 and the NEW TRAJECTORIES WEBRING
I was moved on this year’s Maybe Day to deliver some ancillary remarks to my Tim Leary, Robert Anton Wilson and Developmental Psychology piece in New Trajectories from Maybe Day 2021. This was inspired by a recent Mike Gathers posting in the Eight Dimensions of “Mind” Facebook group:
I think Leary was onto something big and way ahead of his time, epigenetics — the interaction of genes and environment that determines gene expression — which genes are expressed and which aren’t. The science of epigenetics is still in its infancy and there is much that we don’t know, and I am far from an expert. One thing we do know is that it blows a hole in the whole nature vs. nurture, genes vs environment debate. The two are completely interdependent.
I suspect that we will come to a point of understanding, someday, where we link the force behind epigenetics to Sheldrakes morphogenetic field, but that’s just my speculation. And that would require our scientific community to make a big leap into something that’s considered rather mystical at the moment, so I’m not holding my breath on that one, but maybe someday.
So back to the quote and C7 and practicality. Epigenetics tells us that a lot of our genetic code is dormant and unexpressed. So, my wild speculation is that by tapping into the power of the morphogenetic field — the environmental field, the mystery that connects all things and everything — we can unlock our full potential by unlocking our full genetic code. Or something like that.
WILSON AND LEARY AND SCIENCE
Wilson and Leary were about hacking the body and mind, but they were also about leveraging scientific method. This is apparent in one of my prized possessions is a set of Ken Kesey’s literary journal, called Spit in the Ocean. Each of 6 issues had different guest editor, and number 3 was Tim Leary. Back in 1973, he was trying to reconcile, as he put it, the “spiritualists, occultists, swamis” and the new generation of “turned on” scientists in physics, biology and medicine (especially life extension). (Leary and Kesey were longtime friends. Did Wilson ever meet Kesey?)
Last year, encouraged by Mike Gathers, I reconsidered Leary in the context of other developmental theory I had been studying (Clare Graves and related work on Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory.) https://medium.com/neurosphere-technologies/tim-leary-robert-anton-wilson-and-developmental-psychology-362e4134384
Although my recollections had been that Leary’s take on higher circuits were a little undefined, I reviewed his Info-Psychology (re-write of Exo-Psychology) and reported
Circuits 7 and 8 seemed no more specific than they had been 10 years earlier, at least as I read it then. But wait! — “the Seventh [circuit] Brain learns to control, integrate, organize Neuro-genetic signals and manipulate Chromosomes.” Emphasis mine — well hello CRISPR gene editing, 20 years later!!
RAW references Isaac Asimov in both TSS and Cosmic Trigger. Asimov observed a 60 year lag between first understanding of new scientific principles and applications that transform the world. He expected genetics would follow that trajectory — starting from 1944, then 2004 would see biological breakthroughs based on DNA structure.
I always liked the “circuit activation” idea in the 8 Circuit Model, but for some years felt it was meant metaphorically. Leary did try to find some physical evidence — Leary talked about genes for higher circuits being “masked by histones” in Exo-Psychology (footnote, p. 4.)
Geneticists are just now discovering “unused” sections of the DNA, masked by histones and activated by non-histone proteins, which are thought to contain the blueprint for the future. Evolution is not a blind accidental improvising process. The DNA code is a prospective blueprint which can be deciphered.
So, can the histone masked sections of the DNA code be studied to determine the sequence of future evolution?
Leary called this Neurogenetics, but didn’t do a lot of follow up. I think if he was around today, he’d be fascinated by epigenetics. Before discussing that topic more, here’s a little more about my developmental psychology guru Clare Graves, as I’ve been dusting off his archives to investigate about how to update his methods for identifying and facilitating movement to higher levels/circuits.
GRAVES LEVELS OF HUMAN EMERGENCE
Similar to Leary, Graves tried hard to find “hard science” correlations to his theories. He was one of several developmental psychologist, along with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who believed in greater human potential. Graves theory was called the Emergent Cyclical Theory of Human Existence — but was also seeking the same scientific underpinnings as Leary. Both men were students in the era of Skinnerian behaviorism, whose believers thought all human behavior could be quantified and thus predicted.
Graves always emphasized that life conditions must be right for individuals and/or societies to progress to the next level. He claimed evidence over a 20 year period, 1950–1970 from his research (subjects were largely college students and some employees at General Electric), that a larger percentage were acting at higher, more effective levels of functioning, problem solving, and also higher levels of empathy, what he called the A’N’ or “Existential” level.
1952 34% DQ or Absolutistic 6% A’N’ Existential
1969 6% DQ or Absolutistic 34% A’N’ Existential
This and graphics below from Graves Archives at Union College, used by permission.
One can think of this as quantifying the well-known transformation of the 1960’s generation in values including civil rights, environmentalism and feminism. (The role of psychedelics in this transformation is relatively apparent in activating higher circuits; I am watching the current re-mainstreaming of psychedelics with great interest in whether it will lead to another major swath of the population moving upward and onward.)
Graves was convinced that, having classified generations of subjects based on their descriptions of healthy happy human beings (his initial methodology,) that the emergence of higher level values systems would correspond to new and different “brain structures”. He constructed several experiments at Union College, (where he taught and I was a student) using word-recognition timing and galvanic skin response testing to see if different values identified in surveys would have some physical correlation. His initial results were positive, but the number of experiments was limited.
I have been fooling around with the idea that current generation EEG measuring devices might result in “neural fingerprints” of individuals that might correlate to what circuit they are most commonly operating at — more to come. (See my tracking of EEG price/performance improvements. I also note that the Union College Psychology department now employs a department co-chair in Neuroscience, a new trend in academic psychology. And here is also an ongoing set of conferences about neural correlates of consciousness called the Science of Consciousness, under the auspices of the University of Arizona. My recent contribution to that conference is here.
This all seems promising, but I wanted in this article to return to Leary’s genetic thinking. What he didn’t have access to at the time was a modern view of applied genetics (see my previous article) and more important, I now believe, a fully developed theory of epigenetics.
Work in developmental biology over the last 20 years, summarized in This View of Life, evolutionary biologist David Sloane Wilson, describes an evolutionary mechanism for how individuals and cultures evolve, within single lifetimes as well as over generations. Maybe this is what Graves and Leary were groping towards. (Graves represented his theory graphically often as a double helix, but not clear if that emerged spontaneously or he was trying to cloak the theory with genetic science that was being popularized around the same time.)
Biology as practiced today can track the patterns of gene expression, known as epigenetics. Cultural change is also an evolutionary process (Graves would agree.) D.S. Wilson writes, “Conscious evolution requires the construction of a new system of cultural inheritance capable of operating at an unprecedented spatial and temporal scale.”
Wilson begins his book by invoking Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was often cited as prophet of the 8th level of existence, or collective consciousness, yet to emerge but predicted by the theory according to Graves students like Don Beck and Ken Wilber. Teilhard sought to marry Christian mysticism with the theory of evolution, still warring camps as he wrote in the early 20th century. D.S. Wilson writes,
Teilhard coined the term “Noosphere,” meaning a new skin of earth’s atmosphere — noosphere has a mental dimension; evolution reflecting upon itself. [This View of Life] can be seen as an updated version of The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard’s magnum opus…Human activities now rival other living and non-living processes in shaping the earth and atmosphere.
For D.S. Wilson, genetics and evolution incorporate altruism. This perspective is summarized in a review of TVOL,
[Wilson] in Does Altruism Exist: Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others, documented current science’s conclusion that once evolution reaches the relationships between, and hierarchies within, groups, then nature’s definition of “fitness” — i.e., natural selection — changes from choosing the best competitor to choosing the best cooperator. So, yes, “survival of the fittest” was true, but the definition of “fitness” changes from the best competitor to the best cooperator, especially as complexification increases. In the arena of academic scientific journals, D.S. Wilson and his famous colleague E. O. Wilson of Harvard, had also redefined sociobiology in terms of this new paradigm, concluding, in The Quarterly Review of Biology, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
Wilson writes, “The traits that we associate with evil triumph over the traits that we associate with good within groups and the counterforce provided by between-group selection is not strong enough to save the day.” So, for example, repressive dictators can take over a group, but dictatorships do not prosper relative to open societies (although the dictators/oligarchs often prosper individually, as the theory would predict.) Further,
Our ancestors found ways to suppress disruptive competition among individuals within groups so that between group selection became the primary evolutionary focus. This favored group level coordination in all its forms, including the transmission of learned information across generations. Cultural evolution began to operate alongside genetic evolution and the two processes began to interact with each other.
So transgenerational human cultural change counts as an evolutionary process, similar to genetic evolution, the immune system and our capacity to learn as individuals. The slow process of genetic evolution follows the fast evolution of cultural evolution. Traces of your grandparents’ cultural evolution is within you.
If we want the whole earth to become a superorganism, then multilevel selection theory tells us what to do: make planetary welfare the target of selection.
So, if all of this makes sense, how does the evolution happen on the micro level — in our own lives and cultures? As a start, D.S. Wilson reminds us that variations in gene expression depend on life conditions — the entire gene repertoire is much greater than what we use in course of a lifetime. (Graves follower Beck loves to talk about life conditions — people can’t evolve until current problems are faced and solved.)
So, epigenetics is operating upon us all the time, and genetic options are available to us. The trick is how to access more of the unexpressed genes inside us.
Wilson to Leary to Graves to Wilson
When it comes to circuits, Leary pointed out psychedelics could trigger attention to higher states implicit in but not expressed by every human’s genetic code.
Integral Theory and Practice, Spiral Dynamics and other developmental approaches provide prescriptions for both moving oneself upwards to higher levels, but also how to utilize the understanding to change cultural direction. A key observation is you can identify higher level states, both personal and societal, but getting individuals and societies to move onward and upward includes understanding the life conditions of where they are now and what they are capable of in terms of change. In trying to facilitate change, one size does not fit all.
Graves would also point out there’s a cyclical component related to the emergence of circuits — they alternate between express self (personal growth), and sacrifice self (for the benefit of larger group/society) — and that allow us to predict the outlines of circuits that are yet to emerge.
I don’t think Graves knew Leary or Wilson. He did know Maslow and other humanistic psychologists — he tended to think of them as navel-gazers, self-congratulatory about having achieved a more egalitarian and contemplative state as if it were an end-state. His students Beck and Wilber are fond of picking up on this observation as a core problem with today’s culture wars — the “higher” states at best can’t communicate with “lower” states, and at worst scare them with slogans like Abolish the Police.
Where I end up so far is, contemporary science is catching up with Leary and Wilson’s insights on circuits 7 and 8 — epigenetics for circuit 7 and emerging quantum engineering capabilities (not just fuzzy Tao of Physics stuff) for circuit 8.
Requoting Mike Gathers here,
So, my wild speculation is that by tapping into the power of the morphogenetic field [per Rupert Sheldrake] — the environmental field, the mystery that connects all things and everything — we can unlock our full potential by unlocking our full genetic code. Or something like that.
For more from Gathers, I highly recommend his series on the 8 circuits — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x2hMR9M-Ww
I’m not as sure about Sheldrake, but here’s more on Sheldrake:https://www.sheldrake.org/research/morphic-resonance/introduction
David Sloane Wilson is not content with theory, but also supports applied epigenetics. He has co-founded a “Prosocial Movement”, explicitly evolutionary, and has indeed reached out to the developmental psychology and Integral community (which counts Graves among its foundational thinkers.)
Prosocial World has developed the first change method based on evolutionary science that enhances cooperation & collaboration for groups of all types & sizes and is effective at a global scale.
The Prosocial ARC Process can best be understood as a process of wisely managed cultural evolution. It brings together cognition, cooperation, and culture into a flexible framework that can be used to help groups improve collaboration and cooperation in different contexts.
This View of Life
Article in Integral Leadership Review.
This is D.S. Wilson reaching out to the Integral Community and Ken Wilber, who incorporated Graves in Integral Theory.