The First Filter – Genetic Heritage

Continuing our discussion of the Orientation phase of the OODA Loop I want to take up the topic of our Genetic Heritage.

Genetic Heritage

As we examine the factors that play a role in determining our world view and impacting the decisions we make and the way we choose I like to start with Genetic Heritage.  It can be described fairly accurately for the broad swath of humanity and it is one of the filters we can’t do anything about.  Our Genetic Heritage is unchangeable; it is how we have evolved.  Evolution is a slow process.  We are genetically and evolutionarily the same as the humans who lived at the time of the Caesars and they were genetically the same as the humans who lived ten thousand years before them.  The history or the human species is one that reaches back approximately three and half billion years ago when life began to develop in the seas of the Earth.  At the time our planet was about a billion years old already, a mere infant in terms of it’s predictable life span, but it had been around long enough to become a relatively stable biosphere.  As we examine how and why we do the things we do it’s important that we do so with a sense of the evolution of our pieces.  Our origins can be traced back to the first land dwelling creatures to crawl out of the oceans.

Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish is a great primer on evolution.  He was among the team who discovered the fossilized remains of the Tiktaalik a three hundred and seventy five million year old flat headed fish who exhibited a bone structure never before seen: it had an upper arm, two forearm bones, and digits.[1]  This creature is considered to be among the evolutionary links between our ocean dwelling ancestors and us.  In looking at the evolutionary roots of man we see that as beings developed, and evolved over spans that are nearly incomprehensible, that our brains developed as well.

Around two million years ago the first members of the genus “Homo” began walking the planet.  With a larger brain came more brain structures devoted to perhaps our most critical sense: sight.  Why might we say that sight is the most critical of our senses?  Drawing on the work of Leonard Mlodinow we can argue that those who see better, eat better, and with that ability to feed we live longer.[2]  Our propensity to obtain our protein from the meat of animals also impacted the ability of what became our human brain to develop the way it did.  The species homo-sapiens started its path toward ascendancy atop the food chain approximately 200,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until roughly 50,000 year ago that we see the emergence of modern hunting and collective culture.[3]  It is with the emergence of the human collective that we became able to grow and develop at an alarming rate in comparison to the nearly two millennia that came before that.  Culture and collective operation are huge components in this.  When we began to hunt, gather, and shelter in ever larger communities there were more people to divide tasks up between.  So very often the men would go out to hunt while the women would share the duties of caring for the children and gathering.  This lifestyle of cultural norms was displayed in the Native American people until the mid nineteen century when their culture was destroyed by the US Military in the name of Manifest Destiny.  This division of labor allowed for even greater access to food, to the construction of shelter, and increased the ability of the homo-sapiens to thrive in a harsh world.

Homo-sapiens was unlike any mammal that has been documented in the fossil record: it walked upright, had a larger skull to accommodate it’s ever increasing brain, and gave birth to young who were undeveloped, in comparison to other mammals and dependent on a caregiver for five to seven years for even the most basic of care and into their early teens for independence.  Why this need for a prolonged dependency?  If we consider the chimpanzee, whose DNA matches ours 99%, they are weaned between four and six years of age and reach independence by age nine.[4]  The African Elephant reaches sexual maturity between nine and ten years of age.[5]  Wolves reach independence by the age of three years.[6]  Ultimately it is the large brain (particularly the neo-cortex) that we have developed that gives us our capacity for language, for abstract thought, and is the wellspring of what makes us uniquely human.  The homo-sapiens brain is the first tool that we developed that allowed us to develop other tools, harness the use of fire for domestic use, and begin communicating plans for the hunt.  It’s also the reason we have to spend so much time in dependency.  The human head has to pass through the birth canal of its mother to enter the world, and in order to do that it needs to be compact relative to what it will become and it needs to be malleable.  We are born not quite finished and have to complete our development.

Briefly we need to consider the structure of the brain.  The work of neuro-scientists is to examine the brain, its connections, and understand how it impacts our conscious (or willful) thoughts and actions as well as our unconscious ones (our implicit or subliminal thoughts, drives, and cues).  Our brain can be thought of as being comprised of three major functional areas: the hind brain, the mid brain, and the fore brain.  Without digging too deeply into neuroanatomy or the connectivity to these areas, yet, we can describe some key functions.  The hind brain mirrors the brain structures and functions of just about every living animal.  It is the seat of involuntary actions that keep us breathing and provides the interface to our spinal cord to allow for the involuntary (or autonomic) and voluntary actions.  The mid brain is roughly the same as the brain in your dog or cat.  It controls many of our implicit (or instinctual) acts; the four “Fs” as some scholars have referred to them: fighting, fleeing, freezing, and mating.  It is where much of what we label emotion originates in the brain and it is perhaps the largest component of our unconscious brains that we don’t understand, and often aren’t even aware of.  The fore brain is the seat of language and abstract though.  Our large and highly developed fore brain (the neo-cortex) is what has in a relatively short span of time enabled us to move to the top of the food chain, create art, learn to fly, and given us the tools to look inside ourselves and try to understand what all of this gelatinous mess inside our heads is about.

If we are going to understand why and how we make the decisions we do it is critical that we gain a working knowledge of the filtering process that has been bequeathed to us by our Genetic Heritage.

Homework

Yep, now I’m assigning homework.  To prepare yourself to understand how the filter of Genetic Heritage works I’m going to recommend you go read a couple of books.  I’ve cited them already but for the sake of clarification they are:  Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin and Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.  I also would recommend you pull up the website TED.com and search the name Simon Sinek and watch his video “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and read his book Start With Why.  I know you’re busy but it’s probably worth noting that if you make time to read for one hour every day it is the equivalent of sitting in a college classroom for 22 credit hours of class (a full time degree program is usually 30 hours per year).  Knowledge and study can come from a huge variety of methods.  With the proliferation of internet resources, ebooks, and using the library your only limit on developing a working understanding of these topics is your desire to do the work.

Go do your work and next time we will tackle another filter soon.

[1] Your Inner Fish; Shubin, Neil; Pantheon Books, 2008; p.25

[2] Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior; Mlodinow, Leonard; Vintage Books, 2013; p.35

[3] IBID; p.85

[4] http://www.chimpcare.org/about_chimpanzees accessed 2/21/2013

[5] http://www.zoo.org/page.aspx?pid=2143#.USYZIGdm-So accessed 2/21/2013

[6] http://www.animalcorner.co.uk/wildlife/wolves/wolf_about.html accessed 2/21/2013

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