Who’s in Charge?

Since the mapping of the human genome, discussion around genetic determinism has intensified within the bio-politique. What impact do genes and gene technologies have on human biological destiny? The fate of reproduction, life expectancy, health and disease are subject to multiple moral and ethical debates  (Muskavitch 2014; Fox Keller 1994; Resnick & Vorhaus 2006).

 

But the debate around genetic control of human movement seems less tenacious. Genes play a vital role in organizing the plan, or template, of the human body.  But movement is shaped by interaction. From the get-go, movement is a co-creation of body, mind and world. Take walking for example: While it’s true that the basic pattern of walking (bilateral alternating leg movements) is ‘wired’ into the human nervous system. No two human beings walk alike. What interests me is the unique style and variability of a person’s movement profile at any point in the life span. Given the fact that embryos evolve the same bodily structure, the same muscles and bones, movement expression is unique to every individual. The flawless unity of synchronous swimming and dancing takes many hours of rigorous training.

 

And further, movement takes place in complex, changing environments. From the baby’s first steps to coping with the challenges of aging and infirmity, meeting gravity requires online problem solving – a coupling of human perception and action. How do we meet ongoing, moment-by-moment changes in the landscape of experience? Watch a YouTube clip of robots playing soccer, and you’ll gain an appreciation for the ingenuity of human problem solving. While robots are beguiling in their ability evoke human interest — and even empathy – they readily fall down.(Read Feldenkrais practitioner Larry Goldfarb’s perspective on the role of learned experience in human movement in his classic essay, Why Robots Fall Down, Goldfarb 1993).

 

When it comes to human movement control, epigenetic science supports interaction over determinism. What we inherit in our genes is the capacity to learn and adapt. Environmental scientist and ethnographer Jorg Niewöhner writes: Environmental epigenetics produces an embedded body, that is, a body that is heavily impregnated by its own past and by social and material environment within which it dwells. It is a body that is imprinted by evolutionary and transgenerational time, by early-life,and a body that is highly susceptible to changes in its social and material environment” (2011:290).

 

It also seems true learning is negatively affected when environmental conditions are repetitious. Unwaveringly stable environments cause the brain-body to lose its feisty connection with the surround. We easily become habituated and bored. Take the current craze of surfing parks. Technology has been able to simulate ocean waves for novice surfers to practice hanging ten. Expert surfers find the similitude and invariability of these waves unnatural. If surfers don’t train in a real ocean, they say, novices could possibly do themselves a disservice by habituating to constant frequency and amplitude that technology affords.

 

Enter human origami. A fold is not pre-programmed. Nor does it ever create itself in a vacuum. A fold is always the result of interaction, a partnership between body and world. The embryo folds from cells into systems because of its capacity to meet the fluid changes of its internal and external environments. Here, the grand design of growth and development is fluid, where mover (maker) enters into a unique conversation with the material world. This exchange between maker and material is a continuous conversation – a process of becoming, one that changes both partners.

 

Anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that our goals emerge from the interplay of intention and improvisation. The goal of an action might be clear, but a bit of tinkering and tweaking is probably needed all along the way. Nothing is carbon-copy, rubber-stamped, or ready-made. Without interaction, humans are robbed of challenge, novelty, imagination, divergence – in essence, what lies at the bottom of our capacity to generate and thrive. Ingold states: “… [leaving] out the very creativity of the processes where both things, and ideas are generated. They (the new objects and artefacts) are generated on one hand in the flows and transformations of materials and on the other hand in the movement of the imagination and the sensory awareness of the maker… (Ingold, 2013).

 

The take home message is that control is enmeshed in our lives unfolding. Pause, when you next drink that cup of coffee. Explore the way your hand folds around the shoe of the cup.  A simple interaction becomes an inroad to the fluid, enfolded universe.  Perhaps our genes carry within them instructions for a blink and a wink.

 

References

 

http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/projects/PastProject.aspx?projectId=11

Marc A.T.Muskavitch. Genetic Determinism in the Post-Genomic Age. Integritas 3.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 1-21. doi: 10.6017/integritas.v3i1p1

Evelyn Fox Keller (1994). Rethinking the meaning of genetic determinism. The Tanner Lecture on Human Values. https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/k/keller94.pdf

David B Resnik and Daniel B Vorhaus. Commentary: Genetic modification and genetic determinism/Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine2006, 1:9 doi:10.1186/1747-5341-1-9. http://www.peh-med.com/content/1/1/9

Larry Goldfarb (1993). Why Robots Fall Down.https://balanceandcoordination.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/robots-fall-goldfarb.pdf

Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson (eds) Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology.

Jörg Niewöhner. Epigenetics: localizing biology through co-laboration. New Genetics and Society, 34:2, 2015. Epigenetic’s and Society: Potential, Expectations and Criticism.