DAY ONE:THE BASIC TENETS OF BIOGENETIC STRUCTURAL THEORY
Every system of knowledge, regardless of what the knowledge is about, or what culture the system is from, is based upon fundamental tenets and axioms. And every system of knowledge has its own language for talking about things that are meaningful and important within its purview. So it is with biogenetic structuralism. In this section of the tutorial I want to introduce you to some of the technical terms we use. Some of these terms are common words that are used in novel ways. Others are words we have had to make up to cover new concepts. If you find you are having trouble remembering what some of our terminology means, you can always click on to the glossary of terms and refresh your memory. Throughout this introduction, I will establish links to relevant articles that I have stored either in open or zipped format elsewhere on the homepage and that discuss this or that concept in more depth.
There are three radical notions that form the foundations of biogenetic structural thinking and that make this perspective so different than most alternative views:
1. The first is that consciousness is a property of the nervous system.
2. The second is that all of the neural structures that mediate consciousness are developed during the course of life from initial, inherited structures.
3. And the third is that all we can possibly mean by "culture" refers either directly to neurophysiological processes, or indirectly to the artifacts and behaviors produced by those processes.
Let me say some more about these notions, because their importance cannot be over-emphasized. Biogenetic structuralism rejects the idea that the human mind or consciousness is somehow disembodied; that consciousness floats as some kind of epiphenomenon above or outside of the body. All mental properties are the function of neural processes. All states of consciousness are mediated by an organization of neurophysiological structures. This means that there exists no act of consciousness that is not correlated with and produced by a concomitant neural process. There may indeed be neural processes going on that have nothing to do with consciousness -- like the regulation of blood pressure -- but there is no such thing as a conscious or experiential state that does not involve neurological processes.
Consciousness is always ordered. It is organized at all times around an object of some kind, be that object a thing or a feeling or a quality or an action. Moreover, so far as we can tell from the study of newborn infants, consciousness is always ordered, never a blank slate or a "booming, buzzing" chaos. And the neural processes that mediate consciousness are ordered from nearly the beginning of life. There is no time during life when the conscious brain is a blank slate upon which "personality" or "culture" is written. Rather, learning is always a process of modification and complexification of pre-existing neural structures -- structures that we initially inherit by virtue of being Homo sapiens .
What most anthropologists mean by "culture" today refers to the knowledge or meaning that we learn and share with other members of our social group. Sometimes the term is applied to activities that are learned and socially shared, and sometimes it is even applied to the material objects that we produce from our knowledge -- so-called "cultural materials." Biogenetic structuralists think of "culture" in similar ways, referring to the social dimension of neurophysiological development and the artifacts of behavior and material objects produced within the social frame. Language involves all of these aspects. Language is produced by the brains of people, it is spoken by the activity of their bodies and may leave material artifacts behind, like books and computer files.
The Mind-Body Dualism Problem
What I am saying here is that biogenetic structural theory requires a non-dual stance with respect to mind and body. Mind-body dualism -- a very common solution to the problem of the relationship between body and consciousness in Western cultures -- creates an impossible hurdle to an understanding of the evolution and functioning of consciousness. It is easy to see that bodies evolve. We can examine the fossil record, carry out comparative serological studies, and examine homological features in physiology. But if we deny any causal or ontological unity between mind and body, there is no way we can apply these researches to the evolution of consciousness or to the structures of experience.
Yet, as we come to find out more and more from the neurosciences about the evolution of the human brain and how it works, we are compelled to reach the conclusion that consciousness and the various factors of consciousness are "acts" or operations of the nervous system. And if we accept the weight of most of the evidence from the neurosciences, it becomes possible to relate paleobiological and comparative neurophysiological findings to the question of the evolution and functioning of consciousness.
It is tempting, of course, to write off mind-body (or mind-brain) dualism as merely an annoying artifact of Euroamerican culture, as some commentators on the mind-body problem have done, and presume that a unitary view of mind- body relations characterizes non-Euroamerican, traditional ("primitive") cultures. But how accurate is this view of mind-body relations cross-culturally? Do traditional peoples in fact manifest a unified view of mind and brain, or is this presumption just one more manifestation of the "noble savage" mystique?
Some of my students and I looked at a large sample of cultures and were able to correct this "noble savage" view of mind-body dualism. It turns out that all cultures to some extent claim a separation of mind and body, if nothing more than the separation of all or a part of consciousness from the body at death. But it also became quite clear that Western cultures tend to be extreme in their separation of mind and body. Thus part of the challenge we face as biogenetic structuralists is to find a single language in which we can speak of both body and mind simultaneously, without either reducing mind to body terms, or ignoring the body in favor of the mind.
Basic Concepts in Biogenetic Structural Theory
We may begin our exploration of the structures of consciousness by acknowledging the phenomenological fact that consciousness is essentially intentional in organization. To say this means that for every moment of consciousness, the activities and processes within consciousness are organized around some object, be that object a physical thing, a feeling, a sensation, a thought, speech or whathaveyou.
The network of neural systems that mediates the moment- by-moment flow of consciousness we call the conscious network . And the neural structures that participate in the construction of each moment of consciousness are models that develop and operate, as Piaget suggested, within the twin demands of adaptation and conservation to produce the immediate world of experience, or lifeworld of the individual. Neural models are literally organizations of thousands, even millions of living cells, the internal organization of which is determined at the same time by their genetics and the lawful constraints of internal equilibration -- the demands of conservation and coherence -- and positive and negative feedback from the environment -- the demands of adaptation and correspondence.
Cognized and Operational Environments
The sum total of neural models that potentially may be organized to form an intentional conscious network we call the cognized environment . The real world that surrounds and influences an individual, including the real nature of the individual and his/her nervous system we call the operational environment . Most of the evidence we have pertaining to the evolution of the hominid brain suggests that the neocortex is the primary, although not the exclusive, organ of the cognized environment.
The neural models constituting an individual's cognized environment develop from initial organizations of neurons that are genetically determined during neurogenesis. We call those nascent models neurognostic structures , or when referring to their function, neurognosis . We coined this term in order to emphasize that our world of experience originates in the inherent, rudimentary knowledge available to cognition in the fetal and infant nervous system. Neurognostic structures are species-specific and are a special case of the more general process by which the neocortex of the pre- and perinatal child is organized. Neurognosis, then, is that part of the human nervous system whose function is the production of the nascent cognized environment and lifeworld. As such it is an evolutionarily advanced set of structures, the anlagen of which are to be found in the general primate "biogram" as Earl Count would say.
The simplest and most rigidly, genetically determined form of neurognosis are the neural structures mediating so- called "fixed action patterns" such as nut burying behavior among squirrels and the sucking response among human babies. More evolutionarily advanced neurognosis is open to much greater flexibility and complexity in development, and results in virtually all knowledge systems in the brain. Neurognostic structures explain the "deep structural," epistemic universals that mediate the diversity apparent in different languages, cultures and systems of logic.
There is now a great deal of evidence in developmental neurobiology and developmental psychology that the late term fetus and infant are perceptually and cognitively competent and take their first conscious stance toward the world from the standpoint of a system of structures that mature in adaptive interaction with the world. In terms of evolutionary biology, the neurognostic brain is the preeminent organ of exaptation as Stephen J. Gould would say -- that is, an organ whose structures have evolved precisely to be "coopted" during development to a variety of adaptive organizations and functions dependent upon the characteristics of the environment.
If you would like to read about the concept of neurognosis , then click here for a zipped DOS file version of my paper, "The Properties of Neurognosis." For an open version of my "Pre- and Perinatal Brain Development and Enculturation" paper which discusses the early development of neurognostic structures, click here.
The Importance of Neurognosis
The concept of neurognosis is so important to our theory of the nature of consciousness and culture that I want to flesh the term out further.
Neurognosis Is the Foundation of All Models
As far as we can tell at this juncture in neuroscience, virtually all models comprising an adult individual's cognized environment are developed from the exaptational structures of neurognosis. The DNA of the human genome guides the establishment of the field of initial models upon which the mediation of all consciousness and experience depends. And genetic guidance does not stop once the initial model is formed. The genome continues to steer the course of development of models, constraining the degrees of adaptational freedom that each and every model may take in its own development and in the interconnections it may form with other models. Indeed, the entire field of models that constitutes the cognized environment is genetically influenced, especially in the early pre- and perinatal months of life. The function of this genetic guidance is both to maintain the systemic integrity of the organism (Piaget's "conservation") and to maximize the veridicality of models relative to the operational environment (Piaget's "adaptation").
In contrast to Piaget's opinion, however, our theory holds that the consciousness of the (at least) late term fetus and newborn are already "differentiated" into functioning models. The notion that the consciousness of young babies is a "booming buzzing confusion" or undifferentiated chaos is empirically wrong, and is another one of those erroneous ideas that derives from our cultural heritage. The bias in our Wester culture is that babies are not conscious until some time after they are born, perhaps when the begin to walk or talk. But we know from empirical research that babies are actually fully conscious beings. The difference between the consciousness of a newborn and that of an adult has to do with the development of the complement of neurognostic structures mediating consciousness, not the absence of consciousness.
Flexibility in the Development of Neurognosis
It is the concept of neurognosis, more than anything else, that makes biogenetic structural theory different from other approaches (including Piaget's). This is because it is the tacit assumption on the part of most theorists that models -- at least those mediating so-called higher cortical functions -- are totally plastic with respect to learning and environmental input. For example, Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain holds that "dispositional representations" may be innate at the subcortical levels of the hypothalamus, brain stem and limbic system, but are entirely acquired at the level of the cortex.
Damasio's position reflects a tendency in the literature to lean either toward a "hard-wired" view of neural development (in Damasio's case in subcortical structures), or a view of development as "totally plastic" (for Damasio at the level of the cortex). This view is not accurate when evaluated in terms of modern neuroscientific evidence. The truth of the matter appears to lay somewhere in the middle, or rather in the much more complex systems perspective of a brain that develops structure under the simultaneous influence of genetic information and environmental press. The best view in terms of the weight of empirical evidence is that neural structures have greater or lesser flexibility in organization within the constraints imposed by their system of DNA.
It is true that the veridicality of knowledge is facilitated by a great deal of flexibility in the functioning and growth of models -- indeed the evidence even suggests the very survival of models is at stake in development. There appears to be considerable neuronal death in the early stages of development as some groups of cells are selected over others in the competition to operate within what we are calling the conscious network, as well as other non- consciousness related functions.
Neurognosis Assures Adaptive Veridicality of Models
Neurognosis is provided by structures ranging from those mediating higher cortical processing all the way out to the peripheral sensory systems in the retinae, the cochlea, and the other sense organs of the body. Each sensory field is organized to detect and transmit to internal structures distinct patterns of stimulation in the external and internal operational environments. It is very important to realize that senses are already organized neurognostically to attend certain patterns of coherent energy, and to ignore others. For instance, patterns visible in the ultraviolet range are normally invisible to us, but quite visible to honey bees. Honey bees live in a different visual world than we do. For an even more dramatic example, dolphins have auditory senses that detect sound patterns in the ultrasonic range where our ears are normally deaf. Bees and dolphins operate on patterns established at the periphery of their nervous systems by their own neurognostic structures designed to purvey a species- specific cognized environment.
Thus we are neurognostically designed to know the world from a human point of view, an initial sensorial world upon which internal cognitive development depends for its primary veridicality. But to say that our models of the world are veridical does not mean that they are passive representations, or that we "see it all as it really is." Far from it, neurognosis has evolved as a consequence of millions of generations of our biological line modelling reality in an adaptively isomorphic way. Patterns of neural activity are projected by the sensorium upon the patterns of coherent energy in the operational environment with sufficient accuracy to produce adaptive cognition and action by the organism. In other words, the sensory systems of our body are neurognostically "in-formed," as Francisco Varela would say, so that adaptively relevant patterns of activity in the environment are singled out and transmitted into the nervous system where they become the "data" for recognition, cognitive association and action.
Knowledge therefore begins with the activity of the senses at the periphery. And that knowing is highly neurognostic in its structure. In terms of Martin Heidegger's "facticity" aspect of Dasein, the sensory world is "already there" in abstract patterns of neural activity before higher cortical intentional and association processes are able to operate upon those patterns. The patterns detected at the periphery by the senses are maintained topographically as they are passed inwards along neural tracts into the central tissues of the brain. Here they become the focus of a complex set of operations carried out by parallel processing structures distributed over wide areas of cortex and subcortical centers such as the anterior cingulate (mediating attention), the hippocampus (mediating perceptual categorization) and the basal ganglia (the organization and planning of conceptual and motor responses). In all likelihood, the total production of all of these parallel processes come together in a unitary lifeworld mediated by structures in the prefrontal areas of the cortex.
We have reached the end of Day One of the tutorial. You may wish to return to the tutorial index and note down where you will begin the next time you log on. If you wish to continue on to Day Two of the tutorial, I will go on to discuss neurognosis relative to experience. Below are some suggested readings that will flesh out your understanding of consciousness and the brain.
Changeux, J.P. (1985) Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edelman, Gerald M. (1989) The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness. New York: Basic Books.
_____ (1992) Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.
Falk, Dean (1992) Braindance: New Discoveries About Human Brain Evolution. New York: Henry Holt.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) "Exaptation: A Crucial Tool for an Evolutionary Psychology." Journal of Social Issues 47(3):43- 65.
Hinde, Robert A. (1995) "Individuals and Culture." in Origins of the Human Brain. Ed. by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Jean Chavaillon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 186-197.
Jerison, H.J. (1973) Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence. New York: Academic Press.
_____ (1977) "The Theory of Encephalization." In Evolution and Lateralization of the Brain. Ed. by S.J. Dimond and D.A. Blizard. New York Academy of Sciences, pp. 146-160.
_____ (1985) "On the Evolution of Mind." in Brain and Mind (ed. by D.A. Oakley). New York: Methuen.
Laughlin, Charles D., John McManus and E.G. d'Aquili (1990) Brain, Symbol and Experience. New York: Columbia University Press.
Pinxten, Rik (1976) "Epistemic Universals: A Contribution to Cognitive Anthropology." in Universalism versus Relativism in Language and Thought. Ed. by Rik Pinxten. The Hague: Mouton, pp. 117-175.
Pribram, K.H. (1971) Languages of the Brain. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.