It’s often said that a developing foetus passes through all the stages of evolution from a single celled organism to the current human model, and at one point apparently even displaying a tail.
This idea that even these microscopic scales spoke up for Darwin arose from the mind of Ernst Haeckel, an over-keen Darwinist who somehow convinced himself that Nature would seem more logical this way. His fraud was known by the late 1800s but mud sticks – and the idea has proved impossible to leverage out of the mass mind.
In 2000… [Steven Jay] Gould noted with disapproval that Haeckel’s drawings were still widely used in high school and biology textbooks. Gould provided a weak excuse for the textbook writers who were still including Haeckel’s fake embryo drawings in high school and college biology textbooks 100 years after they were known to be fraudulent.
He claimed that the textbook authors were “probably quite unaware of their noted inaccuracies and outright falsifications” given Haeckel’s reputation as one of the most highly regarded scientists of his era.
The time required for cell division is 20 hours for the first two days, and in subsequent divisions, curiously extends to 31 hours (M. Herbert & colleagues, Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, 1995: 103, pg 209-214) perhaps because of the extra processing required to generate specialisation instructions.
Researchers found that after certain number of cycles the number of cells never correlated to the number expected, presumably because not all cells duplicate during all division cycles, or some duplicate at a much slower speed, or perhaps need to wait until other cells have divided before receiving the instruction to divide further. From what I could gather, it was unclear if the variation in duplication time was a result of the laboratory conditions or not.
Finally, there is wide variation in the number of cells of embryos of equivalent chronological ages and stages of development; our results demonstrate that this was due in part to a significant difference (P = 0.02) in the replication rate of embryos from different subjects.
It should also be remembered that up to three of the fastest growing embryos from each cohort had been selected for embryo transfer. These points illustrate the difficulties encountered in the study of human embryogenesis. Much larger studies are needed to overcome such difficulties if significant results are to be produced.
But if the duplication speed remains at about 30 hours, no cell in the finished product, the newborn baby, could be older than 224 cell divisions, more or less, which indicates a fantastic direction of branching and timing, all of which must be encoded somehow within a single, original cell. Interestingly there are also about 210 different kinds of cell in the human body, so if we allow for a little error either way in both these measurements we could arrive at a very similar figure for each.
If a newborn baby has five trillion cells, then by purely doubling cells every 30 hours at maximum speed this number could be achieved in 42 divisions, or about 7.5 weeks. Even if we reduce the percent of cells constantly dividing to a more reasonable 50% (instead of 100%) at each level, it still works out at about 72 stages of duplication, or less than 13 weeks.
Clearly the overwhelming majority of nine months is not spent in comparatively routine, automated duplication but in more complicated knoweldge-based processes such as monitoring and error checking, perhaps testing various organs and priming them for activity with the required enzymes and proteins before handing off development to the next stage. This implies that a specific store of rules and knowledge far greater than that currently possessed by all of mankind’s specialists combined is maintained somewhere and referred to continually to detail the assembly of each specialised part and measure its function against set targets. Otherwise, the results would be chaotic, with the odds overwhelmingly against a single pregnancy producing a living, fully functioning human being, prepared in advance for an environment it has had no experience of.
Therefore the creation of a baby cannot be due solely to duplication mechanisms – amazing as they are – but must rely on a timing, information, and reference system on some level. We can be sure this is a biological storage mechanism because it can be disrupted by radiation, or by depleted uranium weapons used during the massacres we inflict on places such as Fallujah in Iraq.
It is mechanically possible to build a human being within only two or three months, and evolution would surely favour the quickest possible pregnancy. A dog’s gestation is around 9 weeks – about four times quicker than ours – while a dolphin’s is around 52 weeks, a third longer. To what do we attribute these variations, in a law-bound universe?
Aside from all the supporting equipment – nucleus, proteins, ribosomes, etc, each cell division requires the copying of more than 3 billion DNA pairs, so that an accurate and continual reproduction of this database takes place at around 280 base pairs every one-hundredth of a second, or the more impressive sounding 28,000 per second.
If we take into account the coiling time required for the new DNA and all the processes involved with the separation of the actual cell into two (where, in at least 210 stages, the new one must vary significantly from the original, since there are at least 210 different kinds of cells) the DNA duplication time is going to be very much faster than this since it is only one stage in the process. Nevertheless, some cells present in the newborn infant may have been the result of this staggering rate of base pair copying carried out continuously for a period of more than 24 million seconds.
The total number of DNA base pairs duplicated to achieve the construction of the last few cells would, by that time, be 672 billion: as such, the foetal development does indeed seem a fair analogy to evolution, bu especially so in its overlooked aspects of synchronised timing and complexity. Even twins raised completely separately emerge in much the same condition, showing that internal preferences remain very smiliar, even those presumed to be a random affair.
The finished product, as can be observed in twins, proves fidelity to the original design. But that quality after all seems the most prominent feature of all biological life and suggests that it arises not from mechanical duplications which are generally understood but from complex laws and sources of data which are not yet known. There can be no suggestion that the process tends to take random turns at any point: if this were so, identical twins could never be identical, and nor could a species remain constant for hundreds of millions of years – an observed fact. Where functional changes are observed over time, this can only be a result of a very consistent process, fully accounted for somewhere within a database governing duplication and cell specialisation directives.
The whole idea of random mutations hinges on the persistent and rapid appearance of significant errors, but within each of us we have a completed experiment in which given the same starting point, the end result must be identical. After all, nobody is saying that identical twins have a completely different process of birth than anyone else: they simply share the same starting point.
Curiously, if foetal development does show evolution from a single cell to a human being, it also shows the entire process can take place, given the right starting point, within a nine month period. The process itself therefore does not rely on vast stretches of time as much as it does on the need for specific information contained within that starting point, and a specific environment awaiting its birth.
As for future evolution, it would seem a far more dramatic evolution is possible within the brain than the body. The genius outperforms the normal man in so many ways, and with such a bewildering versatility, that they could even be considered a different class of human beings altogether,perhaps with an accelerated or otherwise altered biological makeup.
By observing the genius we can see what changes are possible in the mass of mankind over considerably longer periods of time. The genius inspires the ordinary mind along a certain direction, showing a possibility that was not suspected before, and so the genius acts as an ideal for the common mind to believe in and aspire to. If we find a consistency in the mental development of the genius, it points to the existence of even more subtle laws involved in “mental biology” which have not even been suspected so far.
I want to focus on the artistic genius, as there are indeed some trends common to practically all of them. The process I am interested in is one in which the initial urge to duplicate reality as seen by human eyes and to present this image to others (representing a kind of scientific process liable to minor stylistic touches) is eventually completely supplanted by the urge to present a vision created by the inner eye – an image not as true to facts as to impressions made by them directly on the personality. These later images are made with all the force of accrued talent but are more importantly evidence of an emotional maturity and insights gained into the nature of life’s impact upon the mind.
The change in representation from the solid to the abstract is a remarkable and rapid evolutionary process within the artist mirroring the millenia-long racial evolution of man’s standard artistic fare. Cubist, abstract, and later surreal, images depended absolutely for their popularity on the level of malleability within the ordinary mind, and the degree to which their imagination could be stimulated and excited without overwhelming the intellect. Critics always had the least flexible minds. The critics who attended the first impressionist exhibition loudly ridiculed what they saw, although it was not long before talent and popular ideas caught up and overtook the dullard critics of the Paris Salon.
In Michelangelo’s day, critics declared the nudity of The Last Judgement as offensive; another was baffled by the Sistine Ceiling image of God “as a floating old man drifting across the sky in a purple cloak”. Conceptual thinking has never been a strong point of the critic, who prefers to endlessly hone his knowledge about a specific group of facts, and trusts that prevailing styles will remain the same long enough for him to make a tidy living. In time, he becomes the butt of the joke.
Because this harvest of genius and talent arises from commitment and self-belief, it never occurs within the mind of the cautious amateur who never reaches the emotional depth or the adventurous conclusions of the committed artist. He remains at the foot of the mountain and speculates on the nature of the peak, instead of hiking through the brambles and sheer drops to broadcast directly from the summit. It seems one either invests the entire brain in the effort, or not at all. “Nature will not have her work made manifest by cowards,” as Emerson said.
There are two remarkable aspects about this internal process, despite being one which could easily be mistaken for self-indulgence: one is that it happens at all, when a logical conclusion to a search for representation should be an ever-greater fidelity to reality seen by an audience with the same eyes, and the other, is that these new ideas are much more appealing to mankind and account for the genius’ eventual fame. So much so that their earlier efforts become completely eclipsed and seldom referred to. It is as if genius – while beginning with a solid grounding in scientific reality and technique – is not as concerned with the realm of facts as it is with a transcendent vision which communicates itself to a similar sense, necessarily less developed but still seeking expansion, within the viewer. This is an important clue to the nature of human evolution too.
Self indulgence could never be a sufficient explanation since as the artist progresses he can only gain in skill and experience, and as his fame grows, he is obliged to communicate with an ever wider audience, and exposure to much greater criticism from those who are now only aware of him through his more transcendent works. Such a deep appeal cannot be a result of accurate depiction of reality and later enlarged by greater stylisation, since the latter completely contradicts the aims of the former, and the former in any case only ever attracts a very modest audience compared to the latter. Why should this be the case?
Concentration is the most important element, which indicates artistic skill is linked to amplification of structures in the brain. Jackson Pollock, for example, took his inspiration from Indian trance states involved in sand paintings when he began his abstract works: he emulated not just their direct interaction with elements of the painting but the intense concentration. He was susceptible to alcohol abuse, and later in his career despite having vast experience and motor-skill know-how, as well as confidence and inside knowledge about what appealed the most, was unable to generate the same levels of concentration, and found the resulting decline of his popularity hard to cope with.
Gauguin’s progress from stockbroker and sunday painter to the creator of Polynesian myth is well known. Here is one of his early works, from the 1870s, showing small variations in colour still subservient to the concept of expressing the same reality as seen by others:
And below, a much later work, The Moon and The Earth, from a time in the 1890s in which he was by now representing aspects of emotion using colour – an unheard of development up to that point – and elements of mysticism as represented though portrayals of Polynesian life. His book, Noah Noah, deals not with painting technique but ideas of the soul and mysticism, further showing the journey he had travelled mentally since abandoning his stockbroker life.
Gauguin was, by all accounts, a highly flawed personality, creating and nurturing conflicts, with an overweening ego, and prone to make up stories left and right either to support the marketing of his artistic vision or justify his abandonment of his family, including his endlessly supportive wife and doting daughter. Had he remained a stockbroker, even his own descendants would now be hard put to recall a single detail of his life; instead, purely through his artistic talent and mystical interpretation of human life, he remains a household name. Like the legendary white lotus which blooms to absolute purity even in stagnant water, his genius co-existed with the dusty arena he created, and most represents the saving grace of the creative forces in this world which sometimes touch the personality.
A recent exhibition of his work, Maker of Myth at the Tate was a massive success. On my second visit I decided to be first in line, calling for a very early start, but enabling me to see Manao Tupapao up close, and all to myself for a full thirty seconds, helping me greatly in a portrait I was attempting at the time: it was well worth it.
How do we explain that the addition of some coloured pastes onto a grubby sackcloth canvas by a certain personality can creates a work of art which draws excited crowds a century after his death?
Even the work of Vermeer, a highly realistic painter, contains a subtle element of emotional colouring which his peers were unable to generate, and which I tried to give an example of in The Buddhist Amygdala.
Van Gogh in the space of ten years learned the fundamentals of drawing and perspective, with the aim to highlight the plight of the peasant, but ended up communicating the twists and turns of his own psyche, projected upon the landscape: the human mind was once again writ large, so that the impression of a single mind dwarfed whatever vast landscape came under its relentless gaze, hinting at the possibility of encompassing even the whole universe.
It seems to me this growing certainty, this triumphant conquest of the physical world is the lesson of the genius, and by extension, perhaps of evolution itself. It would surely have to be this way from the start: materialism is a dead end simply because material itself, at a certain point, loses its nature and yields its being to a mysterious energy. The energy behind the mind must be linked to this deeper well; if not, a state would be reached where matter would lose everything it had presented as real up to that point, and life lose its meaning. Instead, we find artists becoming more excited as they progress: clearly in the realm of the mind, assuming certain aspects of biological health, no end is in sight.
Picasso’s Rocks and Quarries, carried out at the age of 16, shows his eagerness to break reality up into separate parts; I stood in front of this picture for half an hour in Barcelona and still the wonder grew. In fact I moved on very reluctantly, because I had an uneasy sense that security guards were viewing me as a suspect. What looks simple in this small photo (no larger reproductions seem to have ever been made) is actually comprised of layers – a ground colour on which stabs of light, in which the brush tracks are visible, have been made to carry the movement of light over the form of the land. It is visible as both painting and reality: it is worth the trip alone just to experience this alchemy. But get to the museum early!
This idea to break solid elements into its component parts, along with the technical ability to express it, was dormant cubism; other artists of the time, for example Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (above) certainly compared to or excelled Picasso in their observation of light and form. But Picasso’s much larger fame came not through his technique alone, but his radical re-interpretation of reality.
A certain depth of thinking is mandatory in a painter if he is not to be replaced by a camera, and it is this increased depth throughout his career that leads not to an ever more microscopic examination of facts, but to concepts created by his own mind, showing him to be no self-indulgent fool – as Picasso said, a painter is acutely aware of society’s state, and is even more attuned to it than is the average person.
This final quote, by Sorolla, demonstrates firstly the acute perception typical of the adventurous genius; secondly, the unavoidable conclusion that it is the mind which attains supremacy over mundane matter – a feature even observable within the foetus’ development in the womb; and lastly, related to yet another quality of mind, Sorolla’s certainty that creation calls for all the innovation and boldness genius can muster, to leave the accepted wisdom behind him:
“If ever a painter wrought a miracle of illusion with brush and pigment that painter was Velazquez in his ‘Las Meninas,’ at the Prado in Madrid. Now, I have studied this picture with a lens, and what do I find? Why, that Velazquez got that marvelous atmospheric background by one broad sweep of his flowing brush, charged with thin color so thin that you can feel the very texture of the canvas through it.”
“Nature, the sun itself, produces color effects on this same principle, but instantaneously. The impression of these evanescent visions is what we make desperate attempts to catch and fix by any means at hand. At such moments I am unconscious of materials, of style, of rules, of everything that intervenes between my perception and the object or idea perceived.”
“No, mes amis, impressionism is not charlatanry, nor a formula, nor a school. I should say rather it is the bold resolve to throw all those things overboard.”