The Archetype of You

Posted by David

Earlier I defined evolution in one line: Evolution is the process whereby a natural system becomes its archetypal form. Let me go a bit further on this idea.

First, to see where I’m going with this we must realize that an individual is not independent. Nothing is independent. Everything is part of a greater whole. As John Donne put it:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

The same goes for a species. To understand how a species develops a particular set of characteristics or a morphology, we must look at the broader organism: the species as an organism, the genera as an organism, the order as an organism, etc., the phyla as an organism, and even life as an organism. An not only do we need to look at a particular family or genetic grouping, we also need to look at the local and broader ecosystem as an organism. For example, the grasslands with all its organic and inorganic substances is an organism. The continent of North America with all its climatic influences and biomes is an organism. The earth is an organism. The universe is an organism.

I suppose I’ve gone far enough. You get the point. But here’s the clincher: each of these life forms grow just like you do, just like a dog does, just like a tree does. An apple seed becomes an apple tree. A baby dog, becomes a dog. A grassland ‘seed’ becomes a grassland. An earth ‘seed’ becomes the earth. You became you.

An earth ‘seed’ didn’t become Mars. A tiaga seed didn’t become a tropical rainforest. A rainforest may have once existed where the tiaga now exists, but it grew out of a different ‘seed’.

Each of these broader organisms is a form of life and has a particular specialness that is inherent to it. Each had a seed. Each, one might say, inherited a plan, much like the genetics written in your DNA. But the seed that grows a grassland, doesn’t look like a cashew nut. And the egg that grows an elephant species didn’t take just a 22 months to develop into an elephant. These ‘broader’ seeds took millions of years to develop interdependent the genera and biomes we see today.

What’s also interesting is that in the first few million years of growing into an elephant, the elephant didn’t look anything like an elephant. In fact, it probably looked more like rock hyrax. But, make no mistake, it became an elephant. It also became other things too: manatees, dugongs, mammoths and mastodons to name a few. But the ‘seed’ that grew the elephant species could not have grown a cheetah, a whale or a star. It simply couldn’t have. It couldn’t have no more than your mother’s egg could have produced a hummingbird instead of you.

One common misconception in evolution is the focusing on one-half of the process of evolution and missing entirely the other half of the process. The common notion is that the branches become more diverse as time progresses, call it an upside-down pyramid, or the phylogenic tree.

But the opposite is also true. There’s a right-side-up pyramid that deserves equal attention if we’re really and truly to understand how evolution works. This pyramid has to do with the evolution of broader ecosystems. It’s also known as succession.

Succession

Let’s take the example of a grassland. Over the years the correct climate and soils would drive the characteristics of the local ecology to take on the appearance of a grassland. This is the case for all biomes. It is also the case for you.

And there are only so many of these archetypal forms. There is not an infinite number of them. There may be a seemingly infinite number of successional steps within a paticular biome just as there are seemingly infinite number of steps between you as a fetus and you as an adult. But if you look around the earth, you will find a fixed number of these archetypal biomes. Each of them are slightly different, but in principle they are the same. Grasslands, forests, deserts, tundra are some of the primary ones on land. No matter what you do to these systems (unless you change the climate), inevitably in time, they will redevelop into their archetypal form. And what’s so totally amazing—from a personal and relational standpoint—the same is the case for you. You are an archetypal form.

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2 Comments

Filed under evolution

2 responses to “The Archetype of You

  1. Mike Zelenka

    Re: A natural system becoming its archetypal form. I do understand (I think) what you are saying; however, because the system without (the environment) is constantly changing, the “archetypal form” itself is constantly changing. So the archetypal form is constantly evolving. The problem with using a term like that is that it seems to imply a fixity, rather than a process. Perhaps you could come up with an equivalent term that would encompass the constantly changing (evolving) aspect of what is actually happening with speciation. You are using what seems very much like a Platonic idea of ideal forms (which were very much fixed). I’m not sure that the notion of archetypal forms is either helpful or useful, and that what forms are achieved are likely NEVER exactly like whatever the “archetype” might be, because I suspect that, in evolving, forms are never “just right,” due to the limits inherent in the biological processes involved.
    I wonder about the notion that there are “a fixed number of these archetypal biomes.” I suppose that in the process of categorization of biomes, one might “fix” the number of them. I would seem that this is an artificial, human lumping together into categories that does not truly reflect reality (as lots of our attempts at categorization do not). We don’t really know what the future possibilities are of biomes, as the earth and it’s organic and inorganic components change their characteristics over time. Would there not possibly be biomes in the future that we are unable to imagine now, as a consequence of change and evolutionary factors?

  2. I’m actually saying that these broader systems are organisms themselves and have a ‘prime’ state. Just like you had a prime state. You grew into your prime form. You didn’t just slide into becoming a whale. You hovered around who you are. The same goes for species, genera, orders, landscapes, biomes, planets, etc.

    These systems might be in flux, but they hover around their archetypal form.

    The “fixed number” or archetypal biomes that I spoke of seems clear to me. Of course, there are subcategories. There might be a Douglas-fir forest in one place and a hemlock forest in another, but it’s still a forest.

    In ecology, there are transitional zones. These are ecological regions that transition from one archetypal system to another. In North America’s West, there are upper and lower treelines. the tree lines are usually very abrupt. There’s grassland, then there’s forest with very little transition in between. It would be difficult to justify the idea that a transitional zone is an archetypal system in a broader sense, just as much as it would be difficult to say that your adolescence-time archetypally represented who you are as a person.

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