Monday, May 23, 2016

Metagenetics, Part 1

Nothing is more likely to make the head of a Norse Neopagan explode than to mention the concept of metagenetics. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the subject of several articles written by AFA Alsherjargodi Emeritus Stephen McNallen, starting in 1985, and taken up by other authors since. The basic concept is that there are certain spiritual qualities that are transmitted through ancestry beyond those recognized by the science of genetics. 

As you can imagine, it's a somewhat controversial theory. I intend to go through those original essays, and provide my own commentary, especially in light of more recent scholarship that has come to light in the intervening 17 years since the last essay on the subject.

Both essays are available on the Asatru Folk Assembly website in their entirety.

I will first go through the original article, entitled Metagenetics (published in 1985).
One of the most controversial tenets of Asatru is our insistence that ancestry matters- that there are spiritual and metaphysical implications to heredity, and that we are thus a religion not for all of humanity, but rather one that calls only its own. This belief of ours has led to much misunderstanding, and as a result some have attempted to label us as “racist”, or have accused us of fronting for totalitarian political forms.
In this article we will discuss, fully and at length, a science for the next century which we have named “metagenetics”. For while that science deals with genetics, it also transcends the present boundaries of that discipline and touches on religion, metaphysics, and (among other things) the hereditary nature of Jungian archetypes. The foundations of metagenetics lie not in totalitarian dogma of the 19th and 20th centuries, but rather in intuitive insights as old as our people. It is only in the last decades that experimental evidence has begun to verify these age-old beliefs.
So right off the bat, McNallen confronts the canard that folkish Heathenry is somehow totalitarian or "fascist" (to use the new catch-all for the enemies of the radical left) with a direct renunciation of totalitarianism. And these aren't just empty words; as I've shown before, the folkish branch of Heathenry was involved in fighting against real racism trying to hijack Asatru long before there even was a universalist branch of Asatru. But this is just the intro.
Anyone familiar with Asatru knows that the clan or family line holds a special place in our religion. Kinship is prized for both practical and spiritual reasons, and the chain of generations is seen as a time-transcending unity, something not limited by our narrow perceptions of the past, present, and future. What findings of modern science make this more than a pious conviction? Is there anything special about the genetic bond from a psychic or spiritual standpoint?
Even the most stalwart Norse Neopagan will admit to the importance of kinship and ancestry, even if they somehow distinguish between that and the concept of "race".
Consider for a moment the curious connection between twins. Identical twins, of course, have identical genetic endowment. Hence it comes as no surprise to find that patterns of brain current activity are remarkably similar in twins, nor is it unexpected that Danish scientist, Dr. N. Jule-Nielson, has found that twins raised separately have similar aptitudes and personalities. One step beyond these findings we run across the fact that in many cultures twins are credited with extra-sensory perception in regard to each other. In fact, Dr. J. B. Rhine, famous ESP researcher at Duke University, is on record as stating that, “Cases have been reported to us from time to time of what would appear to be exceptional telepathic rapport between identical twins”.
A study of ESP cases will show that other family members are likely to have this rapport as well. How many mothers during wartime have known with uncanny accuracy the exact instant that their sons have been injured or killed? Countless other anecdotes can be collected which might be interpreted as having a genetic basis. Such a psychic resonance could be explained by other hypotheses, to be sure- but when placed in the context of other information that we have, they tend to buttress the heredity connection. And a biological (or partly biological) rationale for psychic phenomena should make the subject more palatable to “hard-headed rationalists”.
It will be (rightly) pointed out that anecdotes are not evidence. And, frankly, I find the ESP rationale used here to be the weakest link in the chain. Unfortunately, Dr. Rhine's experiments were later found to be riddled with flaws in design and execution, ripe for confirmation bias and outright fraud. Fortunately, it is also a totally superfluous justification for the metagenetic theory in general.
Going a step further, let’s look at reincarnation memories. One does not have to “believe” in reincarnation as it is commonly presented to accept the reality of the phenomenon; there seems to be evidence that people sometimes have memories that don’t belong to them- or at least not to the “them” that they normally consider themselves to be. One is free to accept or reject the literal explanations for reincarnation as it is vulgarly expressed, but there are other explanations for the reports. There is the possibility that these memories, or many of them, are genetic memories. Timothy Leary- who, whether or not one agrees with his drug philosophy, is no small intellect- is only one person who suspects this to be the case. Leary wrote that whether one called it the akashic records, the collective unconscious, or the “phylogenetic unconscious”, it could all be ascribed to the “nuerogenetic circuit”, or what he calls signals from the DNA-RNA dialogue. In other words, these memories are carried in the DNA itself.
In 2013, Discover magazine published an article which pointed to actual evidence that epigenetic information is passed through generations. Not that the genes themselves are altered by experience, but the expression of those genes (i.e., the latent genetic predispositions inherent in all of us are "turned on" so to speak) is definitely triggered by environmental and social factors, and those expressions are thus passed down generationally. The key is the methyl groups associated with the DNA: "A study from Randy Jirtle of Duke University showed that when female mice are fed a diet rich in methyl groups, the fur pigment of subsequent offspring is permanently altered. Without any change to DNA at all, methyl groups could be added or subtracted, and the changes were inherited much like a mutation in a gene."

In short, nurture influences nature, and nature can be "activated" by nurture, and this can endure into following generations.
It’s interesting to note that in many cultures- in our own Norse tradition and in the Tlingit Indian lore, among others- rebirth is seen occurring specifically in the family line. A person did not come back as a bug or a rabbit, or as a person of another race or tribe, but as a member of their own clan. Olaf the Holy, the Norwegian king largely responsible for Christianizing that country, was named after his ancestor Olaf Geirstadaalfr, and was believed to be the ancient king reborn. Naturally the Christian Olaf could not tolerate such a suggestion, and the sagas relate how he harshly discouraged this belief.
The notion of reincarnation within the family line in Germanic religion is not new by any stretch. It is explicitly alluded to in Helgakviða Hjorvarðssonar, which includes a very brief prose epilogue, "Of Helgi and Sváva it is said they were born again" [ON endrborin]. It is similarly passed down in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II; "It was the belief in olden times that men were born again [ON endrbornir], but that is now called old women's superstition."

It should be noted that the latter lay is deemed by scholars to be of older provenance than others included in the Poetic Edda, thus the editorialization about reincarnation is likely to be a Christian addition.

From a religious point of view, this, I think, is the most compelling argument. If, as many have stated, Asatru's thesis is the recreation of the Germanic mindset, then if a belief in reincarnation within the family line was part of that pre-Christian mindset, then a restoration of that belief in contemporary Asatru must be considered as part of that thesis as well.
The Tlingits, though, have preserved their native religious beliefs into our own time, and thus they are subject to scholarly examination at a much closer range than are our own ancestors. Dr. Ian Stevenson is the alumni professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, and he also has an interest in reincarnation phenomena. In fact, he authored a volume titled, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, the conservative title of which indicates his scientific approach to the subject. One of the cases he investigated dealt with a modern-day occurrence of apparent rebirth into the clan line in a modern Tlingit family. While the story is too long to be included here, suffice to say that the evidence, while circumstantial, is still impressive. It may not be possible to prove, in strictly scientific fashion, that a Tlingit was literally reborn as his own grandson- nor does it matter. The point is simply that there are metaphysical implications to the bond of genetic kinship.
The crux of the matter, it seems, is not whether reincarnation is regarded as a possibility from a religious perspective, but whether reincarnation was regarded by our pre-Christian Germanic ancestors as remaining within the family or clan line. As Grönbach says:
In the opening of the Vatsdoela saga we are told how the famous family of Ingimund was founded by the welding of a Norwegian clan with the luck of a royal race of Gautland farther east. The union is dated from a fight between the Norwegian youth Thorstein and a scion of the Gautland kings called Jokul; before dying, Jokul requests his slayer to marry his sister and revive the name in the offspring of this alliance, “and I look for blessing to myself from this”, he adds. Thus it comes that the name Jokul runs in the Vatsdoela family. The same theme occurs in another saga, the Svarfdoela, where Thorolf, a brave youth from Naumudal, who on his very first viking expedition receives a mortal wound, in his dying moments asks his brother Thorstein to transmit his name to posterity: “My name has lived but a little hour, and thus I should be forgotten as soon as you are gone, but I see that you will increase the family and become a great man of luck. I wish you would let a son be called Thorolf, and all the lucky qualities (heillir) which I have had, those will I give him; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world.” And Thorstein answers: “This I will gladly promise you, for I look that it shall be to our honour, and good luck shall go with your name as long as it is in the clan.” He keeps his promise, and the new Thorolf becomes like his kinsman. 
Note specifically that Thorstein can't merely name his yet-to-be-born son after Jokul; the marriage to Jokul's sister is necessary for the intention to be carried out. The clans must be united by blood. Interestingly, direct descent is not required; the child being born to Jokul's sister would be sufficient. It is entirely possible that the importance of the uncle-nephew relationship, which was even of greater import in Germanic society than the father-son relationship, is at play here; technically, Thorstein's son would be Jokul's nephew, by virtue of Thorstein's marriage to Jokul's sister.

But the operative requirement is clear. Naming is not enough. Some degree of clan-membership, in this case by marriage, is required for the luck of the name to adhere to the child.

Quotes now go back to McNallen's 1985 "Metagenetics" essay:
One wonders, as an aside, if rebirth (whether literal rebirth of the individual personality, or the rebirth of some spiritual essence beyond the “merely” biological) might not be some sort of evolutionary bonus for the clan and tribe, whereby the best, wisest, most spiritually “in tune” characteristics are conserved in the family line.
Assuming that reincarnation within the family or clan line is the norm, this certainly does seem to be an interesting, if ultimately unanswerable, speculation.
So far we’ve worked on the idea that there is a link between heredity and the clan concept on one hand, and psychism and rebirth on the other. Let’s try a different tack now, and look at Dr. Carl Jung’s archetypes.
I will start this section off by stating that I am not an expert in Jungian psychology, nor do I particularly buy into his theories about archetypes. That said, let's continue to work through the article.
Jung spoke of the collective unconscious- a level of the psyche not dependent upon personal experience. The collective unconscious is a reservoir of primordial images called archetypes. They are not exactly memories, but are rather predispositions and potentialities. As Jung said, “There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the forms of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content (emphasis in the original), representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action”.
Most modern students of Jung miss a very key fact. Jung stated explicitly that the archetypes were not culturally transmitted but were in fact inherited- that is to say, genetic. He linked them with the physiological urges of instincts and went so far as to say that, “Because the brain is the principal organ of the mind, the collective unconscious depends directly upon the evolution of the brain”. A more precise statement of the mind/body/spirit link, and of the religious implications of biological kinship, would be hard to find.
Yes, it is true that Jung said that, but that is not in and of itself sufficient to make that a true statement. One thing that makes me queasy when using Jung as a justification for metagenetics is the fact that Jungian archetypes are also used as the justification for the atheist-Heathen position. I am troubled by the implication that accepting metagenetics might also mean that one must also accept a non-literal interpretation of the existence of the Gods and Goddesses as distinct personalities. Of course, the question of atheist-Heathenry is a completely separate discussion, which I've commented on before to no one's satisfaction in the debate.

While I know using the evidence for one doesn't necessarily require accepting the other, the implication is still there. But the good news is that it's also unnecessary; metagenetics gets along just fine without Jung's archetypes.
But Jung was not satisfied to make this connection. He went on to say that because of this biological factor there were differences in the collective unconscious of the races of mankind. Boldly he asserted that:
Thus it is a quite unpardonable mistake to accept the conclusions of a Jewish psychology as generally valid. [This statement must be taken in context. It is not some irrelevant anti-Jewish remark, but instead stems from the growing rift between Jung and his Jewish teacher, Freud.] Nobody would dream of taking Chinese or Indian psychology as binding upon ourselves. The cheap accusation of anti-Semitism that has been leveled at me on the ground of this criticism is about as intelligent as accusing me of an anti-Chinese prejudice. No doubt, on an earlier and deeper level of psychic development, where it is still impossible to distinguish between an Aryan, Semitic, Hamitic, or Mongolian mentality, all human races have a common collective psyche. But with the beginning of racial differentiation, essential differences are developed in the collective psyche as well. For this reason, we cannot transplant the spirit of a foreign religion ‘in globo’ into our own mentality without sensible injury to the latter.
Thus the link between religion, which expresses itself in terms of archetypes in the collective unconscious, and biology- and hence race- is complete.
In this particular case, however, while I can readily accept the fact that persons of different ethnic or racial backgrounds would have different psychological makeups, to dismiss utterly the impact of culture on one's psychological upbringing entirely seems to me to be excessive. It also ignores one of the most often-cited criticisms of both Jungian psychology and metagenetics; the question of persons of mixed heritage. Does a half-German/half-Japanese person have a psychology based on their German or Japanese heritage, or some sort of hybrid of the two? At least at this point in the development of metagenetic theory, the answer remains a mystery.

My basic problem with this line of argument is that it ignores, or at best undermines, the existence of the gods as independent entities, and instead relies on a Jungian interpretation of them as psychological archetypes that are essentially dependent on the individual minds of the ethnic or racial group whence they come.

In short, the reality of a "Jewish psychology" or a "Chinese psychology" is not directly relevant to the idea of a "Jewish spirituality" or a "Germanic spirituality", although the possibility of some sort of interaction cannot be discounted (see below for a discussion of the Germanic body/mind/soul complex). Indeed, there are indications that psychology (in a clinical sense) is much more dependent on genetic and epigenetic factors than was ever even suspected in Jung's lifetime. I've mentioned that in part 1 of this series, and there will be more on it later.
Jung is substantiated by more recent research as well. Perhaps the most important such study was conducted by Dr. Daniel G. Freedman, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Chicago. His results were published in an article in the January 1979 issue of Human Nature entitled, “Ethnic Differences in Babies.” Freedman and his associates subjected Caucasian, Asian, Black, and Native American newborn infants to identical stimuli, and consistently received different responses from babies of each race.
Furthermore, these differences matched the traditionally-ascribed characteristics of each race- the Asian babies were in fact less excitable and more passive, etc. Native American and Mongolian babies behaved similarly, apparently due to their relatively close biological kinship. It is only a small step from inborn temperament to inborn attitudes to inborn religious predispositions, which is only a restating in different words of Dr. Jung’s theory.
Here I would respond that it is not Jung that is substantiated by the research, but rather it is metagenetics in general that is being validated by the research. The thesis that babies of different ethnic or racial origins behave differently from one another, as well as the idea that people of different ethnic or racial origins have distinct religious predispositions, is totally unconnected to the idea that psychological archetypes exist and are distinct between ethnic populations, unless one is inclined to say that religion is based on one's relationship with those psychological archetypes, rather than one's relationship with spiritual beings whose existence transcends and is independent of the minds of human beings. Needless to say, I am not so inclined.

I've been unable to track down a copy of the original article online, or I would have linked to it here. If anyone can point me to it, please let me know in the comments, and I will happily include a link (and read it to make sure it says what we think it says - always read primary sources wherever possible).
Let’s look again at how the clan mystique, the expression of which in the physical world is a genetic one, relates to the Vanir in particular, and the ancient beliefs of Asatru in general.
The goddess Freya is strongly linked to the clan concept for she is the leader of the female tutelary spirits called the “disir”.
I'm afraid this is simply incorrect. While Freyja is referred to by the title vanadís in Snorri's Skáldskaparmál, the Norse tendency to use kennings, allusions, and other poetical circumlocutions would lead one to view that as yet another poetic turn of phrase, rather than a mythological statement of function.
Of the disir we read, in The Viking Achievement (P.G. Foote and D.M. Wilson) that:
It is sometimes difficult to keep the disir distinct from valkyries or harsh Norns on the one hand, and spirits called ‘fylgjur’, ‘accompaniers’, on the other; and it is probable that the Norsemen themselves had notions about these beings that varied from time to time and place to place. Fylgjur were attached to families or individuals, but had no local habitation or individual name. They appear to have represented the inherent faculty for achievement that existed in a family’s offspring. Everyday observation of consonant or discrepant facts of heredity would confirm that it was possible for a fylgja to desert an individual or to be rejected by him.”
The function of the disir and fylgjur as classes of beings, on the other hand, is entirely germane to the topic of metagenetics. The quote provided above is entirely accurate; both were innately tied to the family, which by definition makes them "transmitted" through blood, or ancestry. That there was some overlap between the two, especially in the twilight years of Norse Heathenry, is an unfortunate truth. It is not so much a commentary on the fickleness of ur-Heathenry as our modern demand to neatly and universally categorize all elements of religion and mythology. Germanic religion was a messy thing, full of contradictions and overlaps and uncertainties, as should be expected from a folk religion, as opposed to an authoritarian Religion of the Book.

Bottom line; we see ample evidence for the transmission of spiritual characteristics within family lines, in this case through the disir and fylgjur. That is completely consistent with metagenetic theory, and in no way reliant on Jungian theory of racially-distinct psychological archetypes.
The idea of metagenetics may be threatening to many who have been taught that there are no differences between the branches of humanity. But in reflecting, it is plain that metagenetics is in keeping with the most modern ways of seeing the world. A holistic view of the human entity requires that mind, matter, and spirit are not separate things but represent a spectrum or continuum. It should not be surprising, then, that genetics is seen as a factor in spiritual or psychic matters. And the ideas put forth by those who see consciousness as a product of chemistry fit into metagenetics as well- for biochemistry is a function of organic structure which in turn depends upon our biological heritage.
This is an interesting take on the question, and calls to mind Edred Thorsson's conception of the Germanic body/mind/soul complex. Thorsson describes the lyke (body) as the "physical vehicle that houses the other parts of the soul." Within that vehicle are the other elements of the Germanic body/mind/soul complex; the hyde (shape), hugh (intellect), myne (memory, including ancestral memories), athem (breath), wode (inspiration), and fetch (connection to the supernatural). All components work together in order to create a person. There is also the fylgja, or ancestral spirit, that acts as the guardian spirit of the clan, and in many ways embodies the luck of all the members of the clan or family.

In this sense, then, it is entirely possible that some elements of the Germanic body/mind/soul complex interact with, and thus influence, one another. This is the possible intersection of ethnic/racial psychology with ethnic/racial spirituality.
We of Asatru are concerned about our ancestral heritage, and we consider our religion to be an expression of the whole of what we are, not something that we arbitrarily assume from without. It also explains why those who do not understand us accuse us of extreme ethnocentrism or even racism- for it is clear from metagenetics that if we, as a people, cease to exist, then Asatru also dies forever. We are intimately tied up with the fate of our whole people, for Asatru is an expression of the soul of our race.
This does not mean that we are to behave negatively toward other peoples who have not harmed us. On the contrary, only by understanding who we are, only by coming from our racial “center”, can we interact justly and with wisdom with other peoples on this planet. We must know ourselves before we can know others. Our differences are great, but we who love human diversity and variation must learn to see these differences as a blessing to be treasured, not barriers to be dissolved.
And the essay ends with a reiteration of the folkish point of view. Heritage is important, race is real, and Asatru is connected to our racial identity. And just as surely, that is intimately intertwined with a respect for, and even admiration of, people of other races and ethnicities, in a world where all races and ethnicities are given the opportunity and the respect to fulfill their own potential.

So, to recap my thoughts on the 1985 Metagenetics article:
  • The original article cites Dr. Rhine's experiments with ESP, in an attempt to use the supposed phenomenon of in-family ESP as evidence for the possibility of metagenetics. I find the argument unconvincing, but also unnecessary.
  • The original article also cites Jungian archetypes, which are supposedly based on racial and/or ethnic boundaries. I find this association not only unnecessary, but also problematic, as it implies an archetypical and psychological, rather than hard polytheistic view, of the Gods and Goddesses, which I do not embrace.
  • The original article cites DNA-RNA evidence for the transmission of behavioral information and memories. Although brought up in the context of Timothy Leary's work, more modern scholarship not only agrees, but recent publications on epigenetics makes the case even more compelling.
  • The original article cites the possibility of reincarnation within family/clan lines. This view is directly supported by the written lore, and is therefore consistent with a pre-Christian Germanic world-view.
  • Research with the behavior of babies supports the idea that behavior is genetically transmitted, and can be predicted based on racial/ethnic lines. This is consistent with the metagenetic point of view, which holds that spiritual qualities are transmitted similarly. 
  • Modern interpretations of the Germanic body/mind/soul complex are consistent not only with the ancient concepts of the fylgja and dis, but also with the metagenetic principle of spiritual transmission through family/clan lines.
In short, even when the few questionable sources are removed from the equation, the fundamental concept of metagenetics, that spiritual qualities are transmitted through ancestry, and can thus be found consistently within racial and ethnic groups, is supported by the written sources as well as modern scholarship and scientific studies of race and behavior.


Read other installments in this series:

Metagenetics, Part 2
Metagenetics, Part 3
Metagenetics, Part 4
Metagenetics, Part 5

1 comment:

  1. While Dr. Freedman's article doesn't appear to be on-line, his famous 1974 film apparently is: