Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Metagenetics, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I analyzed Stephen McNallen's original 1985 article, Metagenetics, which concept is something of a lightning rod for critics of both McNallen in particular and folkish Asatru in general. In those first two articles, I came to the conclusion that metagenetics as defined in 1985 held up to scrutiny, and was supported both by modern science and the written lore of our ancestors.

Today I begin my investigation of McNallen's second article on the subject, first published in 1999, and entitled Genetics & Beyond: Metagenetics - an Update. As might be expected, with fourteen years to develop the theory and consider criticism, this article is a bit more polished than the first, and acknowledges the differences right off the bat:
Back in the early 1980’s, I wrote a short article in The Runestone called “Metagenetics.” The shock wave from those three pages has caused more controversy than anything else I have ever written. The mere mention of metagenetics causes some people to go into a rage and a rant – so, both to inform my friends and infuriate my enemies, I decided it was time for an update on the subject!
In the original piece, metagenetics was presented as the idea that “ancestry matters – that there are spiritual and metaphysical implications to heredity.” I tied together such varied topics as Jung’s theories of archetypes, rebirth in the family line, psychic links between twins, and the Norse concept of the soul to support that statement.
The basic outlines remain the same. However, I have made refinements, added information from British biologist Rupert Sheldrake as well as other writers in psychology and the life sciences, and generally thought a great deal about just what metagenetics means in the long run.
Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who pioneered the concept of morphic fields and morphic resonance. Essentially, this theory posits that genetic information (DNA-RNA) is insufficient for the development of complex life-forms. Additional information, in the form of morphic fields, which also impacts hereditary memory, telepathic abilities, and gives structure to probability. Needless to say, this is not a theory that is universally accepted, and many label Sheldrake's theory as pseudoscience. That said, it does answer some questions that contemporary genetics cannot answer at this time. That's not sufficient to accept it whole cloth, of course, but I think it's at least worth exploring, rather than dismissing it out of hand, as most scientists have done.
If I had to modify the definition of metagenetics after all these years, I’d say that it was “the hypothesis that there are spiritual or metaphysical implications to physical relatedness among humans which correlate with, but go beyond, the known limits of genetics.” This is more complicated than the simple sentence from the 1980’s, but it is somewhat more exact – and it opens the possibility that the mechanism involved might not be as simple as information stored in the DNA molecule.
Interestingly, this expanded 1999 definition presages more recent theories regarding epigenetics. The notion that environmental factors present two generations in the past can have an impact on a current generation is hugely important, especially if the impact of those factors is treated as an inheritable feature in the same way that traditional genomes are. In other words, since behavior influences genetic expression across generations, it's entirely possible that those behaviors can be evolutionarily selected for. Thus do different populations (races or ethnicities) develop different behaviors over the course of generations.

If that can be true for physical as well as psychological or social features, then there is no reason to suppose it is not also true for spiritual ones as well.
The evidence in support of metagenetics is drawn from several disciplines, and I won’t go into it here. I am writing a book which will set it out in great detail. In this article, instead, I will mention some of the main features of the hypothesis, and then list a number of implications.
I believe this is a reference to the publication "The Philosophy of Metagenetics, Folkism and Beyond", available from Runestone Gifts. It will also be reviewed in part three of this series.
Relatedness – It describes a connection, independent of time and space, which links human beings. (The general principles governing metagenetics also apply to the animals, plants, other organic kingdoms, and indeed all self-organizing systems to include crystals and molecules. Metagenetics, though, is a subset of this grander scheme and applies specifically to humans and their spirituality.)
This is a very holistic approach to the question. It's not merely an issue of race or ancestry, but incorporates the very ecology in which those racial and ethnic groups came to be. It does bring up the question of applicability when those racial or ethnic populations move into other ecological niches, as our Germanic ancestors were famous for (and specifically what to do about us here in North America). It implies that there is a qualitative difference between the Germanic peoples of Europe, and those here in North America (and South Africa, and Australia, and so forth). The implications are interesting, and I may explore them more fully in another post.
Similarity – We are used to things being related in time and space, but this is not essential to the operation of metagenetics. Instead, metagenetics says that people who are genetically related to each other share a non-physical bond that is not dependent on location or time, and that the closeness of that bond is determined by the degree of similarity. Our language unconsciously expresses that idea, as we talk about being “close” or “distant” relatives.
I love the use of language in that way, because it's really an on-target point. Language, especially English, is often metaphorical, and those metaphors often speak to psychological realities. In the way that my wife can be "close" to her sister, even though they may be thousands of miles away, because of their ties of shared ancestry (and hence shared DNA), I can feel a "closer" kinship to someone who shares my northern European ancestry than I do with someone who does not. That's not to say that individual friendships, even close ones, can't or don't happen - obviously they do. But as a generic default position, I am more inclined to feel "close" to someone who shares my ancestry than someone who does not. That's human nature (spanning all races), and it's seen in study after study.
Hierarchy – This is implied by the idea of similarity, described above. All humans are related, and for that matter it is true that we are “kin to all life,” as some folks are fond of saying. However, we are not equally related to all. Within the broad circle that is the human family there is a collection of concentric circles representing the many Folksouls – and even this is no neat and tidy arrangement. Individual families, clans and tribes have their own subdivisions or “mini-Folksouls,” and the whole is dynamic and shifting.
Interestingly, biologist Richard Dawkins explains our affinity for those who are more closely related to us in his masterful book The Selfish Gene. In it, he posits that our predilection for assisting people who look like us as opposed to people who do not, is based in the greater likelihood of those who look like us possessing the same genes that we do. For instance, even though helping my 3rd cousin doesn't directly help my genes propagate to the next generation, it does so indirectly, because that cousin is more likely to at least share some of the same genes with me than someone who is even more distantly related.

This also explains the general human tendency (and one which is explicitly seen in Germanic culture historically) to have in-group loyalty first to immediate family, then more distant kin, then the clan, then the tribe, and so forth, as in successive rings. In short, helping people in my inangarð (if it is defined by ancestry) is more likely to help some of my genes survive, and thus it is a behavior for which there are evolutionary pressures.
Holism – The components that make up the individual human being are best seen as comprising a whole. This is typically represented as body, mind, and spirit, though the psychosomatic (mind-body) complex in traditional Germanic lore is considerably more complicated than this. People commonly acknowledge that the body and mind affect each other, but fewer of them understand that the body (to include the brain, the nervous system, and the apparatus of heredity) is also connected to the spiritual or religious.
Interestingly, the Germanic conception of the soul existing in multiple parts (the body/mind/soul complex as described by Edred Thorsson and discussed in part 1 of this series) is not unique to Germanic, or even Indo-European, religion. In Yoruba and Igbo religion, for example, the person is said to be divided into a number of different components which are different than the components that make up the Germanic soul. In addition to the physical body (formed from dust, interestingly, rather than from wood as in the Germanic view), there is the emi (life force that allows breath), the okan (heart, which is the seat of emotion), the ori (personality), and the ojiji (the physical shadow, which represents the "self"). The Igbo also have something called the eke, which is the ancestral spirit that dwells within the individual.

One wonders if the non-folkish Heathens and Neopagans out there are quite as enthusiastic in telling the Igbo people that their eke can be born into anyone, not just someone within their ancestral line, and the Igbo gods "call those who they will call", as they are in telling Asatruar that our ancestry, and our family fylgja, doesn't define our relationship with our gods.

I tend to think not.

As an aside, an interesting question surrounds the issue of the nature of the soul as defined by various indigenous religious traditions, including Heathenry. Is the Germanic soul really different in nature from that of a Yoruba? Or are the Germans and Yoruba merely using different terms to describe the same soul-elements that are present in all people (and, in the case of the Yoruba, combining various components that Germanic people view as discreet elements of the soul). I don't pretend to have a definitive answer, but I think it's interesting to speculate. Especially when one brings the question of people of mixed heritage into the equation. Does someone of mixed Swedish and Yoruba heritage have nine parts to their soul, or four, or maybe some hybrid? Would a fylgja and an eke work together in a Danish/Igbo individual, or would only one be present?

These are fascinating speculative questions, but they do cut to the heart of the "everyone is an identical spiritual creature" argument. Who are you to say that the Igbo are wrong when they say there are five parts to the soul, rather than nine? And of course, the very same question applies to Asatru as well, and the differences that arise when both views are given equal weight. When racial and ethnic groups are viewed separately, with each folk-group having their own folk-religion and their own folk-soul composition, the problem vanishes.

It is also worth pointing out that even in Christianity the notion of the individual being made up of multiple "parts" - whether those are the body and the soul (called dichotomist theory); or the body, the soul, and the spirit (unimaginatively called trichotomist theory) - can be found. It is only in the secular scientific conception of the "person" that personhood is reduced to a single factor; the material body, whence personality, morality, memory, and everything else exists solely as electrical impulses in the material substrate of the brain, and when that substrate is destroyed by death, the personality dies with it.
Spirituality – Relatedness and similarity influence the temperament, values, psychic connection, probable reincarnation, and the general tone of spirituality or religion. Some of these things – temperament and values, in particular – may have their origin in the actual coding of DNA, but the mechanism for the other connections may not be within the realm of the physical sciences as they are presently understood. There seems to be a continuum at work, and it may be represented like this:
Of course, those who cleave to the materialist/atheist scientific view that most of our Western society has embraced will become increasingly uncomfortable as one goes further to the right on that continuum. But as the diagram shows, that "woo" (to use the derogatory term current in Heathenry) goes hand in hand with a metagenetic, and I might add Germanic, mindset. Our ancestors believed in ancestral memory, and ancestral bonds, and rebirth within families. To jetisson that is to dump out a hefty portion of what gave our ancestors their Germanic mindset in the first place. "Metagenetics" is simply a modern term for a constellation of ancient concepts, and many of them seem to be supported by modern science, as I've been noting throughout this series.

Go figure.
Ancestry matters. Most Asatruar will agree with that statement, but fewer will understand that the ancestors are with us, now and always, because of the time-transcending nature of the metagenetic bond. To the extent that rebirth occurs within the family line, we are those ancestors, manifested again in Midgard! Furthermore, that bond is special – it is closer than our bond to non-ancestors.
See above for discussions of this closeness, both on a genetic and a spiritual level.
We are not “one.” Although there is a level on which every person is connected through the collective unconscious of humanity as a whole, the closeness of the connections varies immensely. Indeed, to some extent we are linked to all life – but that hardly causes us to value protozoa, goldfish, and camels as much as we do our brother or our father! The degree of connection is determined by similarity.
Of course, there are some people who do believe that all animals should be valued as individuals just as highly as ourselves, or even higher. The general opprobrium and derision with which these lone voices in the wind are met today should not be taken as a victory. Just a few years ago, the notion that people could lose their livelihood for supporting a particular ballot initiative (which ended up getting passed by popular vote) that was later deemed Politically Incorrect would have been lampooned as well. But such are the vicissitudes of life.
There are no solitary rituals. All our deeds feed back into the collective unconscious (C.G. Jung) or the morphic field (Rupert Sheldrake) – or in traditional Asatru terms, the Well of Urth. It seems to be that the more intense the emotion accompanying the deed, or the more symbolically alive an action is, the more it will affect all those who are members of the group in question. Our blots, our oaths of might, and our other exchanges with our Gods and Goddesses, then, can be expected to influence all Asatruar, and all our brothers and sisters of European descent, in a fairly immediate way. A whole nest of hierarchies are jostled by all our significant acts.
I just want to say that I love the phrase "there are no solitary rituals". That's just... beautiful on so many levels.
Our religion is a function of who we are, not just what we believe. Since the human being is a holistic entity, our spirituality cannot be considered something apart from our physical ancestry. In terms of both genetics and metagenetics, our ancestors are encoded into our very beings. From values and temperament – which have been shown to correlate statistically with heredity – to the deeper issues of spirit, our forefathers and foremothers continue to influence us. It seems reasonable, then, to predict that people will tend to be most fulfilled by the religious and spiritual paths of their ancestors. Properly presented, the ancient ways of one’s people should exert a powerful draw on the individual.
It bears repeating that this is true on a variety of levels. We see it in the context of modern psychology, modern genetic theory, ancient conceptions of the soul and ancestors, comparative religion, and other fields that have been mentioned in this series. Real criticism of metagenetics (as opposed to the dismissive "it's racist crap" that usually masquerades for a thoughtful refutation) requires a comprehensive critique of all of the evidence, and the wildly disparate fields that provide that evidence. And the evidence does support it, as far as I can see.
The beliefs of our ancestors are largely confirmed by modern psychology and the biological sciences. Most especially, the Jungian collective unconscious and Sheldrake’s hypotheses concerning “morphic fields” and “morphic resonance” are very close to the Germanic ideas surrounding the Well of Urth, in which orlog or “fate” is laid.
I would emphasize that first sentence. Even if you disagree with the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, or Sheldrakes concept of morphic fields, it still comes down to the beliefs of our ancestors. And, ultimately, that's what we're trying to recreate. Do we reject Thor and Odin because science cannot prove them? No. The fact that there are scientific concepts that do confirm those ancient beliefs (controversial though they may be in some circles), is just gravy.
Metagenetics, then, continues to mature as new information becomes available. Far from remaining static over the last decade and a half, it has incorporated new evidence and has found validation in the writings of other scientists as time has gone by.
The transcendental importance of the ancestral bond has always been sensed by Asatru, and by other native religions around the world. We who acknowledge that bond now have striking validation of what our inner voice has told us all along!
And indeed, we've seen how metagenetics has itself evolved in the fourteen years between this article and the first. Up next, we jump ahead another seven years to the latest work by McNallen on the concept of metagenetics, and see how it has evolved, and how science has once again been presaged by an ancient concept.


Read other installments in this series:

Metagenetics, Part 1
Metagenetics, Part 3
Metagenetics, Part 4
Metagenetics, Part 5

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