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Daily RC Article 92

From Genes to Meanings: Exploring Ontogeny, Evolution, and Existentialism

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‘Epi’-genetics refers to changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. A research project called the Dutch Hunger Winter Study used the 1944 famine in the Netherlands as a natural experiment, concluding that exposure to specific conditions such as caloric restriction can be linked to epigenetic changes, expressed in symptoms such as tumours. Like the first generation of those caught up in the famine, the second generation also gave birth to low-weight children, demonstrating the inheritance of traits at the cellular and molecular level operating apart from DNA.

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Epigenetics serves as a bridge between genotype (literally, the genes) and phenotype (the way the genes are expressed), accounting for the impact of time… Evolutionary scientists refer to development as ‘ontogeny’: even identical twins with the same DNA are different, epigenetically, because each person is embodied, embedded in relations or situations, in distinct and unpredictable ways.

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I’ve come to love this term ontogeny because it brings together, in one helpful word, the flux of becoming that scientists as well as existentialists seek to understand. Our longing for existential meaning, as the anthropologist Augustín Fuentes explains in The Creative Spark (2017), is a key component of our development as a species. To consider capacities such as choosing or adjudicating meaning, according to him, is to reflect on the long arc of becoming human, a trajectory perhaps best described as the process of hominisation. On this account, our evolutionary emergence as a species is inseparable from the story of earlier, now-extinct species, in particular Homo erectus, the animal who roamed in and also far beyond Africa. It is Homo erectus who created fire and learned how to hunt, inhabiting and shaping their environments in ways that Fuentes calls ‘niche construction’. They also developed larger brains than their ancestors and, crucially, experienced longer phases of ontogeny or childhood development. These details are what existentialists include under the term ‘facticity’: the physiologies we’re born into, the concrete ways in which we inhabit our ecological spaces.

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… Fuentes points out, for example, that modern humans are closer in kinship to chimps and gorillas than to orangutans, an important claim when it comes to scrutinising our contemporaries on the planet for insights into who or why we are… The question of when, precisely, we became ‘us’ is a methodological one for scientists because it begs certain presuppositions about the evidentiary artefacts left behind by our long-gone ancestors. Are the fossils that indicate bipedal, two-legged movement the sign of human-hood? Or are signs of meaning-making behaviour, such as cave art or burying one’s dead, better expressions of human animality because they point to symbolic, complex communication? In 1944, Beauvoir’s Pyrrhus and Cineas was published, in which essay she declared: ‘I am not a thing, but a project.’ This claim is at first glance a descriptive one, pointing out that my actions create meanings that are not established in advance. But the claim is more than that. These actions, in turn, reshape me, how I reach out to the future, and even the world around me, in a kind of existential feedback loop. Every end or existential goal is a point of departure.

The article explores 'epi'-genetics and the Dutch Hunger Winter Study, showing how environmental factors affect traits, not just DNA. It delves into ontogeny as a term, reflecting our evolving essence as a species, connecting our past to our present. It touches on our origins as a species, Homo erectus's influence, and the ongoing debate about what defines humanity. The piece culminates in a reflection on existentialism and the dynamic relationship between our actions, meanings, and self-evolution.
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