A posthumous interview with Charlotte Bach,
chaneled by Mike Roth in autumn 2008.
Charlotte. I want you to imagine that the year is 2009, which is exactly 18 years since your "Selected Writings" were due to be published by Wildwood House. Imagine, if you will, that the publication fell through in 1982, the year after you died, and that your ideas and writings have been almost entirely neglected in the intervening time.
The question I want to put to you is: how can we offer these ideas, now, in 2009, in a way that will be accessible to a new public, and a new generation?
But before you respond to this, I want to briefly summarise what I think is so powerful about your way of thinking about evolution. Because it is certainly true that, in spite of the 18 years that have passed since we last spoke together, your ideas are in many ways far ahead of the best and the latest in evolutionary thinking. So I want to start out by telling our audience - as clearly as I can - what is so good about your approach.
It comes down to the fact that you are giving us a theory of the evolutionary process which can be used in two quite contrasting ways. In the first place, we have what some people have called "the view from Mars". This is how I would describe the view that all so-called objective scientists think they are able to achieve. It describes a system of events, of entities, and relationships, as if we - the observers - had no real stake in the thing we are describing. Perhaps the scientist claims to have a disinterested desire for understanding - simply to understand how things work - but at the same time things are understood as if they have nothing whatever to do with us. So your theory can work this way - as a disinterested account from outside the arena.
But then, in the second place, your theory takes into account what the process of life, and evolution, must be like, or must feel like, from the vantage point of the organism. That also means, that your theory is able to address itself to our own perspective - as creatures labouring within the pattern of an evolutionary process. so here we discover ourselves to be simultaneously the agents, and the sufferers, of the evolution of humankind.
To say this another way, you make it clear that evolution is about us - and not merely about those other animals - the ones we think we can see over there, when we have separated ourselves from them by putting on the uniform of the scientist.
- Yes that is exactly right. Whatever we have to say about the evolutionary process, it also has to make sense about ourselves - because we ourselves are an integral part of that evolutionary process.
Think of it this way: the organism (which also means: "we, ourselves") is always already in the middle of a stable, cyclical process known colloquially as a "life-cycle". Being within this cycle entails a complete set of what we might call behavioural imperatives - the many behavioural conditions that must be met, if the life-cycle is to be completed effectively. If you fail to do these things, then you are eliminated from the arena of life, and from the arena of evolution, in the blink of an eye.
And then, thinking in terms of this life-cycle, we have to recognize two disjunct sets of behaviours - both sets equally necessary: self-preservatory behaviour (which maintains the ongoing existence of the individual organism) and species preservatory behaviour (which enables the reproduction - and therefore the stability of the life of the species across the generations).
- And I think what is unique to your way of thinking, is the recognition that it is this whole complex set of behaviours - both the self-preservatory and the species-preservatory patterns - which is the entity that has to evolve. And this simple move also makes it clear what an extraordinary thing it is: to evolve a new pattern of life out of an existing pattern of life. Those who think of evolution as being some sort of mechanistic drift, and selection as being an impersonal force of sorting out the "fit" from the "unfit" won't even notice that there is any contradiction. But as soon as we think about this from the organism's point of view - as the demand to fulfill precisely our own species' given pattern of life, but also to contribute to the design of a significantly different pattern of life, we start to see how extraordinary the fact of evolution really is.
- That is exactly right. There is a requirement to preserve the pattern, and there is also a requirement to violate the pattern. But in order to understand how this happens, we need to have two additional concepts in place: the stable process behavioural patterns - which are the self-preservatory and the species-preservatory patterns I have already mentioned. (And these are the processes that have to happen, and keep on happening, in order for the species to prevail through epochs of biological time.) And over against these, there are the emergent process behavioural patterns - that derive from the stable-process behaviours but are actually deviations from the established pattern.
- And how are these "emergent processes" distinct from the mutations that are at the heart of Darwinist and Neo-Darwinist evolutionary theory?
- In the first place, "mutations" is exactly what they are! There is nothing at all wrong with this word! It is rather, that the neo-Darwinists commandeered this word, and misused it to insinuate certain beliefs about evolution that are nothing to do with Darwin's original concept, and which - to my way of thinking - are frankly mistaken. The Neo-Darwinists claim that their so-called "mutations" are merely random changes in some sort of inert, physical matter. The DNA in the cell nucleus, in other words. Whereas we need to insist that we are talking first and foremost about mutations in the behavioural pattern. (We may assume that these are paralleled, or followed-up, by changes in the molecular domain - but we should avoid the fallacy of assuming in advance that the "mutation" is a change in an essentially inert molecule, and only secondarily a change in behaviour. That assumption is not necessary, in Darwin's theory - it is merely a part of the Neo-Darwinist dogma.)
Another part of the Neo-Darwinist's dogma is what I have already mentioned: their insistence that their so-called mutations must be random - or else "caused by" some impact from outside the living system, for instance by radio-active decay, cosmic rays, or whatever outside force they decide to postulate. My theory is quite different: it is an exploration of forces generated within the species' own pattern of behaviour, which create an inner necessity within the organism itself, to undergo evolutionary changes. This is completely compatible with Darwin's original formulation, but it is systematically at odds with the fundamentalist Neo-Darwinism of the twentieth century.
- So in other words, you are not in any way denying or challenging the validity of Darwin's own concepts?
- I am pointing to aspects of evolution that Charles Darwin did not consider in his original formulations, largely because he did not address the question "what is it like to be an evolving species, from the point of view of the organisms themselves?"
- You talk about "an inner necessity within the organism, to undergo evolutionary changes", and you also used the phrase" "to violate the stable-process pattern". Are you talking about sexual deviation? I am recalling the slogan you yourself coined (a slogan which gay liberation people were wearing as a badge right through the seventies and eighties) "Sexual Deviation is the Mainspring of Evolution!" Is this what your evolutionary theory is really about?
- In one sense, yes: "sexual deviation" is exactly what my theory is about. Every evolutionary change is, in a way, a form of sexual deviation. That is: it is a deviation in the pattern of reproductory behaviour. But the reproductory behaviour is not confined to what is colloquially called "sex". It entails the complete cycle of reproductory behaviour, which occurs as a whole series of distinct domains of behaviour.
- And this is an area where sociological and biological research over the past 20 years has begun to catch up with your own thinking. You distinguish 7 different stages in the reproductory cycle - all of which are essential to the completion of the process, and each having its own pattern of relational logic - its own "laws" in other words. I see this same principle in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who describes different "fields of interest" each having its own irreducible fundamental laws. I think this is the same as the patterns you describe: of parental behaviour, adolescent behaviour, courting behaviour, pre-copulatory behaviour and so on - which you named under the general term "relatively autonomous behavioural sub-hierarchy". So that is where the term "sexual deviation" may be a little misleading - since the behavioural mutations you describe will spill over into all of these 7 relatively autonomous domains - and not all of these have directly to do with "sex" as the lay person would normally understand this word.
- But you are running ahead of the argument here. We had reached the point of distinguishing the stable process behaviour patterns from the emergent process behaviour patterns. And the next step is to understand how and why the deviation into emergent process arises in the first place. We have mentioned the species-preservatory behaviour, which from the individual point of view is reproductory behaviour. We need to underline that for our species, as for every plant and animal species beyond a certain very minimal complexity, this reproductory behaviour is based on the division of labour of the male and the female. So the issue here is not sexuality in its relation to the sexual act; it is something broader, which we should use a different term for - perhaps we should call it: "the gendered life". It is not restricted to the obviously sexual behaviour of a couple in the bedroom, or under the kitchen table or wherever they choose to do it.
So anyway, the reproduction of the life-cycle requires an intimate co-operation between two individuals of the same species, who are in important ways quite contrasting in their behavioural patterns, and yet each half of this pattern, the male half and the female half, has to dovetail together with the other half in an highly complex and intricate co-operation.
And it is very interesting that the Neo-Darwinists, for all their noisy insistence on the so-called "survival of the fittest" do not seriously wonder about the evolutionary function that this sexual dimorphism plays, in the life of the species. Why would a species evolve such a complicated set of demands - firstly to differentiate the male from the female, and consequently creating this need for the precise co-ordination of the male and the female contribution. It is a complex set of behaviours which from many points of view puts the completion of the life-cycle into serious jeopardy - since a failure of co-ordination leads directly to the extinction of that germ-line. The obvious question is: why does the vast majority of multicellular species put itself to all that trouble? And why do the Neo-Darwinists take so little interest in this question?
- Now, I would like to separate out three separate strands here. In the first place, we understand that reproduction through the conjoining of individuals, and the pooling of germ plasm obviously does give a species advantage, in that any improvements in the genetic heritage can be spread through the population, rather than staying in one single clone line. Secondly, you point out that conjoining of un-like individuals, in other words the differentiation into male and female, seems to create a whole extra complex problem for the preservation of the species - because each gender has the task of locating, recognizing, and joining with a creature which simultaneously has the characteristics of "my own" species - but also the characteristics of "the opposite" sex. You are claiming this is an enormous liability, and can only have been incorporated into the life pattern of so many species because it carries some distinct survival advantage that a coherent theory of evolution and selection needs to be able to explain.
- That is right...
- ...and let me just point out the third of my strands. In the human species it is very obvious that we have a whole array of deviation and violation of the basic behavioural male and female patterns, in a significant percentage of the human population. I am thinking of all homosexual behaviour, as well as the huge variety of sexual deviations - and even relatively normal heterosexual couplings - that do not lead to the creation of human offspring. And so we need to explain how a species can be so consistently faulty in its performance of the fundamental reproductory patterns, ane yet is able to prevail and even to be (as of our current time of observation) one of the most successful species on the planet.
In fact this is one of the big questions which your theory gives such an hugely satisfactory answer to: why are there Gays at all? Why hasn't evolution and natural selection eliminated homo-sexual behaviour millions of generations ago?
- And this brings us back to the point I was just coming around to. That the human species has two basic flaws in relation to its stable process reproductory behaviour. In the first place, there is the double sexual orientation - found most obviously in homosexual and transexual orientations, but also present to a lesser degree of insistence, perhaps, in every human being under the sun.
- That is the phenomenon of "androgyny" - the presence of male and female psychic characteristics in every member of the species, which was brought into the main-stream in the last century by the psychologist C.G.Jung...
- And the other flaw is the failure to develop a mature set of parental behaviours, which is a phenomenon widely recognized by biologists, and even associated in some species with a major leap forward, in an evolutionary sense. This is the phenomenon of "neoteny" which means that the plants or animals enter their reproductory behaviour before they have become mature adults.
- So in a sense, they are lacking the biological template that is required for parental behaviour - so that this phase of the life-cycle has to proceed to a great extent by bluff and improvisation.
- Well, not exactly - in the nature of the reproductory cycle, it is essential that the parental phase be one of the more stable. This means that for most individuals it is the most resistant to what you are calling "bluff and improvisation". This sounds like a contradiction, because I have just said we are lacking the detailed template for the provision of parental behaviour. In fact it is a contradiction in the actual human behaviour - there is enormous resistance to change in these parental behaviour patterns, even though the anthropologist can show us a very wide range in different behaviour patterns as we start to explore the practices of all the different cultures in the world...
But all of these things become clearer when we start to consider from what, or from where - within the stable process life-cycle - we might be most powerfully propelled into into emergent process behaviour. Let us focus in on these 7 stages of the life-cycle - and see where the androgynous aspect might become most challenging, or most difficult for the individuals concerned - and where they will experience the most serious thwarting in their efforts to complete the cycle.
- At this point, we have two organisms that are highly aroused and aware of one another. Within the stable-process aspect of the life-cycle they are compelled to enter into copulatory behaviour in the mode of a full hetero-sexual emotional, endocrinological and physical union that results in a stable pair bond and the commencement of a pregnancy.
But since both of the parties are confused about their sexual identity, and neither is, strictly speaking, ready for parenthood, this is also the zone of maximum potential confusion. Neither party knows whether they have found their true love, or is about to be seduced by a monster who will leave them in a state of damage, or else destroy them. Or maybe it is their own self, who is the destructive monster....
So this is the zone of maximum confusion - which means it is the place where deviant behaviours are most insistently called for. Any pathway is acceptable, to the extent that it offers a sense of identity and a way forward for the parties concerned. But you have to remember that in the pattern of the individual life, this "point of no way forward" sends waves of interference cascading backwards through the other phases of the life-cycle. Many individuals need to take "avoiding action" long before they reach this point of mutual sexual arousal. Some have elaborate strategies for ensuring they never reach such a point, ever in their lives.
- But I can't help noticing that this account is very far from capturing that quality we spoke of at the beginning: the sense of what it is like to be at the sharp end of this dilemma. So this is what I would like to try to capture here, now, in words, if we are able to do this. The sense of being this vulnerable, naked, lost creature - thrust into the middle of a life where I am supposed to know who and what I am, and feeling at home with "the others" of my kind. I should be able to fully inhabit my role: as a father, a lover, a brother, sister, son or daughter - in the fullness of rich and intricate relationship, and knowing what I have to do. Yet instead there is the bewilderment of not-knowing what I am supposed to know. Simultaneously a feeling of attraction and belonging - mingled with dislocation, confusion and lostness.
And according to your theory, this pervasive sense of dread, and mistake, is coming from something like an excess of identity: being both male and female within a life-cycle which implicitly demands that I be one or the other. It is as if I have been catapaulted into adult life, for which I am under-equipped, and can only manage by pretending I can do it, which means by copying other people who are in reality just as hollow, lost and confused as I am myself - but seeming not to be.
- Well, that is a fine description, and you have captured beautifully - quite poetically - the felt sense of what it is to be on the cusp of our androgynous, neotonous being. Yet you are also missing the point quite dramatically, in one very important sense. By keeping your description anchored to this point of not knowing - you veer away from the fact that for most of the time, we know perfectly well who we think we are, and we are able to flow spontaneously with the appropriate cultural rituals. You are forgetting how readily, and how confidently, we are able to mimic other people. So as you said, we happily inhabit the roles or personas - the personality, even, of the people around us. We are fully clothed in patterns of behaviour, freely imbibed from everything we observe in the children and the adults in the neighbourhood. So you have described something different from this: namely, the moment of confusion, and loss of identity, that leads us into another domain altogether. This crisis of identity, this dislocation and anguish, is what I have described as the prelude to the shaman's descent into the underworld.
- So yes, this opens up another huge topic that you have covered extensively in your work: the role of the shaman or the witch-doctor...
- It is more general than this: they are shamans or witch-doctors in traditional societies, but in modern times we have exactly the same thing: the culture-heroes in every shape and form, and also the originators of major religions including the ones which seem the most bizarre to the mainstream, for instance Christian Science, Latter Day Saints and so forth. But also Gore Vidal, who writes so brilliantly and satirically about these very characters - he too is one of them: a larger-than-life cultural revolutionary, we might say... So, also, Jesus, the Buddha, Abraham, Mohammed - but in the twentieth century Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, and in a lesser way perhaps, the big stars of "stage and screen", the football heroes, the artists, the "pop stars" and so forth...
So, whether we are talking about the traditional, or the modern versions, we can say that the shaman, the witch-doctor, is the individual in which these crucial issues come to a head: - the painful loss of identity that you have mentioned: the sense of dislocation, the feeling of being a "self" that is entirely paradoxical. This is a person who, just like everybody else, needs the human community for their psychic and material survival, but who also feels the full force of the oppressiveness, we might even say the impossibility of the relationship with other humans. They are the ones who are forced into some kind of radical innovation - some extraordinary creative spark - within themselves, just in order to survive.
- So this resolves what was earlier looking like a disagreement between us, about the typical way of being human. In some ways the shaman is exactly like everybody else, in this state of inner homelessness - and yet it comes to a kind of fever-pitch in this minority, which is precisely what goads them into becoming cultural innovators. Whereas the majority are able to get along, in relative psychic comfort, muddling along with the cultural roles that they absorb or "take on" from the people around them.
- Exactly so. Except that it is also true that most human beings find themselves in such a state of internal crisis at some time or another in their lives.
- And let me point out that we are now right back at the central point about your theory, the one we started out with: that it is dealing in parallel, with the biological factors that are highly visible to the external observer - the sexual deviation, the androgyny and the neoteny - and with the personal, cultural - we might almost say "subjective" factors...
- This is a false dichotomy. We have a spectrum of positions, ranging from the extreme obectiv-ist, who speaks entirely in terms of the so-called outward "facts" and the extreme subjectiv-ist who is dealing with personal, emotional or intuitive factors. But in reality, everything that happens, and everything that is perceived, partakes of both the objective and subjective elements. This is a complete spectrum... and yet the extremes: of "pure" objectivity, and "pure" subjectivity do not actually exist...
- Yes, but my point is: the figure of the shaman, or witch-doctor, does not figure at all, in other evolutionary theories. And yet he and she is quite central to your theory. Can you say something about this?
- Yes, it is my central postulate: the one that drives the theory of emergent evolution - the neoteny and the androgyny in other words - that has profoundly objectivist and subjectivist implications, both at once. That is why we can talk about "mutation" and "the shamanic journey" in one and the same sentence. Since we are talking about a basically internal pressure, or internal goad, towards evolutionary change, we would automatically expect this to have its subjective manifestation, in other words: the dislocation, confusion and lostness that you mentioned earlier. But also, we can see that each individual is so to speak the product of the evolutionary process, but also the agent of this same evolutionary process. And this relationship, both in the mode of myself being produced - and in the mode of myself as agent - has objective manifestations that are irreducible.
- So it seems very clear: that your theory is a theory of human culture equally as much as it is a theory of human biology......
- Exactly so!
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, March 2009