Monday, April 05, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 22

A Note on Genetics and a Warning to Psychiatry

Hillman, along with one of his oft-quoted scholars, Robert Plomin, issues a timely warning against interpreting genetics in a simplistic manner.  He quotes this sentence from Plomin, which is indeed well worth pondering and allowing its implications to penetrate into our minds: "Genetic effects on behaviour are polygenic and probabilistic, not a single gene and deterministic."  (quoted in The Souls' Code, p. 151)

The implications of this scholarly and scientific statement mean that to attribute or seek to attribute both the individual strengths and weaknesses of any one person to this or that gene is in itself reductionist and simplistic to say the least.  There are combinations of genes at work and a probabilistic combination of them at that.  I am reminded of the quotation from Macbeth where Shakespeare for first time in that play uses a metaphor for growth, viz., seeds and plants. (interestingly Arthur Miller also uses it in his wonderful little play Death of a Salesman).  This metaphor is used is in Act I, Scene II, lines 58-61 when Banquo says to the witches:

"If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favors nor your hate."

In this, Banquo is questioning the validity of the witches' prophecies. He is asking them that if they know "which grain will grow and which will not," or which people will prosper and which will become overcome by evil, to tell him. This could be taken as foreshadowing for the rest of the play, because after he said this, the witches told of their prophecies for Macbeth.

Be thais all as it may, let's not get side-tracked - after all, we are discussing Hillman not Shakespeare.  However, the point is very clear who can attribute this or that specific strength or weakness to this or that specific gene.  Genetics is not as exact as we would wish it, so let's be careful and scientific, not reductionist and simplistic.  There is so much more at play in how life pans out than genetics.  Hillman is nothing if not aware of the manny influencing factors on our individual lives as human beings.  Once again, needless to say, he sees his mythical acorn playing a central role in how life does pan out for us.  And so we have Plomin's and Hillman's warning to psychiatry:

I gather from him a warninmg to psychiatry: Do not capsize your noble vessel under the weight of pharmaceutical, insurance company, and government gold, and do not set your compass towards Fantasy Island, where genetics will define "disease entities in psychiatry." (The Soul's Code, p.151)
Hillman adverts, rather astutely, to the French disease of mechanism, or more correctly mechanistic thinking.  He mentions the great mechanists in that tradition: Mersenne, Malebranche (17th century), Condillac, de la Mettrie (18th century), de Tracy and Comte (19th century) where all mental events were reduced to biology.  Hillman's warning against such a reductionism is correct because the psychiatry of the thirties to the fifties implemented such a reductionism and ended up making zombies of human beings.  Let's listen to our man's wise words here:

From 1930 into the 1950s, correlating specific brain areas with large emotional and functional concepts provided tha rationale for the violence of psychosurgery and the lobotomizing of many a troubled sole at odds with circumstance. (Ibid., 152)
What is the oppsite to reductionism, I ask myself?  Expansionism?  Does such a word or concept exist.  Anyway, it would seem to me that what Hillman wants us to do is to have a psychology of humanity which is open and all-encompassing, which is expansive and all-embracing.  I'm sure there is such a term somewhere, but I am not aware of what it is.  This now leads us on neatly to our next heading.

Deep Ecology

Hillman argues cogently and eruditely about the need to broaden our notion of the environment in terms of what he calls a "deep ecology."  By this he means that we must become aware that our planet Earth is a living, breathing, and self-regulating organism:

Since anything arouns can nourish our souls by feeding imagination, there is soul stuff out there.  So why not admit, as does deep ecology, that the environment itself is ensouled, animated, inextricably meshed with us and not fundamentally separated from us? (Ibid., 153)

Above, a picture I took of some trees at Newbridge House around 2000.

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