The goal of my talk is to present review of some recent trends in evolutionary and theoretical biology, mainly with reference to those biomedical aspects that could be also of general, but I hope are of special interest for an audience of Rolfers. Some preliminary statements outline the topics I want to cover:
Humans are highly evolved social animals with a large brain which bears indelible traces of a long evolutionary history. Its inherent archetypical psychological predispositions evolved in the same way as the anatomy and physiology of our body. Along our evolutionary path, all the physical and mental potentialities were and are always strictly dependent on eviromental variable: and constraints for their expression. This is now the domain of a new, fast growing scientific discipline that go under the name of Darwinian medicine.
A related field that blends well with Darwinian medicine is the merging Systems Theory of Life. A new conception of mind was first proposed by, among others, Gregory Bateson, and more extensively elaborated in the last decade by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, both originally from Chile, in what is known as the Santiago Theory of Cognition. In this frame, cognition is understood as the set of activities involved in self-generation and self perpetuation of all living systems; therefore cognition is the very process of life.
Mind and body no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but are seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: the process aspect, and the structure aspect.
Rolfing as an integrated body-mind teaching system seems to fit well in this new challenging perspective. It is now more than ten years that I have been interested in Rolfing, personally and as a biologist. I receiving Rolfing, my wife Carla van Vlaanderen became a Rolfer, and on different occasions I had the opportunity to discuss matters with Rolfers in Europe and in the states, in classes and at Annual Meetings. Conversations with Jeff Maitland, Peter Schwind, and Jan Sultan have been particularly stimulating. A part of those conversations resulted in an article for Rolf Lines® a few years ago about Darwinian medicine.
When I was collecting ideas and data for this talk, a very interesting document, written by a group of Rolfers, entitled “The Scope of Practice” came to my attention. It describes very appropriately what is cared the philosophy, science, and art of Rolfing. This document presents several interesting points that, as a biologist interested in evolutionary processes, I can totally agree with. I would like to quote those which I feel are relevant for what I want to discuss with you:
The document says: “Rolfing is based on the insight that our bodies are not soft machines made of parts, but are unified seamless wholes capable of adapting their form to an ever changing environment. What we are tempted to call parts of the body are not parts at all. They are really systems of overlapping networks of communication and connection that stand in relation to an exquisitely yet hierarchically organized whole. Every system is composed of other systems; every system is an integral aspect of other systems; and the connections, communication networks, and forces between all systems are themselves systems.”
I found these sentences an elegant formulation in terms of Rolfing of the Systems Theory in the perspective of what in recent years has been proposed as the Theory of Complexity.
The definition given by the Rolfers appropriately describes the network of communication and connection existing within our body, which, applied also to bigger structures, is now metaphorically called The Web of Life. The scientist and philosopher Fritjof Capra in his recent book The Neb of Life outlines very well these recent trends in different scientific disciplines toward a more unitary and explicative theory of life in; general.
Another concept, that I was very pleased to see so well integrated in the Scope of Practice, is the idea of plasticity in terms of developmental processes. I quote again: “All living organisms, including the human, are self-organizing and highly plastic. Organisms persist over time because they are constantly in the process of forming and re-forming their boundaries in response to their ever changing environments. Living beings are able to accomplish this remarkable feat in the face of persistent internal and external change because their order and organization is self-maintained and self-contained. An organism is like a water fountain whose constituent materials are being rapidly replaced while the form remains the same over time. But unlike a fountain where the form is maintained by outside forces, organisms have the inherent power to maintain and adapt their form to their environment. Maintaining, adapting, and evolving bodily form in an ever changing environment is part of what it means to be alive. How well our bodies accomplish this amazing feat is also an important part of what determines our level of health, happiness, and sense of wellbeing and freedom.”
“Mind and body no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but are seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: the process aspect, and the structure aspect.”
The above sentences are a very good reformulation in up-to-date terms of Ida Rolf’s intuitions. Her work, in fact, was ahead of her time in insisting that an integrated, hierarchically organized, flexible, biological form that is well adpated to its environment is one of the hallmarks of a healthy, highly functional organism.
It is nice to see now how Rolfers are reaffirming, integrating, and expanding the teaching of Ida Rolf in a more holistic perspective, reassessing that the body not only must be organized and balanced with respect to itself, but also with respect to its environment.
But in order for an organism to be fully understood in its functional organization, it must be seen not only in the context of the actual environment. Other powerful explanations of how its structure works can be found through an appropriate analysis of its long evolutionary path and bio cultural landscape.
For example, as Rolfing changes the shape of one’s body, aligning it in the field of gravity, we have to remember that bipedalism is a fairly recent evolutionary adaptation for the human species, related to a trend towards neoteny that has evolved biologically and culturally. A co evolutionary perspective that integrates biological and cultural processes must always be kept in mind while searching for functional explanations. By refraining then our knowledge of how and why our body works, according to its evolutionary history, we bring in the powerful and necessary tool of explanations in terms of adaptation.
The actual reformulation of the Rolfing practice in modern biological terms seems to me a very positive indication that since Dr. Rolf’s death in 1979, the philosophy, science and art of Rolfing has continued to evolve significantly and profoundly. Knowing the broad spectrum of interests in many different scientific and humanistic fields that she cultivated throughout her life, I can easily imagine that she would have been fascinated by the fairly recent approach to the body-mind relationship in evolutionary context that goes under the name of Darwinian Medicine. Let’s now have a closer look at the new challenging interpretation of the concept of adaptation in the framework of the evolutionary theory.
While evolution by natural selection has long been a foundation for biomedical sciences, it has recently gained new power to explain many aspects of disease. This progress results largely from the disciplined application of what has been called the adaptationist program. Adherents to this program, when confronted with a biological phenomenon, try to envision it as an aspect of an adaptation. An adaptation can be considered as some sort of biological machinery or process shaped by natural selection to help solve one or more problems faced by the organism. The phenomenon may be interpreted as a necessary component of the imagined machinery, or as an unavoidable cost of the machinery, or some incidental manifestation of the operation.
The adaptationist program has been enormously fruitful in the fields of ecology, animal behavior, and in the study of life cycles. In spite of its wide application in biological contexts up to very recent years, it has not found a proper role in advancing the knowledge and understanding of the functional aspects of the body in medical sciences. In fact, traditional medical education stresses physics, chemistry, and those branches of biology that deal with proximate, i.e., immediate, mechanisms.
Evolutionary biology has never been properly emphasized in medical curricula. This is unfortunate because new applications of evolutionary principles to medical problems show that advances would be even more rapid if medical professionals were as attuned to Darwin as they have been to Pasteur. Pasteur was the first scientist to configurate the connection between germs and disease, and this idea of cause and effect has been dominant ever since.
“For example, as Rolfing changes the shape of one’s body, aligning it in the field of gravity, we have to remember that bipedalism is a fairly recent evolutionary adaptation for the human species, related to a trend towards neoteny that has evolved biologically and culturally.”
An evolutionary explanation of the history and current utility of some feature of an organism always implies more than the simple mechanistic observations that suggested the first explanation. The relentless operation of mutation pressure, Mendelian genetics, selection, and other Darwinian factors for hundreds of millions of years in every lineage means that organisms must have certain features and not others. The recent radical Darwinian approach seeks to explain mal adaptations, diseases and their symptoms as a legacy of evolution.
But can Darwinism lead to better treatments? Should we always treat the symptoms of disease, or are they sometimes there to aid recovery? Can phobias or panic attacks or morning sickness be of any advantage to people who suffer from them? Might common diseases of old age such as Alzheimer’s and osteoarthritis be associated with a genetic advantage in youth? Such questions are far from rhetorical. In fact, they are central to this ambitious movement in medical research which threatens to overturn many of the conventional wisdoms at the heart of medical sciences.
The underlying message is uncontroversial enough: human beings and their illnesses are the products of a long evolutionary history. Yet, modern medicine, for all its high technology treatments and preventive strategies, has so far largely ignored this fact. Unfortunately modern medicine was founded on reductionism. Organisms were and are viewed as a collection of organs, not as functional wholes, and still less as members of a species. Diseases and their symptoms are considered as discrete defects of the body that can and must be eliminated. Evolution is not an issue.
In contrast, at the core of Darwinian medicine there is the search to find for each disease or mal adaptation an evolutionary as well as a proximate explanation. Genes that cause diseases are not just the product of harmful mutation, but may be selected for benefits we have yet to discover. Cancer, heart disease, and other so-called “diseases of civilization” are not just the products of metabolism gone wrong, but the result of today’s humans living in conditions different from those for which they evolved. In other words, Darwinian medicine considers diseases from the viewpoint of the species, not the individual human.
Underpinning Darwinian medicine is the theory that evolutionary adaptation may have apparently negative a! well as positive consequences. In a sense, any adaptation should be seen as a compromise. Back pains are commonly the price of bipedal posture, for example. The price of effective tissue repair is cancer; the price of a powerful immune system i immune disorders; the price of anxiety, which is an adaptive response to danger, is panic disorders. Natural selection is a powerful force, but it is not all-powerful. Organisms are not perfect machines, but cobbled-together compromises.
To be more explicit, and not accused of being naively “holistic,” we, of course, recognize that there are strong genetic predisposing factors for man of the diseases of modern civilization Examples include obesity, myopia, hypertension, substance abuse, arteriosclerosis, adult-onset of diabetes mellitus, etc.
These genetic factors have often beer characterized as “defects,” but they might better be called “quirks” since they have probably been of little biological detriment or possibly of some benefit until recent generations, when individuals have been exposed to certain novel circumstances. A genetic tendency to overeat sweets is of little consequence when sugar is scarce and extensive exercise is involved in meeting basic needs; if famines are frequent, it might even be advantageous. A preference for fats will be mainly adaptive when calories and fat are scarce and few people live into their sixties. The strong genetic factors in myopia and dyslexia will remain latent until literacy becomes a necessary accomplishment. It will be valuable to understand the nature of the genetic variations that make some individuals especially susceptible to these diseases.
An adaptive analysis reveals the fundamental distinction between such genetic quirks (genes of little cost in the natural environment), genes that impose costs that are worth their biological benefits, and true genetic defects that are necessarily rare and maintained by population pressure.
Diseases look different from an evolutionary perspective. Infection is not a happenstance encounter with another organism, but an arms race between host and parasite, with extraordinary elaborations of weapons, strategies, defenses, and counter defenses. Trauma is not a mere matter of damaged tissue but is the failure of protective mechanisms, the yielding of the soma at weak spots, and repair processes that have been shaped and constrained by natural selection. Genes that cause disease are not just the result of mutation, but they may be selected for known or unknown benefits, such as the vigour in youth that may result from genes that later cause aging. For all these causes of disease, an evolutionary perspective adds another dimension to proximate explanation. Other forms of adaptation cannot be simply related to structural or physical problems but they can deal with cognitive or behavioral aspects. For instance, snakes or other objects of common phobias are by no means random, but seem to represent “prepared fears” of stimuli associated with danger in previous generations. Similarly, the changes associated with a panic attack are not an autonomic storm, but a carefully coordinated pattern that is adaptive in life threatening situations. Psychological and physiological responses to danger are particularly intriguing since their adaptive significance and evolutionary origins have long been recognized, but they also can contribute to the etiology of various diseases. Why do stress responses cause disease? And why, if stress responses make the organism function more effectively, hasn’t natural selection shaped continuous expression of these responses?
The stress response is an example of inducible defense. An analysis of its costs and benefits may help to explain why extended states of stress cause disease. Increased secretion of adrenal steroids has long been associated with stress, but many of their actions seem to be the opposite of what one would expect. For instance, steroids decrease inflammation and increase susceptibility to infection, but the opposite would seem appropriate in the face of danger.
An adaptive view of the functions of the adrenal cortex suggests that they may have been shaped by natural selection specifically to protect the body against other and more dangerous components of the stress response.
But can panic disorders, depression, and schizophrenia, for example, be considered medical diseases just like pneumonia, leukemia, or congestive heart failure? Mental disorders are indeed medical disorders, but not because they are all distinct diseases that have identifiable physical causes or because they are necessarily treated with drugs. Instead, mental disorders can be recognized as medical disorders when they are viewed in an evolutionary framework. As in the case for the rest of medicine, many psychiatric symptoms turn out not to be diseases themselves but defenses akin to fever and cough.
Furthermore, many of the genes that predispose mental disorders are likely to have fitness benefits, many of the environmental factors that cause mental disorders are likely to be novel aspects of modern life, and many of the more unfortunate aspects of human psychology are not flaws but design compromises.
Maladaptive extremes of anxiety, sadness, and other emotions make more sense when we understand their evolutionary origins and normal adpative functions. We also need proximate explanations of both psychological and brain mechanisms that regulate and express these emotions. In the evolutionary perspective our ancestors seem to have faced many more kinds of threats than opportunities, as reflected that twice as many words describe negative as positive emotions. This perspective gives the boot to the modern idea that “normal” life is free of pain. Emotional pain is not only unavoidable, it is normal and can be useful!
In Rolfing a controlled, mild level of distress can be essential in fact to trigger the necessary level of metabolic changes, activations, release of neuromediators like endorphines, enkephalines, etc. This massive response is probably needed to induce degrees of plasticity at different organizational levels for a reshaping of body-mental networks.
But much emotional or physical pain is not useful. Some useless anxiety and depression arise from normal brain mechanisms, others from brain abnormalities. In the next decade specific genes will no doubt be found responsible for certain kinds of mental disorders. Physiological correlates and major genetic factors have been found to contribute to the causation of anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, etc., and neuroscientists are hard at work un ravelling the responsible proximate mechanisms. The resulting knowledge has already improved the utility of drug treatment. The advances in pharmacological treatments have come so fast that many people remain unaware of their safety and effectiveness. Much confusion attends these advances.
The human mind tends to oversimplify this issue by attributing most bad feelings either to genes and hormones or to psychological and social events. The poles of the dilemma are then a reductionist against a false holistic attitude.
The messy truth is that most mental problems result from complex interactions of genetic predispositions, early life events, drugs and other physical effects on the brain, current relationships, life situations, cognitive habits, and psychodynamics. The web of life can, most of the time, be unusually folded and deeply twisted. Paradoxically, it is now much easier to treat many mental disorders than it is to understand them.
Just as there are several components of the immune system, each of which protects us against particular kinds of invasions, there are probably subtypes of emotions that protect us against a variety of threats. Just as the arousal of the immune system occurs for a good reason, not because of an abnormality in its regulations mechanism, we can expect that most incidents of anxiety and sadness are precipitated by some cause, even if we can not identify it.
On the other hand, the regulation of the immune system can be abnormal. The immune system can be too active and attack tissues it shouldn’t, causing autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. Comparable abnormalities in the anxiety system cause anxiety disorders.
The immune system can also fail to act when it should, causing deficiencies in immune function. Paradoxically, or maybe not so, under continuous stress it doesn’t provide us any longer with the necessary defenses. Generally speaking, both the nervous and the immune system share peculiar analogies. To conclude, I would like to examine this point.
As I said in the beginning, one of the most revolutionary aspects of the emerging Systems Theory of Life is the new conception of mind or cognition it implies. This new conception proposed by Gregory Bateson was elaborated more extensively by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in a theory known as the “Santiago Theory of Cognition.” Incidentally, I want to remind you that Varela has a long standing interest in Rolfing and wrote an interesting scientific article on it.
The central insight of their theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the processes of life; a theory that finally tries to overcome the Cartesian division of mind and matter, and thus could have far-reaching implications. In its context mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories but are seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life the process aspect, and the structure aspect. At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and structure, are then inseparably connected.
In the Santiago Theory the relationship between mind and brain is presented simply and clearly. Descartes’ characterization of mind as “the thinking thing” (res cogitans) is abandoned. Mind is not a thing but a process, the process of cognition, which is identified with the process of life. The brain is the specific structure through which this process operates. The relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure.
The brain, moreover, is not the only structure involved in the process of cognition. In the human organism, as in that of all vertebrates, the immune system is gradually recognized as a network that is as complex and interconnected as the nervous system and serves equally important coordinating functions. Instead of being concentrated and interconnected through anatomical structures like the nervous system, the immune system is dispersed in the lymph fluid, permeating every single tissue. It is long established that one of its components, lymphocytes, a class of cells known also as white blood cells, move around very rapidly and bind chemically to each other. Recent research has shown that under normal conditions these antibodies may bind to many, if not all, types of cells, and constantly count themselves. Subsequently the entire system looks much more like a network, more like people talking to each other, rather than soldiers looking for enemies, under the form of antigens.
Gradually, immunologists have been forced to shift their perception from an immune system to an immune network. Furthermore, Varela and his colleagues argue that the immune system must be understood as an autonomous, cognitive network which is responsible for the body’s molecular identity. With the understanding of the immune system as a cognitive, self-organizing and self regulating network, the puzzle of the self-non-self distinction is easily resolved. The immune system simply doesn’t need to distinguish between body cells and foreign agents, because both are subject to the same regulatory process. However, when the invading foreign agents are so massive that they cannot be incorporated into the regulatory network, as, for example, during infection, they will trigger specific mechanisms in the immune network that mount a massive defensive response.
In the long run, the discoveries of cognitive immunology promise to be extremely important for the whole field of health and healing. In Varela’ opinion, a sophisticated psychosomatic, mind-body view of health will not develop until we understand the nervous system and the immune system as two interactive cognitive systems, two “brains” in continuous conversation.
It is worthwhile noting here that connective tissue is equally part of a widely distributed network as are the immune and nervous systems. Ongoing dialogue and communication must almost necessarily exist between these parallel networks with all the possible intereactions, feedback mechanisms, loops, etc. This is still uncharted territory, explored only in a preliminary way by Varela when he described the connective tissue as the organ of form: an organ that not only constantly dynamically shapes and reshapes the body structure, but also possibly modulates, expands, or constrains the infinite interacting elements it contains. The organ of form becomes a dialectic interface between a psychobiological self and the outside environment, whose constant, ubiquitous shaping element is the force of gravity.
Rolfing, working on the organ of form, aligning it within the gravitational field, is a subtle, physical manipulation and stimulation of the body, the flexible material container of a network of networks. In my personal experience with Rolfing I have felt that each session goes through a preliminary phase of stimulation of body awareness and general arousal in order to induce the necessary plasticity of different organizational levels. This phase of “warming up” gradually elicits a cascade of psycho physiological events with far-reaching effects in various body structures. Over ten sessions, the general body structure is eventually reorganized in the field of gravity. Simultaneously, in parallel with the main process, many biological networks have been triggered to respond and have received fresh stimuli and feedback. New original connections have probably been established during these “dialogues” that may thus explain the multiple, progressive changes evoked by Rolfing at body mind level.
All these changes can be seen as: a cognitive process; an auto poetic mental-physical reorganization; an artificially induced form of “rapid adaptation;” all in a constantly changing co-evolutionary landscape. By lucky intuition and chance Rolfing might thus operate at the very core of the web of life.