Sample Material From Book II

Excerpt from Chapter 2, Primal Games in a World of Ideologies,
Section 1: Liberal/Conservative Dynamics in Biology and Society

Most of us think about conservative and liberal within the framework of social
policy or in terms of two political parties vying for power within a democracy.
From the Primary Process Theory system view though, these stances are far more
than mere perspectives or parties. Each is a process essential to life, as is their very
interaction. At a cellular level, evolutionary pressures fueling conservation safeguard
biological structures, thus allowing for the creation of life and its maintenance.

The very membrane of a cell could be thought of as a conservative
structure, in the sense it must conserve conditions necessary to life. By keeping out
potentially harmful elements, a cell membrane fulfills a protective purpose. Likewise,
it’s also involved in the expulsion of any matter that may harm or destroy the
cell. So the membrane has two protective functions. [This we explore in much
greater detail within Chapter 7.]

From a Primary Process Theory perspective, this same process found on a
cellular scale has been functionally and structurally conserved as an organizing
principle on a larger biological scale. It is reiterated as the alternating pulsations
between growth and consolidation.

Take seeds for example. They behave in a conservative fashion. They lie dormant,
germinating only when minimal conditions for life are met.

Something similar happens in human behavior. Consider the Canadian television
show Gags. Like a silent-movie version of the popular 1960s television program
Candid-Camera, Gags stages highly unconventional and unexpected behavior to provoke
spontaneous reactions from passersby. More often than not, gag victims are stopped
in their tracks, momentarily shocked and then slightly confused about what to do –
not only evidence of them entering the freeze response, but of contracting their own
“social membrane” in the face of unexpected and strong social stimuli.

The inertia of conservational tendencies does more than help maintain the
viability of these structures. It aids reproduction – helping by means of the consonance
principle to maintain a faithful reiteration of life process formulæ that
worked in the past.

Yet because environments, like the universe in which they’re found, are always
in flux, another set of concurrent evolutionary pressures also makes its presence
felt. These are the dissonant forces tugging at the inertial propensities of
conservational processes. The resulting interaction between consonances and dissonances
creates pressure to function and grow in sustainable, coherent fashions.
As such, this can lead to the emergence of new properties, an outcome one finds in
complex systems.

In this regard, at a basic biological level, a ‘liberal process’ represents the capacity
of a complex system to accommodate variance. In a sense, a liberal process
is the by-product of an interaction between a consonant system and one or more
dissonant inputs in interaction with that system. This is what creates the evolutionary

A relatively balanced ratio between dissonance and consonance can be highly
adaptive; an excess of either can break down life’s complex system. Too much
dissonance leads to chaos. Too much consonance leads to stagnation. An excess of
either can cause death. A viable spectrum sustained within a reasonable range
results in the window of life. It’s reflected in the fact that this Liberal/Conservative
Dynamic (L/CD) can be observed at the cellular level. All cells begin as stem cells,
cells that effectively hold the potential to become any other cell. In essence, they
reflect the ‘liberal’ dynamic. As cell growth continues, specialization emerges and,
along with it, structures fixed in their function. This consolidation of function reflects
the ‘conservative’ dynamic.

This same trajectory can be seen in regard to individuals. Initially, babies tend to
reflect open, liberal systems; they’re constantly expanding boundaries that are already
loose to begin with. As children grow, both boundary permeability and expansion begin to slow.
By early adulthood, boundary development essentially stops and begins to solidify. This
causes personal boundaries to become ever more restrictive, conservative in nature.
Unfortunately this sets the stage for decline, old age and death, for any restriction
to a healthy interaction between dissonant and consonant elements increasingly stagnates
a living system; the more open a system, the less rigid its boundaries, and the better its
adaptability. An overly liberal approach also comes with a downside. If allowed to introduce
too many chaotic inputs, it can destroy the very boundaries and structures needed for life.

...[several pages later]

Today, we have a new tool at our disposal when it comes to assessing the ‘biological
veracity’ of the so-called liberal/conservative divide. It’s Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (MRI), something researchers are putting to fascinating use in this regard.
Among the first papers to be published along these lines appeared in April
2011. Four researchers coordinated by Ryota Kanai at the University College London
published “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young
Adults”.4 They had discovered that people self-identifying as conservatives were
more likely to have a larger right amygdala than were liberals, and by a statistically
significant degree. They also had a slightly larger left insula and right entorhinal
cortex (considered to be part of the hippocampal complex), though to a less statistically
significant degree. Liberals, on the other hand, had a significantly larger
anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In other words, political liberalism and conservatism
correlated with differences in brain structures.

[The amygdala was mentioned in Chapter 4 of Book I regarding its role in the
orientation function as an emotional alerting center. In Chapter 7 of Book I, which
dealt with the Integrating Self Function (ISF), we mentioned the anterior cingulate
cortex (ACC) in passing as a likely brain structure involved in the ISF itself. Incidentally,
the ACC arcs across the top of the corpus callosum which is not only responsible
for linking the left and right hemispheres of the brain, it’s also the largest
white matter structure in the brain. As a brain structure, ACC activation is associated
with helping others (Keltner, D. 2006).]

Figure 2.1: Relationship Between Liberal and Conservative Views in the Brain












(A) Regions of the anterior cingulate where gray matter volume showed
a correlation with political attitudes are shown overlaid on an MRI anatomical
image of the brain; (B) The right amygdala also showed a significant negative
correlation between political attitudes and gray matter volume. As published
in Current Biology, 2011.04. Used with permission from Elsevier and authors
Ryota Kanai and team in London, England.

But then how could any human brain structure come to vary in size due to political
beliefs? More importantly, do conservatives become conservatives because they’re
simply born with a larger right amygdala? Or does their amygdala grow in size due
to life experiences which, in turn, have an impact on epigenetic processes in the
brain? The Kanai study offers little clue regarding which side of the classic
Nature/Nurture fence they fall, as denoted by the following statement: Although
our data do not determine whether these [brain] regions play a causal role in the
formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work to suggest a
possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate
political attitudes.6

Where do we stand in this matter? We suspect the answer likely resides in the
use it or lose it nature of the brain as a complex system dance between function
and structure. Indeed, it is now widely thought our brain’s structure is signifi-
cantly plastic and responsive to our experiences, particularly when repeated
over extended periods, and especially in the early years of life when dendritic
growth in the brain’s neurons is considerable.7

Yet even experiences of relatively short duration can have such an impact. For
example, according to genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector (who studied identical
twins for some 23 years), significant life events – such as periods of starvation –
can leave lasting epigenetic marks in the way genes express themselves during
subsequent generations. Such was seen in children born in Holland within a four-
month period during the Second World War when that country was beset by starvation
during the German army’s retreat. Later in life, they were found to have been
shorter than children born previously – or even afterwards – even within the same
family. They displayed a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia, as
did their descendants. Although it is still unknown how long this residual effect
lasts in humans, it has been shown to persist in rodents across as many as four
generations. Speaking on a radio science show in February 2013, Spector said, “It’s
really fascinating to think that the way we are adapting to our environments [today]
are slightly influenced by the lives that our grandparents led.”8