The Sociogenic and Decolonial Biology (pt 1)

03Nov20

Jumping off from last time here I am going to make some notes about the history of biology as it concerns the relation of Darwin and Lamarck and how this applies to the social or theoretical uptake of evolutionary theory.

Sylvia Wynter’s “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of “Identity” What it’s Like to be “Black” takes a comment from Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks in which he describes sociogeny as beyond onto- and phylogenesis.

Here Fanon is riffing of off Freud’s rather extensive reliance upon the biogenetic law associated most strongly with Ernst Haeckle and Lamarck but existing in numerous older forms – also called the Meckle-Serres law and with roots in Lorenz Oken and other romantic scientists and naturphilosophen. In its most basic form it is stated as the development of the individual member of the species exhibiting all the stages of its whole history of development as a species (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny).

In it’s older forms recapitulation could be viewed as either linear or non-linear and could cross or not cross the inorganic/organic boundary. For instance one could insist that the development of a human in the womb repeats all the stages of animals that went into the mammalian or chordate line or could claim it repeats even inorganic stages showing how lifeless material or the sea from which we emerged is even present along the way. In addition to this one can also claim this is a progressive or complexifying process with human beings on top of the ladder of progress.

As recapitulation retreated from being traced in actually embrology it became increasingly metaphorical or situated in the mind of beings as evidenced by habits and tics or in ancestral memories. While Haeckle’s star faded in Germany the idea of recapitulation was very popular in the US with Neo-Lamarkians (which overlap with psycho-Lamarckians) even though for Lamarck recapitulation was not nearly as central to his theory of evolution as is sometimes reported.

For many of the North American biologists such as Hyatt, recapitulation was a way to reinsert some notion of progressiveness that seemed to gel with Darwinian evolution (despite Darwin’s insistence that evolution had no sense of ‘upward’ direction).

Freud’s utilization of recapitulation seems to come from Sandor Ferenczi, Lamarck and the educational psychologist G. Stanley Hall. In Moses and Monotheism and other places Freud discusses a form of psycho-Lamarckianism that emphasizes trauma as having to do with the desire to know one’s own origins. In discussing the case of the wolf man for instance Freud chalks up the child’s strange dream of seeing a tree full of wolves as him trying to process seeing his parents engaged in sex.

But it seems that later in around 1915 that Freud seems even more driven to push recapitulation especially after his discussions with Ferenczi. In Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality Ferenczi pushed an articulation of trauma and of phylogenetic memory all the way back to the emergence of life (if not before). Sexuality was in some way a grand attempt to return to the womb and to the primoridal sea.

But how much of all this strange baggage is Fanon interested in? Or is the sociogenic supposed to disrupt all these strange tales or merely disrupt their eurocentric metropole of interpretation? In otherwords, is the sociogenic meant to say that the judeochristian or biocentric/economic views (again discussed last time) were provisional and violent in the limitation of the human (or ‘Man’) to European standards.

What is left unclear (at least to me) is the form of inscription or praxis that Wynter advocates ultimately. Her work, and other work in decoloniality, functions as a kind of three arm balance between naturalism, formalism, and history or we could say scientific, subjective, and narrative discourses. One has to be careful about connecting biocentrism to the nazis without a through history of the decades in between. As I mentioned in the last entry past the conception of eugenics is overdetermined by the nazis who at the beginning embraced eugenics (as it was internationally rampant) but soon left behind any adherence to its pseudo biological aspects.

The emphasis on blood and heredity (even though they functioned as plastic theoretical objects) was even too strict for the speculative anthropology of the nazi party. While Hitler was a fan of the struggle for existence he had no interest in the kind of contingency that Darwin advocated. Or if one can stomach to look at some of the nazi medical experiments the theories and concepts behind them seem almost premodern or medieval (to say nothing of the non-existent ethics).

But drawing a straight line from Darwin to Hitler (as Richard Weikart famously did) is not only history but it presents such a strangely mutated form of eugenics that one can claim that ‘it could be done otherwise’ or that ‘any political use of biology is immediately nazism’ The overdetermination of eugenics by nazism means that we actually have a higher bar to clear to claim something is eugenics which also has the horrible side effect of making it far easier to erase the eugenics of other countries and those (like in the UK and the US) that in fact that inspired the nazis.

But then we can see where the question of the group of sociogenic is so important particularly when it crosses paths with the biological or the pseudo biological. So many debates in ethics became stranded on a hardline division between normative and naturalist approaches in ethics and the myriad of responses to that division has led to all sorts of ridiculous formulations of analytic moral philosophy.

Yet Fanon’s account of the sociogenic seems to imply that every trauma, every psychiatric form is about a reaction to an environment which must be taken as a socially determined entity. This would seem to greatly curtail Freud’s more universal ambitions to seeing the repressed structures of the generic mind. It would seem that Fanon even wants to go further than Octave Mannoni who attempted to construct a postcolonial version of the oedipal myth via Prospero and Caliban. Again, the tension between nature, form, and history is being constantly renegotiated in what theoretical tools can be seen as capable of dislodging the assumptions of colonialism.

Next time – Cesaire and stupid nazi sci-fi



One Response to “The Sociogenic and Decolonial Biology (pt 1)”


  1. 1 Overrepresentation and Eugenical ‘Man’ | Naught Thought

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