Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on January 14, 2011

Featured recently in the Oxford English Dictionary, their “word-of-the-day” feature misses the current relevance of the word. As embryos develop, parts of them dissolve, the cells going through a state of self-pruning, apoptosis. The webs between the embryo’s fingers disappear. The importance of the word is especially relevant in considering the relative changeability—the “plasticity”—of the brain during development. There seems to be a process of developing certain networks and letting other parts of the brain atrophy—and what that means at a cellular level seems to be that neurons not used tend to go through a process of apoptosis. Suicide is probably too strong a term for use at this level.

What it means, though, is that cultures that reward certain skills, certain types of language, etc., tend to foster the development of people who can cultivate those skills. In language formation, for example, there are critical periods for most people when, if they learn another language, can learn it without an accent; after that time—usually in the teens—, their other language tends to develop habits of speaking that generate an accent when trying to learn a new language.

     Many processes throughout biology show this self-pruning dynamic. Once the slime mold Dictiostylium (a species of slime mold) has successfully generated spores that are swept up by the air currents, the thousands of cells in the supporting stalk and base of the organism wither—their purpose achieved. There are innumerable mysteries, here, of course: What are the mechanisms—we’re exploring that—and what triggers this process. That may vary with organism and situation. Each question exposes yet more.

The important thing here is that nature is not forever expanding. There are processes built in so that we don’t overgrow our optimal size, that species stay in ecological balance. Humans with their capacity for sentimentality have suppressed feedback from nature to contain their sexual-reproductive impulses in the face of overpopulation; or they’ve managed to sidestep that feedback, kicking the problem into the wider system.

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