What are We Humans Really? or, Ontogeny Does What?

One of the arcane snippets bandied about by my Dad while I was growing up was ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  

“Do you know what that means?” He looked me directly in the eye, because an answer was expected. My reply?  Always “no.” Dad invariably followed with “Well then, go look it up.”

I would answer with an, “ok,” and hurry off to more important things like canoeing, trapezing into the river,  or cheer practice.

For reasons unknown, the phrase stuck with me. Perhaps it was the enigma, or its rhyme, or the way it rolled off my tongue when it occasionally crossed my mind. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – mysterious words with a musical sound – became encapsulated and stored someplace along the periphery of conscious and unconscious, randomly surfacing to amuse me and, of course, remember Dad.

I went on to college, majored in psychology and anthropology, and never heard those words – ever. Time went by. Weeks became months and then years. At some point I found myself becoming ever more intrigued by psychologist Carl Jung, and his theories of the unconscious. Not in a formal sense, mind you, just curiosity.

Oddly, several years ago my son Robert gave me a book for Christmas, Pilgrim by Timothy Findley is a fictional tale of Carl Jung’s life. There within the story were those magical words – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – along with a detailing of Jung’s idea that we may inherit the memories of our ancestors, caching them away in our subliminal archives.

You bet I looked it up!

Haekle's model of development

Haekle's model of development

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny is the now debunked theory posited by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel in the mid-1800s. Its premise holds that as an advanced species develops, it passes through the evolutionary stages represented by adult organisms of more primitive species. For example, a human embryo will undergo changes in utero in a specific order from fish (gill slits that become ears) to amphibian to human. Each successive stage in the development of an individual represents one of the adult forms appearing in its evolutionary history.

So what does all of this mean to my writing journey, my story? The answer is a question: Do we hold the collective memories of our ancestors filed away in that 90% of our brain we call the unconscious? If we do, are dreams, paranormal and déjà vu occurrences merely the resurfacing of our grandparents’ life experiences? Are past-life regressions not about our lives at all, but rather a prodding and poking of the primal memory bank, a stirring up of the daily lives of our ancestors? Do we have a library of our own evolutionary history stored in the deep recesses of our temporal lobes, more easily accessed by some of us than others? This is what Lillie Lisle, a curious young archaeologist living in Tucson, Arizona, seeks to know. Dance of the Hummingbirds is her search for meaning, her story of journeying into the depths of the psyche.

It is my hope that scientists who are conducting new studies on our brains reexamine their expulsion of Haeckel’s theory. Maybe ontogeny really does recapitulate phylogeny?

Yes, I looked it up. Thanks Dad.

A Tribute to My Mothers

My DNA is ancient. The bits and pieces that formed in my mother's womb were formed in her mother's and her mother's. The mitochondria is passed unchanged from mother to daughter and has been so since the dawn of humanity.

This morning, I reflect on motherhood and what that means in my life. I think of Jerusha who traveled dusty trails to reach Indiana in the early 1800s, losing her husband to an early death along the journey. And I wonder about Adeline Mosher and Alice Gunter, Jerusha's daughter and granddaughter. What were their lives like in the early days of our country? Farm wives who struggled, carrying the joys and sorrows of raising their families, sometimes burying their children before their parents, and survived. I remember fondly my grandma Edith Munson and the the beautiful Christmas treasures she baked. Sylvia Hasty died too young. My mother was a rock for her family. Her death left a hole in our souls that we still are working to fill.

I carry on their memories and their genes, and because of their lives, I live mine forwarding those bits and pieces of DNA on into the future through Stephanie Herrick and her daughter Kylie Rios. At nine, Kylie has no thought of the history coursing through her veins. But she will. 

Today, I offer a poem of gratitude to my mother, and her mother, and her mother -- and to all the daughters who will be.

Glads by the stable door

Glads by the stable door


Gladioli growing beside the stable door.

Mother on her knees clawing loam, searching for bulbs.

Separating, digging, replanting. Her connection with the earth.

Solid values embedded in fertile soil.

The ethos of the Heartland – God, country, family, fulfilling promises made.

My heart swells with gratitude for that great woman, on her knees nurturing seeds sown by God.

An Introduction

Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), acclaimed American author, said this:

"You are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life."

My life has been lived with Ms. Nin's philosophy close to my heart. Who says "you can't" destroys -- destroys dreams, destroys innovation, destroys lives. Who takes control and focuses on dreams and goals, lives fully. I choose to live fully.

Many years have passed in bringing Dance of the Hummingbirds to life. It is a saga that merges my passions for history, archaeology, and the capacity of the human mind. During the conception, development, and now birth of Dance  I have become fascinated with how people lived in the Americas and in Scandinavia 1000 years ago.  Time and again I asked the question, "did they meet?" We don't have the evidence yet, but I believe people have been hopping the globe for many millennia.  We now know they did indeed meet on the shores of Newfoundland, but what about in the interior of the continent. Humans after all have been great explorers since they ventured forth from Africa some 40,000 years ago.

"Hummingbirds?" you ask. What is the significance of the Hummingbirds? The short answer: During my writing journey when I could no longer peck another key, or force another idea out of my noggin,  I sat on my porch and watched the "hummer hawks" (so called by some Native American peoples). I watched them nest, and play, and spiral up into the air forming the image of the DNA helix. From those aerial displays came the dance. And on our DNA is the ancestral memory that we carry from our past and into the future. The novel will explain the rest of the story..

I will continue to explore these ideas and invite you to share the journey via this Blog, articles about hummingbirds, vikings, archaeology and such will fill the white spaces. The spaces will also be filled with poetry, to which you may wish to contribute, and I welcome your participation.  

Another day I will write about a dialogue between my Dad and me. It surrounds an old theory: Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny. Ernst Haekel's idea may just rise from the pile of the debunked and the heckled. I'm sure Dad would be pleased.

For now, live fully. And if you choose -- dance.