Why ‘Epigenetics’?

For decades the nature vs. nurture debate raged. Eventually, sociologists declared about a 50/50 split. About 50% of what we do is genetically determined, they said, and the other 50% is environmentally determined. (Note that this didn’t leave a whole lot of scope for free will, but we’ll get there later.) Recent advances in epigenetics changed all that.

Perhaps you’ve heard that certain genes can be “switched on” or “switched off” in response to environmental factors (and that some of these “switch settings” are even passed along to future generations). This is a kind of “learned behavior” that doesn’t depend on chance mutations. In other words, it’s a type of intelligence. This means that life isn’t as simple as nature vs. nurture. There’s a whole lot of in-between, in which the two interact dynamically to help us function optimally.

I’m using epigenetics metaphorically, in applying that concept to personal and organizational development. I’m NOT referring here to DNA or to genes or to how they respond to environmental factors. So what’s the use of such a metaphor?

First, let’s revisit Aristotle and the acorn that’s BECOMING an oak tree.  An acorn sprouting in a high, rocky, windswept place may grow into a stunted and extremely gnarled tree. An acorn sprouting in a lush, open meadow may grow into an enormous tree, full and symmetrical. Obviously, the way the DNA expresses itself is greatly influenced by the environment. But recall that BEING is mere potential until it BECOMES, so the τέλος of the actual tree is what counts. (That is, the τέλος of the true, composite Self.)

As Tom Petty might have observed about the stunted, gnarled oak tree, “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some.” Life happens to us all. One lesson is, don’t get stuck on some kind of idealized τέλος. Yeah, your life plan (or organizational mission) sounded good, but it was just potential anyway. What actually unfolded was the oak tree actualizing its potential in the best way possible, within the conditions it had to cope with. That’s the true measure of success. (In organizations, the plan of unfolding or BECOMING is captured in a vision statement, which should be continually revised to reflect both internal and environmental changes.)

That’s the second lesson: Life is a conversation. Unlike oak trees, we can walk around, respond, seek more favorable conditions. Sometimes we can even make more favorable conditions. Often we just have to cope better with the conditions we’re in. As we do all of the above, the τέλος we BECOME continually changes. And recall that what BECOMES is our true Self. This means that we have to continually revisit what we think we’re here for (mission), where we want to go (vision), and how we’re going to get there (strategic plan). It’s a dynamic process.

Which brings us back to determinism vs. free will. It turns out that the dynamic interaction of DNA and the environment is incredibly (and inherently) complex. And complex behaviors are inherently unpredictable. (Have you ever noticed this about life?) This means that our actions are NOT determined (they’re non-deterministic). That’s not just my opinion. It’s the consequence of a scientific definition. What’s determined can (in theory, if not always in practice) be predicted. What’s non-deterministic is unpredictable, even in theory.

So we’re not at the mercy of either a pre-determined blueprint or environmental factors (though both exert their influences). Remember, we’re BECOMERS! And how we realize our potential is an “epigenetic” process—sort of like the conversation that the surfer (an “organism” consisting of two arms, two legs, one surfboard, etc.) has with the wave (the environment). Yes, we’ll probably wipe out at first—repeatedly. But we can learn, get better, and catch some damn good waves. Most importantly, as we do so, our actual (or rather continually actualizing) Selves are changing.

So, whether the “we” I’m addressing is you personally or your organization, the lessons are the same. You can learn to interact with your environment more intelligently and adaptively (like the “learned behavior” or epigenetic intelligence referred to previously). Epigenetics is very practical stuff. It also happens to be how life actually works!

I can help you apply epigenetic perspectives in your own life or in your organization. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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