1. RHYTHMS IN HUMAN NATURE
The lightning discharges resonating in the cavity between the earth’s surface and the ionosphere could be the source for evolutionary adaptation to the fast rhythms of nature. One can reasonably conjecture that these events provided the energy for reactions between organic molecules that produced the earliest amino acids. The atmosphere becomes a sounding tube for electrical discharges moving at the speed of light. They circle the earth more than seven times a second, resonating at specific frequencies.
W. O. Schumann in fact detected these frequencies in the ionosphere in 1952. With a fundamental oscillation at 7.8hz and an overtone series at 14,20,26, 33, 39 and 45hz, the so-called Schumann waves match many physiological fast rhythms, most notably in the brain, in nerve traffic, gap junction traffic, and the even more basic calcium oscillations.
Prebiotic chemists consider the early earth atmosphere to have been much more electrically active than it is now. Solar flares entering the ionosphere unprotected by the ozone layer added electrostatic energy to it. Those were turbulent times. Earth chemists speculate that hellish core temperatures and meteorite impacts repeatedly boiled off the oceans. With solar and lightning-generated radiations playing between dense vapor clouds saturated with aerosols ejected from volcanic eruptions, one can plausibly suppose that partial protein chains could have been formed from small organic molecules in reactions catalyzed by electrostatic atmospheric discharges from both lightning strikes and auroral phenomena.
Experiments conducted by Harold Urey and Stanley Miller in 1953 confirmed this. Putting methane, ammonia and water in a glass bottle and exposing it to electrical sparks, they produced almost all of the amino acids found in life in a matter of days. But at what rate were the sparks pulsed? It might be worthwhile repeating their experiments using frequencies matching the Schumann wave spectra.
The stormy eons on the prebiotic earth that lasted for scores of millions of years, provided time enough for primitive life to evolve and for the electrostatic rhythms to enter bacterial cells and from them, by endosymbiosis, to become part of us.
Though fanciful, this frequency driven model for the origin for life deserves consideration. It puts the radiative frequencies and the organic molecules in close contact. Though the Schumann wave in its current amplitude seems too weak to influence living organisms (the earth’s magnetic field is 5000 times more powerful than it,) evolution is conservative and the echoes of the early electrostatic discharges high in the atmosphere may still resonate in living tissue.
Itzhak Bentov, using an ultra-sensitive ballistometer, found the Schumann wave frequency in the descending aorta driven by the ejection of blood from the ventricles. He traced its resonations elsewhere in the body, carried through the bony skeleton in the body’s micromotion. According to him, the Schumann frequency even jiggled the brain. Bentov connected this with sensations felt as the Kundalini rising in the coccyx and speculated (half humorously perhaps) that since “the resonant frequency of the earth—ionosphere cavity—is about 7.5 cycles per second and that the micromotion of the body is about 6.8 to 7.5 Hz. This suggests a tuned resonant system.”30 From this observation, he took a huge leap, speculating that this wave might actually couple with the electrostatic field of the planet and act as a carrier wave sending human messages around the planet every 1/7th of a second. George Leonard in The Silent Pulse carried this notion even farther, supposing “the Schumann waves are sometimes ‘hooked into’ the pulsing of human brains, connecting them at a distance.”31These jeux d’esprit explore the notion that radiative influences shaped life on earth and continue to interact with it. Though inspired guesses have led to new understandings before, we will put these playful thoughts aside for now.
I think we’ve shown the presence of many evolved biological rhythms well enough for now. Circadian, ultradian and infradian rhythms do enter cellular processes through evolutionary selection. At least in low-level cellular and organ functions they do. But that's the easy part. To get from here to love and wisdom and the other meaning-bestowing rhythms in human life is harder. We have bigger steps to take. We have to discover how high up the same rhythms go. Do they penetrate behavior? Do we love as well as make love in rhythm? Do the fruits of wisdom deliver themselves on rhythmic trains of association? Do the oscillatory characteristics of behavior influence our values via our sense of timing? Do our attitudes, motivations, passions and possibilities congeal from rhythmic units? Do rhythms drive history?
Our review of the rhythms of nature taken up by life, though providing us with important information, does not seem to help us answer the most important questions – how the meaning of life could in any way depend on the interactions of bio-oscillators. Or even that love and wisdom are oscillatory processes to which we resonate. Or how they could have become so by evolving from primitive environmental precursors. But when you look at life in the frequency domain, when you take on that perspective, when you envision the whole thing as a temporal unfolding, when you see all of “Nature naturing” (Spinoza’s phrase,) when you understand the continuity of rhythms, a pathway to love and wisdom set deep in the tissue of life opens up to you.
I will now show how two primordial rhythms, the very ur-rhythms of animate nature, evolve and lead the way to love and wisdom.
Ur-Rhythm one: Aggregation and Dispersal
The oldest dance is the pavanne of molecular aggregation and dispersal. It predates life. It operates in the dynamics of ionic attraction and repulsion. The aversions and attractions of charged particles express it, as do the clumping together and pulling apart of polymer chains, and on higher levels in the hydrophilic and hydrophobic foldings of proteins in aqueous environments.
Polarization at all cell membranes depends on concentration gradients of sodium, calcium and potassium ions that gather and disperse through channels and pumps. These molecular movements are essential to cell viability. Enzymes in turn regulate the rates of reactions in the cell, and they aggregate and disperse from their receptor sites. These enzymes themselves are created by the aggregation of amino acids along ribosomes.
Aggregation: MRNA on ribosomes Dispersal: mast cells releasing histamine
Ur-rhythm two: Expansion and contraction
As soon as bioactive proto-cells exist, aggregation and dispersal produces expansion and contraction. That's the second big rhythm of life. You can observe it in the pulsing beats of whole organisms. Their movements, outward from a center and back toward it, depend on the presence of a bounding membrane that isolates the internal world of the organism from the external environment. Even the simplest bacterial cells have bounding membranes. Christian De Duve considered encapsulation essential for the creation of life.
In expanding and contracting, cells necessarily pull on their microtubular and microfilament skeletal structure, the harp inside them, which changes the tuning of the harp. The strings play an active part in cellular growth and development. They appear and disappear, lengthen and shorten. The cell creates and disassembles them as needed. They form the mitotic spindles in the rhythmic dance of cell division. The actin-myosin molecules seated in the anchor points of the microfilaments have been conserved for billions of years.
Animal cells also expand and contract by passing substances through the cell membrane, and this membrane structure, the lipid bilayer, is widely conserved across every phylum. The membrane is itself alive. Its transmembrane pumps and channels open and close as certain molecular signals glom onto them. The cell senses. It has chemical senses that separate self from other.
The same two-part movement of expansion/contraction and swelling/shrinking underlies motility. Healthy skeletal muscle tissue maintains muscle tone by oscillatory processes organized from the rhythmic inflow and outflow of calcium ions at 5-10 HZ from the sarcoplasmic reticulum.32 The calcium ion signals are themselves basic bio-oscillators. The muscle movements in turn produce behavioral rhythms.
When an amoeba moves away from an acid droplet, for example, it shrinks away by sending its protoplasm inward in one direction and then outward in another creating a temporary pseudopod to move it to safety. The amoeba must be able to tell inside from outside and make distinctions between good and bad outer environments. It does this through chemical senses that work by binding environmental molecules to sites along the cell membrane. Chemical sensing is a simple process conserved through life. We have it in our sense of smell. An aggregation and dispersal of molecules on membrane binding sites shrinks and expands cell organelles. In amoeba, it produces gliding motility.
You see expansion/contraction everywhere inside cells. It is there in intracellular transport vesicles moving to and from docking sites. They upload and offload their cargoes either outside the cell or in other compartments inside the cell. The release of neurotransmitter substances into synapses depends on the filling, transport and emptying of vesicles, and the diffusion of neurotransmitters across membranes itself requires an aggregation and dispersion correlated with the binding and reuptake of molecules. Through these expansion-contraction events, nerve cells secrete neurotransmitters, secretory cells send out substances.
Primordial expansion and contraction is bi-phasic. There is no filling without emptying, no dilation without compression. The extremes are connected; they are part of one polar process, not antagonisms or oppositions but continuities.
The two outcome rhythms, aggregation-dispersal and expansion-contraction, interact to produce higher level behaviors. In our study of human nature, as we have already mentioned, the most important high level behaviors are social approach-separation and internal withdrawal-return. The evolution of approach-separation and withdrawal-return from aggregation-dispersal and expansion-contraction respectively, returns us to the main theme of the book: the meaning-bestowing rhythms of love and wisdom. I’ll trace out some possible routes we took to get here. They start almost at the dawn of life.
Lynn Margulies speculates that the first social movements of approach-separation occurred in archaic bacterial mats.
“In some cases, like swarms of cyst-forming myxobacteria (for example, Chondromyces, Myxococcus), the component genomes sense each other and fuse, forming a larger structure—no membranes are breached. In others, as when the akinetes of a cynobacterium float away, the genomic systems disperse.”33
In primitive eukaryotic cells, the two ur-rhythms combine to produce quasi-social rhythms. They probably reflect the bacterial endosymbiosis from which they originated.
Approach-separation rhythms become functionally social in the clustering phases of single celled colonial organisms like the gonium. Typically, they move into agglomerations of 8, 16 or 32 members in their social stages. Through the microscope, you can see them vibrating together. Their social vibrations are themselves rhythmical and move at tremor rhythm frequencies.
Wherever single celled life merges into multicellular life, we find approach and separation working.
You can observe it in colonial sponges, in coral formations, and in slime molds that cluster and disperse in different stages of growth, signaled by intracellular chemical changes that pulse rhythmically as signals sent out into the surrounding medium. The slime mold has been well researched. It shows many of the rhythmic components later carried into the complex social lives of multicelled organisms. The ameboid cells that become the slime mold live as independent individuals. However, when they are starving, they emit periodic waves of cyclic AMP. Jeremy Campbell describes it this way:
“In the metamorphosis of slime molds, periodic waves of cyclic AMP are a medium of communication. A cell acts as a ‘center of attraction’ by putting out pulses of the chemical and other cells start to converge on the center in a rhythmic motion… This cell mass is called a slug, and before it settles down to produce spores, it moves along the ground by means of rhythmic contraction.”34
RNA molecules approaching and separating from docking spaces along the ribosomes in each single-celled organism themselves drive the rhythmic waves of cyclic AMP. You can see it unfolding in the spiral patterns. Nearby cells receive the cAMP message and begin to move toward the source, at the same time emitting cyclic AMP signals of their own. They form into a spiral wave with a central focus. Then the individual cells join into a wormlike creature that moves along with synchronous contractions." Rhythms compound upon rhythms. The slime mold next migrates to a new site better supplied with resources. There it builds a stalk, produces fruiting bodies that release thousands of spores, completing its reproductive cycle. In all of these stages, we can detect the basic features of the rhythmicity in life, all of them quantifiable: signal rhythms (cAMP), rhythmical movement (spiral waves), synchronization (migration), cooperation (building the spore tower) and dispersion (casting of the spores.) Winfree comments on the slime mold oscillations:
“We witness here, perhaps, a living fossil replaying events that were common during evolution from unicellular to multicellular organisms two billion years ago. This process has been familiar to biologists for many decades, but its frequent organization by rotating spiral waves was documented for the first time only in 1965, in the laboratory of Gunther Ferisch in Germany.”35
Having located the two ur-rhythms at the foundations of life, and the frequency bands within whichj they run, we can now return to the main focus of our study, the meaning-bestowing behaviors in human life, love and wisdom, with some confidence that we have the tools to investigate whether our virtues and passions on the highest levels express themselves in primordial frequency-driven units of behavior.