Evolution in your body
The human body is built upon the shapes and processes that came before. The study of this can be highly detailed looking at comparative anatomy, physiology and genetics and it is fascinating.
For the purposes of brevity, I will reduce everything to a few broad concepts. These concepts have some flavour of children’s stories or folk tales. This is deliberate. These stories are meant to be easy to remember and understand. Such folk tales were also originally meant to be elaborated upon, with added layers of meaning and detail that were important survival information for the cultures they came from.
For now, take your time, picture what I describe. Stream through your memories for examples and images. Can you feel the echo of their movements in your body yet?
Once upon a time all life was simple, single cells floating in oceanic soup. You have a direct connection to those first cells. Your cells are modeled upon those cells.
I might even say that in the depths of prehistory it was you, who floated in those ancient waters. You were not yet concerned with movement. Gravity while present, was not so important. Separating inside from outside appropriately was important. This allowed the processes that maintained your life to continue. You, dear cell, expanded in all directions at once to match the pressures upon you.
In time you became more complex, taking in other cells that lived within you. You began to cooperate not just with internal cells but also external ones, you became truly multicellular.
During this process, you also began to move. It is advantageous to move towards the conditions conducive to life. This demanded new distinctions — the capacity to sense.
Symmetries began to develop. Front distinguished itself from back. At the front sense organs, and soon after a ‘mouth’ which extended into a tube through your body.
The sense organs and the mouth lead the way. Mouth at the front, anus at the back. This is the way (think about it if it is not obvious).
While I have talked about front and back, up and down are also old. Light came from above. Solid surfaces lay below. The heavy sank, the light floated.
Experiments in movement lead to waves of lateral undulation being favoured among your ancestors. To help with this it became useful to stiffen along the longitudinal axis.
As size and complexity grew, as front distanced from rear the first nervous systems began to develop. In time these began to follow the main axis of the body. The stiffening zones became a safe place to keep much of the delicate nervous system (predation was no longer new). You have the first notochord, and as skeletons developed it became the spinal cord.
You, my friend, are a fish. Some of our ancestors went in other directions of course. They became mollusks, jellyfish, algae and so much more.
Boundaries are rich places. Where the solid sea bed met the ocean is one such boundary. Things accumulate at boundaries, dangers and opportunities.
A fine boundary is where the sea bed meets not just the sea but also the air. You are drawn to the shore. For some time you have been using your swimming fins on the seabed, and now they prove helpful to move between patches of ocean stranded by the tides.
Without the ocean to support you gravity becomes more powerful. You continue to use lateral undulations to place your fins — one front fin and the opposite side rear fin. These anchor you so you move with the next contraction and place the other two fins. This is a contralateral gait.
Your belly drags. This slows you and your once fins now feet begin to move under your body to raise you off the ground. This allows a new way of moving. Your belly contracts to move the rear feet closer to the front ones, your spine extends to move the front feet away from the rear ones. You can hop, gallop, pounce. The undulation is still there, the contralateral gait augmented.
You find reasons to raise your head higher as you move. Perhaps it is to reach for fruit or higher with two limbs as you balance on the more solid lower branches of trees. Perhaps it is to peer over the high grasses of the savannah. Perhaps it is to wade in the rich waters that border the land (you are still drawn to the shore).
As you walk your spine now twists so where the lower limbs join your body moves in the opposite direction to where the upper limbs join. Look, the gait is still contralateral, opposite sides coordinated, harmonious pendulums.
The bulb at the top of your spinal cord has grown hugely. It took a year or more of solid play to learn to balance it atop your torso, legs and feet.
Yet this brain still contains and connects to the ancient rhythms from your first ages in the sea, the undulations of the first tube leading from the first mouth. The lateral wave of the fish, the arc-extend of the mammal.
For one reason and another this large brain allows the transmission of individual learning from generation to generation through gesture then word to create cultures that favoured learning.
You are now the storytelling ape and this has been your story …so far.
It is a story told again and again and again and it connects you to every other creature on this planet.
It is told by the words on this page and by your own form from when you were a just fertilised cell bathed in the amniotic ocean.
May you be reminded whenever light meets the crystal waters of your eyes.
This article is an excerpt from an upcoming course in the Chinese internal martial art of Baguazhang. During this course, I will add details to the story that you will be able to apply to your movements.
If you’d like to learn more and join a free circle walking class live with Q and A here’s your link!