Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

Heredity and Environment

Question — As I understand it, heredity and environment are the two principal factors involved in the theory of evolution. But then, if reincarnation is true, how does heredity fit in? We know that certain laws have been arrived at which prove physical heredity, and that environment also plays a major part in one's development. On the other hand, geniuses are sometimes born to illiterate families, so it seems that after you leave the physical plane the rules don't apply. When you delve into the matter of a man's soul, can you say he inherits from his parents his mental and emotional or spiritual characteristics?

Comment — Don't forget too the other factor in evolution that cannot be side-stepped: the matter of the fruitage of thoughts and acts that we have sown in previous lives. We come into life with a lot of unexpended karma which is bound to find an outlet some time, somewhere, on this earth — in an environment where those former seeds of character may find expression.

Question — It has been shown that the law of cause and effect governs physical heredity; for instance, if a black rabbit and a white rabbit are mated, the scientists can tell you exactly what the genes and chromosomes will do for the next ten generations. And now they are seeking to prove through the genes and the chromosomes that you also inherit from your parents your psychological and mental qualities; in fact, all the capabilities you possess. But surely this last point is open to serious question?

Comment — Nature usually follows one general rule: "As below, so above; as above, so below," as the Hermetic axiom puts it. Just because we don't know how the rules apply on the higher planes of our constitution doesn't necessarily mean that those rules change in principle. Their application on the physical plane may signify one thing, and on the mental another.

Now let us go back a little and look at heredity from the standpoint of more than one life. "A" is born to a certain couple. Physically, he will have certain characteristics that the father and mother have, or that are in the family stream. But why is "A" born to that family and to no other? Is it just by chance? No, "A" is born to that father and mother at that particular time and place, and under the specific circumstances that exist, which exactly fit the karma of the reincarnating element seeking birth. In my judgment, no child could possibly be born unless there was a strong magnetic pull or attraction — whether of love or hate — impelling that soul to come to its parents.

You could say then that "A" inherits from his own past the very qualities that his parents seem to provide through the medium of the physical elements, the genes and chromosomes, etc. But this doesn't tell you why, unless you recognize the part that the reincarnating element plays in coming into birth through the father and mother.

The rules do not change anywhere along the line, from the physical on up, or vice versa — they only seem to change because science can catalog its observations on the material plane and work out certain deductions therefrom, but isn't able to catalog the subtler aspects of the mind and soul.

Question — You mean, then, that you pick out the father and mother who can give you what is similar to your own characteristics, and actually do inherit yourself?

Comment — Yes, that is exactly what I believe: each one inherits himself from his own past. Therefore, whether consciously or not, we "select" our parents because of similarity of characteristics, or because they are diametrically opposite to what we are. Both love and hate are magnetic in their power to attract, and that is why sometimes children are born to parents where there is strong dislike or animosity between a child and one or both parents.

Question — As I understand it, our soul is what we have made of ourselves in the past?

Comment — A portion of what we have made of ourselves in the past.

Question — Yes. Then when we die, can we say that our soul goes into a kind of rest, withdraws into itself somewhat as a plant goes into a seed? I am trying to connect the soul or mental part of us with the physical body which starts out in life as a seed, and has its genes and chromosomes.

Comment — I see, and you have an excellent point there. It reminds me of the story from the Upanishads, where an old sage is telling his pupil about the indwelling spirit. He asks him to bring him a fruit from a large fig tree. "Break it open and tell me what you see." "Only these extremely fine seeds," replied the youth. "Now break open one of the seeds and tell me what you see." "Nothing at all," was the answer. The sage then pointed out that this "nothingness" is "the True, the Self," the imperceptible essence which causes the fruit or the tree and all manifested things to come into being; and that all else, the body of the fruit, the skin, pulp, etc., are merely the forms that the Self takes.

This, I believe, is the key to a fuller understanding of the mysterious and hidden support of the continuity of life. Each of us, like the fig tree, is the direct result of the activity of that indwelling spirit. Call it what you will — the Father within, the guardian angel, the monadic essence of being or that unknown something that gives pattern even to the DNA molecule — the fact remains that without this subtle core of ourselves we would be drifting without identification, without continuity, without life.

Question — Then would you say that the soul of the fig or of a man really goes into "nothingness" when it dies — if we understand by "nothingness" a non-manifesting or sleeping stage? If the genes and chromosomes are the expression of the seed of the physical body, could there be a spiritual seed which is expressing itself as our personality or human ego? It seems to me it should be consistent right on through.

Comment — It is consistent in principle, though we cannot always see it working out. After you take away the pulp and the skin and even the kernel — what do you have? Nothing, nothingness. Yet we know that there is something, a "subtle essence," as the Upanishad calls it; there must be, or we wouldn't have the fruit, the tree, or the man. What is it? It is the consciousness, the seed-essence if you like. So when we die, you could say that the soul of a man becomes again a seed-consciousness. Certainly it is not of any material nature; you cannot associate physical matter with it at all.

Question — You say no "material nature" whatever. Do you mean that literally? I always thought that if you go far enough matter gets into spirit, and spirit into matter, or is it only a relative thing?

Comment — Speaking once again in principle, matter and spirit are one — two sides of a coin — because matter reduced to its elements is spirit, and spirit in manifestation is matter. But that does not mean that we should not differentiate between what is spiritual and what is material. To return to the seed-consciousness, whether of a plant or of a man — when that seed wants to manifest, it takes on materials of various levels or gradations so that it can express itself. But in its "nothingness" or in its seed-essence it is consciousness, spirit, in various degrees of tenuousness. Of course, you cannot say that consciousness is nothingness — for consciousness is the most vitally alive part, actually the seed-essence of divinity which is only a seeming nothingness judged from the material point of view. But let's not get too far afield.

Question — Where does parental heredity begin, and where does it leave off and other factors enter in?

Question — Could we link this up with the mental and emotional aspects? It was stated a while ago that the mother and father provide the physical vehicle. Well, let us suppose the mother and father also have emotional or mental characteristics that would tend to bring about a certain type of result, say either a genius or an idiot, or a stable or unstable character. Could we say that the incoming child chooses his parents not only for a physical body, but also for the emotional and mental and psychological capacities that fit in with his karma?

Comment — Generally speaking, you are right, but we must always take into consideration that in the human kingdom the factors of free will and the higher level of consciousness operate over and above the physical transmission of genes and chromosomes. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that in any one lifetime we could not possibly meet the whole of our karmic responsibilities. We can handle only a small share of them in the normal span of life.

It matters little into what race or family or nation a child may be born. When the thirst for life begins in the consciousness of the child-to-be, then the inner impulses begin to stir, to awaken from their resting-place, and push the soul out of its heaven-world into another experience on earth. The seed-essence, the spiritual and the higher mental consciousness, attract by karma the psychological and physical elements that are needed to fulfill the specific type of responsibility for the new life.

Question — In other words, the soul is attracted to those parents from whom it can inherit the necessary physical and emotional and mental traits?

Comment — I don't like to use the word inherit as it is at present scientifically used. It is too limiting. Rather let us say that the soul is attracted to those parents who can or will act as the medium for providing the vehicle and environment. They do not provide the vehicle, but they are definitely the means whereby the physical right on up to the higher mental and spiritual aspects can manifest. But you "inherit" yourself, because you are yourself from out of the long past ages of experience.

Let us take the mystery of the union of the two infinitesimal cells at conception. Thousands of cells are thrown off from the father, but one, just one out of countless others, unites with a cell from the mother, and that marvelous process of embryonic growth starts. The parents don't form the embryo; nor do they make it grow. The mystery of growth takes place because the soul-essence of the child-to-be — the "nothingness" which made the fig become a fig — guides the growth of the fetus from conception on until sufficient of the life-atoms that formerly were his from past ages have been attracted to it. Now those life-atoms are his; the parents are not providing them. They are only being the medium through which those life-atoms are attracted to that combination of elements that is going to manifest as a human being when born on this earth.

Question — What do you mean by life-atoms?

Comment — Exactly what the term implies — the life-principle or vitalizing essence within the atomic particles that exist on every plane.

Question — What about the transmission of characteristics that obviously are passed on from generation to generation?

Comment — All that we observe as heredity is nothing more nor less than the process of a reimbodying human ego bringing itself into being in any lifetime through the channel of parents sympathetic to itself in certain of its characteristics. The several children in a large family, for instance, are each different and yet all show qualities common to the family stream. In other words, the incoming soul utilizes the family karma for its means of expression; but the parents don't create that child, physically, mentally or spiritually. What they provide is the environmental stage-setting. Each one of us has a large reserve of karmic energy which in one life will take this avenue, and in another that. It may be that you or I will need something completely different in experience next life from what we are meeting now, in order to balance the pattern of growth that we require to bring us nearer the goal — the goal for all of us being conscious cooperation with our higher selves.

We could summarize and say that heredity as propounded is nothing more than observations of a portion of life's greater pattern which, when classified by science, appear to be laws in themselves but actually, when viewed from the standpoint of the individual, are but one small part of the whole.

To talk about heredity as though it were the complete picture is like looking at a gorgeous landscape through a tiny slit. While the divine facet of our nature takes very little noticeable part, nevertheless it is the originating cause; the human ego being the responsible agent in our present stage of growth. Naturally scientists concentrate on the physical characteristics which they have cataloged to a nicety; but they forget that those physical and even mental and emotional characteristics would have no existence were it not for the indwelling spirit. It is that, the seed-essence, which is responsible for starting the whole chain of action which brings a soul into earth life.

Life does not continue to exist upon nothing. It exists upon itself, just as the fig tree exists upon the unseen essence within its seed. And who can say that we humans do not follow a similar sequence: birth of the soul, growth to maturity, death, assimilation of our experiences, rest and rejuvenation, a renewed thirst for life and, in due course, gestation and rebirth — to pick up again the task of continuity in which all of nature participates.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition