Embryology, Phylogenetics and Holons

Embryology, Phylogenetics and Holons

Are you familiar with the term “holon”? If you’ve listened to The Body Awake, you may’ve heard me mention it here and there, as I love the model. A holon is anything that is a complete system unto itself, and also part of a larger complete system.

Examples abound: cells are a complete life, and cells also make organs, which also make a whole human body.

We could also say this just as truthfully in reverse order: that your couch is comprised of fibers, which are comprised of molecules, which are comprised of atoms, which are comprised of …

Therein lies the beauty of the lens, I think. It’s pointing to something that is indeed hierarchical, but that hierarchy runs both ways.

As in, it’s true that there are more complex, we could say more evolved, versions of things.

And it is also true that what’s above depends on what’s below, but the inverse isn’t true: You can have an atom without having a molecule, but you can’t have a molecule without atoms. You can’t have an organ without cells, but cells can exist and not be part of an organ.

Phew. Okay, so … pause that for a second. Let’s look at embryology and phylogeny.

Our gut tube is our “oldest” system. It’s in quotes because, embryologically all our tissues develop more or less at the same time. But it’s true that there exists a phylogenetic hierarchy.

✨“Phylogenetic heirarchy.” Say that at your next cocktail party and prepare to be envied for your vast intellect! ✨

But really: phylogenetics is the study of how species develop, or evolution, which is a useful metaphor at least (if you’ve heard terms like “lizard brain” or “monkey mind,” you’re familiar with this metaphor in action; you don’t actually have a lizard brain, but you do have a brain stem and so do reptiles; it’s the first evolutionary expression of a collation of a central nervous system.)

A lizard also has a gut tube. So do you. So do single celled plankton. Nutrition in; waste out. It’s the oldest game around.

The nervous system is our “newest” development. I think a lot about the nervous system. (So meta! I know.)

I used to think much more that “awareness” had no particular location. It was a nice non-dual thought for a nice non-dual guy like me. But now, from all that I’m learning, I’m pretty sure “awareness” as we conceive of it — that is “I am aware” — is, indeed, a function of the nervous system.

In fact, we could say that’s what the nervous system IS, that that’s the WHOLE POINT: to be aware. Why? To keep you, the organism, alive.

✨See that tiger (via your optic nerves et al)? Run.

✨Feel that touch of your lover (via a whole host of afferent nerve endings)? Lovely. Stay and enjoy. Digest. Get an erection or secrete vaginal lubrication and maybe even procreate.

✨Hold a vision of a life you think you deserve (for better or worse)? Watch it become so.

The nervous system is a higher system. It just is.

The locomotor, i.e. our musculoskeletal system, is in the middle.

The guts are on the “bottom.”

BUT! We’d be fools to think, then, that the nervous system is somehow “better,” or it’s just a matter of get this in a row and everything will fall into place.


Of course that might prove to be true. But just as easily we could make a case for any particular holon. Cellular healing of all traditions works at this level. Healing of the guts works to influence awareness / experience by working at a “lower” holon level (which, of course and again, is only “lower” from one perceptive; from another, it’s “more essential” because it’s a prerequisite for higher functioning, but not vice versa).

You can have a gut tube without anything else, but you can’t have locomotion without a digestive system, and you sure can’t have a nervous system — “awareness” — without either of those: a means of moving life through and a body of tissue with which to sense.


The moral of this story: take care of each other. “Lesser evolved” is also a way of saying “more foundational and therefore essential.”

Or as philosopher Ken Wilber said (in his book that rocked my world when I was 22, A Brief History of Everything): the mantra of the holon is: transcend and include.

Transcendence without inclusion is hollow and incomplete.

Inclusion without transcendence (more complex organization) is stagnant, and not how life moves.