Sunday, March 13, 2011

Karate and Evolution

Karate and Evolution.

Over on the Blitzmag forum, I have been peripherally involved in a few conversations recently regarding karate, its efficacy, what constitutes "real" karate, and the concept that much karate that is being done is either not true to its origins (either okinawan, or if talking about okinawan karate, to China), or not true to the principles of "real" karate.

What follows are my musings on issues and points raised in some of those conversations, from an evolutionary perspective. None of which, by the by, is of the least importance to the training or practise of karate. (And is, quite possibly, very wrong).  But it's fun to think about.

Social v. biological evolution.

Evolution in biology is inter-generational and Darwinian - in other words, the inheritance of characteristics caused by genetic mutation and 'favoured' over other characteristics in a population due to the influence of selection pressures.  Individuals cannot evolve; their genetic information is passed to the next generation, assuming selection pressures permit this to occur.

Social evolution is both inter- and intra-generational and  Lamarkian; individuals, societies, modes of learning or doing can all change within their own lifetime, as well as passing on their characteristics to the next generation.  Lamarkian evolution is often simplified as the inheritance of acquired characteristics - the thought experiment of giraffes reaching for leaves in the treetops, and passing their stretched necks onto their offspring is the classic example given.  Selection pressures are still a part of Lamarkian evolution, and play a similar role.

And unlike in biological evolution, where genetic information tends not to cross between species or between higher taxon (with some exceptions), in social evolution, cross-pollination and re-fertilising from outside can and does occur.

Mainline, Offshoots and Diversity

In one thread , "Magpie" wrote the following:

The JKA style of shotokan karate which has Funakoshi as the master, and Nakayama as the innovator.    And:

 I dont like shotokai at all, shotokan and shotokai may have come from the same background but they are like chalk and cheese to me, totally different in everything.

In the same post, implying that JKA is the true, undiluted line and shotokai is, by implication, not of the true line and therefore not an authentic example of Funakoshi-line karate.

One way to view this, and I get the impression that this is Magpie's view (although I stand to be corrected) might look like this:

The mainline of JKA is a seamless whole from inception to currency; other "breakaways" are like sideshoots that are not as valid or "authentic" as their parent.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, this is not so. The splitting of one karate group into another can be likened to a speciation event.  One species, with a degree of diversity within its population is separated by some sort of barrier (physical, behavioural, physiological) that causes them to diverge from each other over time.  Neither is the superior, each is adapted to their own particular set of environmental pressures.

If we were to view the same splitting from an evolutionary perspective, it might look something like:

As you can see, JKA and Shotokai diverged at the same point; each are equally related to the 'common ancestor', Funakoshi-ha shotokan.  By the same token, so are all the other offshoots on the JKA side of the tree.  None is more or less 'mainline' than any other.

The number of splits in the tree do not indicate distance from the common ancestor.  Shotokai is not closer or "more pure" than JKA because there is only one split between it and its progenitor, whereas the tree shows half a dozen between JKA.  The true measure on this type of tree is distance from the point of origin.  Shotokai and JKA (and every other group on the tree) are identically distant.

A view such as this makes no claims to degree of similarity to the "original" common ancestor.  What is most likely, is that none of them are.  Generally, every modern day 'species' will have certain features inherited from their common ancestor, but will have their own unique features that are the result of adaptations to their own unique history and environmental exposure.

The degree of difference from the features of the common ancestor is influenced by the strength of the environmental pressures.  In martial arts, these pressures include the other martial experiences of the founder/senior students, societal constraints or cultural differences due to the art being taught outside its country of origin.  So, conceivably some lines could retain more of the ancestral features than others if they are subject to different types or strengths of environmental pressures.

This is a common claim of many martial arts - that of "purity" or "as taught by the founder".  Again, evolutionary theory can be used to show why this may never be the case.  In biology, in the absence of a directional selection pressure, evolution (as measured by genetic or phenotypic change in a population from one generation to another) can still occur.  The mechanism that causes this is known as genetic drift, and is caused by random mutations in DNA that are known to occur at a relatively constant rate. 

Genetic Drift, as applied to a martial art (or any other generational social activity where oral/personal transmission is the norm) can lead to differences in techniques or kata, or differing emphasis on certain principles or training methodology.  This is where Magpie's line about JKA and Shotokai ring true - they do have different approaches, but neither can honestly claim to be any closer to the original than the other.

Progress in evolution, Point of Origin and Diversity.

In the same thread, another poster, baihe, commented to the effect that he had been to Okinawa and that Okinawan Karate was "dead".  The implication being that if real, living karate couldn't be found in its place of origin, then where could it be found?

I thought about this for a bit, and was unconvinced, both of the general argument and the comment specifically for a couple of reasons.  Without knowing his training history (which schools, teachers, length of stay, frequency of training, prior knowledge at that point in time to allow him to make such a judgement) it wasn't possible for me to evaluate his claim, and as it was not supplied, I remained unconvinced. 

But there is also an interesting evolutionary perspective that similarly belies his remark.  It is a corollary of genetic drift; wherever a species (or in this case, a type of martial art) has been the longest, you will find the greatest genetic diversity.

We see this in our own species.  Our species evolved around 200 000 years ago in Africa, and in the last 100 000 years has migrated out to every other continent of the globe (with the exception of Antarctica, as there is no permanent breeding population of our species there).  The continent with the greatest genetic diversity is Africa.  Any two individuals from anywhere else in the world are more genetically similar to each other than someone from Somalia and South Africa are to each other.  (incidentally, this is not an argument for race - the genetic similarity between any two humans is such, that if humans were dogs, we would all be labradors).

Applying this perspective to karate, its place of longest duration is Okinawa.  Thus we would expect the greatest diversity of karate schools and approaches in Okinawa - including crap ones and fraudulent ones.

Emigration, Immigration and Re-migration

Karate emigrated to Japan from Okinawa in the 1920s, in several waves.  Post-war, Japanicised karate made its way back to Okinawa, particularly when coupled with sport karate, taking root there too.  So, Okinawan karate has even greater diversity through the re-migration of other 'species' of karate back to its shores.  Because karate evolution is lamarkian, not darwinian, cross-fertilisation and hybridisation may well have occurred as a result, increasing diversity still further.  This is why I remain unconvinced about baihe's assertion that Okinawan Karate is dead.  With such high diversity, it is impossible to talk about "Okinawan Karate" as a single entity (a bit like we cannot talk about "the tree" - which species?  Eucalypt, Oak, Fir, Acacia?).  This feeds into another blitzmag thread recently about "real" versus "fake" karate, but that's a topic for another post.  With greater diversity, there is also a greater likelihood of poor, fake or unsuitable schools .  Is it possible that baihe's experiences were more with some of these than with their opposite? (Graphic below:)

Phew, that was fun!  I'll probably continue in another post about monophyletic v. paraphyletic origins of karate, the Founder effect, and more.

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