Towards Mega- or Meta-Evolutionary Studies

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Contextual Quote

"In contrast to the system approach that considers systems and structures as essentially static (or concentrates on their functioning), evolutionary approaches focus on those special conditions and factors that determine qualitative evolutionary transformations and reorganizations of such systems."

- Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev et al. [1]


Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev, et al. :

"We can now provide a fuller, yet still preliminary, characterization of Evolutionary Megaparadigms. First of all, this involves general evolutionary laws, characteristics, and principles; vectors, levels, and rhythms of mega- and macroevolution as well as similarities of ‘behavior’ of different forms of matter in certain conditions.[14] While discussing these aspects we need to answer the following questions: 1) What are the specific subjects of evolutionary studies? 2) Can we detect a certain unity in evolutionary megaparadigms? Tentative answers to those questions may include the following: within this approach we are dealing with specific processes of qualitative transformations of objects and structures, resulting in the emergence of new levels of organization of matter with new qualities, possibilities, and perspectives.[15] We can identify at least three types of qualitative changes: a) changes leading to relatively small and localized qualitative changes; b) changes leading to more significant qualitative changes (for example, the emergence of a new level of integration); c) especially significant qualitative changes, whose emergence creates possibilities for evolutionary breakthroughs.[16] In the words of Henri Claessen: ‘Evolutionism then becomes the scientific activity of finding nomothetic explanations for the occurrence of such structural changes’ (2000a: 2). Such qualitative transformations are described by a number of general evolutionary principles, laws, and rules, some of which are mentioned below.

In the second place, megaparadigms may include mega-laws that should be regarded as certain principles rather than as rigid and fixed relationships. However, the significance of each of those principles can be rather different, depending on the nature of the evolving systems (cosmic, biological, or social). It is not sufficient to formulate only very general principles and laws. It is also necessary to translate these more abstract principles into methodological models for specific case studies. The present issue of the Almanac considers such laws, rules, and regularities. We hope that this will lead to more detailed discussions in subsequent issues.

In the third place, the notion of megaparadigms implies the possibility to detect not only large-scale regularities and rules but it also opens up the possibility to analyze the degree of applicability of particular rules to the various types of macroevolution. Indeed, the appearance of certain similar traits, principles, and regularities in different types of macroevolution does not necessarily prove that they are the same type of process. Large underlying differences may convey the impression of similarities. Such a discovery can lead to a better understanding of such differences.[17]

In the fourth place, we need to develop a common terminology. We have already mentioned a few such terms, e.g.,‘energy’, ‘matter’, ‘information’, ‘system’, etc.

However, are there any terms that are specific for evolutionary studies? We think these terms should include, obviously, evolution and coevolution as well as micro-, macro-, and megaevolution; numerous notions labeled with the adjective evolutionary; various terms characterizing evolution, such as speed, directionality, levels, forms, types; terms that characterize spheres of evolution, most notably, perhaps, the biosphere, the noosphere, the technosphere, etc.; possibly, perhaps, notions of progress or the lack of it; processes of selection and resulting variation. However, for a further development of evolutionary megaparadigms these terms may not be sufficient, and examples of the use of new terms can be found in some contributions to this Almanac. It is noteworthy that all the existing mega-evolutionary terminology is interdisciplinary by nature. More likely than not, therefore, new terms will also have an interdisciplinary character.

In the fifth place, there is a potential for the development of cross-disciplinary and comparative research that can establish similarities as well as detect differences of both methodological and practical nature; this may allow us to find new heuristic evolutionary theories. While the issues studied within different branches of sciences may be very specific, through the prism of the evolutionary approach it is often possible to find opportunities for interdisciplinary comparisons, the creative borrowing of methodology, the identification of common mechanisms, of ‘vectors’ as well as systemic properties that are characteristic of different forms of organization of matter, energy, and information in abiotic, biological, and social systems (cf. Carneiro, Spier, Snooks, Grinchenko, Grinin, Markov, Korotayev, Reznikova, Lekevičius, Heylighen in this Almanac). In forthcoming issues of the Almanac we hope to present more discussions about these aspects.

In the sixth place, research in terms of evolutionary megaparadigms frequently requires considering issues such as directionality (vectors or trends), speed, reversibility, etc.[18] In sum, the general nature of evolution requires attention to a great many fundamental aspects: ontological, epistemological, terminological and methodological.

In the seventh place, any serious scientific paradigm requires a study of its own history. We are planning to publish such overviews and discussions in future issues of the Almanac.[19]

In the eighth place, we believe that there are common methodological principles and approaches to evolutionary studies, even though we are dealing with processes that never fully repeat themselves.

In contrast to the system approach that considers systems and structures as essentially static (or concentrates on their functioning), evolutionary approaches focus on those special conditions and factors that determine qualitative evolutionary transformations and reorganizations of such systems. These factors themselves become the subject of theoretical analysis. This may lead to the development of analytical instruments which are common for different branches of the evolutionary studies.

In evolutionary studies, the attention is usually focused on what is considered to be the most important, on qualitative changes and transformations (reorganizations). Leading questions include the direction of such changes: for example, if they lead to a decrease, or increase, in complexity; whether they constitute a transition to a new evolutionary level; or whether they are similar to, for instance, the mechanism of adaptive radiation in biology; whether it is possible to trace some genetic links.

The ‘historical method’ employed in evolutionary studies differs from the ‘logical method’ of traditional philosophy. Within such philosophical approaches ‘the logical’ was supposed to clean ‘the historical’ from various contingencies in order to detect its essence. However, in this ‘cleansing’ process the resulting logical constructions tended to lose their connection with reality entirely, which is unacceptable within evolutionary studies. This will be elaborated below.

Finally, a few epistemological aspects and principles are common to all evolutionary studies, because they stem from the peculiarities of self-organizing processes (see Grinin and Korotayev 2009: ch. 1 for more detail). As direct observations of complex large-scale objects and processes are impossible, our reflection about these things constitutes a multi-layered indirect process of cognition that is complicated greatly by linguistic ambiguities and other semiotic problems.

In conclusion, evolutionary megaparadigms must be based on empirical observations and plausible hypotheses, which allow the application of the standard scientific procedures of verification and falsification.[20] They must be able to accommodate most, if not all, of the existing evidence. We want to encourage as much open discussion as possible about evolutionary studies, in hope that from a new diversity of approaches a new unifying approach may emerge sometime in the future."



Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev, et al.:

"It is commonly believed that the concept of evolution was first formulated by Charles Darwin, but that was not the case. Although it is not generally known, Darwin did not even use the word ‘evolution’ in the first five editions of The Origin of Species. Not until the 6th edition, published in 1872, did he introduce the term into his text. Moreover, he used it only half a dozen times, and with no more of a definition than ‘descent with modification’.

It was Herbert Spencer who, in First Principles – a book published ten years before the 6th edition of The Origin – introduced the term into scientific discourse. Stone by stone, over the seven chapters that make up the heart of that book, Spencer carefully built up the concept of evolution, culminating in his classic definition: ‘Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations’ (1862: 216).[1]

And – that is especially important for our subject – whereas Darwin applied evolution exclusively to the world of life, Spencer saw it as a process of universal application, characterizing all domains of nature.

There followed a series of works – The Principles of Biology (1864–1867), The Principles of Psychology (1870–1872), and The Principles of Sociology (1876–1896) in which Spencer showed, in great detail, how evolution had manifested itself in each of these fields. Already in the 19th century it was possible to see Darwinian and Spencerian evolution as two contrasting – and indeed competing – interpretations of the kinds of change phenomena had undergone.

Thus, after works of Darwin and especially Spencer in the final decades of the 19th century the idea of evolution in nature and society, together with the notion of progress, became a major component of not only science and philosophy, but also of social consciousness in general,[4] leading to an overall picture of the world development. In the second half of the 20th century the related ideas of historism and evolutionism had penetrated rather deeply into natural sciences such as physics and chemistry.

While this respectable scientific tradition has quite ancient roots, even today there is only a rather limited number of studies that analyze the evolution of abiotic, biological, and social systems as a single process. Even fewer studies seek to systematize the general characteristics, laws, and mechanisms of evolutionary dynamics in order to allow a comparative analysis of different evolving systems and evolutionary forms. Furthermore, the history of evolutionary approaches and methods is rarely represented in the literature. Encyclopedias, for instance, pay very little attention to the notion of evolution and the development of evolutionary approaches to history.[5] This is remarkable, given the fact that the application of the evolutionary approach (in the widest possible meaning of the term) to the history of nature and society has remained one of the most important and effective ways for conceptualizing and integrating our growing knowledge of the Universe, society and human thought. Moreover, we believe that without using mega-paradigmatic theoretical instruments such as the evolutionary approach scientists working in different fields may run the risk of losing sight of each other's contributions.

What could have caused the current insufficient attention to evolutionary studies? First of all, the crisis of evolutionism in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in philosophy, biology, anthropology, sociology and some other fields (see, e.g., Zavadsky 1973: 251–269; Zavadsky et al. 1983: 21–26; Cohen 1958; Carneiro 2003: 75–99) was caused by the fact that some classic evolutionists (but not all of them, including Darwin himself) based their ideas on a rather naïve belief in the idea of the unilinearity of development and the universality of general laws, as well as that nature and knowledge coincide entirely (see Bunzl 1997: 105). As a result, the positivistic philosophy of evolutionism could no longer accommodate the rapidly developing scientific knowledge and was rejected together with the idea of uninterrupted progress (Parsons 2000: 44).

However, the mistakes of the early evolutionists, who tried to encompass all the processes with a single and eternal evolutionary law, should not be regarded as the main cause for the current lack of attention to mega-evolutionary research. Such ‘excesses’ are rather common during the formative period of scientific schools. Since that time, the evolutionary approach has been purged from many of these excesses. This explains to a considerable extent why many scientists have returned to using evolutionary ideas at a new level of scientific understanding as well as why they are developing them actively, not only within biology, sociology, or anthropology, but also within physics, chemistry and astronomy. During the same period in the 20th century, the scientific understanding of timescales related to the evolution of the Universe, life and humanity improved dramatically. The better understanding of often enormously long periods of time during which certain systems and structures were formed stimulated (especially within natural sciences) studies into the emergence of everything. These studies proved to be more successful when they were based on evolutionary paradigms.

However, we believe that a major cause for the lack of attention to evolutionary paradigms is connected with the deepening contradiction between, on the one hand, the aspiration for levels of scientific precision and rigor that can only be achieved through narrow specialization, and, on the other hand, the limited human ability to absorb and process information. In addition, perhaps more than any other theory, macro-evolutionary theories have to deal with the acute contradiction between the world and its cognizing agents; this contradiction can be expressed in the following way: how can infinite reality be known with the aid of finite and imperfect means? The wider the scope of studied reality is within a given theoretical approach, the more acute this contradiction becomes.

In earlier eras of scientific studies one could hope to know reality interpreted as a ‘thing’ that is hidden from the human eyes by the armor of ‘phenomena’ (see Bachelard 1987: 17–18). The speculative philosophy dominant in the mid 19th century was based on the assumption that the search for universality implied the presence in the Universe of some form of essence that did not permit any relationships outside itself. It was the task of speculative philosophy to discover such an essence (Whitehead 1990: 273). Today, however, this type of approach has largely been abandoned.

If Popper (1974) and Rescher (1978) are right by maintaining that for any concrete scientific problem an infinite number of hypotheses is possible, and if it is correct that the number of scientific laws in any scientific field is an open system with an indefinite number of elements (see, e.g., Grinin 1998: 35–37; Grinin and Korotayev 2009: 45), then what could be a possible total number of hypotheses in evolutionary theory? Furthermore, the need to master colossal amounts of information as well as complex scientific methods makes research into macroevolution rather difficult. However, if the human mind had always retreated while confronting problems of cognition that appeared overwhelming, we would have neither philosophy nor science today. The complexity of such tasks and the difficulties in reaching solutions both stimulate the search for new theoretical and experimental means (including bold hypotheses, theories, and methods). As we see it, evolutionism as an interface theory that analyzes historical changes in natural and social systems and as a method that is appropriate for the analysis of many directional large-scale processes will occupy a most important place in the struggle for human understanding of the outside world.

In the past, philosophers and thinkers could try to embrace the whole universe with a single idea. Today, it seems as if the epoch of great universalists and polymaths, who could make great discoveries in very diverse fields of knowledge, will never return. However, the need for conceptual organization and unification of knowledge still exists and is felt as such by many scientists. As Erwin Schrödinger (1944) noted, even though it has become almost impossible for a single mind to master more than one small specialized field of science, some scientists should still try to synthesize facts and theories into large-scale overviews.

The fact that the need for modern analyses of a great variety of large-scale processes remains rather strongly felt and is even increasing today is not surprising. The currently globalizing world needs global knowledge. That is why we see the emergence of forecasts of the future of the Universe, of our planet and our World System; the development of gigantic data bases; the study of trends and cycles with enormous lengths and with very diverse characteristics. The trend toward multi-disciplinary approaches is also becoming ever more evident today.

However, we still need to develop effective meta- and mega-theories that allow us to study the development of nature, society, and, indeed, the entire universe on suitable scales of time and space. We need effective theories that provide good ways for linking universal and local levels as well as relatively objective instruments for comparing various systems using a range of parameters. Only this will make it possible to detect common features and trends in the endless flow of change and diversity observed in reality. This may also allow us to identify hierarchies of causes that influence the course of change and development.

We need epistemological key terms in order to understand change in nature and society in its entirety. There are not that many scientific notions that could play the role of such key terms. We think that evolution is one of them. As we see it, the idea of evolution remains important for the unification of knowledge. Yet one should not overestimate the importance of evolution in the way of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1987), who believed that the evolutionary theory is more than scientific theory. To be sure, no scientific method can claim to be the only one. There will always be alternative points of view. Any method or approach has its limitations. Today, the evolutionary approach seems especially valuable. Evolutionary studies constitute one of the most fruitful fields of interdisciplinary synthesis, where representatives of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities find common ground for research and analysis.

We are entirely ready to acknowledge that evolutionism (as any other paradigm) has its limitations."


Types of Macro-Evolution

Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev et al.:

"The comparison between different types of macroevolution is an extremely important but, unfortunately, rarely studied subject, the analysis of which has convinced us that there are both fundamental differences and similarities. However, one may wonder on which common principles and aspects such a unified field, dealing with everything from galaxies to human societies, could be based. We believe that there are several important aspects to such an approach.

First of all, there are established fundamental notions such as ‘matter’, ‘energy’, ‘entropy’, ‘complexity’, ‘information’, ‘space’, and ‘time’, that provide a general framework for comparisons. In this issue of the Almanac several contributions deal with these issues, including Chaisson's ideas concerning the correspondence between increasing levels of complexity and the amount of energy flowing through them. This is expressed in terms of the amount of free energy that passes through a system during a certain period of time (Chaisson 2001, 2005, 2006). On this basis Chaisson seeks to detect a general mechanism of cosmological, biological, social, and even cultural evolution. In Spier's contribution to this Almanac, some of the merits and contradictions of this approach are discussed (see also Spier 2005, 2010).

In the second place, matter has some very general properties, which were perhaps already predetermined during the initial super dense phase of the universe. During the subsequent phases of universal evolution, matter acquires very specific forms, while new properties emerged at every new stage of the universal evolution.

In the third place, a few general system-dependent structural properties of matter[10] appear to determine similarities between different types of macroevolution. Ashby (1958) noticed that while the range of systems is enormously wide, most systems consist of physical parts: atoms, stars, switches, springs, bones, neurons, muscles, gases, etc. (see also Hall and Fagen 1956). In many cases we are dealing with very complex systems that are found in many places (Haken 2005: 16). The emergence of forms of greater complexity results from the transition from one evolutionary level to another. The general principles related to the functioning and development of such objects can be described by general system theory. The concepts of self-organization and transition from equilibrium to a non-equilibrium state are also relevant in this respect. In addition, both biotic and abiotic systems show complex interactions with their environment that can be described in terms of general principles.

In the fourth place, mega-evolutionary trajectories can be considered as components of a single process, and their different phases can be regarded as different types of macroevolution that could be similar in terms of their main trends and directions as well as particular mechanisms. This will be discussed in more detail below.

In the fifth place, we can speak about common vectors of megaevolution as well as common causes and conditions during the transition from one level of organization to another.[11] There is a number of very important categories that are relevant for the analysis of all phases of megaevolution, most notably self-organization, stable and chaotic states, phase transition, bifurcation, etc.

Because of our rapidly growing knowledge of the universe, on the one hand, and, simultaneously, our lack of reliable information about many of its aspects, on the other hand, arguments regarding the issue of whether our world is ‘strange’, fortuitous (see, e.g., Davies 1982, 1985, etc.), or ‘regular’ remain rather polarized (see, in particular, Kazyutinsky 1994). At present, we are dealing with conflicting paradigms that are hard to falsify, while even the very notion of what ‘regular’ means is not sufficiently rigorously defined (see Grinin and Korotayev 2009: ch. 1 for more detail). For this reason, modern cosmological theories and hypotheses sometimes exhibit directly opposing ideas. For example, according to Panov (2008a), the cosmological theory of ‘chaotic inflation’ implies that there is not just one universe, but in fact, an unlimited number of them, while all those universes can possess entirely different physics. As a result, life may be possible in some universes and impossible in others. Since we emerged in a universe where the life was possible, we observe the set of parameters that corresponds to the so-called ‘anthropic principle’.However, it may be that the cosmologies of inflation, the multiverse, and string theory do not have any relevance for reality as we observe it. The fundamental constants may simply have the observed values just because they cannot have any other values due to some yet unknown fundamental physical laws (Panov 2008а: 54–55)."


Conditions for the Study of Macro-Evolution

Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev et al.:

At least five basic aspects can be identified that help us to recognize substantial similarities between different evolutionary forms and processes:

1) the ‘starting’ level/aspect, consisting of a minimum number of general characteristics of matter and energy that are, apparently, determined at the very beginning of space and time. These fundamental characteristics allow us to identify the most basic common denominator for different evolutionary levels in terms of entropy/energy, self-organization potential, etc.;

2) ‘genetic-hierarchical’ levels/aspects, because any new form of evolution must be connected with the previous ones;

3) ‘interaction and adaptation’: emerging levels of organization may ‘tune up’ their parameters compared to preceding evolutionary forms, while at the same time all forms of evolution depend on each other; hence, there is a certain kind of ‘accommodation’ between them;

4) ‘behavioral’ aspects: different forms of matter can sometimes behave rather similarly in certain conditions. They can acquire similar structures, while it may also be possible to detect similar phases, cycles, rhythms and patterns. As a result, by concentrating on similarities instead of differences in details we may be able to formulate certain general principles concerning the ‘behavior’ of objects at various levels of evolution;

5) trends in, and possible direction of, evolution: this aspect has attracted the attention of especially those evolutionists who seek to define evolution in terms of transitions from less complex/developed systems to more complex/developed ones. Major issues include the following questions: Are these trends large-scale (for example of intergalactic level) or more localized, such as of the planetary scale and below? Is this dynamics cyclical or linear, like, for example, the rise and demise of certain societies? Do we need the anthropic principle to explain this? Currently, no consensus exists on these and many other issues of this kind. However, there can be no doubt that a great number of trends can be observed in mega-evolution, which needs to be explained."