Universal Evolutionism

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Leonid Grinin et al. :

"One of the clearest manifestations of the evolutionary approach is the form of universal evolutionism (Big History) that considers the process of evolution as a continuous and integral process – from the Big Bang all the way down to the current state of human affairs and beyond. Universal evolutionism implies that cosmic, chemical, geological, biological, and social types of macroevolution exhibit forms of structural continuity (for examples of this approach see, e.g., Chaisson 2001; Nazaretyan 2004; Panov 2008b; Fesenkova 1994; Christian 2004; Grinin et al. 2009; Jantsch 1983; Spier 2005, 2010).[6] The great importance of this approach (that has both the widest possible scope and a sound scientific basis) is evident. It strives to encompass within a single theoretical framework all the major phases of the universe, from the Big Bang down to forecasts for the entire foreseeable future, while showing that the present state of humankind is a result of the self-organization of matter. However, the conceptual efforts of a single scientist – even if he or she possesses exceptional erudition – have their limits. This situation does not change radically when a few such theorists become united in scientific schools. We now need a higher level of co-operation that can achieve a large-scale analysis of evolutionary processes through interdisciplinary approaches.

Which forms and directions could be especially promising in this respect? We believe that one of them could be comparative evolutionary studies,i.e. the approach followed in articles published in the second section of this Almanac.[7] The search for a ‘common denominator’ for different evolutionary levels is very important, as it could show common fundamental characteristics of all forms of matter.[8] Yet, there is some risk to exaggerate its potential for the understanding of specific features of each type of macroevolution and its driving forces. Hence, any theoretical approach aiming to unite the methodological arsenal for analyzing different types of macroevolution cannot be mechanical in its nature. Thus, we need to develop and refine our common terminology, methodology, and conceptual contents.

This implies the necessity to create a common field for the study of evolutionary processes (among other things, through interdisciplinary research), within which we could clarify and refine the common and peculiar features in evolutionary approaches, terminology, principles, as well as conduct cross-evolutionary research. The wider the field will be and the more diverse the form of its integration, the more significant advances we may expect. We believe that this may well provide new productive opportunities leading to a better understanding of the course, trends, mechanisms, and peculiarities of each type of evolution.

In recent decades a number of researchers have tried to interconnect various forms of evolution. However, the study of evolutionary processes is mainly developing within each of its specific areas in rather isolated ways. In most cases, the scientists who study evolution often do not know that the problems they analyze may already have been solved in other fields of the evolutionary studies. The conclusions that they may have reached independently may be surprisingly similar for abiotic, biological and social systems. Some contributors to this volume experienced this firsthand when they discovered that solutions found in one field turned out to be applicable in another.[9] The fullest consideration of this question is presented in the contribution by Leonid Grinin, Alexander Markov, and Andrey Korotayev ‘Biological and SocialAromorphoses: A Comparison between Two Forms of Macroevolution’ (in this Almanac); this article demonstrates how the application of ideas developed through the study of biological macroevolution can be very productive in the study of social macroevolution and vice versa. The authors trace contours of general analytic instruments, regularities and laws that are common for both types of macroevolution. This confirms once again the point that both a common field and significant theoretical elements that can shape a general paradigm of evolutionism are already available. However, they need to be developed further.

Thus, we first of all need to unite our efforts in order to see better what has already been done in this field. Those who are working with evolutionary megaparadigms need to be enabled to know more about each other, in order to see and understand what has been done (and by whom), so that they can enrich themselves with the experience of scientists specializing in different fields of evolutionary studies. The best way to initiate such a process has often been to start a scientific publication. This approach formed the basis of the idea to start a multidisciplinary almanac with Evolution as its general title. We plan to publish here those articles that study multifarious forms of evolution. We suggest the widest possible range of topics in terms of both the scope of fields and the broadness of research designs: from approaches of the universal evolutionism to the analysis of particular evolutionary regularities in abiotic, biological, and social systems, culture, cognition, language, psychological phenomena, etc."



Critique of Universal Evolutionism

Leonid Grinin et al. :

"Universal evolutionism naturally has its own limits and vulnerabilities.

First, the universal evolutionism examines only one evolutionary trend (which is in certain respect the major one); meanwhile, it is necessary to pay attention to other trends and aspects as well Let us note that the similarities between objects and processes of different nature can become evident (and are often found) within the secondary trends (e.g., the similarity between social insects and the society).

Second, the universal evolutionism is supported by a rather narrow theoretical base of the unity of the world. In addition to distinguishing the historical and genetic unity it is necessary to find an ontological base for the unity which would be based on common principles, laws, and rules showing the internal similarity of the existence and functioning of the matter at all phases of its development.

Third, it is necessary to examine the common features disregarding the differences in nature and complexity of the objects; thus, one can formulate certain (but rather general) principles of ‘behaviour’ of the objects belonging to different evolutionary levels.

Fourth, one can postulate the unity of evolution proceeding from the assumption about the general principles (which originated genetically or typologically) of the world structure. To find out the general elements of this structure, one should compare the evolutionary levels (fields) applying different criteria."


The state of evolutionary studies

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."