Biological and Social Phases
of Big History:
Similarities and Differences of
Evolutionary Principles and Mechanisms
Leonid E. Grinin, Andrey V. Korotayev,
Alexander V. Markov
Comparison of biological and social macro-evolution is a very important issue, but it has been studied insufficiently. Yet, analysis suggests new promising possibilities to deepen our understanding of the course, trends, mechanisms and peculiarities of the biological and social phases of Big History. This article analyzes similarities and differences between two phases of Big History at various levels and in various aspects. It compares biological and social organisms, mechanisms of evolutionary selection, transitions to qualitatively new states, processes of key information transmission, and fixation of acquired characteristics. It also considers a number of pre-adaptations that contributed to the transformation of Big History's biological phase into its social phase and analyzes some lines of such a transformation.
In this article, we continue our analysis of similarities and differences between social and biological evolution, which makes it the continuation of an article that we published in the previous issue of Evolution (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2011). Since the comparison of biological and social evolution is an important but (unfortunately) understudied subject, we shall re-state a few of the salient points from our previous article.
We are still at the stage of a vigorous discussion about the applicability of Darwinian evolutionary theory to social/cultural evolution. Unfortunately, we all are mostly dealing with a polarization of views. On the one hand, we confront a total rejection of Darwin's theory of social evolution (see, e.g., Hallpike 1986). On the other, we deal with those who stress that cultural evolution demonstrates all the key Darwinian evolutionary characteristics (Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2006).
We believe that, instead of following the outdated objectivist principle of ‘either – or’, we should concentrate on the search for methods that could allow us to apply achievements of biological evolutionary science to social evolution and vice versa. In other words, we should concentrate on the search for productive generalizations and analogies for analysis of evolutionary mechanisms. The Big History approach aims for inclusion of all mega-evolution within a single paradigm (this paradigm is discussed in Grinin, Carneiro et al. 2011). Hence, this approach provides an effective means to address the above-mentioned task.
As is known, not only systems evolve, but mechanisms of evolution evolve too (see more on this in Section 3). This concept also appears rather fruitful as regards the development of Big History itself. Let us consider some of the parameters and examples that we might consider.
Each sequential phase of Big History is accompanied by the emergence of new evolutionary mechanisms; therefore, certain prerequisites and preadaptations can be detected within the previous phase. So, development of new mechanisms of evolution does not imply invalidation of evolutionary mechanisms that were active during previous phases. As a result, one can observe the emergence of a complex system of interaction of forces and mechanisms determining the evolution of new forms. Biological organisms operate in the framework of certain physical, chemical and geological laws (see Kutter's contribution on this topic and also on the comparison between physical and biological evolution).
Likewise, the behaviors of social systems and people have certain biological limitations. New forms of evolution that determine Big History transition into a new phase may result from activities going in different directions. Some evolutionary forms that are similar in principle may emerge not only at a breakthrough point, but may also result in a deadend – from the overall view of Big History. For example, the emergence of social forms of life took place in many phyla and classes – bacteria, insects, birds and mammals. Additionally, among insects, we can find rather high forms of socialization (see, e.g., Reznikova 2011; Ryabko and Reznikova 2009; Robson and Traniello 2002). Despite the common trajectory and interrelation of social behaviors by these various life forms, there has been a large overall difference in the impact that each has had on the Earth.
What is more, as regards information transmission mechanisms, it appears possible to speak about certain ‘evolutionary freaks’. Some of those mechanisms (in particular, the horizontal exchange of genetic information) were spread rather widely in the biological evolution of simple organisms but were later discarded (or transformed into highly specialized mechanisms, e.g., sexual reproduction) among more complex organisms. Today, they are mostly confined to the simplest forms of life. We mean the horizontal exchange of genetic information (genes) among microorganisms, which makes many useful genetic ‘inventions’ literally a sort of ‘commons’ of microbe communities. Among the bacteria, the horizontal transmission of genes contributes to the fast development of antibiotic resistance (e.g., Markov and Naymark 2009).
For the present article, the following turns out to be important: The horizontal exchange of genetic information (in its general function) is distantly similar to those forms of information exchange that became extremely important for social evolution – the direct borrowing of innovations and their introduction into social life. Hence, principles and mechanisms that appear of marginal relevance at a certain phase of Big History may turn out to be extremely important in a later phase.1
These parallels suggest that analysis of similarities and differences between the mechanisms of evolution may help us to understand the general principles of mega-evolution2 and Big History in a much fuller way. They may also help us to better understand their driving forces and supra-phase mechanisms (mechanisms that operate in two or more phases of Big History). Our first article was devoted to the analysis of one such mechanism – aromorphosis (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2011; also Grinin and Korotayev 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2009a, 2009b).
Let us return now to a comparison of biological and social evolution. It is important to describe similarities and differences between these two types of macro-evolution – at various levels and in various aspects. This is necessary because such comparisons tend to be deformed by conceptual extremes3 and tend to be incomplete. These limitations are true even in respect of the above-mentioned paper by Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland (2006), as well as a rather thorough monograph by Christopher Hallpike (1986), Principles of Social Evolution. There, Hallpike offers a fairly complete analysis of similarities and differences between social and biological organisms, but does not provide a clear and systematic comparison between social and biological evolution.
Section 1. Biological and Social Organisms:
A Comparison at Various Levels of Evolution
There are a few important and understandable differences between biological and social macro-evolution, nonetheless, it is possible to identify a number of fundamental similarities. One may single out at least three basic sets of shared factors.
First of all, there are similarities that stem from very complex, non-equilibrium, but stable systems whose principles of function and evolution are described by General Systems Theory, as well as by a number of cybernetic principles and laws.
Secondly, we are not dealing with isolated systems but with a complex interaction between organisms and their external environment. As a result, the reaction of systems to external challenges can be described in terms of general principles that express themselves within a biological reality and a social reality.
Thirdly, it is necessary to mention a direct ‘genetic’ link between
the two types of macro-evolution and their mutual influence.
It is important to emphasize that similarity between the two types of macro-evolution does not imply commonality. Rather significant similarities are frequently accompanied by enormous differences. For example, the genomes of chimpanzees and the humans are 98 per cent similar. However, there are enormous intellectual and social differences between chimpanzees and humans that arise from the apparently ‘insignificant’ variations between the two genomes.4
It appears reasonable to continue the comparison between the two types of macro-evolution on the basis of the analysis used by Hallpike, who singles out the following similarities between social and biological organisms (Hallpike 1986: 33):
‘The institutions of societies are interrelated in a manner analogous to the organs of the body, and preserve their continuity despite changes of individual membership, just as individual cells are renewed in organs.’
‘There is a specialization of organic functions analogous to the social division of labor.’
‘In both cases self-maintenance and feedback processes occur.’
‘There are adaptive responses to the physical environment.’
‘In organisms we find the transmission of matter, energy, and information analogous to trade, communication, etc., in societies.’
According to Hallpike, societies are unlike organisms in the following respects (Hallpike 1986: 33–34):
‘They are not physical entities at all, since their individual members are linked by information bonds, not by those of a purely physical nature.’
‘Societies are not clearly bounded, e.g., two societies may be distinct politically, but not culturally or religiously.’
‘Societies do not reproduce, so that cultural transmission from generation to generation is indistinguishable from general processes of self-maintenance.’5
‘Societies are capable of metamorphosis to a degree only found in organic phylogeny.’
‘The individual members of a society, unlike cells, are capable of acting with purpose and foresight, and of learning from experience.’
‘Structure and function are far less closely related in societies than in organisms.’
Hallpike also comes to the sound conclusion that similarities between social and biological organisms are in general determined by similarities in organization and structure (we would say similarities between different types of systems). As a result, Hallpike believes that one can use certain analogies when in-
stitutions can be represented as similar to some organs. In this way, cells may be regarded as similar to individuals; central government similar to the brain, and so on. Spencer (1898) and Durkheim (1991 ) are important representatives of this tradition.6 Hallpike also has sufficient grounds to add Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Talcott Parsons.
When comparing biological species and societies, Hallpike (1986: 34) singles out the following similarities:
‘Species, like societies, do not reproduce.’
‘Both have phylogenies and metamorphosis.’
‘Both are composed of competing individuals.’
He also singles out the following difference: ‘Unlike species, however, societies are organized systems, whereas species are simply collections of individual organisms’ (Ibid.).
Further, Hallpike tries to demonstrate that, because of such differences between biological and social organisms,7 the very idea of natural selection does not appear to be very productive with respect to social evolution. We believe that his proofs are not very convincing, although they make some sense in certain respects. In addition, his analysis is concentrated mostly at the level of an individual organism and an individual society. He hardly moves at the supra-organism level (though he, of course, discusses the evolution of species). We believe that with this, Hallpike (notwithstanding his desire to demonstrate the sterility of the application of Darwinian theory to social evolution) involuntarily amplifies the effect of similarity between biological and social evolution, because the analogy between the biological organism and society (as Hallpike admits himself) is rather salient indeed.
On the other hand, Hallpike does not take into account the point in social evolution where a few substantially new supra-socium levels of development emerge. We contend that it is very important to consider not only evolution at the level of a society but also at the level above individual societies, as well as the point at which both levels are interconnected. The supra-organism level is very important, as regards biological evolution (but, perhaps, less so in respect to social evolution). Thus, it might be more productive to compare societies with ecosystems rather than with organisms or species. However, this would demand the development of special methods, as in this case it would be necessary to consider the society not as a social organism, but as a part of a wider system, which includes the natural and social environment.8
We identify the following differences between the social and biological evolution.
A. At the Level of an Individual Society and an Individual
As Hallpike (1986: 33) notes, societies are capable of such rapid evolutionary metamorphoses that they were not observed in the pre-human organic world. However, social systems are not only capable to change and transform, they are also capable to borrow innovations and new elements.
They may be also transformed consciously and with a certain purpose. Such characteristics are absent in natural biological evolution in any form.
In the process of social evolution the same social organism may experience radical transformation more than once.
Key information transmission differs significantly in biological and social evolution (we shall consider this point in more detail in the next Section).
In biological evolution, the acquired characteristics are not inherited; thus, they do no not influence the biological evolution that proceeds very slowly. This point will be also considered in more detail in the next section.
It appears very important to note that, though biological and social organisms are significantly (actually ‘systemically’) similar, they are radically different in their capabilities to evolve. The biological organism does not evolve by itself; evolution may only take place at a higher level (population, species, etc.), whereas social evolution can often well be traced at the level of an individual social organism. What is more, it is frequently possible to trace the evolution of particular institutions and subsystems within a social organism.
B. As Regards the Results of Social/Natural Selection
Biological evolution is more additive (cumulative) than substitutive; put in another way: ‘the new is added to the old’. In contrast, social evolution
(especially during the two recent centuries) is more substitutive than additive:
‘the new replaces the old’ (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008, 2011).
Since social evolution is different from biological evolution, in respect of mechanisms of emergence, fixation and diffusion of evolutionary breakthroughs (aromorphoses), this leads to long-term restructuring in size and complexity of social organisms. It is important to note that, in contrast to biological evolution, where some growth of complexity is also observed, such social reorganization becomes continuous. In recent decades, societies that do not experience a constant and significant evolution look inadequate and risk extinction. In addition, size of societies (and systems of societies) tends to grow constantly through more and more tightly integrative links (this trend has become especially salient in recent millennia), whereas the trend towards increase in the size of biological organisms in nature is rather limited and far from general.
Within social evolution, we observe the formation of special suprasocietal systems that also tend to grow in size. This can be regarded as one of the results of social evolution and serves as a method of aromorphosis fixation and diffusion.
C. At Supra-organic (Suprasocietal) Level
As a result of the above-mentioned differences, within the process of social evolution, we observe the formation of two types of special suprasocietal systems: A) amalgamations of societies with varieties of complexity that have analogies to biological evolution; B) emergence of elements and systems that do not belong to any society, in particular that lack many analogies to biological evolution.
Naturally, type B needs a special comment. The first type of supra-organic amalgamation is rather typical not only for social but also for biological evolution.9 However, within biological evolution, amalgamations of organisms with more than one level of organization10 are usually very unstable and are especially unstable among highly organized animals.11 Within social evolution, we observe the emergence of more and more levels: from groups of small sociums to humankind as a whole. Of course, it makes sense to recollect analogies with social animals: social insects, primates and so on. Neither should we forget to compare society with the individual biological organism but also with groups of organisms bound by cooperative relationships. Such groups are widely present among bacteria and even among viruses.
It should be noted that modern biologists have developed well respected theories that account for the emergence of intragroup cooperation and altruism, including competition, kin selection, group selection and so on (see, e.g., Reeve and Hölldobler 2007). However, it is not clear if societies should be really compared with groups of organisms rather than individual organisms, whether we should not consider societies within the system of numerous intersocietal links?
In any case, it is clear that the level of analysis is very important for comparison of biological and social evolution. Which systems should be compared? Such analogies are more frequent when society (the social organism) is compared to a biological organism or species. However, in many cases, it may turn out to be more productive to compare societies with other levels of the biota's system organization: with populations, ecosystems and communities, with particular structural elements or blocks of communities (e.g., with particular fragments of trophic networks or with particular symbiotic complexes), with colonies (with respect to colonial organisms), or finally – and this is the closest analogy – with groups of highly organized animals (cetaceans, primates, and other social mammals or termites, ants, bees and other social insects).
Thus, here we are confronting a rather complex and hardly studied methodological problem: which levels of biological and social processes are most congruent? What are the levels whose comparison could produce the most interesting results? In general, it seems clear that such an approach should not be a mechanical equation of ‘social organism = biological organism’ at all times and in every situation. The comparisons should be operational and instrumental. That means that we should choose the scale and level of social and biological phenomena, forms and processes that are adequate for their respective tasks.
We would say again that sometimes it is more appropriate to compare an in-
dividual biological organism with a society, whereas in other cases it could well be more appropriate to compare a society with a community (of, say, ants or bees), a colony, a population or a species. We believe that the issue of the ‘presence’ of the social ontogenesis (and its comparison with the biological ontogenesis) should be studied in this framework (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: ch. 6 for more detail). However, there are some cases when it seems more appropriate to compare social ontogenesis with biological phylogenesis. Hence, different scales and types of scientific problems need special approaches. This subject will be discussed further in the subsequent section of the present article.
Section 2. Similarities and Differences
at the Level of Evolutionary Mechanisms
1. Biological and social aromorphoses
In certain respects, it appears reasonable to consider biological and social macro-evolution as a single macro-evolutionary process. This implies the necessity to comprehend the general laws and regularities that describe this process, though their manifestations may display significant variations, depending on properties of a concrete, evolving entity (biological or social). We believe that many similarities and differences in laws and driving forces in the biological and social phases of Big History can be comprehended more effectively if we apply the concepts of biological and social aromorphosis. As our contribution to the first issue of the Evolution Almanac (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2011) was devoted to aromorphoses and their regularities, in our present article we shall restrict ourselves to a summary of some principal concepts.
Aromorphosis is understood by Russian biologists along the lines suggested by Alexey Severtsov (Severtsov A. N. 1939, 1967). As any broad biological generalization, the notion of ‘aromorphosis’ remains a bit vague; it appears difficult to define it in a perfectly rigorous and unequivocal way. As a result, a few quite reasonable definitions of aromorphosis have been proposed, for example:
1. ‘Aromorphosis is an expansion of living conditions connected with an increase in complexity of organization and vital functions’ (Ibid.).
2. ‘Aromorphosis is an increase in the organization level that makes it possible for aromorphic organisms to exist in more diverse environments in comparison with their ancestors; this makes it possible for an aromorphic taxon to expand its adaptive zone’ (Severtsov А. S. 2007: 30–31).
Among the classical examples of major biological aromorphoses, one could mention the emergence of the eukaryotic cell (see, e.g., Shopf 1981); the transition from unicellular organisms to multicellular ones that took place more than once in many lineages of unicellular eukaryotic organisms (see, e.g., Valentine 1981: 149); the transition of plants, arthropods, and vertebrates to life on dry land (see, e.g., Valentine 1981); origin of mammals from theriodonts (Tatarinov 1976); origin of Homo sapiens; etc.
The process of aromorphosis formation is called arogenesis, which is rather close to anagenesis, in the sense in which this term was originally proposed by Rensch (1959: 281–308; see also Dobzhansky et al. 1977; Futuyma 1986: 286 etc.).
The concept of aromorphosis (or its analogue) does not appear to have been worked out with respect to social macro-evolution. We believe that the adaptation of this notion for the theory of social macro-evolution could be an important step forward for the development of this theory itself, and for the general theory of macro-evolution.
The matter is, it appears difficult to understand the general course of macro-evolution and the evolutionary potential of various structural reorganizations without certain analytical tools, including appropriate classifications. Unfortunately, the research on social and cultural evolution lacks such classifications almost completely. We believe that the introduction of the notion of social aromorphosis may contribute to the development of such typologies and classifications. Thus, we believe that it may contribute to the transformation of social evolutionism into a truly ‘scientific activity of finding nomothetic explanations for the occurrence of… structural changes’ to use Claessen's (2000: 2) phrase. Moreover, one may also compare this with Ervin László's idea that the application of ‘evolution’ as the basic notion opens the way toward the rapprochement of sciences (see, e.g., László 1977).
The social aromorphosis can be defined as a universal / widely diffused social innovation that raises social systems' complexity, adaptability, integrity and interconnectedness (Grinin and Korotayev 2007a, 2009b; Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008). Social aromorphoses lead to the following results:
a) significant increases in social complexity and societies' abilities to change their natural and social environments, to raise carrying capacity, as well as
the degree of their stability against changes in their environments;
b) more rapid developmentary changes (including borrowings) that do not destroy social system;
c) increase in the degree of intersocietal integration, formation of special stable super-systems (civilizations, various alliances, etc.) and suprasocietal zones, special suprasocietal spheres that do not belong to any particular society;
d) more rapid evolution toward the formation of super-complex maximum super-systems (world-systems, the World System and, finally, humankind as a single system), in whose framework each particular social system (while remaining autonomous) becomes a component of such a super-system and develops within it, through specialization, inter-system functional differentiation.
As examples of social aromorphoses of the highest type one can mention:
origins of early systems of social kinship that created a universally convenient system of social structuration;
transition to food production that led to an immense artificial increase in the quantities of useful (for humans) biomass;
state formation that led to a qualitative transformation of all social, ethnic and political processes;
invention of writing that served as a basis for the revolution in information processing technologies involving the development of elaborate administrative systems, literature and science;
transition to iron metallurgy;
formation of developed market systems that laid the basis for the industrial revolution;
invention of computer technologies.
Each of these aromorphoses had a number of important consequences that contributed to an increase in the potential of success for the adopting societies for increasing the carrying capacity of their territories and heightening the stability of their systems. Often these aromorphoses were of evolutionary importance too.
There are some important similarities between the evolutionary algorithms of biological and social aromorphoses. Thus, it has been noticed that the basis of aromorphosis
is usually formed by some partial evolutionary change that... creates significant advantages for an organism, puts it in more favorable conditions for reproduction, multiplies its numbers and its changeability..., thus accelerating the speed of its further evolution. In those favorable conditions, the total restructurization of the whole organization takes place afterwards (Shmal'gauzen 1969: 410; see also Severtsov А. S. 1987: 64–76).
And then, in the course of adaptive radiation, those changes in organization diffuse more or less widely (frequently with significant variations).
A similar pattern is observed within social macro-evolution. An example is the invention of iron metallurgy. Iron production was practiced sporadically
in the 3rd millennium BCE, but regular production of low-grade steel began in the mid-2nd millennium BCE in Asia Minor (see, e.g., Chubarov 1991: 109) within the Hittite kingdom, which guarded its monopoly. Diffusion of iron technology led to revolutionary changes in different spheres of life: one can observe
a significant progress in plough agriculture and consequently in the agrarian system as a whole (Grinin and Korotayev 2006); an intensive development of crafts; the transformation of barbarian societies into civilizations; the formation of new types of militaries that were made up of massed forces armed with relatively cheap but effective iron weapons; the emergence of significantly more developed systems of taxation as well as information collection and processing systems that were necessary to support those armies.
In this regard, the difference between social and biological aromorphoses is similar to the difference between the overall patterns of both types of macro-evolution:12 the development of biological aromorphoses tends to contribute to an increase in biodiversity, whereas the diffusion of social aromorphoses tends (but just tends!) to lead to the replacement of more simple social forms with more complex ones. Thus, with the diffusion of iron technologies, all the societies that confronted this diffusion had to borrow iron technology, otherwise they risked being absorbed or destroyed by those societies that possessed it.
The application of the notion of biological and social aromorphosis has helped us to detect a number of regularities and rules that are common for biological and social evolution – ‘payment for the arogenic progress’, ‘special con-
ditions for the aromorphosis emergence’, and so on. Such rules and regularities are similar for both biological and social phases of Big History. However, as they have been already considered in detail in our contribution to the first issue of this Almanac, we shall not analyze them in the present article.
2. On the Peculiarities of Key Information Transmission
at Various Phases of Big History
Replication on the basis of the matrix principle is a fundamental feature of all forms of life (see, e.g., Timofeev-Ressovsky et al. 1969: 15–16). However, the process of such replication cannot be conducted with a 100 per cent accuracy; hence, the replication of a complete genome without any errors is virtually impossible. That is why the emergence of practically any new biological organism is accompanied by random change in genes (i.e., mutations). However, a significant change of the genotype occurs extremely rarely. Yet, the role of mutations in biological evolution is extremely important and very well known, because the mutations are one of the main sources providing ‘raw materials’ for evolution (see Ibid.: 72).13
However, it is important to emphasize that the number of distortions by which transmission of information is accompanied from generation to generation within social evolution (especially in complex societies) is orders of magnitude higher than that observed within biological evolution. There are grounds to maintain that the role of such ‘distortions’ in social macro-evolution tends to increase (in addition to conscious and purposeful alteration of cultural information). In the meantime, it appears that we observe just the opposite within biological macro-evolution. For example, among viruses and some bacteria, mutational variability is constantly necessary for their mere survival; on the other hand, in complex biological organisms, it is necessary only up to a very limited extent.
Within social evolution, some unconscious distortion of transmitted cultural information always takes place, which may be regarded to some extent as analogous to biological mutations.14 This, by itself, may lead to certain socio-evolutionary shifts (Korotayev 1997, 2003; Grinin and Korotayev 2007b, 2009b). However, the conscious directed alteration of the information by its carriers is significantly more important. Though many are still sure that ‘history never teaches anything to anybody’, already the elites of many complex agrarian societies quite often tried to take into account errors made by their predecessors and to modify the ‘socio-cultural genotype’ accordingly in order to avoid them in future.
One may recollect, for example, the conscious alteration of the social position of the military elite by the founders of the Sung dynasty in China (960–1279 CE), in order to prevent the military coups that jeopardized the political stability of their predecessors (Wright 2001). Similarly, there was the conscious and purposeful replacement of traditional military systems with the modernized military systems of Western Europe by Peter the Great in Russia and Muhammad Ali in Egypt (see, e.g., Grinin 2006a; Grinin and Korotayev 2009c, 2009d).
Thus, the major part of fixed socio-cultural alterations (supported by social selection) emerge not as a result of ‘random errors of copying’ (though, of course, such random errors do exist), but as a result of purposeful alteration of respective memes. Such ‘mutations’ are directional from the very beginning and do not seem to have any anologues in natural biological evolution.
3. On the Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics
The other (and perhaps even more important) difference is that, in the process of biological (but not social) evolution, the acquired characteristics are not inherited.15 That is why socio-evolutionary changes are accumulated much faster than biologically useful changes of phenotype determined by mutation processes.
Thus, because the acquired characteristics do not influence biological evolution, biological evolutionary processes go extremely slowly (in comparison with social evolution). On the other hand, within social evolution, the acquired characteristics can be inherited, and, hence, social evolution goes ‘according to Lamarck’ rather than ‘according to Darwin’. This point has been noted many times by a number of evolutionists (see, e.g., Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2006: 345–346). Consequently, social evolution proceeds much faster. In addition, as social evolution tended to go more and more ‘according to Lamarck’, it became more and more Lamarckian rather than Darwinian, which was one of the main factors for the acceleration of social evolution.
Still, it appears necessary to mention that in some rare cases one can observe the inheritance of acquired characteristics in complex biological organisms (Zhivotovsky 2002a). For example, somatic mutations may well be inherited in plants both with vegetative and sexual reproduction. In animals, viruses can insert themselves into the genome of gametes – subsequently the offspring inherit quite an ‘acquired characteristic’, the virus infection. The ability to inherit acquired characteristics is found in many plant-eating insects, in which specialized symbiotic bacteria live. Biochemical and ecological characteristics of such symbiotic complexes are determined up to a very large extent by bacteria (see, e.g., Dunbar et al. 2007).
The possibility of inheritance of acquired characteristics through special particles (pangenes) was proposed by Darwin (1883) himself. Within the genomes of complex biological organisms one can find a very large number of retropseudogenes and even working copies of genes that emerged as a result
of the ‘copying’ of genetic information from RNA molecules to the chromosome with special enzymes (such genes are characterized by the absence of introns). Thus, in biological evolution, one may observe the ‘copying’ into the genome of information on the structure of mature matrix RNA. Because the alternative splicing is quite a controlled process, regulated by the cell and subject of intermediate influence of external conditions (see, e.g., Lareau et al. 2007), mature mRNA may actually carry some (albeit rather incomplete and fragmentary) information on ‘acquired phenotypic characteristics’, and this information may be transmitted to the genome of the germ line.
The impossibility of genetic inheritance ‘according to Lamarck’ postulated by the Synthetic Theory of Evolution is because the mechanism of reverse translation does not appear to have emerged. That is why there is no way for changes that occur in an organism during its lifetime, at the level of proteins, can be recorded back into the genome.16 On the other hand, at present, we know that the phenotype at the cellular level is determined not only by proteins, but also by a great variety of functional RNAs, whereas intravital changes of those molecules may well be written into the genome because here the mechanism of reverse transcription exists and is rather widely spread in biological organisms (including complex organisms). Hence, the point is not that within the biological evolution the ‘Lamarckian’ inheritance is totally impossible; rather the point
is that such an inheritance is rather disadvantageous in most cases (see also Steele et al. 2002; Zhivotovsky 2002b). Consequently, such an inheritance is not usually an important mechanism of evolution (and, especially, of arogenic evolution).
For example, it is evident that the hereditary fixation of adaptive modifications (‘modification genocopying’) is disadvantageous in many cases. Note that this includes those very consequences of the organ exercise whose inheritance played such an important role in Lamarck's theory. In order for an adaptive modification to appear, we should observe first a genetically determined capability for such a modification (e.g., the muscles' ability to grow as a result of exercise or the lymphocytes' ability to develop immunity against new pathogens). However, if such a genetically determined ability has appeared, the firm fixation in the genotype (the genocopying) of only one of many possible versions of the final state of the trait (e.g., a precise size of a muscle or an immunity toward a specific pathogene) will not be a progressive evolutionary change; it will be a degenerative evolutionary change, accompanied by a decrease of the organic complexity and a loss of one of the ontogenetic regulatory circuits. In biological evolution, such events take place rather frequently, but this is not the arogenic evolutionary pathway.
Within social evolution, there is no significant difference in the inheritance mechanisms between those traits that have been inherited from ‘ancestral’ societies and the ones that have been acquired throughout the history of existence of a given society. There could be some insignificant difference as regards the firmness of the fixation of the respective alterations, the easiness of their acceptance, and so on, but it is impossible to say that acquired social characteristics are transmitted to new generations with significantly more difficulties (especially in complex societies).
A serious obstacle for the operation of the ‘Lamarckian’ mechanism can be seen in traditionalism, which holds negative attitudes toward innovation and glorifies everything inherited from ancestors. This was very typical for simple traditional societies. However, such attitudes have weakened in a significant way in modern complex social systems.17 This might be connected with the development of the means, methods and technologies of forecasting, which is the conscious evaluation of innovation. Forecasting makes those characteristics that might be considered dangerous or disadvantageous by traditionalists to become acceptable in a society, in particular: (1) a very low precision of the ‘memotype’ replication (the memotype concept will be dicussed in more detail below) and (2) ‘Lamarckian’ inheritance.
4. On the Nature of Hereditary Variation
Hereditary variation is a key issue in the theory of evolution. This is the issue, around which the main discussions between representatives of various schools of evolutionary thought (classical Darwinism, Synthetic Theory of Evolution, Orthogenesis, Nomogenesis, Neolamarckism and so on) are concentrated. Variation is the main material basis of evolution; its character, mechanisms, factor, and emergence rates determine to a very high extent the character of the evolutionary process. These mechanisms of variation are one of the most fundamental areas of difference between biological and social evolution.18
Starting with Darwin, biologists have based their evolutionary theories on the idea that hereditary variation is basically ‘indeterminate’ or undirected, that is, random. However, as we have noted, within biological evolution, one can still detect a trend toward a decrease of andomness, both in mutational and recombinational variation. In some sense, this trend continues into social evolution, where variation is even less random and more directed.19
As mentioned above, there are significant differences between biological and social evolution in regard to the accuracy of copying (reproduction of repli-
cators), because in general the precision of copying of genes (and, correspondingly, periods of their existence in a recognizable form) exceeds by orders of magnitude values of analogous indicators for memes. That is why ‘memetics’ (in contrast with genetics) has to deal with a much lower precision of replication and with a much higher speed of mutagenesis, though some replicators (memes) may have rather long periods of life.
For example, according to some recent estimates, roots of some most widely used words may be preserved in a recognizable form for about 10,000 (and even more) years of linguistic evolution (Pagel et al. 2007). Another example can be provided by ‘long-lived’ folklore-mythological motifs that can survive for dozens thousand years (see, e.g., Korotayev and Khaltourina 2011; Berezkin 2007; Korotayev 2006; Korotayev et al. 2006). The same can be said about a very long life of some technical methods, for example, the production of stone tools. However, it makes sense to distinguish between various types of information transmission, depending on the number of copies in which the information is stored and reproduced (as well as the forms of that reproduction).
There could be situations in which there is just a single carrier of important information. An ancient engineer could take his secrets of construction to the grave so that nobody could continue his techniques any more. There are lots of historical facts known to us from just one source; and if, in the process of transmission, there was distortion of the initial text, this could affect our current knowledge of the past. Those unique ancient books that disappeared in fire did not let us know the important information contained in them, and so on. These are examples of distortion or loss of information by functioning social systems.
It seems appropriate here to recollect the information irreplaceability principle (Lyapunov principle). According to this principle, information that has entirely disappeared cannot be reconstructed in its entirety – what can be replaced are portions of information coming from a common source (see Rautian 1988a, 1988b). We confront a different case when we deal with information that is used by numerous carriers (as in the case of the use of a mass language). In such cases, changes in a living language should not be always regarded as information distortion; we should rather speak about some drift in the use of linguistic matrices and patterns (similar to gene drift in populations), because language carriers may well know older forms, but prefer new ones. One may even observe the coexistence of persons using differently linguistic forms and lexemes (similarly within one population there could be different phenotypes). However, with time, some forms win the competition and language changes.
When we speak about the accuracy of transmission of biological information, it is necessary to take into account that biological evolution has worked out rather effective molecular mechanisms that allow for sharply reduced precision of DNA replication when necessary (for example, SOS-response among bacteria). For some primitive biological objects, such as viruses, too high a precision of replication can even be lethal; in order to successfully go through their life cycles they need very low precision of replication or, in other words, a very high rate of mutation (mutagenesis). For such organisms, evolutionary changes turn out to be necessary components of their everyday life! (Vignuzzi et al. 2005)
Generally, though, in biological evolution, replication accuracy increases rather than decreases with the growth of the organismal complexity. In this sense, the reduction of precision that is observed in the transition from biological to social evolution looks as if this were a ‘step backward’. However, this observation is rather superficial, as it does not take into account the nature of those errors that emerge in the process of replication, notably the degree of their randomness/directionality.
Within biological systems, replication errors are basically random. Taking into consideration the decrease of randomness, this may be interpreted in the following way: Nature has not developed any biological mechanisms that allow us to forecast results of concrete genetic changes and to plan them. Though a cell (for example, a lymphocyte) may ‘know’ in advance that, in order to achieve a needed result, it should alter some particular part of the genome, it, however, lacks mechanisms that would allow it to forecast results of a concrete genetic alteration.20 That is why, in the framework of biological evolution, the acceleration of adaptatio-genesis through a radical reduction of the precision of replication is a very expensive and risky strategy that can be afforded only by very primitive forms of life. The situation changes radically if the replication ‘errors’ become not random, but actually purposeful, based on forecast of the possible results of concrete changes introduced into the ‘memotype’ of a social system.
The presence of ‘directed mutations’ (in addition to undirected ones) radically distinguishes the process of ‘mutational variation’ in the evolution of memes from what is observed within the evolution of genes, where ALL the mutations are basically undirected.
That is why we believe that the difference between biological and social evolution in respect to randomness/directionality of hereditary variation is more fundamental than the differences in precision of replicator copying or mutation rate. In the process of ‘sociocultural mutagenesis’, the element of randomness is significantly smaller, because people possess the ability (albeit limited) to foresee results of certain concrete ‘mutations’. That is why human creativity (say, in development of new judicial laws or new technologies) may differ qualitatively from the ‘creativity’ of biological evolution – especially, as regards the effectiveness and the speed with which the respective results are achieved.
On the other hand, one should not exaggerate the role of conscious planning in relation to social innovation. Random search, trial and error remains very important in social evolution (Grinin 1997, 2006b, 2007a, 2011a; Korotayev 2003), although there has been a clear decreasing trend in randomness in recent centuries (see, e.g., Korotayev 1999, 2003, 2004; Korotayev, Malkov, and Khaltourina 2006; Grinin 1997, 2007a, 2009a). Thus, it is not sufficient just to have respective challenges in order that serious transformations could take place. Most societies ‘respond’ to new problems in old, habitual, tested and familiar ways, as they choose – not from a set of hypothetical alternatives – but from a set of accessible alternatives (Van Parijs 1981: 51). In other words, they use actually known measures instead of potential ones (Claessen 1989). In these situations, their behavior is often quite similar to that of social animals. Naturally, not all such ‘responses’ are effective. As a result, many societies perish, disappear or lose their independence (Grinin 2011a).
For example, after the Roman regiments were withdrawn from Britain in 410 CE, the Britons (Romanized British Celts) sought protection from the raids of their Irish and Scottish neighbors. They invited Saxons to defend them in return for plots of land in Britain. Actually, this was a variation of the very well-known Roman method ‘to use barbarians to fight barbarians’. However, the Saxons, after they had seen the Britons military weakness, stopped obeying local authorities and became masters of the country (together with Angles and Jutes). In this way, the Britons, notwithstanding their fierce and long resistance, were partly evicted, partly destroyed and partly enslaved. As a result, barbarian Anglo-Saxon states were found in place of the state of the Britons (Blair 1966: 149–168; Chadwick 1987: 71; Philippov 1990: 77).
If we take into account general historical contexts, we see that an extremely small fraction of all responses to various challenges turned out to be capable of becoming sources for system aromorphoses. This implies that most societies turned out to be incapable to move to new qualitative levels: They did not have the necessary potential for change, their construction had certain ‘defects’, the system might have been too rigid to transform easily, or some necessary conditions were lacking, and so on (Grinin 2011a, 2011b; Grinin and Korotayev 2009e).