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10 Biological and Social Phases of Big History: Similarities and Differences of Evolutionary Principles and Mechanisms

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5. The Ability to Borrow and the Horizontal Exchange of Genetic Information

These facts illustrate a rather strange situation. There are similarities in biological and social evolution, such as the transmission of information, variability, community complexity, etc. However, these similarities occur at the lower stages of biological evolution (involving simple biological organisms), whereas they are absent in higher stages of biological evolution (involving complex biological organisms).21

One of the main differences between social and biological evolution is the ability of social systems to not just change and transform, but also to borrow new elements. However, in this respect, social evolution resembles the biological processes that prevailed during the epoch of the ‘prokaryotic biosphere’ (and those processes continue up to the present among prokaryotes and monocellular eukaryotes). Among the prokaryotes, we find the ability to ‘transform naturally’ – to absorb DNA from the environment and to insert it into their genome, which leads to an immediate transformation of the phenotype. There is also, of course, a significant difference between this biological and social analogue: in society the borrowings are usually made consciously.

Horizontal gene transfer produces many useful genetic ‘inventions’, a sort of commons for microbe communities. For example, communities of marine planktonic microbes use the genes of proteorhodopsins – proteins that allow them to partly utilize sunlight. In contrast to the proteins that participate in real photosynthesis, proteorhodopsins do not need the help of many other specialized proteins. Thus, in order to acquire a useful function, it is sufficient for a microorganism to borrow a single gene (Frigaard et al. 2006).

Complex borrowing of entire gene systems is observed much less frequently, but when they occur, they have more significant consequences. An original and wide-spread version of such ‘borrowing’ results in the emergence of symbiotic systems, which sometimes actually leads to the formation of a new organism out of several other organisms. The role of such systems is often underestimated, but all functioning of the modern biosphere is based on them.

There are many examples. Terrestrial plants would not have been able to achieve evolutionary success without symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Herbivorous animals, both insects and vertebrates, are unable to digest plant food without symbiosis with specialized microorganisms. Indeed, the principle ecological, biospheric role of animals is precisely to process plant food!

In highly complex biological organisms, in contrast to social organisms and human societies, large-scale ‘borrowings’ in the form of symbiotic relations or alien genetic material rarely take place, but many of the most important aromorphoses are connected just with them.

6. Analogues of ‘Suprasocietal Institutions’ in Biological

Let us come back to the question: Are there analogues of such structures in the evolution of the biosphere? The answer will depend on the level of the biosphere's system organization. Society is frequently compared with biological organisms, but – in this case – we are comparing supra-societal amalgamations with supra-organic systems: populations, species, ecosystems, groups of social animals, and so on. However, this is probably not quite an appropriate scale of analysis, so we need to compare suprasocietal institutions of a global scale (like the United Nations) with biological objects of immeasurably smaller scale, e.g., with particular ‘casts’ of the ant family.22

At any scale, it is difficult to find good analogies to the formation of suprasocietal institutions within biological evolution. This becomes even more evident if we compare societies, not with organisms, but with supra-organic biological systems (e.g., populations or species). Although those biological systems (like societies) can amalgamate into systems of a higher order (ecosystems or the biosphere), these higher-order systems are not centralized but are weakly integrated – nothing like supra-societal institutions as the World Health Organization, UNESCO, or even a complex tribal confederation with its own supra-tribal regulation organs. For example, one can observe the formation of rather complex links between species in ecosystems; certain key species may produce a decisive influence on other species in the community, but this does not result in the formation of any ‘supra-species institutions’.

On the one hand, it is possible to see in this comparison one of the fundamental differences between social and biological macro-evolution. On the other hand, some biological analogues of ‘suprasocietal institutions’ did emerge. In the Holocene (the last 10,000 years, starting with the Agrarian Revolution), human societies developed suprasocietal institutions. In the course of the socio-biological evolution of the resulting ‘anthroposphere’, we observe a parallel growth in the integration of humankind and integration and coordination of evolutionary changes of biological populations, species and ecosystems. In other words, the development of the global human community (the World System) may be regarded as a factor of integration of biological evolution at its upper level.

Thus, social and biological evolution are related processes that supplement and maintain each other. Indeed, there is a tendency toward their fusion into a single complex process, one leading to the development of an ‘anthropo-biosphere’. In this respect, it appears to be possible to speak about the co-evolution of biological and social development.

7. On the Role of Selection in Biological and Social

The role of selection in social evolution differs significantly from the one in biological evolution. In the biological world, the main source of stable, heritable innovations (mutational and recombinational variation) is characterized by a high degree of randomness and unpredictability. Although, of course, it is also necessary to take into consideration all the above-mentioned qualifications about the means of optimization. In this situation, ‘post factum selection’, the selection among the deviations that have already emerged and have found their realization in the phenotype, becomes the only way to give the process a certain directionality (in this case – to secure the additive character of changes).

In the social world, the main sources of heritable innovations are not random errors of copying and reproduction but conscious and purposeful correction and alteration of memes. However, such purposefulness is unable to foresee not only all the consequences of its actions but even the near consequences. That is why intentional actions may appear random. Throughout human history, failures of some societies have been a sort of payment for the success of others (what we denote as ‘a rule of payment for the arogenic progress’), from which the role of selection in the search for successful aromorphic variants acquires an especially important meaning (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2011; Grinin 1997, 2007a; Grinin and Korotayev 2009b). Societies frequently confront such situations when an old system does not work. Those who do not change or look for more effective means perish.

Selection at the gene/meme level plays a less important role in social evolution than it does in biological evolution. However, selection in social evolution takes place not so much at the level of memes but more at the level of organizations, institutions and social systems. At the level of inter-societal competition, until recently, social selection acted in an especially tough way: ‘the victor gets more or everything; the defeated may lose himself’ (Grinin 2003, 2004, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011a, 2011b). So, this is a selection mechanism that is rather different from the one found in biological evolution.

One more important aspect of social selection that is absent in biological evolution is the struggle for the selection of a certain model (model of reforms, model of unification, ideological model) at the level of individual societies, as well as at the inter-societal level. Everywhere, we can observe the selection of leaders, models, courses, central positions and so on. The decisive advantage could be rather different in different cases. In some cases, this could be a very capable and talented leader; in others this could be an advantageous geographic position; in still other situations this could be just a lucky contingency.

Thus, although we are dealing with rather different mechanisms of selection in biological and social evolution, their roles are very important in both cases. Still, within biological evolution, selection process is more important, because there is no alternative, whereas such an alternative exists within social evolution.

Section 3. Some Preconditions of the Transition from Biological to Social Macro-evolution

1. Social evolution as a logical result of the development of adaptiogenesis mechanisms

In addition to what has been already said about the organic links between biological and social evolution, one should consider another aspect of adaptiogenesis. The process of adaptation that constitutes the principal contents of biological evolution may proceed at different levels: 1) the organism structure; 2) its behavior; 3) structure and behavior of a socium as a superorganic amalgamation.

At all those levels, one may observe the transition from primary, primitive and slow methods of adaptiogenesis based on random mutations, recombination and selection to more progressive, effective and rapid ways of evolutionary change. Not only organisms, species and societies evolve; mechanisms of evolution evolve too. The general direction of this evolutionary movement may be characterized as a trend to the reduction of the role of random processes and the growth of systematic controlled processes. The initial and primary evolutionary algorithm is the random search, the trial-and-error method. However, at all levels of adaptiogenesis, one may observe a gradual development of such mechanisms that decrease the role of randomness and, thus, optimize this algorithm; though it appears impossible to exclude entirely an element of randomness either from biological or from social evolution.

1) The organism structure level. Even at the basic level of biochemistry, physiology and morphology, many forms of life have developed ways of adaptiogenesis that are faster and more effective than the random search conducted according to the scheme of ‘random mutations + selection’. One of these mechanisms is regulation of the mutagenesis rate, depending on available conditions: under favorable conditions, the mutagenesis rate is low; in unfavorable conditions it increases (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: ch. 6, §6.8).

It is also appropriate to mention epigenetic changes of hereditary material that are transmitted to a number of generations, in particular parental genomic imprinting that became especially developed in the most complex organisms, such as mammals and flowering plants (Jablonka and Lamb 1999). Imprinting is actually a sort of purposeful manipulation of hereditary properties of offspring. With the maturation of male and female gametes, certain parts of the genome are marked in a special way, for example through methylation. The methylation of DNA is not a chaotic process but is regulated by complex molecular systems. What is especially important is that methylation of particular nucleotides increases the probability of their mutating. Thus, through the methylation (or non-methylation) of particular nucleotides, the cell can in principle regulate the probability of their mutation (Vanyushin 2004).

Another example of the purposeful change of hereditary information is provided by the development of adaptive (acquired) immunity through combining genetic blocks, subsequent somatic hypermutation, and clonal selection. Both the combining of DNA fragments (V-(D)-J recombination) and hyper-mutation are processes that are only partly random. In other words, the limits of randomness in this case are rather accurately demarcated (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: ch. 4, §4.2.4). The combination of DNA fragments is conducted from a precisely defined set and the hyper-mutation takes place at a rather accurately demarcated part of a gene, while the selection of lymphocyte clones makes the whole process unequivocally directional. As a result, the final outcome of such a ‘sequence of random events’ turns out to be quite deterministic.

Such a mechanism may be designated as ‘optimized random search’.23 Note that in the case of the acquired immunity, from a ‘technical’ point of view, the achieved result may well be transmitted to the offspring, for example, via the mechanism of reverse transcription and transmission of the genetic material from lymphocytes to gametes through endogenous retroviruses (Steele et al. 2002). However, this does not happen, because it is more advantageous to transmit not a concrete immunity to a particular pathogen to the offspring but a universal capability to develop immunity against any pathogen.

In general, such mechanisms of purposeful genome alteration do not have a universal presence in biological organisms, and the overwhelming majority of mutations take place in a quite random way.

Biologists rarely consider that assortative (selective) mating, mediated sometimes through extremely complex mechanisms of mate-choice, is nothing but an extremely effective mechanism for management of recombinational variation. However, in the real biological world, absolutely unselective, random mating is hardly ever observed. Indeed, random mating is a scientific abstraction, like an ‘ideal gas’, or an ‘absolutely dark body’. With growth in the level of organization of biological organisms, the complexity and effectiveness of mate-choice also grew, whereas the recombinational variation became less random as a result.

2) Level of individual behavior. One can trace the transition from predominantly hereditary and genetically determined behavioral patterns to more flexible learning-based ones. As we saw above, in the case of immunity, it was more advantageous to transmit to the offspring a universal capability to ‘learn’ instead of a rigidly determined means of resistance to a particular pathogen. In an analogous way, in the general course of evolution, it has turned out to be more advantageous to transmit the ability to learn rather than to transmit rigidly fixed behavioral stereotypes.24 No doubt, the emergence of the capability to learn is a major aromorphosis, though it is very stretched over time. Even unicellular organisms have some inchoate abilities to learn (sensitization, habituation), let alone such highly organized animals as ants or bees.

3) Biological socium level (social adaptiogenesis). A wide variety of living organisms – from bacteria to mammals – lead a social way of life. The socium as a whole has certain system characteristics that can be more or less adaptive (Popov 2006). Here, we also observe the transition from rigidly genetically determined forms of social relationships to more flexible versions, within which
a social system may adequately (adaptively) react to changes in its environment. For example, the size of subsidiary colonies of an anthill may change in a reasonable, that is, adaptive way, depending on resource availability (Zakharov 1978: 49). However, in general, for all the pre-human forms of life, such possibilities are limited. The human development of the ability to evolve socially, which implies the possibility of an almost limitless change in the structure of social systems, appears to be a natural (though qualitatively higher) continuation of this evolutionary trend.

2. One of the ‘Preadaptations’ that Facilitated the Transition from Biological to Social Evolution

The issue of how biological evolution transformed into social evolution is among the most important questions of Big History and Evolutionary Studies. What ‘preadaptations’ were needed for the transition from biological to social evolution? This is a very complex subject. And here we shall restrict ourselves to consideration of just one of those preconditions.

Social macro-evolution became possible due to the emergence of an uniquely human ability denoted as ‘ultra-sociality’ (Boyd and Richerson 1996). This is only found among humans and designates the ability to change their social organization radically and almost limitlessly in response to internal and external challenges. Only humans are capable of forming collectivities that could be entirely different as regards their structure, their traditions, their norms of behavior, their modes of subsistence, their systems of intragroup relationships, their family types, etc.

Whatever the complexity of the collectivities of non-human primates, they do not have such flexibility. Each species usually has only one type of social organization; some cultural differences are observed, but they are incomparable with the ones observed in Homo sapiens sapiens. Yet, some animals possess a limited ability to adaptively change the structure of their socium. For example, in disadvantageous circumstances, one may observe growth in the rigidity of social hierarchy (the ‘power vertical’), whereas the relationships become more egalitarian under more favorable conditions. Sometimes the transition to a social way of life occurs during unfavorable conditions, whereas the same animals may return to solitary life with improvement of conditions (Popov 2006). Those adaptive modifications of social structure in animal communities are still significantly inferior in their scale to what is observed in human societies; in addition, among other animals, they are characterized by a much higher degree of predictability.

The emergence of ultra-sociality was a natural result of the preceding co-development of intellect and social relations among our ancestors. The progressive development of the brain and intellectual capacities in primates is inseparably linked with a social way of life – with the necessity to predict actions of other members of their group, to manipulate them, to learn from them, to achieve an optimum combination of altruism and egoism in their behavior. At present, this is the point of view of the majority of primatologists (e.g., Byrne and Whiten 1988; Byrne and Bates 2007).

The idea that the primates intellect developed first of all for, say, effective search for fruit (the ‘ecological intellect hypothesis’) does not now have many supporters. It cannot explain why primates need such a large brain, if many other animals, such as squirrels, perfectly manage similar tasks, though their brain remains small. In contrast, the ‘social intellect hypothesis’ is supported by facts. Scientists have detected a significant positive correlation between brain size in primates and the size of their social groups (Dunbar 2003). It is necessary to note that primates (in contrast to the majority of other social animals) know all the members of their group ‘by sight’ and have particular relationships with each of them. There are grounds to maintain that individualized pair relationships are the most intellectually ‘resource-intensive’ (Dunbar and Shultz 2007).

A positive feedback appears to have existed between the development of a social intellect and the growth of complexity in social relationships of hominids.25 Those individuals that managed to achieve a higher status within a social hierarchy, due to a higher intellect or a better ability to foresee actions of others, left more numerous offspring, which in turn led to the general intellectual growth of the socium. As a result, in subsequent generations, in order to move up the social ladder, it was necessary for individuals to possess an even more developed social intellect, and so on.

Interesting experimental facts have been recently obtained. They indicate that intellectual abilities of a ‘social’ character, which allow for resolution of social tasks, developed in our ancestors earlier in comparison with the intellectual capabilities of the other types (e.g., the ones that allow to solve ‘physical’ and instrumental tasks) (Herrmann et al. 2007).

In order to function effectively in a complex, constantly changing socio-cultural environment, our pre-human ancestors had to develop intellectual abilities of a rather concrete type: abilities of effective communication, learning and – most importantly – of understanding not only actions, but also thoughts and desires of members of their groups (Vygotsky 1978). It is quite evident that abilities of this kind should become apparent in early childhood, in the period of active learning and social adaptation. There are two alternative hypotheses about possible mechanisms in the evolutionary development of these social abilities.

The first hypothesis suggests that they emerged as a result of the uniform development of the intellect as a whole (general intelligence hypothesis).

The second suggests that this was the directed development of specific socially-oriented abilities, whereas all the other abilities (such as abilities to think logically, to detect cause-and-effect links in the physical world, and so on) developed later, as something additional and secondary. This is called the cultural
intelligence hypothesis
(Barkow et al. 1992; Shettleworth 1998; Herrmann
et al. 2007).

At first glance, the general intelligence hypothesis looks more plausible, but, it is also possible to provide evidence in support of the cultural intelligence hypothesis. For example, it is known that specific intellectual abilities develop locally in many animals, but their overall intellectual level does not grow (or grows insignificantly). One can mention, for example, the birds' unique orientation abilities (Shettleworth 1998). Special experiments have been conducted in order to test these hypotheses.

The experiments were based on the following reasoning: If the cultural intelligence hypothesis is true, then there should be an age in the individual development of humans when we are not different in our ‘physical’ intellect from the apes, even though we are already far above them in our ‘cultural-social’ intellect. Experiments have confirmed the cultural intellect hypothesis: it turns out that 2.5 year old children have the same level of development as adult chimpanzees and orangutans in respect to solving physical tasks (spatial, quantitative, detection of cause-and-effect relationships, and so on), but they are significantly superior as regards the effectiveness with which they solve tasks of
a social nature, such as those connected with the prediction of others' actions, communication, learning, and so on (Herrmann et al. 2007).

In general, present-day anthropological data suggests the following:

1) The development of social relationships and intellectual abilities in the higher primates (in general) and the hominids (in particular) proceeded within a single evolutionary process that was accelerated by the above-mentioned positive feedback;

2) This process tended to lead to the growth of complexity and flexibility of social relationships. Thus, the development of ultra-sociality and the ability to evolve socially within one of the groups of primates was a natural and logical result of the development of a trend that started among the primates long before the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens.

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