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

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Afterword. The Formation of Social Evolution’s
Own Mechanisms

The transition from the biological to social phase of Big History was a very complex process that we do not quite understand even now. Within this transition it appears possible to speak about a phase change of a few subtypes of macro-evolution: the biological type of macro-evolution was first transformed into the biological-social type, then the biological-social type was transformed into the social-biological type; and, finally, the latter was transformed into the social type of macro-evolution already in the framework of the unequivocally human society (see Grinin and Korotayev 2009b: ch. 1 for more details).

In the course of anthropogenesis, biological macro-evolution was transformed into bio-social evolution. The discoveries of recent decades have moved the dating of the emergence of our species deep in the past to about 200,000 BP.26 However, the borderline around 50,000 – 40,000 BP still retains an immense importance. This is the point from which we can speak with a complete confidence about humans of a contemporary cultural type, in particular about the presence of full-fledged languages, as well as ‘really human’ culture (e.g., Bar-Yosef and Vandermeersch 1993: 94). There is, of course, some hypothesis that human language appeared long before 50,000 – 40,000 BP. Although this is contested by other scientists, everybody agrees that by 40,000 BP language existed wherever humans lived (e.g., Holden 1998: 1455).

Richard Klein, an anthropologist from Stanford University proposes the following hypothesis to explain the gap between the emergence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens and the emergence of language and cultural artifacts that took place much later. According to Klein, the modern brain is a result of rapid genetic changes. He hypothesizes that such changes took place around 50,000 BP, pointing out that the affluence of cultural artifacts starts just after that date, as well as the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa (see Zimmer 2003: 41ff.). Thus, the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens did not automatically result in social macro-evolution proper.

We believe that the evolutionary driving forces were still mostly biological when modern humans first emerged, but that the social forces gradually increased their importance and prevailed over the biological ones at a certain point. Naturally, this was a rather prolonged process, within which the breakthrough point could hardly be identified. We contend that the social component became dominant after 50,000 – 40,000 BP. However, it did not become absolutely dominant, as biological adaptation and physical anthropological transformation continued in many important ways. The point is that they did not disappear, but their role significantly decreased.27

This transition to modern human society is sometimes denoted as the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. If we use the title of the book by Mellars and Stringer (1989), we may call this radical transformation: The Human Revolution. Thus, starting with the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, we may speak about the transition from socio-biological evolution to social evolution, a process that was finalized by the Agrarian Revolution.

There were not many major aromorphoses in the hunter-gatherer epoch (Grinin 2006b, 2009a), which is why the overall rates of socio-evolutionary processes were slow and their directionality rather vague. Such a type of social macro-evolution may be denoted as socio-natural. As a result of a system of inter-related aromorphoses connected with the agrarian revolution, one could observe the transition to the socio-historical type of macro-evolution. As a result of this, social macro-evolution changed its algorithm in a rather significant way, resulting in modification of certain evolutionary laws. We shall consider below how the significance of laws of evolution and the process of social macro-evolution changed as a result of the Agrarian Revolution.

Main factors of social change in foraging societies were the result of adaptation to new and various environments – from the deserts of Australia to the pack ice of the Arctic. This was only possible through the modification of socio-cultural systems. This made it possible for humans to people most of the world's landmass, to create an enormous variety of tools and crafts, as well as social and other institutions. Effective adaptations let people not only survive, but also live ‘comfortable’ lives that Sahlins (1972) called the original affluent society.

The character of human relations with their environment varied significantly, but generally these were ones of human adaptation to the natural world (see, e.g., Leonova and Nesmeyanov 1993; see also Grinin 2006b: 82–83).

In the agrarian epoch, the character of those inter-relations changed significantly through the transition to much more conscious and effective change of the environments at a rather wide scale (irrigation, clearing of forests, plowing of steppes, soil fertilization, construction of cities, roads and so on). Natural forces (animal, wind and water energy) started to be used on a much wider scale (earlier humans actively used only fire). Natural raw materials started to be transformed into entirely new products (metals, fabrics, ceramics, glass).

Thus, within social evolution process a more and more significant role started to be played by peculiarly social factors that (in contrast with natural factors) are connected to conscious goal-setting and goal-achieving. Gradually, with economic-technological progress, the growth of surplus accumulation capacities, as well as general cultural complexity of social systems, their evolution became almost purely social. As a result, the ‘vector’ of evolutionary selection turned out to be directed toward societal capabilities to adapt to social (rather than natural) environments, which implies the capacity to compete with neighboring social systems in economic, military, commercial, cultural, ideological and other spheres.

Finally, we would like to mention the following important changes in the ‘algorithm’ of social evolution:

  • The start of the mechanism for resource accumulation.

In the tens of thousands of years of the human foraging epoch, long-term material resource accumulation was relatively insignificant when compared to subsequent epochs. There was, of course, a certain amount of accumulation, of knowledge, traditions and technologies, albeit at a limited scale. This accumulation took place not in every society, but was observed on the global stage and was due to the overall demographic growth, increase in numbers of social systems, emergence of new tools, products, etc. There was practically no special accumulation sector prior to the Agrarian Revolution28 (see in particular Artzrouni and Komlos 1985; Grinin 2007b).

In many cases, people could produce more than they actually needed, and sometimes even so-called ‘original affluent societies’ could emerge (Sahlins 1972). For example, with respect to the gatherers of sago in New Guinea, people would spend a minor part of their time securing food for themselves, whereas they would spend the rest of the time at other activities and leisure (Shnirel'man 1983, 1989). The impossibility to accumulate and/or the absence of the desire to accumulate slowed down development, which contributed to the slow speed of social evolution (Grinin 2006b, 2009a). In simple social systems of agriculturalists and pastoralists, the emergence of the possibility (and, later, the desire) to accumulate led to numerous transformations in the spheres of functional differentiation, distribution, social stratification, exchange, trade, development of property relationships, increasing political complexity and so on.

  • Strengthening of the ability of social systems to change.

Agrarian societies turned out to be more capable of serious social transformations than hunter-gatherers, while complex agrarian societies turned out to be much more capable of such transformations than simple agriculturalist and pastoralist systems. The growth of social systems' ability to change provides a vivid demonstration of the main difference between social and biological evolution – that humans were capable of consciously transforming their social systems, with preconceived goals.

  • Intersocietal contacts become the leading factor of social evolution.

The importance of various contacts increased sharply, and this contributed to a more active adaptation of social systems to their environments. The growth of the role of contacts dramatically raised the importance of external social driving forces (Grinin 1997–2001 [1997/2: 23]; 2007a: 177). Note that this had an enormous importance for the development of the World System and for humankind as a whole. Military and other interactions stimulated improvements in administration, defense, culture, technology and so on. All this contributed to development of a single global process involving numerous societies and peoples.

It is also appropriate to note that the growth of societal size is not only due to natural demographic growth, but is more importantly due to the integration and unification of social systems. Thus, external contact factors become most important with respect to societal evolution.


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