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Social Evolution and History. Vol. 8. 2. September 2009. Special Issue Analyses of Cultural Evolution (Guest editor Herbert Barry III).

Aromorphoses in biological
аnd social evolution:
Some general rules for Biological
and social Forms of macroevolution

Leonid E. Grinin

Volgograd Center for Social Research

Alexander V. Markov

Paleontological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow

Andrey V. Korotayev

Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow

The comparison between biological and social macroevolution is
a very important (though insufficiently studied) subject whose analysis renders new significant possibilities to comprehend the processes, trends, mechanisms, and peculiarities of each of the two types of macroevolution. Of course, there are a few rather important (and very understandable) differences between them; however, it appears possible to identify a number of fundamental similarities. One may single out at least three fundamental sets of factors determining those similarities. First of all, those similarities stem from the fact that in both cases we are dealing with very complex non-equilibrium (but rather stable) systems whose principles of functioning and evolution are described by the General Systems' Theory, as well as by a number of cybernetic principles and laws.

Secondly, in both cases we do not deal with isolated systems; in both cases we deal with a complex interaction between systems of organic systems and external environment, whereas the reaction of systems to external challenges can be described in terms of certain general principles (that, however, express themselves rather differently within the biological reality, on the one hand, and within the social reality, on the other).

Thirdly, it is necessary to mention a direct ‘genetic’ link between the two types of macroevolution and their mutual influence.

It is important to emphasize that the very similarity of the principles and regularities of the two types of macroevolution does not imply their identity. Rather significant similarities are frequently accompanied by enormous differences. For example, genomes of the chimpanzees and the humans are very similar – with differences constituting just a few per cent; however, there are enormous differences with respect to intellectual and social differences of the chimpanzees and the humans hidden behind the apparently ‘insignificant’ difference between the two genomes.

Thus, in certain respects it appears reasonable to consider the biological and social macroevolution as a single macroevolutionary 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 one).
An important notion that may contribute to the improvement of
the operationalization level as regards the comparison between the two types of macroevolution is the one that we suggested some time ago – the social aromorphosis (that was developed as a counterpart to the notion of biological aromorphosis well established within Russian evolutionary biology). We regard social aromorphosis as a rare qualitative macrochange that increases in a very significant way complexity, adaptability, and mutual influence of the social systems, that opens new possibilities for social macrodevelopment. In our paper we discuss a number of regularities that describe biological and social macroevolution and that employ the notions of social and biological aromorphosis such as ones of
the module evolution (or the evolutionary ‘block assemblage’), ‘payment for arogenic progress’ etc.


The discussions among the evolutionists on the possibilities and limits of the application of the Darwinian theory to the study of social evolution have been going for more than a century and a half (on the recent discussions see e.g., Hallpike 1986; Pomper and Shaw 2002; Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland 2006; Aunger 2006; Barkow 2006; Blackmore 2006; Mulder, McElreath, and Schroeder 2006; Borsboom 2006; Bridgeman 2006; Cronk 2006; Dennett and McKay 2006; Fuentes 2006; Kelly et al. 2006; Kincaid 2006; Knudsen and Hodgson 2006; Lyman 2006; Mende and Wermke 2006; O'Brien 2006; Pagel 2006; Read 2006; Reader 2006; Sopher 2006; Tehrani 2006; Wimsatt 2006). We have already analyzed some approaches connected with the comparison between biological and social evolution; we have also expressed our own position on this point (Grinin and Korotayev 2007, 2009; Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: 145–152). Unfortunately, in most cases we observe an excessive polarization of positions, some of which imply an almost total rejection of the Darwinian theory applicability to the study of social evolution (see e.g., Hallpike 1986), whereas the opposite camp insists that the cultural evolution demonstrates all the key Darwinian evolutionary traits and that is why the structure of the research in cultural evolution should share all the fundamental traits of the structure of the research in biological evolution (Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2006). We believe that we need now somehow different approaches that are more constructive and more congruent with current trend toward interdisciplinary science.

At the present-day level of scientific development we need such approaches that allow seeing macroevolution at a transdisciplinary scale, such approaches that both secure the operationalization of the employed terminology and theoretical statements, and do not reduce one form of the macroevolution to another1. In other words, the activities aimed at the unification of the research tools with respect to various types of macroevolution should not be mechanical. In this article we try to present some of such research tools that can help to work out such approaches that could be common for both biological and social macroevolution.

In this article we discuss a group of ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ that can be applied to the both types of macroevolution. In the meantime we try to demonstrate not only similarities in those rules, but also significant differences that we confront when applying them to biological evolution, on the one hand, and social evolution, on the other.

When we speak about macroevolutionary rules, we imply that they do not denote any sorts of rigid functional dependencies and relationships that must be observed in all the phenomena of a given class; they rather denote some principles or trends that tend to be supported empirically and that, consequently, allow to provide more adequate explanations for complex processes and pheno-
mena, which would be accounted for in a worse or less complete way if those rules were not taken into account (see also e.g., Chernykh 1986).

We denote as a scientific law a certain statement (that can be expressed both verbally and mathematically), which is produced on the basis of generalization of a set of phenomena of a certain class on the basis of common approach, logic and rules of interpretation and which maintain that something will take place (or will not take place) in this or that degree of completeness under rigorously identified conditions (see e.g., Grinin 2006; Grinin and Korotayev 2007, 2009; Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008: 8–9).

All the analyzed rules are connected with the transition of biological and social systems to new qualitative levels or with ‘newness’ (see e.g., Rautian 2006; Nikolis and Prigozhin 1979, 2003; Eygen and Vinkler 1979; Ebeling, Engel', and Faystel' 2001; Prigozhin 2002; Glensdorf and Prigozhin 2003; Prigozhin and Stengers 2003; Ebeling 2004).

We have presented a more or less complete system of evolutionary rules, laws, and principles in our monograph (Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008, 2009). In this article we single out first of all those rules and laws of macroevolution that are connected with the most important evolutionary changes (as regards the increase in proximate and ultimate potential and advantages of biological and social taxa) that (following a number of biologists) we denote as aromorphoses.

Biological and Social Aromorphoses

Thus, one of the important terms that we use in this article is aromorphosis. The aromorphosis is understood by Russian biologists along the lines suggested by 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. Initially, aromorphosis was understood as such a direction of evolution, within which the biological flourishing of a group is achieved through morphophysiological progress (Ibid.), whereas the ‘biological flourishing’ of a group can be estimated using such measures as levels of achieved diversity, biomass, and numbers. As regards ‘morphophysiological progress’, Severtsov assigned this role to the increase in energy of vital functions. However, later such an ‘energy-centered’ approach was criticized as too one-sided (Tatarinov 1976). Shmal'gauzen (1969) emphasized the importance of such a criterion (or symptom) of aromorphosis as the growth of organization complexity that is tightly connected with the expansion of conditions of existence and increase in their complexity.

The importance of ‘ecological’ component of aromorphosis (expansion of adaptive zones and conditions of existence) has been underlined by a number of researchers. As a result a few quite reasonable definitions of the 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 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 lines of unicellular eukaryotic organisms [see e.g., Walentein 1981: 149]), the transition of plants, arthropoda, and vertebrates to life on dry land (see e.g., Walentein 1981), origins of mammals from theriodonts (Tatarinov 1976), origins of Homo sapiens sapiens etc.

The process of aromorphosis formation is called arogenesis that 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 notion of ‘aromorphosis’ (or its analogue) does not appear to have been worked out with respect to social evolution. We believe that the adaptation of this notion for the theory of social evolution could be an important step forward for the development
of this theory itself, and for the general theory of macroevolution. We tend to agree with Claessen's proposal to consider macroevolution as ‘the process by which structural reorganization is affected through time, eventually producing a form or structure which is qualitatively different from the ancestral form’ (Claessen 2000b: 2). Though this definition belongs to Voget (1975: 862), yet this was Claessen who supports this definition most systematically in the realm of sociocultural anthropology (Claessen and van de Velde 1982: 11ff.; 1985: 6ff.; 1987: 1; Claessen 1989: 234; 2000a; Claessen and Oosten 1996; see also e.g., Collins 1988: 12–13; Sanderson 2007). If we base ourselves on this definition, then we can interpret social macroevolution as a process of structural reorganization of societies and institutions, as a result of which we observe the formation of such a structure that is qualitatively different from the ancestral structure and that usually gives to a respective society some advantage in its interaction with natural and social environments in the present or in the future.

However, it appears difficult to understand the general course of macroevolution 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 entirely. 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 [2000b: 2] phrase; 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 (see Grinin and Kortayev 2007, 2009; Grinin, Markov, and Korotayev 2008).

Social aromorphoses lead to the following results:

a) significant increases in social complexity and the 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) the increase in the degree of intersocietal integration, formation of special stable supersystems (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 supercomplex maximum supersystems (world-systems, the World System, and, finally, the humankind as a single system) in whose framework each particular social system (while remaining autonomous) becomes a component of such a supersystem and develops within it through specialization, the intersystem functional differentiation.

Within the process of social macroevolution, a certain role is played by aromorphoses of all levels; yet, we believe that an especially important role is played by aromorphoses possessing characteristics (c) and (d), as they belong to aromorphoses of the highest type that influenced not only the historical fate of particular societies, but also the course of historical process as a whole.

As examples of social aromorphoses of the highest type one can mention:

  • formation of the egalitarian food-sharing system among the early humans that increased the human adaptability to natural environments and stability of human communities in the most significant way;

  • 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;

  • introduction of developed irrigation systems that established an economic basis for early civilizations and states;

  • formation of cities (the further urbanization process also included many important arogenic sociocultural changes);

  • development of the social division of labor that secured
    the elaboration of crafts, trade, administration, and culture;

  • state formation that led to a qualitative transformation of all the 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, science;

  • transition to iron metallurgy;

  • formation of world religions that made it possible to draw together culturally, ideologically, and ethnically hundreds of previously alien peoples and societies;

  • invention of book-printing that triggered the second information revolution;

  • formation of science of a new type – mathematically-based science that lead to a radical increase in productive innovations;

  • formation of developed market systems that laid the basis for the industrial revolution;

  • invention of computer technologies.

Each of those aromorphoses had a number of various (and frequently very evolutionary important) consequences that generally contributed to the increase in the potential of respective societies as regards carrying capacity of their territories and stability of their systems.

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 favorite 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 macroevolution. An example is the invention of iron metallurgy. As is well known, the iron production was practiced sporadically already in the 3rd millennium BCE; however, the regular production of low-grade steel actually began in the mid 2nd millennium BCE somewhere in Asia Minor (see e.g., Chubarov 1991: 109) within the Hittite kingdom that guarded its monopoly. However, the very technology of iron production was still rather primitive and it did not secure to its owner any overwhelming advantages. The fall of the Hittite Kingdom led to the end of this monopoly and made it possible for the iron production technology to diffuse (Grakhov 1977: 17; Brey and Тramp 1990: 82; Giorgadze 2000: 122–123; Dyakonov 2004: 400). One could observe a process that was similar to what is called ‘adaptive radiation’ in biology. In the first half of the 1st millennium BCE the technologies of iron production and processing (yet, with some significant variations connected, among other things, with different types of ores and fuels) diffused within the whole of the Middle East and most of Europe, and then throughout the whole Afroeurasian world-system (Chubarov 1991: 109, 114; Grakhov 1977: 21; Kolosovskaya and Shkunaev 1988: 211–212; Davis 2005: 61; Zlatkovskaya 1971: 47). Diffusion of the iron industry led to revolutionary changes in different spheres of life: one could observe a significant progress in plough agriculture (and consequently in the agrarian system as a whole); an intensive development of crafts; the transformation of barbarian societies into civilizations; the formation of new types of armies (that is, the mass ones armed with relatively cheap but effective iron weapons); the emergence of significantly more developed systems of taxation (and, hence, information collection and processing systems) that were necessary to support those armies.

There are both significant similarities and significant differences between biological and social macroevolution; their analysis goes out of the scope of the present article (this analysis has been undertaken by us earlier: Grinin and Коrоtаyev 2007, 2009; Grinin, Markov, and Коrоtаyev 2008). It appears sufficient to mention one such difference that seems to be the most fundamental: the biological evolution is predominantly additive/cumulative, whereas

the social evolution is predominantly displacing. In this regard the difference between social and biological aromorphoses is similar
to the difference between the overall patterns of both types of macroevolution: the development of biological aromorphoses tends to contribute to the 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 this technology, otherwise they risked to be absorbed or destroyed by those societies that possessed this technology.

Let us consider now what can be regarded as main criteria of biological aromorphosis, and whether those criteria fit social aromorphoses. By now the following criteria have been suggested:

1) the growth of organization level (increase in organization complexity) that is frequently accompanied by the growth of
the ‘general energy of vital functions’ – a morphophysiological or structural-functional criterion;

2) the expansion of conditions of existence, the increase in independence of the organism from the fluctuations of external environments (in historical perspective this corresponds more or less to the expansion of the adaptive zone) – an ecological criterion;

3) ‘biolological flourishing’, or ‘biological progress’ that is achieved, according to A. N. Severtsov, through the first two points. The extent of biological progress can be estimated taking into consideration increases in morphophysiological, taxonomic, and ecological diversity, in numbers of organisms, and the overall biomass of the respective group. Due to biological progress, one can observe a wide diffusion of traits acquired by an aromorphic taxon – a biological criterion.

It is clear that all those criteria are not quite rigorous, and criteria 2 and 3 can be only applied in retrospect.

On the other hand, all the three criteria are quite applicable to many social aromorphoses. One can take as an example the creation of irrigation systems that secured a basis for civilizations, states (and their analogues) in the valleys of large rivers first in the Middle East (since the 4th millennium BCE), and then in some other regions (in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE). It is well known that this basis secured a vigorous demographic growth and a qualitative growth of complexity of social systems (Criterion 1).

The irrigation secured the development of extensive food storage, as well as systems of social exchange and (to a certain extent) social insurance. All these expanded the conditions of existence, increased radically the degree of independence of social organisms from the fluctuations of external ecological (and even social) environments (Criterion 2). The very fact of rather long periods of existence of Middle Eastern (and other irrigation-based) civilizations (as well as some states of this group) can be regarded as evidence for this.

Finally, on the basis of the two above-mentioned points we can observe an undeniable flourishing and expansion of irrigation civilization (Criterion 3) that may be estimated with a number of objective criteria: for example, through the growth of cultural-economic diversity of social units and formations (such as various temple, town, and trade communities), through population growth, and the increase in the size of territory controlled by polities of
a new, aromorphic type.

As regards the social aromorphosis, one may add an important criterion (note that it is also applicable to the biological aromorphosis, yet at a more restricted scale, as the latter can only diffuse widely within a certain taxon, but not outside it, though it is not possible to exclude entirely the possibility of existence of a special type of supra-taxon aromorphoses that may be denoted as ecosystem aromorphoses). This criterion may be denoted as a criterion of diffusion (degree of expandability, and, hence, adaptability), that is the capability to borrow aromorphic innovations and to use them in new conditions2. With respect to many social aromorphoses this criterion sometimes becomes the most important (as we could see above with respect to the borrowing of technologies of iron-making). The wider an aromorphosis' capability to proliferate and adapt to various conditions, the weaker the competitive capabilities of those societies that rejected it or failed to borrow it. Thus, this feature of social aromorphoses produces a trend toward the convergence of various lines of social macroevolution and gives to social macroevolution certain features of a displacing process.

In contrast, in biological macroevolution, though aromorphoses can diffuse rather widely so that this diffusion can produce a new phylum or subphylum (take, for example, such an aromorphosis as the emergence of the vertebral column), however, this does not lead to the displacement of other phyla/subphyla that are not capable for such a modification (and have no ‘need’ for it).

The rule of aromorphosis

As the role of aromorphoses in the evolution of biosphere is very important, some scientists prefer to speak about the ‘rule of progressive evolution’, or the ‘rule of aromorphosis’. According to A. S. Rautian (1988: 103), an aromorphosis is usually accompanied by penetration into a previously inaccessible adaptive zone and formation of a new adaptive zone through a radical reorganization of relationship with the earlier exploited environmental factors. The systematic nature and mutual coordination of progressive changes increases the general organizational superiority of an aromorphosis owner over the environment, that make it possible to use the environmental factors in a more diverse, active, and selective way. The organizational superiority is the most important precondition for the elaboration of a specific adaptation to the environmental factors based on the growth of vital capacity rather than fertility (Shmal'gauzen 1939, 1968).

Yet, as we have seen above, the role of social aromorphoses in social macroevolution is not less important. That is why it appears possible to speak about a single rule of aromorphosis (biological and social) in macroevolution that may be rendered as follows: in the course of macroevolutionary process from time to time one may observe within particular groups of systems such potentially significant changes (innovations) that turn out ultimately (but not immediately) to secure a radical qualitative reorganization of large groups of (biological or social) organisms, as a result of which the following is observed: 1) the emergence of an opportunity to exploit new adaptive zones and previously unexploited resources (or a radical expansion of exploitation of old zones and resources);
2) the increase in organisms' resilience; 3) the growth of the level of organization of the respective system; 4) organisms acquire other potentially important evolutionary advantages. Those transformations lead to the ‘flourishing’ of respective groups and further evolutionary progress; in social macroevolution they also lead to the acceleration of development and the increase in the degree of suprasocietal integration.

It seems possible to agree with the statement that the aromorphosis is a transformation that is qualitative with respect to its consequences but that is not accompanied by qualitatively specific evolution forms (Rautian 2006). Putting this in a different way,

the statement that the aromorphosis has no specificity is only true with respect to mechanisms of its emergence and primary fixation, but not with respect to its evolutionary consequences.

Timofeev-Ressovsky, Vorontsov, and Yablokov maintain the following:

Thus, there is no doubt that there are sufficient grounds to subdivide all the adaptations into two major types according to their wideness and their evolutionary potential: [1] particular adaptations that lead to specialization, and [2] general adaptations that lead to the expansion of the evolutionary potential of a group and to transition to new adaptive zones. It is not easy to draw a clear line between those two extreme types, but such a ‘blurriness’ of borders stems naturally from the complexity and diversity of natural conditions (Timofeev-Ressovsky, Vorontsov and Yablokov 1969: 253).

It remains for us to add that the above mentioned ‘general adaptations’ are just aromorphoses.

Further we shall consider in more details some mechanisms and rules of formation and diffusion of aromorphoses in the biological and social world. Unfortunately, we do not have enough space to consider such important rules, as, for example, the rule of aromorphic ‘relay-race’ (connected with the point that the same group of biological or social organisms cannot always be the evolutionary leader, to create continuously chains of aromorphoses), or the rule of special (exceptional) conditions for the emergence of aromorphoses (for a detailed analysis of them see Grinin, Маrkоv, and Кorotayev 2008, 2009). The last rule is based on the point that primary, direct transition to an aromorphosis occurs in ‘narrow places’ (that is within a very limited number of systems), whereas the emergence of an aromorphosis needs a very large diversity of interacting systems. However, within a huge variety of forms just very few combine within themselves in the given moment of time all the conditions (frequently including unique ones) that are necessary for an aromorphic transformation. Ernst Mayr suggests many interesting ideas (and even calculations) regarding this point (Mayr 1974: 403–411).

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