Andrey Korotayev

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Evolution: Cosmic, Biological, and Social 2011  5–29 





Evolutionary Megaparadigms:  

Potential, Problems, Perspectives 


Leonid E. Grinin, Andrey V. Korotayev,  

Robert L. Carneiro, Fred Spier  


The formulation of the first scientific theories of the evolution of nature began at 

least two centuries ago. However, the philosophical roots of evolutionary ideas are 

much older (see, e.g., Vorontsov 1999; Asmus 2001; Chanyshev 1976, 2001; 

Barg 1987; Ilyushechkin 1996; Losev 1977; Nisbet 1980). An incipient under-

standing of the historical dimension of natural processes can already be found 

among the ancient Greeks (e.g., Heraclitus, Anaximander, Empedocles, etc.). 

In the late Modern period these ideas strengthened in conjunction with the idea 

that historical changes in nature can be described with the aid of rigorous laws. 

This type of thinking created the evolutionary approach in science. However, 

these ideas penetrated rather slowly in various branches of science. Neverthe-

less, supported by a growing body of firm evidence, the evolutionary approach 

became gradually established during this period in geology, cosmology, biol-

ogy and social sciences. 

It is commonly believed that the concept of evolution was first formulated 

by Charles Darwin, but that was not the case. Although it is not generally 

known, Darwin did not even use the word ‘evolution’ in the first five editions 

of The Origin of Species. Not until the 6


 edition, published in 1872, did he in-

troduce the term into his text. Moreover, he used it only half a dozen times, and 

with no more of a definition than ‘descent with modification’. 

It was Herbert Spencer who, in First Principles – a book published ten 

years before the 6


 edition of The Origin – introduced the term into scientific 

discourse. Stone by stone, over the seven chapters that make up the heart of 

that book, Spencer carefully built up the concept of evolution, culminating in 

his classic definition: ‘Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent 

homogeneity, to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, through continuous dif-

ferentiations and integrations’ (1862: 216).





 First Principles represented only the final, full-blown formulation of Spencer's concept of evolution. 

Previously, in a series of essays written during the 1850s, he had exhibited various aspects  

of the process as manifested in various domains of nature. Then in 1857, in the article entitled  

Introduction. Evolutionary Megaparadigms 


And – that is especially important for our subject – whereas Darwin applied 

evolution exclusively to the world of life, Spencer saw it as a process of uni-

versal application, characterizing all domains of nature.



There followed a series of works – The Principles of Biology (1864–1867), 

The Principles of Psychology (1870–1872), and The Principles of Sociology 

(1876–1896) in which Spencer showed, in great detail, how evolution had mani-

fested itself in each of these fields. Already in the 19


 century it was possible  

to see Darwinian and Spencerian evolution as two contrasting – and indeed  

competing – interpretations of the kinds of change phenomena had undergone.



Thus, after works of Darwin and especially Spencer in the final decades of  

the 19


 century the idea of evolution in nature and society, together with the no- 

tion of progress, became a major component of not only science and philoso- 

phy, but also of social consciousness in general,


 leading to an overall picture  

of the world development. In the second half of the 20


 century the related  


‘Progress: Its Law and Cause’, he wrote: ‘The advance from the simple to the complex, through 

a process of successive differentiation, is seen alike in the earliest changes of the Universe to 

which we can reason our way back, and in the earliest changes which we can inductively estab-

lish; it is seen in the geologic and climatic evolution of the Earth; it is seen in the unfolding of 

every single organism on its surface, and in the multiplication of kinds of organisms; it is seen in 

the evolution of Humanity, whether contemplated in the civilized individual, or in the aggregate 

of races; it is seen in the evolution of Society in respect alike of its political, its religious, and its 

economical organization; and it is seen in the evolution of all those endless concrete and abstract 

products of human activity...’ (Spencer 1857: 465). Despite his use of ‘progress’ in the title of this 

article, Spencer came to realize that the word had normative overtones, and that he needed a word 

free of that. In ‘evolution’, he found a word – not often used in scientific writing up to that time – 

that proved to be the answer to his search. 


 It is worth to point that Spencer first hit upon the idea of evolution while reading a description of 

Karl von Baer's discussion of embryological development. Von Baer described it as essentially 

a process of successive differentiations, from very rudimentary beginnings. Starting out as a sin-

gle fertilized egg, the embryo underwent a series of divisions and subdivisions, its parts becoming 

progressively more varied and more specialized. Spencer was struck by the fact that the process 

that marked the development of a single organism was also the process that characterized 

the development of all orders of phenomena.  


 The contrast between them was not just that one concept was limited to the biological sphere 

while the other characterized change in the rest of nature as well. Rather, the contrast involved 

different aspects of the process itself. Both views saw natural selection providing the basic mech-

anism behind evolution, but while alike in this regard, the two conceptions of evolution differed 

in a number of respects. Darwinian evolution not only operated on a smaller scale, it also was 

more closely tied to individual events. It was more opportunistic, more contingent as to just what 

path it followed. In Darwinian evolution the form of an animal species could zigzag back and 

forth over the course of generations, seeking the most favorable adaptation to existing conditions. 

Only when it could be seen as having moved in the direction of increasing complexity could it be 

considered to have evolved in the Spencerian sense.



 Morris R. Cohen (1958) maintains that the idea of universal evolution, starting with Spencer, has 

produced a very strong influence over people and has excited their imagination to such a degree 

that is only similar to a very limited number of major intellectual achievements since the Coperni-

can revolution.  

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