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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 understanding 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. Nevertheless, supported by a growing body of firm evidence, the evolutionary approach became gradually established during this period in geology, cosmology, biology 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 6th edition, published in 1872, did he introduce 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 6th 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 differentiations and integrations’ (1862: 216).
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 universal 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 manifested itself in each of these fields. Already in the 19th 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 19th 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 20th century the related ideas of historism and evolutionism had penetrated rather deeply into natural sciences such as physics and chemistry.
While this respectable scientific tradition has quite ancient roots, even today there is only a rather limited number of studies that analyze the evolution of abiotic, biological, and social systems as a single process. Even fewer studies seek to systematize the general characteristics, laws, and mechanisms of evolutionary dynamics in order to allow a comparative analysis of different evolving systems and evolutionary forms. Furthermore, the history of evolutionary approaches and methods is rarely represented in the literature. Encyclopedias, for instance, pay very little attention to the notion of evolution and the development of evolutionary approaches to history. This is remarkable, given the fact that the application of the evolutionary approach (in the widest possible meaning of the term) to the history of nature and society has remained one of the most im-portant and effective ways for conceptualizing and integrating our growing knowledge of the Universe, society and human thought. Moreover, we believe that without using mega-paradigmatic theoretical instruments such as the evolu-tionary approach scientists working in different fields may run the risk of losing sight of each other's contributions.
What could have caused the current insufficient attention to evolutionary studies? First of all, the crisis of evolutionism in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in philosophy, biology, anthropology, sociology and some other fields (see, e.g., Zavadsky 1973: 251–269; Zavadsky et al. 1983: 21–26; Cohen 1958; Carneiro 2003: 75–99) was caused by the fact that some classic evolutionists (but not all of them, including Darwin himself) based their ideas on a rather naïve belief in the idea of the unilinearity of development and the universality of general laws, as well as that nature and knowledge coin-cide entirely (see Bunzl 1997: 105). As a result, the positivistic philosophy of evolutionism could no longer accommodate the rapidly developing scientific knowledge and was rejected together with the idea of uninterrupted progress (Parsons 2000: 44).
However, the mistakes of the early evolutionists, who tried to encompass all the processes with a single and eternal evolutionary law, should not be regarded as the main cause for the current lack of attention to mega-evolutionary re-search. Such ‘excesses’ are rather common during the formative period of scien-tific schools. Since that time, the evolutionary approach has been purged from many of these excesses. This explains to a considerable extent why many scien-tists have returned to using evolutionary ideas at a new level of scientific under-standing as well as why they are developing them actively, not only within boil-ogy, sociology, or anthropology, but also within physics, chemistry and astro-nomy. During the same period in the 20th century, the scientific understanding of timescales related to the evolution of the Universe, life and humanity improved dramatically. The better understanding of often enormously long periods of time during which certain systems and structures were formed stimulated (especially within natural sciences) studies into the emergence of everything. These studies proved to be more successful when they were based on evolutionary paradigms.
However, we believe that a major cause for the lack of attention to evolutionary paradigms is connected with the deepening contradiction between, on the one hand, the aspiration for levels of scientific precision and rigor that can only be achieved through narrow specialization, and, on the other hand, the lim-ited human ability to absorb and process information. In addition, perhaps more than any other theory, macro-evolutionary theories have to deal with the acute contradiction between the world and its cognizing agents; this contradiction can be expressed in the following way: how can infinite reality be known with the aid of finite and imperfect means? The wider the scope of studied reality is within a given theoretical approach, the more acute this contradiction becomes.
In earlier eras of scientific studies one could hope to know reality interpreted as a ‘thing’ that is hidden from the human eyes by the armor of ‘phenomena’ (see Bachelard 1987: 17–18). The speculative philosophy dominant in the mid 19th century was based on the assumption that the search for universality implied the presence in the Universe of some form of essence that did not permit any relationships outside itself. It was the task of speculative philosophy to discover such an essence (Whitehead 1990: 273). Today, however, this type of approach has largely been abandoned.
If Popper (1974) and Rescher (1978) are right by maintaining that for any concrete scientific problem an infinite number of hypotheses is possible, and if it is correct that the number of scientific laws in any scientific field is an open system with an indefinite number of elements (see, e.g., Grinin 1998: 35–37; Grinin and Korotayev 2009: 45), then what could be a possible total number of hypotheses in evolutionary theory? Furthermore, the need to master colossal amounts of information as well as complex scientific methods makes research into macroevolution rather difficult. However, if the human mind had always retreated while confronting problems of cognition that appeared overwhelming, we would have neither philosophy nor science today. The complexity of such tasks and the difficulties in reaching solutions both stimulate the search for new theoretical and experimental means (including bold hypotheses, theories, and methods). As we see it, evolutionism as an interface theory that analyzes historical changes in natural and social systems and as a method that is appropriate for the analysis of many directional large-scale processes will occupy a most important place in the struggle for human understanding of the outside world.
In the past, philosophers and thinkers could try to embrace the whole universe with a single idea. Today, it seems as if the epoch of great universalists and polymaths, who could make great discoveries in very diverse fields of knowledge, will never return. However, the need for conceptual organization and unification of knowledge still exists and is felt as such by many scientists. As Erwin Schrödinger (1944) noted, even though it has become almost impossible for a single mind to master more than one small specialized field of science, some scientists should still try to synthesize facts and theories into large-scale overviews.
The fact that the need for modern analyses of a great variety of large-scale processes remains rather strongly felt and is even increasing today is not surprising. The currently globalizing world needs global knowledge. That is why we see the emergence of forecasts of the future of the Universe, of our planet and our World System; the development of gigantic data bases; the study of trends and cycles with enormous lengths and with very diverse characteristics. The trend toward multi-disciplinary approaches is also becoming ever more evident today.
However, we still need to develop effective meta- and mega-theories that allow us to study the development of nature, society, and, indeed, the entire universe on suitable scales of time and space. We need effective theories that provide good ways for linking universal and local levels as well as relatively objective instruments for comparing various systems using a range of parameters. Only this will make it possible to detect common features and trends in the endless flow of change and diversity observed in reality. This may also allow us to identify hierarchies of causes that influence the course of change and development.
We need epistemological key terms in order to understand change in nature and society in its entirety. There are not that many scientific notions that could play the role of such key terms. We think that evolution is one of them. As we see it, the idea of evolution remains important for the unification of knowledge. Yet one should not overestimate the importance of evolution in the way of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1987), who believed that the evolutionary theory is more than scientific theory. To be sure, no scientific method can claim to be the only one. There will always be alternative points of view. Any method or approach has its limitations. Today, the evolutionary approach seems especially valuable. Evolutionary studies constitute one of the most fruitful fields of interdisciplinary synthesis, where representatives of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities find common ground for research and analysis.
We are entirely ready to acknowledge that evolutionism (as any other paradigm) has its limitations. That is why we want to discuss them here with the aim to improve our understanding of it. This could raise evolutionary theories to a new qualitative level that is in agreement with current scientific knowledge. We believe that the present Almanac, which brings together scientists working in different areas of the vast evolutionary field, will hopefully make a contribution to this process.