Why Societies Develop Like Embryos

An exclusive excerpt from chapter 6 of the new science/history/philosophy nonfiction book The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates, the new offering from the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of HistoryGlobal Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century and The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism.


The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates was published on August 24 and is now available on Amazon. [Update: the Kindle edition is still “a couple of weeks” away.]


The Zygote Snabs Herbert Spencer

Meanwhile, in 1851, when he is thirty-one years old and walking, talking, and singing with Miss Evans, Herbert Spencer runs across an idea that will make him one of the biggest big-picture thinkers of all time. It is the idea that will keep Spencer a bachelor married to only one thing, his grand “synthesis.” Herbert Spencer will come across von Baer’s principle that cells in an embryo start out looking pretty much alike, then get more and more unique to their species. And more and more specialized in their function. Von Baer’s principle will change Spencer’s thinking. It will become the key to Spencer’s grand unification. And to his view of evolution. It will become Herbert Spencer’s equivalent to Newton’s gravity.

Yes, differentiation and the metaphor of the embryo will enter Herbert Spencer’s thinking three years after he comes to the Economist and one year after he begins to frequent John Chapman’s soirees. Says Spencer, “In 1851, I became acquainted with von Baer’s statement that the development of every organism is a change from homogeneity to heterogeneity.” And that acquaintance will push Spencer to till the soil in which Charles Darwin will plant a seed.

Once Herbert Spencer is exposed to von Baer’s work, the embryologist’s influence will show up almost instantly in Spencer’s work. It is the grand unifying principle that Spencer has been hunting for. It is another unifying principle to add to what Spencer has taken from George Henry Lewes’s explanations of Comte—the principle of evolution, and the principle that evolution constantly churns out something that Spencer calls “progress.” So von Baer’s principle of differentiation becomes central to Spencer’s 1851 first book, Social Statistics. The bigger and the more advanced the society, Social Statistics says, the more differentiation, the more specialization. The more “‘distinct classes’ and ‘special occupations.’” Large-scale societies unfold like embryos. They evolve like zygotes in the womb. Spencer publishes Social Statistics eight years before the publication of the book in which Charles Darwin premiers his theory of evolution, the Origin of Species. But Spencer, like the other habitués of Chapman’s get togethers, is already an evolutionary thinker, and he portrays the differentiation of human societies as an evolutionary process. Again, the word evolution has not appeared even once in Darwin’s only published book, his Voyage of the Beagle. But it appears one hundred times in Spencer’s second book, his 1855 Principles of Psychology. A book that comes out four years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.


Here’s how the combination of evolution and von Baer’s differentiation works. Says Spencer, in early societies, everyone did everything—hunting, fishing, and tool and weapon making. But as societies evolved, some men specialized in hunting and fishing and others became full-time tool or weapons makers—full-time spear and fishing hook experts. Way, way down the line, really advanced societies invented machines like railroad engines with hundreds of parts. So in an advanced society, there might be a specialist in Swindon who zeroed in on nothing but hand-making the setscrews for the steam engine, a task so exacting that one real-life machinist of Spencer’s day said “it almost made me sick.” Meanwhile other specialists assembled the engine, tested it, and ran it. And yet more specialists raised fruits, veg- etables, cows, and pigs and sent them into the city via railroad to feed the setscrew specialist. At the same time, even more specialists raised cotton in the American South, carded it and combed it in Manchester, then ran the resulting thread through Manchester’s weaving machines to make the set- screw maker’s clothes.

The result? Says Spencer, societies are like organisms. And their advance toward higher levels of complexity is like “the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower.” Yes, societies unfold like flowers or embryos:

Hence it happens that a tribe of savages may be divided and subdivided with little or no inconvenience to the several sections.

Just as Driesch could break off a branch of a sea squirt and see it become an entire, independent sea squirt, Spencer says that you can divide a primitive tribe, an indigenous tribe, and both halves will become complete tribes able to operate on their own. Why? Because

each of these contains every element which the whole did—is just as self- sufficing, and quickly assumes the simple organization constituting an independent tribe.

But you can’t just arbitrarily cut in two a modern society like the one Spencer lives in, a society with cities that depend on steamships, railroads, and telegraphs that tie together global meshes of trade.

Hence, on the contrary, it happens, that in a community like our own, no part can be cut off or injured without all parts suffering.

Just as Driesch will not be able to cut the heart out of a rabbit and see that heart become a complete bunny hopping with glee, and just as the poor rabbit will not be able regrow her missing heart, a complex society cannot simply regrow its equivalent of a blood pump. Says Spencer,


Annihilate the agency employed in distributing commodities, and much of the rest would die before another distributing agency could be developed.

Cut out the supply chain of meat and vegetables to Swindon and you starve the screw maker and his family. As Spencer puts it,

Suddenly sever the manufacturing portion from the agricultural portion, and the one would expire outright, while the other would long linger in grievous distress.

But this interdependence of specialized parts is not mere theory, says Spencer. It is a blunt fact. Stub a toe and the whole body limps.

This interdependence is daily shown in commercial changes. Let the factory hands be put on short time, and immediately the colonial produce markets of London and Liverpool are depressed.

A society is made up of individuals, yet it works like a massive organism, a single organism.

Thus do we find, not only that the analogy between a society and a living creature is borne out to a degree quite unsuspected by those who com- monly draw it, but also that the same definition of life applies to both.

The whole thing works through opposites joined at the hip. Herbert Spencer would have objected strenuously to putting it this way. He found it “impossible to conceive” the idea of opposites that are equally true. How do we know? From 1812 to 1817, Georg Hegel — a teacher at a secondary school in Nuremberg, Germany, who would later become one of his era’s most influential philosophers — had written a multivolume book called The Science of Logic. In it, Hegel had said that “contradiction is the root of all movement and life.” That’s a pretty big claim. But Hegel had gone even further. He’d said that “it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, is possessed of instinct and activity.” Sounds very much like your “opposites are joined at the hip,” doesn’t it? Then in 1836 at the University of Kiel an obscure professor of philosophy named Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus had summed up Hegel’s approach to contradiction in a series of lectures. And he’d boiled down Hegel’s life-giving contradictions to a magic phrase: “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” What does that mean? When opposites struggle against each other, the appearance of battle is deceptive. Without knowing it, the opposites are working together to give birth to something new. Something larger, something occasionally novel, something occasionally surprising, something that occasionally makes one plus one far greater than two.

Here’s a sample of a thesis: you claim that mind is a lonely prisoner in the darkness of the skull. I think about that for a while and though I don’t admit it to myself, I have to carve out a separate spot for myself in attention space. I need to make sure you are not the only one getting the spotlight. So I have to say something that makes me unique, something in opposition to what you said. I make a counterclaim, an antithesis. I declare that the mind only exists in the interplay between human beings, in the interplay, for example, between you and me. We wrangle over who is right. Is mind trapped in the cranium, using the brain to create the illusion of an external reality? Or is mind itself external: a product of conversation, competition, collaboration, social structures, and history? We wrangle until we see a brand-new light. Both of us are correct. There is a larger weave, a shared tapestry, a shared kit of mind tools, that somehow arises from the interplay of lonely prisoners of the skull like you and me. Something called culture knits itself with the needles of lonely prisoners of the cranium, prisoners seeking each other’s company. Mind is both internal and external. From our competition we gain a potential new insight into the way culture is built. We even get a glimpse into the way that mind tools may arise from the interplay of individuals seeking a bit of attention. That larger vision is a synthesis. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The positive power of opposites.

In 1837, Chalybäus published the lecture in which he promoted his magic triad of creative opposites—“thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” A student at the University of Berlin who belonged to his university’s Hegel Club read Chalybäus’s book, grabbed the three magic words of creative competition, and ran with them. Ran with them and in 1847 promoted them as the words of Hegel himself. His promotion campaign was so successful that in the future, most educated men and women would swear that the words “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” were Hegel’s. They were not. The idea merchandiser who gave us this false impression was an occasional guest at John Chapman’s establish- ment at 142 on the Strand. His name was Karl Marx.

But Hegel had promoted the positive power of opposites. And Herbert Spencer declared that this was a concept “against which I feel an obstinate prejudice.” In fact, once Spencer got wind of Hegel’s drift, he refused “to read further any work in which it is displayed.”333 He refused to read any more Hegel. But opposites joined at the hip show up all over Spencer’s work. The opposites in this case are differentiation and integration. And that, in fact, was one of Spencer’s great contributions: differentiation and integration.


Differentiation, Spencer said, does not occur as a random spray of wildly varied cells. It’s not a six-monkeys-at-six-typewriters process. It occurs as part of a larger pattern. A part of a bigger picture. Differentiating cells make new organs—endoderm, ectoderm, mesoderm, neural crests, hearts, toes, brains, and a nose. Differentiation is joined at the hip to its opposite, to what Spencer called “integration.”

This union of many men into one community—this increasing mutual dependence of units which were originally independent—this gradual segregation of citizens into separate bodies with reciprocally-subservient functions—this formation of a whole consisting of unlike parts—this growth of an organism, of which one portion cannot be injured without the rest feeling it—may all be generalized under the law of individuation.

“Individuation.” That’s differentiation. That’s setting oneself apart. But separation is fatal. Unless it goes hand in hand with its opposite—attraction. Integration.

Or, to put it in the terms we’ve been using, the iteration of simple rules would mean nothing without the emergence of big pictures. Big pictures within which the smaller units fit. The brick would be nothing without the vision of the wall. The wall would be nothing without the vision of the apart- ment complex at Catalhöyük. Even the number that represents the brick, the barleycorn, the chicken, and the fish would be nothing without the bigger framework in which it fits—arithmetic and a bureaucracy working on behalf of a king. Cells that specialize or people who dive into a tiny wrinkle of interest and make a world of it, people like Herbert Spencer and Mary Ann Evans, commit suicide if they are not part of “a whole consisting of unlike parts.” They commit suicide without what Hans Driesch would call “form production.” And without something more. Without the emergence of an organismlike bauplan, an invisible blueprint, a big picture into which they fit.

And just as differentiation can be lethal without integration, integration can be dangerous without increasing levels of differentiation. Integration can be poisonous without increasing levels of individuation. Too much togetherness among cells does not produce fingers or toes. It produces a stump. Hence,


the development of society, as well as the development of man and the development of life generally, may be described as a tendency to individuate — to become a thing. And rightly interpreted, the manifold forms of progress going on around us are uniformly significant of this tendency.

But, again, opposites are joined at the hip. Individuation only works when it’s integrated into a big picture. And integration grows amazing things when individuation gives it new powers.

Everywhere and always there goes on either integration of matter… or… disintegration of matter… the integration of matter . . . is the primary trait of all Evolution.

Few people bother to remember Herbert Spencer. But when they do, they often slam him for his insistence on something totally antientropic— his sense of progress. Progress in the evolution of inanimate matter. Progress in the evolution of simple life forms. And progress in the evolution of man. Spencer, like Driesch, felt the pull of the future beckoning. In the development of human societies and in the development of all of life, Spencer said, “progress . . . is not an accident, it is a necessity.” Parts— be they cells or citizens—differentiate. They specialize. But that’s not all. Individuals differentiate. Then they cluster and find others who share their oddball interests. And the clusters of oddballs find allies. They find their place in a bigger picture. They form a “whole consisting of unlike parts.” That formation of new wholes, new big pictures, is vital to the cosmos.

Meanwhile, Herbert Spencer—as you know—went on to write books about sociology (two of them), psychology, morality, education, biology, and political science. But, he says, none of those books would have existed without the concept of embryological differentiation he pulled from von Baer in 1851. Or, in Spencer’s words, “had von Baer never written I should not be doing that which I now am.”

Was Herbert Spencer right in trying to draw all the sciences together into one big picture? Was Spencer right about progress? Was he right in his conviction that evolution’s secrets lie in the pattern of the embryo?


The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates was published on August 24 and is now available for on Amazon.


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