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 History, Global 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 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.