This is chapter 5 of the "The Phenomenon of Science" by Valentin F. Turchin




A DISTINCTION IS MADE between ''material'' and ''spiritual" culture. We have put these words in quotes (the first time; henceforth they will parade themselves in the customary way, without quotes) because the distinction between these two manifestations of culture is arbitrary and the terms themselves do not reflect this difference very well. Material culture is taken to include society's productive forces and everything linked with them, while spiritual culture includes art, religion, science, and philosophy. If we were to attempt to formulate the principle on the basis of which this distinction is made, the following would probably be the best way: material culture is called upon to satisfy those needs which are common to humans and animals (material needs), while spiritual culture satisfies needs which, we think, are specifically human (spiritual needs). Clearly this distinction does not coincide with the distinction between material and spiritual on the philosophical level.

The phenomenon of science, the chief subject of this book, is a part of spiritual culture. But science emerges at a comparatively late stage in the development of society and we cannot discuss this moment until we have covered all the preceding stages. Therefore we cannot bypass material culture without saying at least a few words about it. This is especially true because in the development of material culture we find one highly interesting effect which the metasystem transition sometimes yields.


A baby is playing on the bottom step of a gigantic stone stairway. The steps are high and the baby cannot get to the next step. It wants very much to see what is going on there; now and again it tries to grab hold of the edge of the step and clamber up, but it cannot.... The years pass. The baby grows and then one fine day it is suddenly able to surmount this obstacle. It climbs up to the next step, which has so long attracted it, and sees that there is yet another step above it. The child is now able to climb it too and thus, mounting step after step, the child goes higher and higher. As long as the child was unable to get from one step to the next it could not ascend even a centimeter; but as soon as it learned how, not only the next step but the entire stairway became accessible.

Figure 5.1. The stairway effect.

A schematic representation of this ''stairway effect'' is shown in figure 5.1. The stairway effect forms the basis of many instances in which small quantitative transitions become large qualitative ones. Let us take as an example the classical illustration of Hegel's law of the change of quantity into quality: the crystallization of a liquid when the temperature drops below its melting point. The ability of a molecule oscillating near a certain equilibrium position to hold several adjacent molecules near their equilibrium positions is precisely the ''capability of transition to the next step.'' When this capability manifests itself as a result of a drop in temperature (decrease in the amplitude of oscillations) the process of crystallization begins and "step by step'' the positions of the molecules are set in order. Another well-known example is the chain reaction. In this case the transition to the next step is the self-reproduction of the reagents as a result of the reaction. In physical systems where all relationships important for the behavior of the system as a whole are statistical in nature, the stairway effect also manifests itself statistically; the criterion of the possibility of transition to the next step is quantitative and statistical. In this case the stairway effect can be equated with the chain reaction, if the latter term is understood in the very broadest sense.


WE ARE MORE INTERESTED in the case where the transition to the next step is qualitative, specifically the metasystem transition. For the stairway effect to occur in this case it is clearly necessary for system X, which is undergoing the metasystem transition (see figure 5.2), to itself remain a subsystem of some broader system Y, within which conditions are secured and maintained for multiple transitions ''from step to step''--the metasystem transition beyond subsystem X.

Figure 5.2. The stairway effect within ultrametasystem Y. The arrows indicate changes taking place in time.

We shall call such a system Y an ultrametasystem in relation to the series X, X', X", . . and so on. Let us take a more detailed look at the question of the connection between the metasystem transition and the system-subsystem relation.

We have already encountered metasystem transitions of different scale. Metasystem transitions in the structure of the brain are carried out within the organism and do not involve the entire organism. Social integration is a metasystem transition in relation to the organism as a whole, but it does not take humanity outside of the biogeographic community, the system of interacting living beings on a world scale. There is always a system Y which includes the given system X as its subsystem. The only possible exception is the universe as a whole, the system Z which by definition is not part of any other system. We say ''possible'' exception because we do not know whether the universe can be considered a system in the same sense as known, finite systems.

Now let us look in the opposite direction, from the large to the small, from the whole to the part. What happens in system X when it evolves without undergoing a metasystem transition? Suppose that a certain subsystem W of system X makes a metasystem transition.

Figure 5.3. The metasystem transition W ->W' within system X.

This means that system W is replaced by system W', which in relation to W is a metasystem (and contains a whole series of W-type subsystems) but in relation to X is a subsystem analogous to W and performs the same functions in X as W had been performing, only probably better. Depending on the role of subsystem W in system X, the replacement of W with W'' will be more or less important for X. In reviewing the stages in the evolution of living beings during the cybernetic period we substituted the organism as a whole for X and the highest stage of control of the organism for W. Therefore the metasystem transition W -> W' was of paramount importance for X. But a metasystem transition may also occur somewhere ''in the provinces,'' at one of the lower levels of organization.

Figure 5.4. Metasystem transition at one of the lower levels of organization.

Suppose W is one of the subsystems of X., V is one of the subsystems of W, and U is one of the subsystems of V. The metasystem transition U -> U' may greatly improve the functioning of V, and consequently the functioning of W also, although to a lesser degree, and finally, to an even smaller degree, the functioning of X. Thus, evolutionary changes in X, even though they are not very significant, may be caused by a metasystem transition at just one of the lower levels of the structure.

These observations provide new material for assessing quantitative and qualitative changes in the process of development. If system X contains homogeneous subsystems W and the number of these subsystems increases we call such a change quantitative. We shall unquestionably classify the metasystem transition as a qualitative change. We can assume that any qualitative change is caused by a metasystem transition at some particular level of the structure of the system. Considering the mechanics of evolution described above (replication of systems plus the trial and error method) this assumption is highly probable.


LET US RETURN to material culture and the stairway effect. The objects and implements of labor are parts, subsystems of the system we have called the "super-being,'' which emerges with the development of human society. Now we shall simply call this super-being culture, meaning by this both its physical ''body'' and its method of functioning (''physiology''), depending on the context. Therefore, the objects and implements of labor are subsystems of culture. They may possess their own complex structure and, depending upon how they are used, they may be part of larger subsystems of culture which also have their own internal structures.

Specifically, the division of material subsystems into objects of labor and implements of labor (tools) is in itself profoundly meaningful and reflects the structure of production. When a human being applies tool B to objects of a certain class A, this tool, together with objects A, forms a metasystem, in relation to subsystems A. Indeed. subsystem B acts directly upon subsystems A and is specially created for this purpose. (Of course, this action does not take place without the participation of the human hand and mind, which are part of any production system.) Thus, the appearance of a tool for working on certain objects that had not previously been worked on is a metasystem transition within the production system. As we have seen, the ability to create tools is one of the first results of the development of human traits; and because the human being remains the permanent moving force of the production system, the metasystem transition from object of labor to implement of labor may be repeated as many times as one likes. After having created tool B to work on objects in class A the human being begins to think of ways to improve the tool and manufactures tool C to use in making tools of class B. He does not stop here; he makes tool D to improve tools of class C, and so on. The implement of labor invariably becomes an object of labor. This is the stairway effect. It is important to assimilate the very principle of making tools (learning to climb up a step). After this assimilation everything follows of its own accord: the production system becomes an ultrametasystem capable of development. The result of this process is modern industry, a highly complex multilevel system which uses natural materials and step by step converts them into its ''body''--structures, machines, and instruments--just as the living organism digests the food it has eaten.


LET US CONSTRUCT a general outline of the development of material culture. The history of culture before the emergence of metalworking is divided into two ages: the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and the Neolithic (New Stone Age). In each age distinct cultures are identified, which differ by geographic region and the time of their existence. The cultures which have been found by archaeological excavation have been given names derived from the names of the places where they were first discovered.

Traces of Paleolithic culture have been found in many regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. They enable us to confidently make a periodization of the development of culture in the Paleolithic and divide the age into a number of stages (epochs) which are universally important for all geographic regions.

The most ancient stages are the so-called Chellean, followed by the Acheulean and then the Mousterian. These three stages are joined together under the common name Lower (or Early) Paleolithic. The beginning of the Lower Paleolithic is dated about 700,000 years ago and the end (the late Mousterian culture) is dated about 40,000 years ago.

The Chellean and Acheulean cultures know just one type of stone tool--the hand ax. The Chellean hand ax is very primitive; it is a stone crudely flaked on two sides, resembling a modern axhead in shape and size. The typical Acheulean hand ax is smaller and much better made; it has carefully sharpened edges. In addition, signs of the use of fire are found at Acheulean sites.

The tools of the Mousterian culture reveal a clear differentiation. Here we distinguish at least two unquestionably distinct types of stone tools: points and scrapers. Stoneworking technique is considerably higher in the Mousterian period than in the Acheulean. Objects made of bone and horn appear. Fire is universally used. We do not know whether the Mousterians were able to make fire, but it is clear that they were able to preserve it.

In a biological sense the human being of the Lower Paleolithic was not yet the modern form. The Chellean and Acheulean cultures belonged to people (or semipeople?) of the Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus types. The Mousterian was the culture of the Neanderthals. In the Lower Paleolithic the development of techniques for making tools (not only from stone but also from wood and other materials which have not survived until our day) proceeded parallel with the development of human physical and mental capabilities, with human evolution as a species. The increase in brain size is the most convincing evidence of this evolution. The following table shows the capacity of the cranial cavity in fossil forms of man, the anthropoid apes, and modern man:


600-685 cm3


800-900 cm3

Sinanthropus 1.000-1,1100 cm3
Neanderthal 1,100-1,600 cm3
Modern Man 1,200-1,700 cm3

Let us note that although the Neanderthal brain is only slightly smaller in volume than the brain of modern man it has significantly smaller frontal lobes and they play the chief role in thinking. The frontal lobes of the brain appear to be the principal storage area for "arbitrary'' associations.


AT THE BOUNDARY between the Lower and Upper Paleolithic (approximately 40,000 years ago) the process of establishment of the human being concludes. The human being of the Upper Paleolithic is, in biological terms, modern man: Homo sapiens. From this moment onward nature invests all its ''evolutionary energy'' in the culture of human society, not in the biology of the human individual.

Three cultures are distinguished in the Upper Paleolithic: Aurignacian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian. The first two are very close and are joined together in a single cultural epoch: the Aurignac-Solutrean. The beginning of this epoch is coincident with the end of the Mousterian epoch. Several sites have been found containing bones of both Neanderthals and modern man. It follows from this that the last evolutionary change, which completed the formation of modern man, was very significant and the new people quickly supplanted the Neanderthals.

In the Aurignac-Solutrean epoch, stone-working technique made great advances in comparison with the Mousterian epoch. Various types of tools and weapons can be found: blades, spears, javelins, chisels, scrapers, and awls. Bone and horn were used extensively. Sewing appeared, as evidenced by needles which have been found. In one of the monuments of Solutrean culture a case made of bird bone and containing a whole assortment of bone needles was found, as was a bone fishing hook. By the Magdalenian epoch (about 15,000 years ago) throwing spears and harpoons had appeared. A noteworthy difference between the Upper Paleolithic and the Lower is the emergence of visual art. Cave drawing appeared in the Aurignac-Solutrean epoch and reached its peak in the Magdalenian. Many pictures (primarily of animals) have been found whose expressiveness, brevity, and exactness in conveying nature amaze even the modern viewer. Sculptured images and objects used for ornamentation also appear. There are two points of view on the question of the origin of art: the first claims art is derived from magic rituals, the second from esthetic and cognitive goals. However, when we consider the nature of primitive thinking (as we shall below) the difference between these two sources is insignificant.

Looking at material production as a system, the crucial difference between the Upper Paleolithic and the Lower is the appearance of composite implements (for example, a spear with a stone point). Their appearance can be viewed as a metasystem transition, because in making a composite implement a system is created from subsystems. Before, the maker would have viewed the two components as independent entities (the point as a piercing stone tool and the pole as a stick or wooden spear). This is not a simple transition; even in historical times, there could be found a group of people (the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Tasmania) who did not know composite implements.

The Tasmanians no longer exist as an ethnic group. The last pure-blooded Tasmanian woman died in 1877. The information about the Tasmanian culture that has been preserved is inadequate and sometimes contradictory. Nonetheless, they may certainly be considered the most backward human group of all those known by ethnography. Their isolation from the rest of the human race (the Tasmanians' nearest neighbors, the Australian aborigines, were almost equally backward) and the impoverished nature of the island, in particular the absence of animals larger than the kangaroo, played parts in this. With due regard for differences in natural conditions, the culture of the Tasmanians may be compared to the Aurignac-Solutrean culture in its early stages. The Tasmanians had the stone hand ax, sharp point, crudely shaped stone cutting tool, wooden club (two types, for hand use and throwing), wooden spear, stick for digging up edible roots, and wooden spade for scraping mussels off rocks. In addition they were able to weave string and sacks (baskets) from grass or hair. They made fire by friction. But, to again repeat, they were not able to make composite tools--for example, to attach a stone working part to a wooden handle.


UNLIKE THE PALEOLITHIC CULTURES, the Neolithic cultures (which are known from both archaeological and ethnographic findings) show great diversity, specificity, and local characteristics. In terms of techniques of producing tools the Neolithic is an elaboration of the qualitative jump (metasystem transition) made in the late Paleolithic: composite tools made using other tools. Following this route human beings made a series of outstanding advances, the most remarkable of which is clearly the invention of the bow. Great changes also took place in clothing and in the construction of dwellings.

Although the Neolithic cannot boast of a large-scale metasystem transition in regard to tool manufacture, a metasystem transition of enormous importance nevertheless did occur during this period. It concerned the overall method of obtaining food (and therefore it indirectly involved tools also). This was the transition from hunting and gathering to livestock herding and farming--sometimes called the Neolithic revolution. The animal and plant worlds, which until this had been only external, uncontrolled sources of food, now became subject to active influence and control by human beings. The effects of this transition spread steadily. We are thus dealing with a typical metasystem transition.

Archaeologists date the emergence of farming and livestock herding to about 7,000 years ago, emphasizing that this is an approximate date. The most ancient cereal crops were wheat, millet, barley, and rice. Rye and oats appeared later. The first domesticated animal was the dog. Its domestication is dated in the Early Neolithic, before the emergence of farming. With the transition to farming, people domesticated the pig, sheep, goat, and cow. Later, during the age of metal, the domesticated horse and camel appeared.


THE AGE OF METAL is the next page in the history of human culture after the Neolithic. The transition to melting metal marks a metasystem transition in the system of production. Whereas the material used earlier to make tools (wood, stone, bone, and the like) was something given and ready to use, now a process, melting metal, emerged and it was directed not to making a tool but rather to making the material for the tool. As a result people received new materials with needed characteristics that were not found in nature. First there was bronze, then iron, various grades of steel, glass, paper, and rubber. From the point of view of the structure of production the age of metal should be called the age of materials. Strictly speaking, such crafts as leather tanning and pottery, which originated earlier than metal production, should be viewed as the beginning of the metasystem transition to the age of materials. But there is a crucial phase in each metasystem transition when the advantages of creating the new level in the system become obvious and indisputable. For the age of materials this phase was the production of metals, especially iron.

The most ancient traces of bronze in Mesopotamia and Egypt date to the 4th millennium B.C. Iron ore began to be melted by 1300 B.C.


THE NEXT qualitative jump in the system of production was the use of sources of energy other than the muscular energy of human beings and animals. This, of course, is also a metasystem transition because a new level of the system emerges: the level of engines which control the movement of the working parts of the machine. The first industrial revolution (eighteenth century) radically changed the entire appearance of production. Improvement of engines becomes the leitmotif of technical progress. First there was the steam engine, then the internal combustion engine, and then the electric motor. The age of materials was followed by the age of energy.

Finally, our day is witness to one more metasystem transition in the structure of production. A new level is emerging, the level of control of engines. The second industrial revolution is beginning, and it is obvious that it will have a greater effect on the overall makeup of the system of production than even the first did. The age of energy is being replaced by the age of information. Automation of production processes and the introduction of computers into national economies lead to growth in labor productivity which is even more rapid than before and give the production system the character of an autonomous, self-controlling system.


THE SIMILARITY between successive stages in the development of technology and the functions of biological objects has long been noted. The production of industrial materials can be correlated with the formation and growth of living tissue. The use of engines corresponds to the work of muscles, and automatic control and transmission of information corresponds to the functioning of the nervous system. This parallel exists despite the fundamental difference in the nature of biological and technical systems and the completely different factors that cause their development. Nonetheless, the similarity in the stages of development is far from accidental. It arises because all processes of development have one common feature: development always takes place by successive metasystem transitions. The metasystem transition is, if you like, the elementary unit, the universal quantum of development. Therefore it is not surprising in the least that having compared the initial stage of development of two different systems--for example industrial materials and living tissue--we receive a natural correlation among later stages, which are formed by the accumulation of these universal quanta.


OUR NEXT TASK on the historical plane is to analyze the development of thought beginning with the most ancient phase about which we have reliable information. This phase is primitive society with Late Paleolithic and Early Neolithic culture. But before speaking of primitive thinking, before ''putting ourselves in the role'' of primitive people, we shall investigate thinking in general, using both the modern thinking apparatus as an investigative tool and modern thinking as an object of investigation that is directly accessible to each of us from personal experience. This is essential in order that we may clearly see the difference between primitive thinking and modern thinking and the general direction of the development of thinking. The investigation we are preparing to undertake in the next two chapters can be defined as a cybernetic approach to the basic concepts of logic and to the problem of the relationship between language and thinking.