a cybernetic approach to human evolution

by Valentin F. Turchin

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Translated by Brand Frentz

New York * Columbia University Press * 1977

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Turchin, Valentin Fedorovich.
The phenomenon of science.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Science--Philosophy. 2 Evolution 3. Cosmology. 4. Cybernetics. I. Title.

Q175.T7913 501 77-4330
ISBN 0-231-03983-2

New York * Columbia University Press * Guildford, Surrey
Copyright (c) 1977 by Columbia University Press All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America



VALENTIN TURCHIN presents in The Phenomenon of Science an evolutionary scheme of the universe--one that begins on the level of individual atoms and molecules, continues through the origin of life and the development of plants and animals, reaches the level of man and self-consciousness, and develops further in the intellectual creations of man, particularly in scientific knowledge. He does not see this development as a purposeful or preordained one, since he accepts entirely the Darwinian law of trial and error. Selection occurs within a set of random variations, and survival of forms is a happenstance of the relationship between particular forms and particular environments. Thus, there are no goals in evolution. Nonetheless, there are discernible patterns and, indeed, there is a ''law of evolution" by which one can explain the emergence of forms capable of activities which are truly novel. This law is one of the formation of higher and higher levels of cybernetic control. The nodal points of evolution for Turchin are the moments when the most recent and highest controlling subsystem of a large system is integrated into a metasystem and brought under a yet higher form of control. Examples of such transitions are the origin of life, the emergence of individual selfconsciousness, the appearance of language, and the development of the scientific method.

Many authors in the last century have attempted to sketch schemes of cosmic evolution, and Turchin's version will evoke memories in the minds of his readers. The names of Spencer, Haeckel, Huxley, Engels, Morgan, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, Vernadsky, Bogdanov, Oparin, Wiener and many others serve as labels for concepts similar to some of those discussed by Turchin. Furthermore, it is clear that Turchin knows many of these authors, borrows from some of them, and cites them for their achievements. It is probably not an accident that the title of Turchin's book, ''The Phenomenon of Science,'' closely parallels the title of Teilhard's, ''The Phenomenon of Man.'' Yet it is equally clear that Turchin does not agree entirely with any of these authors, and his debts to them are fragmentary and selective. Many of them assigned a place either to vitalistic or to theological elements in their evolutionary schemes, both of which Turchin rejects. Others relied heavily on mechanistic, reductionist principles which left no room for the qualitatively new levels of biological and social orders that are so important to Turchin. And all of them--with the possible exception of Wiener, who left no comprehensive analysis of evolution--wrote at a time when it was impossible to incorporate information theory into their accounts.

The two aspects of Turchin's scheme of cosmic evolution which distinguish it from its well-known predecessors are its heavy reliance on cybernetics and its inclusion of the development of scientific thought in evolutionary development that begins with the inorganic world. The first aspect is one which is intimately tied to Turchin's own field of specialization, since for many years he was a leader in the theory and design of Soviet computer systems and is the author of a system of computer language. Turchin believes that he gained insights from this experience that lead to a much more rigorous discussion of evolution than those of his predecessors. The second aspect of Turchin's account--the treatment of scientific concepts as ''objects'' governed by the same evolutionary regularities as chemical and biological entities--is likely to raise objections among some readers. Although this approach is also not entirely original--one thinks of some of the writings of Stephen Toulmin, for example--I know of no other author who has attempted to integrate science so thoroughly into a scheme of the evolution of physical and biological nature. Taking a thoroughly cybernetic view, Turchin maintains that it is not the ''substance'' of the entities being described that matters, but their principles of organization.

For the person seeking to analyze the essential characteristics of Turchin's system of explanation, two of his terms will attract attention: ''representation'' and ''metasystem transition.'' Without a clear understanding of what he means by these terms, one cannot comprehend the overall developmental picture he presents. A central issue for critics will be whether a clear understanding of these terms can be gained from the material presented here.

One of the most difficult tasks for Mr. Frentz, the translator, was connected with one of these central terms. This problem of finding an English word for the Russian term predstavlenie was eventually resolved by using the term ''representation.'' In my opinion, the difficulty for the translator was not simply a linguistic one, but involved a fundamental, unresolved philosophical issue. The term predstavlenie is used by Turchin to mean ''an image or a representation of a part of reality.'' It plays a crucial role in describing the situations in which an organism compares a given circumstance with one that is optimal from the standpoint of its survival. Thus, Turchin, after introducing this term, speaks of a hypothetical animal that ''loves a temperature of 16 degrees Centigrade'' and has a representation of this wonderful situation in the form of the frequency of impulses of neurons. The animal, therefore, attempts to bring the given circumstances closer and closer into correspondence with its neuronal representation by moving about in water of different temperatures.

This same term predstavlenie is also used to describe human behavior where the term ''mental image'' would seem to be a more felicitous translation. If we look in a good Russian-English dictionary, we shall find predstavlenie defined as ''presentation, idea, notion, representation.'' At first Dr. Turchin, who knows English well and was consulted by the translator, preferred the translation "notion." Yet it seemed rather odd, even vaguely anthropomorphic, to attribute a ''notion'' to a primitive organism, an amoeba, or even a fish. On the other hand, the term ''representation'' seemed too rudimentary for human behavior where ''idea'' or ''mental image" was clearly preferable. This difficulty arose from the effort to carry a constant term through evolutionary stages in which Turchin sees the emergence of qualitatively new properties. The problem is, therefore, only secondarily one of language. The basic issue is the familiar one of reductionism and nonreductionism in descriptions of biological and psychological phenomena. Since the Russian language happens to possess a term that fits these different stages better than English, we might do better to retain the Russian predstavlenie. In this text for a wide circle of English readers, however, the translator chose the word ''representation,'' probably the best that can be done.

The difficulties of understanding the term ''metasystem transition'' arise from its inclusion of a particular interpretation of logical attributes and relations. Turchin believes that it is impossible to describe the process by which a particular system develops into a metasystem in the terms of classical logic. Classical logic, he says, describes only attributes, not relations. For an adequate description of relations, one must rely on the Hegelian dialectic, which permits one to see that the whole of a metasystem is greater than the sum of its subsystems. The Hegelian concept of quantitative change leading to qualitative change is thus not only explicitly contained within Turchin's scheme, but plays an essential role in it. The behavior of human society is qualitatively different from the behavior of individual humans. And social integration, through the ''law of branching growth of the penultimate level,'' may lead eventually to a concept of ''The Super-Being.''

These concepts show some affinities to Marxist dialectical materialism, in which a similar differentiation of qualitatively distinct evolutionary levels has long been a characteristic feature. The British scientist J. D. Bernal once went so far as to claim that this concept of dialectical levels of natural laws was uniquely Marxist, when he wrote about ''the truth of different laws for different levels, an essentially Marxist idea.'' However, many non-Marxists have also advanced such a view of irreducible levels of laws; one should therefore be careful about terming a system of thought Marxist simply because it possesses this feature. Most Marxists would reject, at a minimum, Turchin's discussion of the concept of the Super-Being (although even in early Soviet Marxism ''God-building'' had a subrosa tradition). In Turchin's case we are probably justified in linking the inclusion of Hegelian concepts in his interpretation of nature to the education in philosophy he received in the Soviet Union. Soviet Marxism was probably one of several sources of Turchin's philosophic views; others are cybernetics and the thought of such earlier writers on cosmic evolution as Chardin and Vernadsky.

In view of the links one can see between the ideas of Turchin and Marxism, it is particularly interesting to notice that Turchin is now in political difficulty in the Soviet Union. Before I give some of the details of his political biography, however, I shall note that in this essentially nonpolitical manuscript Turchin gives a few hints of possible social implications of his interpretation. He remarks that the cybernetic view he is presenting places great emphasis on ''control'' and that it draws an analogy between society and a multicellular organism. He then observes, ''This point of view conceals in itself a great danger that in vulgarized form it can easily lead to the conception of a fascist-type totalitarian state.'' This possibility of a totalitarian state, of whatever type, is clearly repugnant to Turchin, and his personal experience is a witness that he is willing to risk his own security in order to struggle against such a state. As for his interpretation of social evolution, he contends that ''the possibility that a theory can be vulgarized is in no way an argument against its truth.'' In the last sections of his book he presents suggestions for avoiding such vulgarizations while still working for greater social integration.

Turchin is wrestling in this last part of his interpretation with a problem that has recently plagued many thinkers in Western Europe and America as well: Can one combine a scientific explanation of man and society with a commitment to individual freedom and social justice? Turchin is convinced that such combination of goals is possible; indeed, he sees this alliance as imperative, since he believes there is no conceptual alternative to the scientific worldview and no ethical alternative to the maintenance of individual freedom. It is the steadfastness of his support of science that will seem surprising to some of his readers in the West, where science is often seen as only a partial worldview, one to be supplemented with religious or nonscientific ethical or esthetic principles. Turchin, however, believes that humans can be explained within an entirely naturalistic framework. His belief that ethical and altruistic modes of behavior can emerge from an evolutionary scheme is, therefore, one that brings him in contact with recent writers in the West on sociobiology, physical anthropology, and evolutionary behavior. His emphases on information theory, on irreducible levels, and on the dangers of vulgarizations of scientific explanations of human behavior while nonetheless remaining loyal to science may make contributions to these already interesting discussions.


Valentin Fedorovich Turchin, born in 1931, holds a doctor's degree in the physical and mathematical sciences. He worked in the Soviet science center in Obninsk, near Moscow, in the Physics and Energetics Institute and then later became a senior scientific researcher in the Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In this institute he specialized in information theory and the computer sciences. While working in these fields he developed a new computer language that was widely applied in the USSR, the ''Refal'' system. After 1973 he was the director of a laboratory in the Central Scientific-Research Institute for the Design of Automated Construction Systems. During his years of professional employment Dr. Turchin published over 65 works in his field. In sum, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Valentin Turchin was considered one of the leading computer specialists in the Soviet Union.

Dr. Turchin's political difficulties began in 1968, when he was one of hundreds of scientists and other liberal intellectuals who signed letters protesting the crackdown on dissidents in the Soviet Union preceding and accompanying the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. In the same year he wrote an article entitled "The Inertia of Fear'' which circulated widely in samizdat, the system of underground transmission of manuscripts in the Soviet Union. Later the same article was expanded into a book-length manuscript in which Dr. Turchin criticized the vestiges of Stalinism in Soviet society and called for democratic reform.

In September 1973 Dr. Turchin was one of the few people in the Soviet Union who came to the defense of the prominent Soviet physicist Andrei D. Sakharov when the dissident scientist was attacked in the Soviet press. As a result of his defense of Sakharov, Turchin was denounced in his institute and demoted from chief of laboratory to senior research associate. The computer scientist continued his defense of human rights, and in July 1974, he was dismissed from the institute. In the ensuing months Dr. Turchin found that he had been blacklisted at other places of employment.

In the last few years Professor Turchin has been chairman of the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International, an organization that has worked for human rights throughout the world. When other Soviet scholars were persecuted, including Andrei Tverdokhlebov and Sergei Kovalev, Dr. Turchin helped publicize their plight. During this period, his wife, a mathematician, has financially supported her husband and their two sons.

In 1974 and 1975 Dr. Turchin received invitations to teach at several American universities, but the Soviet government refused to grant him an exit visa. Several writers in the West speculated that he would soon be arrested and tried, but so far he has been able to continue his activity, working within necessary limits. His apartment has been searched by the police and he has been interrogated.

Dr. Turchin wrote The Phenomenon of Science before these personal difficulties began, and he did not intend it to be a political statement. Indeed, the manuscript was accepted for publication by a leading Soviet publishing house, and preliminary Soviet reviewers praised its quality. Publication of the book was stopped only after Dr. Turchin was criticized on other grounds. Therefore, that the initial publication of The Phenomenon of Science is outside the Soviet Union, should not be seen as a result of its content, but of the nonscientific activities of its author after it was written.


Columbia University

June 1977


WHAT IS scientific knowledge of reality? To answer this question from a scientific point of view means to look at the human race from outside, from outer space so to speak. Then human beings will appear as certain combinations of matter which perform certain actions, in particular producing some kind of words and writing some kind of symbols. How do these actions arise in the process of life's evolution? Can their appearance be explained on the basis of some general principles related to the evolutionary process? What is scientific activity in light of these general principles? These are the questions we shall attempt to answer in this book.

Principles so general that they are applicable both to the evolution of science and to biological evolution require equally general concepts for their expression. Such concepts are offered by cybernetics, the science of relationships, control, and organization in all types of objects. Cybernetic concepts describe physicochemical, biological, and social phenomena with equal success. It is in fact the development of cybernetics, and particularly its successes in describing and modeling purposeful behavior and in pattern recognition, which has made the writing of this book possible. Therefore it would be more precise to define our subject as the cybernetic approach to science as an object of study.

The intellectual pivot of the book is the concept of the metasystem transition--the transition from a cybernetic system to a metasystem, which includes a set of systems of the initial type organized and controlled in a definite manner. I first made this concept the basis of an analysis of the development of sign systems used by science. Then, however, it turned out that investigating the entire process of life's evolution on earth from this point of view permits the construction of a coherent picture governed by uniform laws. Actually it would be better to say a moving picture, one which begins with the first living cells and ends with present-day scientific theories and the system of industrial production. This moving picture shows, in particular, the place of the phenomenon of science among the other phenomena of the world and reveals the significance of science in the overall picture of the evolution of the universe. That is how the plan of this book arose. How convincingly this picture has been drawn I propose to leave to the reader's judgment.

In accordance with the plan of the book, many very diverse facts and conceptions are presented. Some of the facts are commonly known; I try to limit my discussion of them, fitting them into the system and relating them to my basic idea. Other facts are less wellknown, and in such cases I dwell on them in more detail. The same is true for the conceptions; some are commonly recognized while others are less well known and, possibly, debatable. The varied nature of the material creates a situation where different parts of the book require different efforts from the reader. Some parts are descriptive and easy to read, in other places it is necessary to go deeply into quite specialized matters. Because the book is intended for a broad range of readers and does not assume knowledge beyond the secondary school level, I provide the necessary theoretical information in all such cases. These pages will require a certain effort of the untrained reader.

The book gives an important place to the problems of the theory of knowledge and logic. They are, of course, treated from a cybernetic point of view. Cybernetics is now waging an attack on traditional philosophical epistemology, offering a new natural-science interpretation of some of its concepts and rejecting others as untenable. Some philosophers oppose the rise of cybernetics and consider it an infringement on their territory. They accuse cyberneticists of making the truth ''crude'' and ''simplifying" it; they claim cyberneticists ignore the ''fundamental difference'' between different forms of the movement of matter (and this is despite the thesis of the world's unity!). But the philosopher to whom the possessive attitude toward various fields of knowledge is foreign should welcome the attacks of the cyberneticists. The development of physics and astronomy once destroyed natural philosophy, sparing philosophers of the need to talk approximately about a subject which scientists could discuss exactly. It appears that the development of cybernetics will do the same thing with philosophical epistemology or, to be more cautious, with a significant part of it. This should be nothing but gratifying. Philosophers will always have enough concerns of their own; science rids them of some, but gives them others.

Because the book is devoted to science in toto as a definite method of interaction between human society and its environment, it contains practically no discussion of concrete natural-science disciplines. The presentation remains entirely at the level of the concepts of cybernetics, logic, and mathematics, which are equally significant for all modern science. The only exception is for some notions of modern physics which are fundamentally important for the theory of sign systems. A concrete analysis of science's interaction with production and social life was also outside the scope of the problem. This is a distinct matter to which a vast literature has been devoted; in this book I remain at the level of general cybernetic concepts.

It is dangerous to attempt to combine a large amount of material from different fields of knowledge into a single, whole picture; details may become distorted, for a person cannot be a specialist in everything. Because this book attempts precisely to create such a picture, it is very likely that specialists in the fields of science touched on here will find omissions and inaccuracies; such is the price which must be paid for a wide scope. But such pictures are essential. It only remains for me to hope that this book contains nothing more than errors in detail which can be eliminated without detriment to the overall picture.