Socio-Cultural Evolution

The theory of sociocultural evolution is not based on an analogy (however cautious, vague, remote) of organism and society. Quite the contrary: Just the advanced theory of evolution excludes such a parallel today probably definitely.

No organism can be attributed evolution. Organic Evolution is the development of Life per se (however one may distinguish the central processes of autocatalytic reproduction from chemical processes). It concerns exclusively the mechanism of genetic reproduction, for which it separates organisms only intermediarily – as a transit station, as it were, namely as a means of reproduction and as a variable (!) means of stabilization.

Comparisons between the organic realm and the meaning realm are thus possible in two ways, and both possibilities must be carefully separated, namely (1) within the framework of a general systems theory from the point of view of different forms of system formation and (2) within the framework of a general evolutionary theory from the point of view of different forms of realization of the general evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and stabilization. Only with the last question we are concerned at this point.

That combination of stabilized possibilities, chance events and time which leads to evolution is itself only possible under certain conditions. It is this level of enabling conditions on which organic and sociocultural evolution, on which proteins and Meaning ultimately differ. The fine regulation of mutative processes relates exclusively to those small systems which carry the specific function of genetic reproduction, and thus exclusively to a specific gene environment inside the cell. It is coincidental with regard to the persistence of organisms. In this respect, since organic evolution is based on blind, imitative variation, it relies on large numbers and/or long periods of time. It has therefore "invented" for more complex organisms the abbreviation mechanism of procreation, birth and death, which mediates at the same time the selection and stabilization achievements on the level of higher complexity, but, as one knows today, is without influence on the variation chance. The expectability of evolutionary changes is thus based on statistical probabilities, not on a plan and also not on purposeful control. Thus, organic evolution is and remains bound to the law of large numbers, and this limits the complexity of individual systems that can be achieved at its level.

At this point the socio-cultural evolution starts. This limitation is removed by meaning. Meaning enables by simultaneous representation of selection area and selection novel system formations and thus novel forms of self-control, which finally (and thematically first in some advanced cultures) can also refer to evolution itself; evolution itself gets meaning. The changes thus triggered set a new kind of evolutionary process in motion, which is superimposed on organic evolution without continuously continuing it by its means. In detail, the critical divergences to the mode of organic evolution can be summarized in the following aspects:

(1) Also socio-cultural evolution can make use of the random mechanism in the sense that it uses events which cannot be produced from the evolving system. But its variation mechanism is *no longer necessarily random*. Rather, variations as well as selections can also be carried out with respect to an evolutionary context in the sense of a recognized progress – which of course does not exclude errors (in the sense of non-stabilizability, non-reproducibility), but only brings them to another level and points to different kinds of correction mechanisms.

(2) Also socio-cultural evolution remains dependent on selection, thus must be able to presuppose a "what from" of selection. But its selection mechanism *can choose not only among the real, but also among the possible*. It does not presuppose that the selection field already exists, i.e. is already created by mutative variation and is then destroyed again or exceptionally preserved; but it presents in the form of meaning at the same time a field of possible subsequent selections, i.e. real possibilities, among which one can choose without having to realize first everything that can be chosen. This avoids unnecessary production detours. At the same time, a considerable acceleration is achieved. The further course as well as the speed of socio-cultural evolution are therefore essentially determined by what real possibilities are at disposal (according to what we had explained above in chapter 1.5 about increasing the complexity of the possible).

(3) Sociocultural evolution also stabilizes its achievements in the form of systems; but its variation and selection mechanisms *no longer depend on this being done* (for statistically reconstructible reasons) *by a very large number of systems*. Thus, sociocultural evolution as evolution becomes *type-dependent* (which, contrary to earlier assumptions, organic evolution is not). Type-dependent means that the further development becomes dependent on conditions of functional and structural compatibility in the evolving system (and not only: in the reproduction mechanism), that in other words the structural type of individual systems is decisive for whether and in which direction there is further evolution.

Already the multitude of archaic social systems is, statistically and compared to the conditions of organic evolution, a relatively small quantity. The phase of high culture is reached only in few, countable cases with a high degree of individualization. The world society forming today is a single social system. The socio-cultural evolution consequently amounts in the end to *evolution in one case*. The small number, finally the singular number, must therefore be immanently compensable in its disadvantage by meaning. That this was possible for territorial societies of the old style is proven by the symbolic formations which have carried the breakthrough to the bourgeois society and thus to the world society. **For the world society itself, for the critical question of further evolution in one instance, the proof of the possibility is pending.**

(4) These changes, which will be demonstrated more specifically in the following sections, have together caused evolution to become more and more reflexive within the framework of a few and finally of a single social system, which controls evolution by means of its self-selection. The criterion of evolution, increase of complexity, thus becomes – if not a goal, at least – a functional condition of its mechanisms. In meaningful experience and action time can appear as horizon and thus evolution can be understood and projected as context of selections; it becomes conceivable, for example, to create structural conditions for chances of success of random variations. Evolution now no longer presupposes itself blindly in the meaning of evolutionary already achieved levels of organization of matter as differential condition of further evolution; it implies itself in the horizon of its own selectivity as condition of the change of its own possibilities.

With all these characteristics sociocultural evolution (as well as organic evolution) is itself an evolutionary achievement. In all differences between organic and sociocultural evolution it can be seen that this new possibility was not dependent on immediate perfection, but could build up gradually: Unnecessity of chance variation does not exclude the use of chance; the possibility to choose among the possible does not exclude the possibility to choose among the real; the reduction of the number of stabilizing systems does not require the immediate reduction to one; and socio-cultural evolution does not depend on immediate self-thematization, but can use its own progress as illustrative material in such a way that instead of evolution first system history becomes conscious. **After consolidation of the world society, however, the question will arise whether the unity of the evolving system does not make all intermediate solutions obsolete and if one wants further evolution, one must also plan it.**


LUHMANN, Niklas, 2017. Systemtheorie der Gesellschaft. Berlin: Suhrkamp. ISBN 978-3-518-58705-8, p. 311–316.