Andy Blunden October 2012

Ontogenesis, Ethnogenesis, Sociogenesis and Phylogenesis

Every human being is a product of at least four interconnected processes of development.

In his classic work, “The Morphology of Organisms,” published in 1866, the biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term phylogeny, by which is meant the evolutionary development of a species or other group of organisms through a succession of forms. Haeckel illustrated this idea with diagrams of evolutionary trees which became identified with Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. The root phylon is ancient Greek for a race or tribe, but nowadays means an evolutionary lineage or major taxonomic group which share a basic body plan or pattern of structural organization. The related distinction between genotype and phenotype is relevant as well. The genotype is the organism’s genetic make-up which is passed on to progeny by biological inheritance and phenotype which is those traits of the organism as they are actually realised in the life of an organism in its environment, not necessarily genetically heritable.

In the same work, Haeckel also coined the term ontogenesis, which comes from the roots onto- meaning “being” and genesis meaning birth or descent.. There is an implicit ontology in the etymology of the word “ontogeny.” Notwithstanding Aristotle and Hegel, the use of onto- to reference the individual organism rests on the questionable idea that only individual beings, or perhaps phenotypes, actually exist. All the rest – biological species and ethnic groups – are, in this ontology, merely sets of existing organisms, so grouped according to one’s metaphysical theories about origins and/or shared attributes of sets of beings. That is, the individual organism is designated a “being” because a species does not exist in the same sense that the individual organism exists – it is a construct of our theory of biology.

“Ontogeny” means the whole life-cycle of an individual human organism, taking account of all the processes of formation realised in the development of the individual person. Among these processes we must count both their biological inheritance and their biological inheritance. Their biological inheritance includes both their genetic inheritance, and other biological inheritances resulting from the socially and culturally-determined conditions of life enjoyed by their mother, which together underpin the expression of the genotype in the phenotype. Their cultural inheritance includes both material culture and social practice. The material culture includes the mass of artefacts used by their community – land, crops, domestic animals, technology, and symbolic artefacts such as literature, scientific texts and art, and the development and modifications to the human body enabled by that material culture. Social practice includes the forms of activity enabled by that mass of artefacts, the institutions or forms of practice constituting the mass of artefacts as cultural products, as well as the social position occupied by individuals within those institutions, whether ‘earned’ or inherited. The biological, cultural and social inheritance are expressed in phenotypical genesis and thereby in the ontogeny of each individual. Biological and cultural evolution act jointly only in and through the individual organisms and the material culture. Central to the material culture is the spoken word, which counts as part of the material culture even though spoken words have only an ephemeral existence. So the birthright of each individual person has material foundations in biology, land and technology as well as in personalities and their social positions and activities.

The realisation or expression of biology and culture in the individual person, in ontogeny, also requires a third component, namely a social situation. Not every individual develops in exactly the same way, even if we start off from the same conditions. And the differences are not random. The social situation has an ontological status quite distinct from that of the various material entities whether natural or artificial which form the conditions of a person’s existence. Like the individual organism it is a real existence, but unlike the individual organism and material culture, it is not completely instantiated in the organisation of material entities. The social situation exists only thanks to meaning, which is a cultural product and an ideal.

The ontogenesis of each individual person is the realisation of three ontologically distinct though interacting forms of existence: the genotype, the culture and the social situation, and therefore of three distinct developmental processes: phylogenesis, ethnogenesis and sociogenesis.

By sociogenesis I mean something quite distinct from cultural evolution (ethnogenesis). I mean the unfolding of and passage through a multitude of social situations made available within a community, as opposed to broad social formations, sharing language, religion and technology, which I subsume under ethnogenesis. For example, in multicultural societies, social classes and ethnic communities form distinct patterns of association. The social situation includes both the momentary social situation and the more stable social position of an individual person. Whilst all members of a community share the same ethnos or culture, they each have different social positions. Occupying a given social position entails a certain range or series of possible social situations which are the real engines of personal development.

The phenotype is the outcome of interconnected processes of genotypical evolution and ethnogenesis. But genotypical evolution is not simply a biological process. At least in human beings, it is itself the outcome of interconnected processes of biological and cultural evolution, of phylogenesis and ethnogenesis. Ethnogenesis, the unfolding of new cultural formations and the gradual change in cultural formations, builds upon the products of past cultural and biological evolution. The culture produced by one generation is part of the conditions for the biological evolution of succeeding generations. So the human material which is shaped by a social situation is the product of the interaction between an inheritance already fixed in biology (even though it owes its origins to both biology and culture) and the presently existent material culture and institutions. Individual people are not passive objects of this evolution. The social situation itself is the product of interaction between the existent culture and the individual organism itself in its social position. On the other hand, the individual organism is conditioned by the interaction between the social situation and its phenotypical inheritance. The culture changes and develops only thanks to the formation of social situations and sociogenesis.

Social situations can be understood as a kind of predicament? the contradiction between what a person perceives to be their needs and the means by which they can satisfy these needs. It is this contradiction which makes social positioning a dynamic process, and not just a passive and rigid structure. It is the working out of these contradictions which drives sociogenesis.

So in each case we have a three-way relationship of mutual mediation. First: genotype, culture and phenotype. Second: phenotype, culture and social situation. Consequently it is quite impossible to separate these processes of development into distinct “time-scales.” Cultural development has been at work for the entire period of human biological evolution, generating throughout an endless series of social formations along the way.

Ontogenesis, inclusive of both the person’s material being and their ideal form or social position and identity, completes its cycle within the life-time of a single individual, up to about 100 years. Phylogenesis and ethnogenesis provide the starting point for an individual along with the social situation into which they are born. The social situation has much the same kind of existence as the individual person inasmuch as a person can be understood only as the occupant of a social position, as well as a biological organism, as a unity of the material and the ideal. The individual lives an ideal existence and is a conscious being; the social situation is also constituted by human beings and ideals.

Ontogeny is a process which unfolds second-by-second over the period of a person’s life. Every situation which participates in the formation of the person really exists, every second of their life. Analysis of ontogeny obliges us to recognise that it is understandable by units, and these units are stable formations of the psyche, which transcend any given social situation, because these formations of the psyche survive disappearance of the social situation in which they exist and which they contribute to constituting. A competency acquired in a given situation may not only survive the social situation in which it was first acquired, but become generalised, as an isolated facility may manifest itself across the entire range of activity settings. These aspects of the personality which I have called ‘stable formations of the psyche’, can be understood as commitments a person has to projects within the social formation of which they are a part, and cannot be understood in isolation from those commitments by means of which they are entangled with the life of an entire community.

Just as we must distinguish between stable aspects of the personality, and those aspects which are manifested in a given social situation, we must distinguish between social situations and social positions. My social position changes if at all only slowly during my life, though year-by-year during childhood as I grow up, but my immediate social situation (context) may change second-by-second. But when a new social position is acquired, the range of available social contexts or situations changes; opportunities are created (or lost). But there is no way that social position and social context/situation can be pulled apart. Social position has nothing other than social contexts, even though it is also something more than the range of available social contexts.

Lev Vygotsky distinguished two types of periodisation of ontogeny: periods of development made up of lytical phases of ‘molecular’ development in which successive formations gradually fade one into the other, separated by critical phases ? sharp transformations of the entire personality and the social situation – the relation of the individual to those around them, constituting qualitatively distinct social roles or concepts of who they are. For example, an infant may transform themself into a toddler, or a pre-school child into a school-age child, with new expectations and possibilities. The lytical phases of development constitute gradual, piecemeal changes which are manifest only when the unseen internal changes are complete. When and how these phases of development are completed is culturally variable – “teenager,” for example is a phase of development which was largely absent from pre-industrial societies, but the formation of the free adult citizen presupposes that all phases of development are completed.

So ontogeny is the unity of two kinds of change or development: critical and lytical phases. During the lytical phases of development a thousand tiny conquests eventually amount to something qualitative, but they remain ephemeral in as much as they rely on the underlying social position of the person remaining unchanged. Broadly speaking, it seems that changes won through lytical phases of development are only consolidated by a transformation of the person’s social situation, a new relation to their social environment, a new mode of being. The same is true of the critical phases, but here it is not by a thousand small conquests, but by a destruction of the former social situation, the former personality, and the transformation, in a relatively short space of time, of the entire personality including the person’s relationships with those around them.

During adulthood, ontogenesis is driven by a series of unique, discrete, critical experiences and their catharsis – the ‘processing’ of an experience by the person, that is, how a person deals with and survives crises and life-changing opportunities in their life (perezhivaniya), the chapters, so to speak, of their autobiography. Children also undergo such experiences, but generally only in connection with their social situation of development, heavily dependent on the response of the adults around them. Catharsis entails transformation of the relation of the person to their social and material environment.

The same general relations, with two distinct types of phases of development, apply to phylogenesis. Thanks to Stephen Jay Gould we now know about ‘punctuated equilibrium’. So long as a genotype lives within a given stable habitat or ‘ecological niche’ it undergoes only gradual molecular (lytical) change, with ecological advantageous features being subject to natural selection and being either accentuated or attenuated to enhance adaptation. But when either these changes mount up to some qualitative point or as a result in a breakdown or other change affecting the habitat or ecological niche, the genotype undergoes a rapid change marked by large-scale die-offs and selection to the point of near extinction, as a result of which there may be a sharp change or bifurcation of the genotype which then occupies one or more entirely new ecological niches. No really distinct process takes place during the two different phases of development. Natural selection is pushed to such an extreme in the case of critical development that the genotype is not simply gaining natural advantage in the ecological niche but breaking out into a new ecological niche, an entirely new relation of the organism to its environment.

Socio-cultural development is also marked by two kinds of developmental phase: gradual development within a given mode of production and state-form over long periods of time, until contradictions between the forces of production and the property relations within which these forces are utilises build up to a point where a rapid transformation of the relation takes place.

Ethnogenesis itself is made up of the innovation of new artefacts and forms of activity, or in ideal terms, the formation of new concepts. These concepts arise from problem situations within institutions or projects and give rise to the launching of new projects, eventually objectified in the formation of institutions consolidating a certain range of social positions and normative forms of activity. These minor adaptations may culminate in the formation of new cultural groups or relations between them. In this way ethnogenesis takes place in and through problematic social situations, sociogenesis both resting upon and constituting ethnogenesis.

It is now firmly established that the ethnogenesis and phylogenesis of human beings went hand-in-hand for millions of years before the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens. So both ethnogenesis and phylogenesis are essentially processes stretching over millions of years.

We can distinguish a period of about 10,000 years of recent history where ethnogenesis has dominated phylogenesis, with human beings today effectively genotypically identical to human beings who lived 10,000 years ago, but with phenotypes and lives which are utterly different. We see significant ethnogenesis unfolding through qualitatively new forms of activity now decade by decade, whereas at the dawn of our species such innovation took hundreds of thousands of years.

Ontogenesis completes its development in under 100 years, and social situations can come and go quite rapidly, with passages through social positions typically taking some years to be accomplished. So it is clear enough that these 4 processes can be associated with three different time scales: phylogenesis takes millions of years, ethnogenesis takes decades and centuries, sociogenesis takes up to years, ontogenesis (that is, formation of stable social positions and identities), takes days, years and decades.

But the mutual constitution of these processes, i.e., the way one process achieves its changes thanks to another process, means that time-scale cannot separate these processes of development – all of them are at work unceasingly and in mutual interconnection.

What distinguishes phylogenesis, ethnogenesis, sociogenesis and ontogenesis is what is developing.