Andy Blunden October 2012
The term ontogenesis was coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 and comes from the roots onto- meaning “being” and genesis meaning birth or descent. Haeckel also coined the term phylogeny, by which is meant: “the evolutionary development of a species or other group of organisms through a succession of forms.” 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. A 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 is those traits of the organism as they are actually realised, not necessarily genetically heritable.
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 idea that only individual beings actually exist. All the rest – biological species and ethnic groups – are, in this ontology, merely sets of existing organisms, so grouped according to metaphysical theories about origins and/or shared attributes of sets of beings; a species does not exist in the same sense that an 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 which we must count their biological inheritance including both their genetic inheritance, and other biological inheritances resulting from the socially and culturally-determined conditions of life enjoyed by their mother, which together underpins the expression of the genotype in the phenotype; their cultural inheritance, which includes the mass of artefacts – land, crops, domestic animals, technology, and symbolic artefacts such as literature, scientific texts and art, including the modification to the human body constructed therewith – and 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 individual’s social position 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 (though the spoken word has only an ephemeral existence). So the birthright of each individual person has material foundations in biology and technology as well as people and their social positions.
But the realisation or expression of biology and culture in the individual person, in ontogeny, also requires a third component, namely a social situation. The social situation has a ontological status quite distinct from that of the various material entities whether natural or artificial. 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 product of three ontologically distinct though interacting forms of existence: the genotype, the culture and the social situation, and therefore of phylogenesis, ethnogenesis and sociogenesis. By sociogenesis I mean something quite distinct from cultural evolution (ethnogenesis), I mean the unfolding of a multitude of real social situations in any community, as opposed to broad social formations which I subsume under ethnogenesis. The social situation includes both the momentary situation and the more stable social position. Whilst all members of a community share the same ethnos, they each have different social positions.
Genotypical evolution is the outcome of interconnected processes of biological and cultural evolution, of phylogenesis and ethnogenesis. The phenotype is the outcome of interconnected processes of genotypical evolution and ethnogenesis. Ethnogenesis, the folding of new cultural formations and the gradual change in cultural formations, builds upon the products of past cultural and biological evolution. 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 also to culture) and the presently existent culture. The social situation itself is the product of interaction between the existent culture and the individual organism itself in its social position, whilst on the other hand, the individual organism is shaped by the interaction between the social situation and the phenotypical inheritance. The culture develops thanks to the formation of social situations and 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.”
Ontogenesis completes its cycle within the life-time of a single individual, up to perhaps 100 years at most. Phylogenesis and ethnogenesis provide the starting point for an individual along with the social situation of their birthright. The social situation has much the same kind of existence as the individual person inasmuch as the individual is not just a biological organism. 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. But 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, and those formations of the psyche which survive disappearance of the social situation in which they exist. 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 manifests itself across the entire range of activity setting.
Situations and social positions are subject to the same kind of differentiation: my social position changes if at all only slowly during my life, though year-by-year during childhood, 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 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.
Vygotsky distinguished two types of periodisation of ontogeny (three actually, but the third, intermediate type was scarcely expounded): periods of development made up of lytical phases of molecular development in which successive formations fade into one another, and critical phases – sharp transformations of the entire personality and the relation of the individual to those around them, constituting qualitatively distinct social roles. The lytical phases of development constitute gradual, piecemeal changes which are manifest only when the unseen internal changes are complete. So ontogeny is the unity of two kinds of change or development: critical and lytical. 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 lived social position, 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 of the entire personality in a relatively short space of time. In both phases of ontogeny, development takes place in and through social situations which move and change moment-by-moment.
The same general relations 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 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 two 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.
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 genotypically almost identical to human beings who lived 10,000 years ago, but with lives which are utterly different. We see significant ethnogenesis unfolding through qualitatively new forms of activity now decade by decade, whereas such innovation took hundreds or thousands of years at the dawn of our species. Ontogenesis completes its development in under 100 years, and social situations come and go second by second, with changes in social position taking a year or a decade or more 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 seconds and decades, 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. What distinguishes phylogenesis, ethnogenesis, sociogenesis and ontogenesis is what is developing.