Germ form theory - conceptual frame


How can development be conceived? The answer, in our opinion, is anything but obvious. This text is intended to seek an answer to this question and to present a number of historical and contemporary examples underlining our views. In general, development apparently is conceived as the expansion of possibilities by a process of accumulating increasingly greater means to advance development. In other words, this is a perspective of mere quantitative growth. However, development is also characterised by qualitative jumps. Thus the question arises: When does a quantitative process transform into a qualitative process? What are the reasons and what are necessary conditions for this to happen? One of the most advanced models to answer these questions is the Five Step Model we present in the following.


The Five Step Model has been influenced by a number of precursors. For one, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most important idealist philosophers, developed a formal system of the sciences. In his »Science of Logic« [Hegel-Logic] he analyses the relationship between being, essence and concept, and how one develops into the other. His notion of development, however, is purely logical, not historical. It was Karl Marx [1] who joined Hegelian dialectics to history and who discovered principles of historical development. Quite contrary to Marx' own views, the ensuing Marxist movement translated these principles into »laws« by oversimplifying and formalising Marx' original analysis. Thus, Friedrich Engels propounded the »three laws of dialectics« that have been used by generations of Marxists.

One prominent aspect Hegel emphasises is that the principles of development can and should never be separated from the subject of the original analysis. Why so? The danger of any law formulated in terms of a general statement is obvious: The law once discovered by studying a specific subject is applied to another subject and now guides the analysis of this new topic. In other words, this so-called law works as a pair of glasses that filters one's perception and predetermines whatever can be viewed and conceptualised. Nevertheless, there are a number of general principles of development, and how change takes place is not arbitrary. But any analysis must be careful and take into account, that each concept functions as a filter. This also applies to the Five Step Model we present here.

It was Klaus Holzkamp, the founder of German Critical Psychology, who--in the Hegelian sense--pursues an in our view viable approach: In a first step, he analyses his subject and discovers its principles of development. In his opinion some of the Marxian and Hegelian insights have to be specified in more detail. His aim is an explication of the historical evolution of the psyche in phylogenesis. From this starting point, the generalisation of his specifications covers five steps. With Holzkamp's views, the core of the Five Step Model was born.

The next step in the development of the Five Step Model was the transmission of the model from phylogenesis to the history of society. Being aware that there are qualitative differences between evolution and human history, Stefan Meretz assumes, that on a general level there are also similarities. It would be wrong to explain human history in an evolutionist fashion, but there are comparable structures of development, which can be transfered. However, this has to be verified by transforming and applying the Five Step Model to the new subject-matter of human history. Two examples are presented in support of our position. If our views can be sufficiently supported, we will gain a powerful tool to analyse contemporary and new phenomena such as Free Software and we will be in a position to address the question of how capitalism can be overcome.

Essentially we will try to show that the results of our examination lead us to a new understanding of the qualitative transformation of society. Our findings are not new in the sense, that the aspects we have found have never been thought of before. So, don't let yourself be carried away too easily into a warm (or cold) feeling of agreement (or disagreement) when some aspects sound familiar--the overall picture we give is quite new. Of course, we stand on the shoulders of giants, too [Wikipedia-Shoulders].


While we attempt to explain the skeleton of the Five Step Model in the following, keep in mind what has been said until now. Holzkamp generalises his Five Step Model of development from research on qualitative steps in phylogenesis on its path towards the development of human society. Here are the headlines which we will put forward in detail later:

  1. Emergence step: emergence of the germ form
  2. Crisis step: crisis of the old form
  3. Expansion step: germ form becomes an important dimension
  4. Dominance step: germ form becomes the dominant form
  5. Restructuring step: Restructuring of the entire system process

These steps are not to be understood as chronological in order, but rather as logical. To introduce you to germ form theory let us first sketch an example from evolution, which we will use to illustrate the steps of the model. The example is taken from the Holzkamp book [Holzkamp-Grundlegung]:

Simple organisms moving around in water depend on the environmental conditions they live in, because they sustain by the assimilation of nutrition from this environment. By moving to nutritionally rich regions they heighten their chances and improve their ability to survive. Orientation plays a crucial role. Early forms of visual orientation, of »seeing«, are coupled with motor skills. Light and dark areas in the surrounding are detected via the sensible surface of the organism during locomotion (scientifically: »gradient orientation«). Now, let's assume that lighter regions systematically contain a higher amount of nutrition. These water organisms use the environmental differences in illumination in order to find nutritionally rich regions; this increases their possibility to survive. However, for these organisms depending on their ability to move in order to find orientation, locomotion, on the other hand, is also a very risky thing to do in an extremely hostile and dangerous environment. Other organisms, that are able to detect visual differences from a more remote stance have a much higher chance of survival because they are independent of their locomotion to detect nutritionally rich areas; in other words, they have a far lower risk of lethal movements. The question of development now is: Why and how does the population of organisms with a simpler structure develop qualitatively higher forms of orientation? (And we know for sure, that it did happen!)

1. Emergence step: emergence of the germ form

Anything that exists on a new level of development appears to us as being self-evident and ubiquitous. We should keep in mind that the prevailing principle derived from the observed system did not exist before, but instead another, an old principle ruled the observed system then.

In our example above, the system is the population of simple organisms living in water. They use primitive orientation to help them find nutritionally rich regions. Everything is fine as long as the immediate environmental conditions are well for the sustenance and reproduction of the population. However, these organisms always risk lethal movements, because their orientation is fully dependent on their continuous moving around; they have no form of orientation that would allow them to »see« sappy grounds ahead of them from a long distance.

New forms always occur as mutants; they are ignored because they are useless for the time being. There are niches where such mutants survive. Some mutants represent early forms of new variants for example of »seeing« over longer distances. They are germ forms of a qualitatively new function emerging during the next steps of development. We can assert this today, because we know a lot about how e.g. the visual functions in various organisms have developed in time and how they work. By analysing we look backward in order to reconstruct forward to understand what has developed. Thus, our knowledge tells us: A germ form develops in niches; it survives within the old modes of sustenance and reproduction, but has new features that will become dominant in the future. On a current stage of emergence, these germ forms--mutations and deviations--are new functions, perhaps as useless for reproduction and survival, as other non-germ form deviations. Whether these new functions become useful is decided during the next two steps.

2. Crisis step: crisis of the old form

A new form receives a chance for further development, only if it is able to play a positive or decisive role in the given system based on the old forms. On the other hand, an existing old form only requires new forms, when the existing system can no longer reproduce itself as successfully as before. When the old forms and principles no longer work efficiently, the old system runs into a crisis.

A crisis can be the result of inner or outer disturbing conditions or causes. Often it is due to changes in the environment of the given system. In the case of our simple water population, for example, the nutrition level can decrease. Changes in the environment generate inner contradictions. The given system may, in some cases, be able to cope with these contradictions on the basis of the old principles; in other cases, it may not.

Even more interesting are inner conditions of a crisis being transformed into inner contradictions. This is the case, when all of the potential for further development immanent to the given system is exhausted while the system faces new challenges that it cannot deal with the existing resources. For instance the population of our simple organisms grows to an extent, that the speed of its locomotion and the precision of its orientation become critically slow and imprecise so that it fails to reach new nutrition regions early enough to prevent starvation. Thus, this system of organisms runs into a crisis due to its own successful development. Grown too large in size, on the basis of the old form of orientation and movement it is unable to meet the challenge of increased nutritional needs.

Now, there are three possibilities of what can happen: stagnation, collapse, qualitative development. In the first case, a part of the population starves and the system stagnates within the limits of the existing conditions and on the old level of its functioning. In the second case, the growth of the population is so rapid that the whole population collapses and disappears. In the third case, a qualitatively new property develops within the population which enables further growth and expansion. We will follow the third option, and our candidate for this is the already existing germ form from the emergence step, as shown above.

3. Expansion step: the germ form becomes an important dimension

Under the conditions established by the prevalent old principles and the ensuing crisis the relatively new germ form can leave its niches and expand quantitatively. This is possible because it is needed for further development. It becomes an important and qualitatively new dimension of development within the old, as yet dominant form. The establishment of the germ form within the old logical system can have two results: First, it can lead to an integration of the new form into the old one, whereby the the old form assimilates the germ form, accommodating, adapting and modifying itself due to this process only slightly. Second, the germ form performs continuously better and establishes itself side by side the old principles of the given system.

In the first case the germ form character is lost. In the second case the new features encompassed by the germ form are strengthened. In both cases the old system benefits from an integrated and strengthened germ form. Thereby, the old system attenuates its own crisis phenomena. Moreover, it is a key precondition for the development to a next step that during the germ form phase of expansion, these new but disparate principles be in the service of the logic of the old system: i.e. the new system must work for the old one, otherwise it will be absorbed or defeated by the old prevailing system.

At this point, it is very important to understand the dialectics of this step. Using dualistic logics, one would say, that a new form is either incompatible or compatible with the old one. There is no third. This concept of »tertium non datur«, also known as »principle of the excluded third«, dominates contemporary thinking, and workers movements have not been free of it. Dialectic thinking overcomes and includes dualistic logic by recognising the relationship between the opposites. In reality opposites are never isolated from each other. In particular isolating opposites from each other is not useful for understanding historical processes of development, at all.

Returning to our example, for the first result type, the population of our simple organisms could integrate the newly developed function of »distance-seeing« into the old form of orientation by using the improved sensibility of the organisms' surface detecting light-dark differences. With an improved sensibility the organisms movements will be more intricate and attuned to environmental conditions so that lethal risks decrease. However, concerning distance orientation nothing has changed. A population with a more sensible moving orientation may be fit enough for the current stage of growth. The integration is completed and the new function of distance-seeing disappears, because it is no longer required.

The second result type could be, that the new function of distance-seeing, which is a special property pertaining to only a few organisms within the population, enables the whole population to perform better in reaching higher nutrition levels by using these few as leaders. Thus, the whole system then takes advantage of these few organisms with more precise and expedient orientation faculties. The new function can expand, because it is needed by all. It is helpful to the whole population even while the old logic is still dominant. Thus, organisms featuring the new function survive with a higher probability than other organisms and the new function spreads out over the following generations.

4. Dominance step: the germ form becomes the dominant form

At this point of development, the former subsidiary germ form becomes the dominant form of development. The new principles prevail because they are an improvement in respect to the important dimensions of the entire development process. At this stage the typical novel character of the germ form comes to an end. Now, it is its principles that determine further development. These new principles replace the obsolete and no longer functional principles of the old form, either step by step or abruptly. Now the new form becomes self-evident and ubiquitous.

Becoming dominant is the second qualitative step: First, the germ form conquers a new qualitative position, where it can no longer be ignored (expansion step). Then, the new form replaces the old form by now determining the system's direction of development. This second step brings along a completely new potential for further developments. These new possibilities are far more ample and more far reaching than those that had developed under the old circumstances. However, before this new potential can fully come to bear, the entire system needs to adopt the new principles as a whole (restructuring step).

Applying these ideas to our example, the dominance step means that distance-seeing is so useful for the entire population that organisms employing the old primitive function of orientation via locomotion are now at a reproductive disadvantage compared to those members of the population applying the new function. They vanish, and the new function will be taken over by all the organisms of the following generations. This process can be slow in nature, taking many generations, if there is only little pressure to adapt to the new conditions; or it can be quite fast, but not too fast, which would also endanger the survival of the population.

Remember that in case of organisms, the mode of development is over generations via mutation and selection. In comparison to measures taken by human societies to engender historical development, this is very slow. While the time scale of those five step developments in natural vs. societal environments can be completely different, the qualitative steps to cross the respective developmental boundaries are just the same.

5. Restructuring step: restructuring of the entire system process

When a new form has been established, then the entire system with all of the other aspects of its life needs to be rebuilt. This reconstruction of all other subsidiary derivative processes is very important in order to realize the entire systems new potential for further development based on the principles of the new form. Now, new contradictions can occur, new germ forms can occur, the new system can develop into new crises etc. The first step of a new cycle is reached again by closing a former cycle. Finally we get a picture of a spiral where it took five steps to perform one turn ending up on a higher level where a next turn higher above will again encompass five steps and so on.

So what, at this stage, has happened to our population of organisms? Well, perceiving, seeing and scrutinising an object from quite a distance is now the dominant form of orientation for these organisms, while other--e.g. motor--functions adopt to these new functions. Qualitatively new organs of perception have been developed, »eyes« in our case. An improved and qualitatively new orientation now also needs an improved nervous control. Due to a more precise orientation, moving organs--fins, claws, tentacles etc.--develop, in order to also facilitate adaptation and precision of movements. Other functions of the population system reconstruct themselves and develop further in respect to the new challenges activated by the new dominant mode of orientation. However, this, as yet, simple and unrefined form of seeing is not capable of distinguishing different types of objects from a long distance; it merely gives approximate information about the direction in which the organism is to move. Thus, due to further population growth new contradictions emerge, new germ forms develop etc. The restructuring step is the first step of a new turn in the spiral.

Generalising the Five Step Model

While using examples from biology, we delineated the Five Step Model in a more general perspective. Thus, in many cases historical processes can be seen in this view. Keeping in mind that the Five Step Model is not intended to represent a universal model of development, it is nevertheless always interesting to examine whether historical processes can be construed in terms of the steps of the model. In the following, we will do precisely this, using the historical emergence of Free Software as a case of peer production to show the validity of the germ form model for historical processes [2]. We will argue, that the Five Step Model can be used to understand where we currently stand in an historical process of transformation. This view sheds new light on questions being commonly answered by applying formal dualistic logics (market vs. planned economy, labour vs. capital etc.).

This generalisation of the Five Step Model was first introduced by Stefan Meretz in the context of the Oekonux project starting in 1999. Oekonux is an acronym of »Economy and GNU/Linux« (in German) [Oekonux-Site]. The project is a discussion and research platform for those interested in the understanding, application and proliferation of the principles of Free Software and peer production to the entirety of society. The Five Step Model plays an important role for understanding the various and partly contradicting phenomena of Free Software; it guards us from stepping into some of the well-known traps offered by dualistic logics: Is Free Software in favour of capitalism or against capitalism? This type of question needs to be rejected, because it does not help us understand either the principles of Free Software or its role in capitalism. The only possible answer to this question is »It is as much in favour of as it is against capitalism«; and that explains nothing. In the following we will show that in using the Five Step Model we can attain a deep understanding of Free Software and peer production, both as a general phenomenon and of its role in contemporary capitalism.


[1]When we refer to Karl Marx then we refer more to the philosopher and political economist than to the political activist. In particular we are referring to his analysis of capitalism.
[2]The unabridged version of this text contains another example: Capitalism as a germ form process.

StefanMerten/Papers/CapitalAndClass/GermFormTheoryConcept (last edited 2009-06-02 17:07:03 by StefanMerten)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License (details).
All pages are immutable until you log in