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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Andrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).
Defining Higher in the Holarchy of Life
Andrew P. Smith
The centerpiece of the effort to unite science and spirit in a single paradigm is the concept of holarchy, a scale of existence that includes everything from subatomic particles to the most evolved organisms on earth to still higher states of consciousness (Wilber 1989; 1995; Smith 2000a). The idea of holarchy is very old (Lovejoy 1960), but informed on the one hand by modern advances in science (Allen and Starr 1982; Kauffman 1993; Pettersson 1996; Capra 1996; Depew and Weber 1997), and on the other by a growing awareness and experience of higher states of consciousness (Wilber 1980; Grof 1993; Combs 1995; Smith 2000b), it has taken a form that can embrace traditional wisdom embodied in the perennial philosophy (Huxley 1990) while at the same time remaining consistent with the scientific worldview (Smith 2000a).
Holarchy is a special class of hierarchy, and the essence of any hierarchy is that everything has its rank in relation to everything else. It follows that in order to have any kind of holarchy or hierarchy, we have to have a way of defining higher and lower, a criterion or set of criteria that can be used to rank different holons, or forms of existence. The most commonly used criterion is emergence, the manifestation of new properties in a holon not found in lower holons. For example, most molecules have properties not exhibited by atoms, and all cells have properties not exhibited by molecules, so by this criterion, cells are higher than molecules, which in turn are higher than atoms. Another criterion, used by Ken Wilber (1995), is an asymmetric relationship, where the lower holon is necessary for the existence of the higher, while the higher is not necessary for the lower. Using this criterion, we again come to the conclusion that cells are higher than molecules--since molecules are necessary for the existence of cells, but not vice-versa--and molecules higher than atoms. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001b), the two criteria, if applied consistently, lead to an identical ranking of holons.
Nevertheless, a reliance on either or both of these two criteria is not entirely satisfactory. Both of these criteria make the tacit assumption that the holons to be compared exist in a whole-part relationship. Thus cells are composed of molecules, and molecules are composed of atoms. As long as one is comparing holons in this kind of relationship, the criteria do work. For example, either of these criteria also leads to the conclusion that a rock, which consists of a great many atoms, is little or no higher than those atoms, or that the oceanic population of prokaryotes called Gaia is little or no higher than its component cells. But these criteria become more problematical if we want to compare two holons that exist more or less independently of each other.
A good example of two such holons, and one that is of tremendous practical as well as theoretical interest, is provided by a comparison of any modern Western society with an indigenous one. The former is often assumed to be higher than the latter. In the Wilber model (1981,1995), earlier societies, those that existed centuries or eons before our own, are considered to be holarchically lower than our own, and a reasonable interpretation of this model is that today's indigenous societies are like these earlier ones, and therefore are also lower than our own. My own one-scale model (Smith 2000a) makes the same presumption. But Mark Edwards (2001) has recently argued against this conclusion. Edwards' point is that both kinds of societies are so complex, have so many strengths and weaknesses, and are so different from each other, that a comparative ranking is not just very difficult, but meaningless. I think I'm doing him justice to say he believes that this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. And it is, if we have only the two criteria just described by which to distinguish the two. Western society, for example, certainly exhibits some properties, such as advanced technology, that indigenous societies lack. But as Edwards points out, the latter in some cases seem to boast accomplishments, such as an existence more integrated with the natural environment, that we Westerns lack. And since the two societies do exist more or less independently of each other--we can't say that either type of society exists within the other--the criterion of asymmetry is inapplicable. It's apparent that either type of society could continue to exist in the absence of the other.
Nevertheless, I find Edwards's conclusion unsettling. Not because he apparently believes that indigeneous societies are of equal rank, or could be, with Western societies--I have no ax to grind here. I'm very open to this conclusion, if it seems to follow from the evidence. What I find challenging is the notion that we can't compare the two at all, in a holarchical sense; that the necessary evidence doesn't actually exist. I believe that if the idea of holarchy is to be truly scientific, as well as to have any practical value at all, we should be able to compare any two holons, and not only determine their relative rank, but even quantitate their differences.
The purpose of this article is to propose and defend another criterion, one that can apply to a comparison of any two holons, and in particular, is applicable to comparisons of current societies. I realize that the idea of ranking societies is very controversial, and I will say more about this later. But quite apart from this issue, I believe the development of this criterion has great value to our general understanding of holarchy. The two criteria I described earlier, emergence and asymmetry, might be described as after-the -fact approaches. If we have a group of holons under consideration, we can use either of these criteria--within the limits I noted--to rank them. But a more important question, which these two criteria don't address, is how to predict the form that higher-order holons will take--that is, to develop a more precise understanding of what "higher" actually means. The following discussion sheds some light on this issue, and in particular, illuminates several important relationships in the holarchy. These include: 1) the role of hetarchical interactions among holons in creating higher-order holons; 2) the expansion of possibilities associated with upward development in the holarchy; 3) how holarchical development enhances the survival value of life; and 4) the relationship of holarchical development to the twin poles of absolute order, on the one hand, and absolute randomness or chaos, on the other.
How Life Moves Up
Let's begin at the beginning, or close enough, with atoms. In everyone's understanding of holarchy, these represent one of the lowest levels of existence. There are forms of existence even lower, but to go into this realm is to deal with quantum effects, the relationship of which to higher levels is still not understood. If we begin our story with atoms, we can develop consistent and unifying principles that apply throughout the rest of the holarchy as we know it (Smith 2000a).
How are higher levels of existence created, above that of atoms? The process begins when these atoms combine into molecules. They develop hetarchical relationships with one another, otherwise known as chemical bonds. I call the process by which individual holons combine into a higher-order holon transformation, and distinguish the holarchical status of the latter from the former by saying that it exists on a higher stage of existence, still within the same level--in this case, the physical level.
I pointed out earlier that molecules fulfill both of two commonly used criteria to determine whether one form of existence is higher than another. They have emergent properties, not found in their individual atoms. Thus an amino acid molecule, unlike any single atom, can carry two, physically separated charges, and thus function as a buffer, stabilizing the pH, or degree of acidity, of an aqueous environment1. Likewise, there is an asymmetric relationship between molecules and atoms. The existence of an amino acid, or any other molecule, presupposes the existence of atoms; the converse is not necessarily true.
A molecule also fulfills a third criterion, which I now propose to develop and use as an indicator of holarchical status. It's more complex than an atom. It's widely accepted that as life has evolved, it has become more complex, so it's quite reasonable to equate complexity with holarchical status. The problem is in defining the term. Many different definitions have been proposed, which have been proven to be useful in certain situations, but which do not readily generalize to holons on any level of existence. Therefore, I'm going to propose my own definition of complexity, one which I believe is fairly consistent with the general understanding of this property, and which is applicable throughout the holarchy. I will define the complexity of a holon as the number of degrees of freedom it has, which is to say, the number of distinct states it is possible to exist in.
Consider an individual atom, such as hydrogen. Hydrogen can exist in two states: as a neutral atom, containing one proton and one electron; or as a positively charged hydrogen ion, containing only the proton. Ordinarily, that is, in nature, no other possibities are available to hydrogen. Any other alterations that might be made to an atom of hydrogen would result in its losing its identity as hydrogen.
Now consider an amino acid molecule, such as glycine, one of the simplest amino acids known. It can exist in several different states. In the first place, since glycine can ionize, gaining or losing an electron, at two different positions, it can exist in four different charged states: positive, negative, and two neutral states (one of which carries no individual charges, the other of which carries both a positive and a negative charge).
But that's not the end of the story. In addition to having four different charged states available to it, the amino acid molecule can also exist in several different shapes, or conformations. These conformations are created when certain atoms in the molecule rotate with respect to other atoms, thus changing their relative positions in space. Though not all atoms can do this, and though any atom that can is strictly confined to certain positions, the combination of all available positions results in a number of distinct conformations of the molecule.
Notice that the greater number of degrees of freedom of the amino acid molecule results directly from the fact that it contains numerous atoms with hetarchical relationships to one another. In fact, each of these relationships represents, in a sense, a potential degree of freedom, for wherever there is a relationship between two holons, there is the possibility of altering that relationship. Thus the relationship between a carbon atom and a hydrogen atom bonded to it can be altered when the relative position of the two atoms to each other changes. The relationship between a carbon atom and an oxygen atom changes when the latter ionizes, gaining an electron.
Not every atomic bond exhibits such freedom; sometimes they are highly constrained. On the other hand sometimes atoms in molecules can interact in multiple ways not only with their immediate neighbors, but with more distant atoms. For example, if two oxygen atoms are bonded to a carbon atom, as at the acidic endof any amino acid molecule, the ionization state of one of these oxygens will affect the strength of the bond the other oxygen shares with the carbon atom. In the next section, we will see that such indirect, non-local interactions become much more important at higher stages of existence, and greatly increase the complexity of holons in these stages.
The Limits of Hetarchy: Why Multiple Stages Form
In principle, there is no limit to the increase in complexity made possible by simply joining more and more individual atoms to each other in molecules. An amino acid contains typically 10-30 atoms, but one could imagine much larger molecules being formed, containing hundreds, thousands, even millions, billions or trillions of atoms, each a little different from every other one. While very large molecules do indeed exist in nature, however, they are never, or almost never, made in this manner. As Francis Crick (1966) first pointed out, most molecules synthesized atom-by-atom are of medium size. They are considerably larger than the simplest molecules, like carbon dioxide or water, but also considerably smaller than the largest molecules found in nature.
Why is this so? Nothing in nature comes for free. It takes a significant quantity of energy to join one atom to another, at least to form most of the molecules that are important to living systems. To synthesize very large molecules, atom by atom, is thus prohibitively expensive for the cell, which makes such molecules. An energetically cheaper way to accomplish much the same thing is to join not single atoms together, but entire molecules. One molecule can be joined to another by a single chemical bond, just as one atom can be joined to another atom or to a molecule. But by adding molecules to molecules, the cell can create larger molecules with much fewer energy-consumingsteps. It can add ten, twenty or thirty atoms to a pre-existing molecule with a single bonding step. Thus it is that having synthesized amino acids, cells now string together these into proteins; having synthesized nucleotides, the cell puts these together into nucleic acids (DNA and RNA); and having synthesized sugars, the cell links them into cellulose, starch and glycogen.
By synthesizing large molecules (called polymers or macromolecules) in this manner, nature sacrifices a little in potential variety. Rather than exercising some choice in what atom to add, the cell adds a group of 20-30 of them, and the variety of this group is highly constrained. For example, a protein molecule is made by linking amino acids together, end to end. There are only about twenty different kinds of amino acids found in nature, so the choice available at each step is quite limited.
Or so it would seem. In fact, however, the variety still possible is literally astronomical. Using just twenty different amino acids, the number of potential protein molecules of one hundred amino acids in length is 20100 or 10130--a figure considerably larger than the number of all the atoms in the universe. Even the total number of possible DNA molecules,which are composed of just four different kinds of nucleotides, is far greater than the number actually known to exist in nature.
Therefore, at a certain point in the evolution of complexity, individual molecules become joined to one another in much the same way that earlier , individual atoms were joined. Molecules become the new units which form hetarchical relationships among one another, forming a still higher stage represented by macromolecules. This process of using the holons of one stage as units to form holons of a higher stage is repeated several times, generating several stages, each higher than the one preceding and composing it. Thus several protein molecules may associate to form a still higher-order holon, such as a receptor or an ion channel. These holons, in turn, may associate to form a structure like the cell membrane or the cell nucleus.
The resulting higher order holons exhibits considerably more complexity than its components did. Consider a protein molecule, made by joining several hundred amino acids end to end. In addition to the complexity resulting from the relationships of different atoms to each other in any single amino acid molecule, there is also the complexity arising from the relationships of different amino acid molecules to each other. Everything that I said earlier about atom-atom relationships applies equally to small molecule-small molecule relationships. Thus the individual amino acids in a protein molecule, like the individual atoms in an amino acid, can often exist in different states of charge and of position relative to their neighbors. The result is that the protein as a whole can adopt a number of different states or conformations. In fact, the number of possible conformations of even a medium-sized protein molecule is so great that it defies simulation on even the most powerful computers, though a great many of these states are energetically unfavorable2.
However, there is still another source of complexity in a macromolecule like a protein, and I want to emphasize it here, for as we shall see later, it's very relevant to our understanding of complexity in higher forms of life, including societies. When a higher stage of existence such as a protein molecule is formed, the individual atoms within it may form relationships not simply with other atoms within the same small molecule (amino acid), but with atoms in other amino acids. For example, in a protein consisting of a chain of one hundred amino acids, an atom present in amino acid number five, say, may be able to interact with another atom present in amino acid number sixty-six. The reason this is possible is because most proteins are not simple linear chains or strings of their amino acids; they fold up into complex three-dimensional shapes or conformations. The folding process brings together--indeed, depends upon the interactions of--certain atoms within amino acids that are very distant from each other in the linear conformation.
Not every atom in the folded protein is in direct physical contact with some other atom in a different amino acid. However, because the conformation of the protein is generally very sensitive to localized changes in the relationships of certain atoms to each other, an alteration in such a relationship may have effects on many other amino acids, and their component atoms, in the protein. That is to say, an alteration in the relationship of an atom in amino acid five with another atom in amino acid sixty-six may, by changing the shape of the entire protein, alter the relationships of atoms in many other amino acids throughout the protein. In this very profound sense, we can say that every atom in the entire protein is in communication with every other atom.
Thus the atoms in complex molecules not only interact directly with their immediate neighbors, but indirectly with very distant atoms. This further increases the complexity of the large molecule, that is, adds to the total number of possible states in which it can exist. The complexity now consists not only of atoms interacting with other atoms within every single amino acid, and amino acids interacting with other amino acids to which they are directly joined, but atoms interacting with other atoms in other amino acids. In the case of larger structures consisting of many protein molecules, individual atoms may also interact with other atoms in different proteins. Thus individual atoms in these higher holons have many different kinds of relationships, those within their basic small molecule unit as well as other kinds that extend far beyond this unit.
This is a cardinal feature of higher stages of existence, and helps us distinguish fully developed stages from those that are not. For example, there are smaller strings of amino acids, known as peptides, which are simpler than proteins, and do not generally fold up into three-dimensional shapes. The interactions of atoms within these molecules are much more limited, and generally do not extend beyond those they have with other atoms within the same amino acid. On this basis, then, as well as for other reasons I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a), folded three-dimensional proteins may be considered higher forms of existence than non-folded peptides. Even though a particular peptide may contain as many amino acids as a particular protein, and therefore have just as many chemical bonds between adjacent atoms and adjacent amino acids, the folded protein has many more interactions of other kinds, and is thus more complex.
The same feature is also observed at other levels of existence. Thus in some tissues like the brain, individual cells (neurons) may interact not only with neighboring cells, with which they form a basic unit, but also with cells that are very distant from them, even including cells that are in other types of organs or tissues. Conversely, cells in less complex tissues, such as the lung, generally do not interact with cells beyond their immediate neighbors. By this criterion, then, the brain is a more complex tissue than the lung, and is holarchically higher. As we shall see later, the existence of multiple kinds of hetarchical relationships is also a feature of complex societies, and is a salient way of distinguishing them from less complex ones.
Each stage of existence, then, is more complex than the stage that preceded it, because it exhibits both more hetarchical relationships, and more different kinds of these relationships. As I pointed out earlier, the appearance of a new stage is always associated with the emergence of new properties. However, the properties of the lower holons are not necessarily preserved. The new, higher properties are realized only at the expense of some of the former, lower properties.
For example, when a hydrogen atom combines with other atoms to form an amino acid, it gains the ability to interact with these other atoms in certain ways, influencing their relationships with each other. However, these new properties are accompanied by the loss, usually, of the hydrogen atom's ability to ionize, and carry an electrical charge. Likewise, when an amino acid joins with other amino acids in a protein molecule, it develops new relationships with these other amino acids, but loses the ability, possessed by all autonomous amino acids, to carry two separate electrical charges.
The same feature, again, is evident at higher levels of existence. When cells associate into tissues, they gain new properties. Thus some neurons in the brain can respond to complex patterns in the organism's environment, something no autonomous cell could do. But they lose the ability to move around and to respond in certain ways to their immediate physical environment, properties of most autonomous cells. This feature, too, is of great relevance to our understanding of societies, for as we shall see, it allows us to appreciate how one society can be considered more complex than another, even though the less complex society may be capable of things the more complex is not.
Order, Randomness and Survival
In addition to complexity, two other terms often associated with holarchical development are order and randomness. We say that a holon has a high degree of order when most of its component holons are similar or identical, and have similar relationships with one another. Conversely, a holon exhibits a high degree of randomness if it is composed of many different kinds of holons bearing many different kinds of relationships to one another. Order and randomness, then, can be thought of as occupying opposite poles of a spectrum.
The relationship of complexity to order and randomness is not very clear. Various theorists have suggested that it is associated with either one or the other poles of this spectrum, but more recently it has been viewed as occupying a middle position, existing as a dynamic balance between order and randomness. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman (1993) has argued, on the basis of computer simulations of highly complex systems, that too much order leads to rigidity, and the inability to change and evolve, while too much chaos results in instability, the inability of a holon to maintain its identify as a distinct form of life. Thus Kauffman views life as existing on a dynamic if not precarious edge between too much order and too much chaos. In a somewhat similar vein, information theorist Charles Bennett has suggested that complexity reaches a maximum in systems that are neither highly patterned nor highly random (see Norretranders 1998).
The definition of complexity I have proposed here is quite consistent with this view. To appreciate this, we only need consider molecules representing the two extremes represented by order and randomness. A maximally ordered molecule would be one that contained only one kind of atom. Most such molecules are very simple, because generally speaking, like atoms can only bond to each other in pairs, or at most in threes--oxygen and hydrogen, for example. A major exception is carbon, which, because of its ability to form bonds with four other atoms, can bond to itself in infinitely large structures, forming such minerals as coal and diamond. These structures, however, are of very low complexity. Part of the reason for this is that when carbon bonds only to itself, the bonds are highly constrained, and prevented from taking alternative positions. In addition, however, since every carbon atom is identical to every other one, many conceivable states which involve changes in the relationships of particular carbon atoms to each other turn out to be identical to other states.
A completely random molecule, on the other hand, would be one in which the atoms bond to each other in no particular pattern. Such molecules are never found in nature; atoms within molecules always form certain kinds of bonds. Thus while each of the key elements of life--carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen--is capable of bonding to each of the others, certain constraints exist which result in patterns of bonds. We could say that atoms carry within themselves a certain degree of order that is imposed on the molecules they form.
We can gain more insight into randomness, however, at higher molecular stages. There are no constraints on the bonding of different amino acids to each other. Any type of amino acid can be linked to any other type, so in principle, proteins can be formed which consist of a completely random chain of amino acids. It appears, however, that such proteins rarely if ever exist in nature. The sequences of hundreds of thousands of protein have been determined and compared, and it has been found that most of them contain certain patterns of amino acids, so that they fall into only a thousand or so groups, each containing members of similar sequence (Dorit et al. 1990). Though these sequences are not highly ordered, neither are they completely random.
Why should this be the case? Recall the earlier discussion of how proteins fold up into three-dimensional shapes, held together by direct and indirect interactions between certain atoms. These interactions presuppose the existence of certain kinds of amino acids, containing certain atoms, at certain positions in the amino acid sequence. A completely random string of amino acids is unlikely to have these atoms at these critical positions, and therefore is less likely to be able to fold up into a three-dimensional conformation that can adopt many different states.
In conclusion, then, both small molecules and larger molecules composed of smaller ones are neither completely homogeneous or ordered, on the one hand, nor completely random, on the other. They generally exhibit some degree of order, but also some degree of randomness. It seems that the maximum amount of complexity, or number of states of existence, is associated with some middle area of the order-randomness spectrum.
Before going on to consider higher levels of existence, we might ask why the holarchy has apparently evolved in this way, in a tendency towards maximum complexity. The answer to this question can be expressed in Darwinian terms: the greater the complexity, the greater the survival value. Consider a protein molecule again. As discussed earlier, its complexity can be defined in terms of the number of different states it can exist in. Now each one of these states--different from every other one in its shape and/or the distribution of charges in the molecule--can potentially function in some manner. For example, it may be able to catalyze an enzymatic reaction, or bind to some small molecule and thus function as a receptor. Obviously, the more distinct states a protein is capable of adopting, the higher the probability that it can perform some useful function. It follows that the more complex a protein is, the more likely it is to express some activity that will promote survival, of both itself and higher-order holons it may be associated with, such as cells. So complexity is not only an obervable feature of existence, but one that we might predict from one of the most basic principles of evolution.
The Limits of Transformation: Transcendence
To summarize the discussion so far, we have seen that a) atoms, by joining into molecules, create holons of greater complexity; b) rather than extend this process indefinitely, creating infinitely large molecules in atom-by-atom increments, nature stops at a certain point, and uses the molecules themselves as "atoms", now putting them together as single units; and c) the creation of a new stage adds further layers of complexity to the new holon, as many new kinds of hetarchical interactions, indirect as well as direct, become possible.. This process of creating larger units of holons, or what I call stages within a single level of existence, is reiterated several times. Thus protein molecules, which are holons of amino acids which are holons of atoms, are themselves joined into larger structures, such as receptors, ion channels, and enzymatic complexes. Each of these can consist of anywhere from two or three to as many as fifty different protein molecules. They in turn are joined into still larger structures, such as the cell membrane, nucleus, and mitochondria.
This process does not go on indefinitely, however. At a certain point, the creation of higher stages stops, and something quite different from a higher stage emerges: a higher level of existence. Thus while atoms form small molecules, which form macromolecules, which form associations of macromolecules, eventually the process culminates in a very different kind of holon, which we call a cell. A cell is not simply a higher stage in the developmental path proceeding from atoms to small molecules to macromolecules and so on. It is qualitatively different from all of its predecessors, and thus qualifies as an entirely new level of existence.
What makes a cell so different? Elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001a,b), I have discussed three criteria which distinguish holons like cells, which I call individual or fundamental holons, from holons like molecules, which I call social holons. These include: a) the ability to exist autonomously, outside of higher-order holons; b) the ability to reproduce; and c) a unique organization, in which all the lower-order holons on that level are present in both free and unbonded forms. I want to begin here with the last criterion, because it's the one that most clearly distinguishes therelationship of a cell to its molecules--a relationship I call transcendence--from the relationship of these molecules to each other, which I have previously defined as transformation.
As I noted earlier, when various types of molecules are created, new properties emerge, but older properties are lost. Thus by becoming part of an amino acid, an atom gains new properties such as the ability to interact with other atoms in novel ways, while losing other properties such as the ability to ionize. In a cell, in contrast, these older properties are not lost. A cell contains not only various kinds of molecules, but also atoms, such as hydrogen and sodium, that exist unbonded to other atoms and thus retain their autonomous properties. Likewise, cells contain amino acids unbonded to other amino acids, proteins not complexed with other proteins, and so on. The ability of a higher holon to preserve the properties of its component lower holons, even while manifesting entirely new ones, is one of the essential features of transcendence, as I define it, and is what makes a cell very different from all the molecules, even the very complex ones, that preceded it during evolution.
Why did life evolve in this manner? Why did the process of creating simply higher stages not continue indefinitely? The answer to this question lies in the other two defining features of individual holons: a cell can exist autonomously, and can reproduce itself. Both of these features are essential to the survival of holons. If a holon can't exist autonomously, it will either cease to exist at all (e.g., a protein molecule outside of a cell will become degraded), or it will become incorporated into a a higher holon. But since the higher-order holon, if it is just a higher stage, also can't survive autonomously, the problem has not been solved; we have an infinite regress. The logical conclusion of this regress is that either nothing survives, or something survives which can live autonomously.
Even autonomous forms of existence, however, don't survive indefinitely. Cells die, and so do organisms, which are also individual holons. So while individual cells and individual organisms may exist for a while, the class of holons that they represent, in the absence of a third key property, would be doomed to extinction. This third property is reproduction. By creating copies of themselves, cells and organisms ensure that while individuals disappear, the class goes on. Of course, I'm speaking in a loose teleological sense here. An evolutionist would not say that cells reproduce in order to survive; they survive because they reproduce. We only observe that which--including ourselves--has developed the ability to reproduce itself.
So both reproduction and the ability to exist autonomously are essential to life, to the further development of the holarchy. But no lower stage holon, below the level of the cell, has both these features. Some complex molecules, namely DNA and RNA, can reproduce themselves, but they can't exist autonomously. To exist autonomously means to have the ability both to grow and to maintain a certain structure, by taking in other substances and incorporating them into the holon, and nucleic acid molecules can't do this. On the other hand, the other major class of macromolecules in nature, proteins, have the potential to exist autonomously, because they can manifest enzymatic capacities that allow growth and self-maintenance. But proteins can't reproduce themselves. As many evolutionary biologists have remarked, both the reproductive ability of nucleic acids and the self-maintaining ability of enzymes is essential to life as we know it.
So for reproduction of holons to occur, it's clear that two major classes of these holons must coexist, one containing information, the other exhibiting function. This relationship is quite unlike that found in the higher stages of molecular organization, where each new stage is composed of independent holons of a particular class. Furthermore, in order for these two classes of holons to survive and work together, they need reliable access to smaller molecules. DNA requires free nucleotides in order to synthesize RNA, and the latter needs free amino acids to synthesize enzymes. Enzymes , in turn, use a variety of small molecules as substrates for the catalytic process. So cells--autonomous, reproducing higher-order holons--must contain all t he lower stages of the physical level, existing autonomously within the limits of the cellular environment.
In summary, while life can advance considerably higher through the creation of new stages, at some point the absolute requirements for reproduction and autonomy demand a new form of organization, one in which all the lower stages are present as autonomous holons (within the encompassing environment of the cell), as well as within successively higher stages. This kind of arrangement is associated with a vast increase in complexity, because the complexity of any single stage or holon on that stage can now exist independently of any other stage or holon. That is, we can have one holon, in one of its many possible states, interacting with another holon, in one of its many possible states. The result is a multiplication of the total number of possible states. For example, if holon A exists in 10 possible states, and holon B exists in 10 possible states, there are 100 possible states involving an interaction of holon A with holon B.
A good example of this is provided by gene regulation. Every gene encodes, in its sequence of nucleotide bases, the amino acid sequence of some protein. Not every gene in every cell, however, is active, that is, actually directs the synthesis of its product. The activity of genes is often regulated by sequences of DNA adjacent to them, known as promoters. Promoters may stimulate or inhibit the genes they are associated with, and their activity, in turn, is determined by their interaction with certain proteins (Lewin 1997). Whether a particular promoter interacts with a particular protein--thereby stimulating or repressing the synthesis of some other protein--depends on the conformation, or state, of both the promoter and the protein. Thus the cell has a very large number of options to choose from in regulating the activity of the gene.
Once this new form of organization embodied in the cell has been created, then the holarchy can revert to its former rules, and continue to create higher stages, using the new individual holon--for a while. Thus once cells evolved, they could associate into holons consisting of many interacting cells, which anatomists call simple cell units, but which we can loosely describe as tissues. These holons, in turn, acted as new units, associating into still higher order holons, complex cell units. The process continues with organs, and with organ systems, and finally culminates in the organism.
Most of the points I made earlier about molecules are also illustrated here, at this higher, biological level of existence. Thus a tissue or organ possesses more complexity than any of its component cells, because of the relationships among the cells; a tissue can exist in many more distinct states than an individual cell can. Second, a tissue or organ bears a transformational, rather than transcendent, relationship to its individual cells. Just as atoms, in forming molecules, lose some properties and gain new ones, so do cells. When cells associate into tissues, they gain new properties. Thus some neurons in the brain can respond to complex patterns in the organism's environment, something no autonomous cell could do. But they lose the ability to move around and to respond in certain ways to their immediate physical environment, properties of any autonomous cell. And finally, as I noted earlier, cells within complex stages like organs can have not only direct relationships with their immediate neighbors, but more indirect relationships with distant cells.
The West: Anonymous Communication
In the preceding sections, I have pointed out that higher holons always emerge as a result of the hetarchical interactions of lower holons, and I have argued that we can define higher in terms of the number and complexity of these interactions. A molecule is higher than an atom, because it can exist in more possible different states than the latter. The existence of these states is directly related to the fact that its component atoms interact with one another in different ways.
I now want to extend this argument to societies, which I regard as higher stages on our level of existence. That is, the relationship of a society to its individuals is much like that of molecules to their atoms, or tissues to their cells. I have presented detailed arguments for this claim in detail elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001b), and will not repeat them here. I will just note that as molecules are created by the hetarchical relationships of atoms, and tissues by the hetarchical relationships of cells, so societies are created by the hetarchical relationships of their member organisms. Furthermore, just as several different stages of molecular organization exist within cells, each higher in the holarchy than the one of whose members it is composed, and several different stages of multicellular holons in the organism, there are quite apparently several different stages of human social organizations. Thus we can distinguish families or tribes, communities, nations, and so on.
Keeping this in mind, let's consider the nature of these hetarchical relationships a little more closely, beginning with our own society. A typical individual in America belongs to a family, which in turn is situated within a community, which in turn is embedded in still larger forms of social organization3. As members of these organizations, we have interactions with a very large number of other individuals, and some of these interactions are direct, while others are indirect. Examples of direct interactions would be those we have with members of our family, friends and acquaintances, and people we work with. In all of these cases, the interactions include verbal and probably non-verbal communication, and within these general classes of interactions, further degrees of intimacy can easily be distinguished. For example, we probably have physical interactions with most or all of our family members and close friends, and the verbal communications we have with these individuals are more directly related to our physical and emotional being. At the other end of the spectrum of direct interactions, we may interact with acquaintances or colleagues who are physically distant by written communication. I define this types of interaction as direct also, because it involves a transfer of information from one individual to another without passing through an intermediary. (Of course, if we mail a letter or send an e-mail message to someone, that message does get processed by other people, but the point is that the processing does not alter the content of the communication; it simply facilitates its passage).
Examples of indirect interactions would be those we have with people whose books we read, whose products we consume, who represent us in government, and people we learn about through reading, watching television, and using the internet. These are people we not only don't know--they are not relatives, friends, colleagues or acquaintances--but in many cases we don't even know exist. For example, if I buy an article in a store, I'm interacting indirectly with all the people who contributed to the design, manufacture and distribution of that product, regardless of whether or not I'm aware of their existence. When I vote in an election, I'm interacting not only with the candidates I vote for (and don't vote for), but also with the people who make the laws and rules governing the operation of elections. When I watch television, I'm interacting with not only the people whom I see on the screen, but all the people in the background who make that particular program possible. In all of these cases, the interactions are indirect because the content of the communication I have with a particular person is modified by its passage through other individuals who intervene between me and the individual I'm communicating with.
But even these kinds of examples don't exhaust the variety or scope of indirect interactions. I don't have to go into a store and buy something to interact with people who were involved in the creation of that product. All I have to do is think about buying the product, or using it, or looking at it. Likewise, I don't have to watch television to interact with the people who produce its programming. All I have to do is think about such a program; not even that, for I can just think about some idea that has resulted from someone else's watching that program, and then talking about it. In other words, our thoughts connect us in an immense web of interactions. A great deal of what we think about is the consequence of what someone else, whom we may never have seen nor heard nor know exists, has done or felt or thought about. This is a true butterfly effect, where the thoughts of one person ultimately influence those of a great many others.
As these examples of indirect communication clearly illustrate, the process is very much a social, rather than an individual, phenomenon. When we watch television, let alone think about what we watched, we don't ordinarily think of ourselves as communicating with a particular person we see on the screen--except, perhaps, in cases where one individual is the sole focus of the program. Rather, we experience ourselves as participating in a flow of information involving a great many other individuals, none of whom is very much distinguished from anyone else. This is very much like the manner in which holons at lower levels of existence interact indirectly with each other. Thus when a protein molecule changes its conformation, all or a great many of its individual atoms are affected simultaneously. While we could analyze the event in terms of how the interactions of any one atom with each of the others is affected, there wouldn't be much point to this, because the nature of any particular atom-atom interaction is closely related to a great many others. The particular interaction any one atom has with another emerges only in the context of a particular state which the entire protein adopts. Likewise, when the human brain changes from one state to another, the relationships of an enormous number of cells to one another are altered simultaneously. The kind of relationship existing between any two cells presupposes a certain kind of relationship among many other cells4.
These parallels, I hope, drive home to the reader the point that modern Western societies, like complex social holons at lower levels of existence, can exist in an incomprehensibly large number of different states, every one of which is characterized by a particular set of interactions, direct as well as indirect, among its individual holons. These interactions extend far beyond the stage of existence immediately above the holon--for example, the family or community in which an individual resides--allowing the individual to communicate with other individuals in different families, communities or nations. To repeat, it is the vast number of these extended, indirect interactions among the individual holons that makes the vast number of states of the social holon possible; and it is the vast number of these states that I use as a measure of this holon's complexity--and accordingly, its rank in the holarchy.
Indigenous Societies: Small, Direct, Holistic, Egalitarian
Now let's consider an indigenous society. There are literally thousands of such societies in the world, existing within the borders of dozens of recognized nations on all five continents. These societies have grown and developed in adaptation to many different environments, not only natural but the social and cultural ones of developed nations that have increasingly encroached upon them . They vary greatly in their customs, mores, attitudes, beliefs, religions, and rituals. Given this enormous variety, one must be very cautious about generalizing about such societies. Nevertheless, all or or most have them do exhibit several major characteristics which I think can help us evaluate their complexity in comparison to that of Western societies.
First, most of these societies are relatively small, in both population and area, compared to internationally recognized nations. For example, over two-thirds of the more than two hundred indigenous societies in Brazil have populations less than one thousand; the total population of all these societies in Brazil is less than 300,000 (Cunha and Almeida 2000). These numbers are fairly typical of indigenous populations in other parts of the world, and they are in many cases diminishing, as members of these societies are absorbed by the surrounding nation. It should be apparent from the previous discussion that there is a significant correlation between the population of a society--more generally, between the number of interacting individual holons that a higher-order holon contains--and its degree of complexity. This correlation is far from perfect, because complexity depends critically on the number and the nature of interactions each component holon exhibits. It's certainly possible to think of examples of holons of roughly equal number of component holons that differ greatly in their complexity, and of smaller holons that are as complex as larger ones. But the larger the society, obviously, the larger the potential number of interactions. So it's very hard to see how any society of a few thousand members could be considered as complex, by the definition I have proposed here, as a typical Western society composed of tens or hundreds of millions of people.
Second, most indigenous societies have a very well developed oral tradition, in which most knowledge of the world, including the history of that society, is passed from one generation to the next by stories, songs, play-acting, rituals and other forms of direct, person-to-person communication. Conversely, the kinds of indirect communication so prevalent in the West--writing, television, the internet--play a much less prominent role, and in many cases are absent altogether. As I discussed earlier, indirect forms of communication are strongly correlated with a high degree of complexity, because they greatly increase the number and the scope of the individuals interacting with each other. A traditional story-teller can communicate with, at best, a few thousand other individuals, and usually the number is much less. Mass communications, of course, can reach hundreds of millions of people.
Many people might protest that this argument ignores a vast difference in what, for want of a more precise term, we might call the quality of interactions. Direct, person-to-person communication can convey information or knowledge of a type that is very difficult to convey indirectly--every educator understands this. However, I want to emphasize that I am not, at this point, making a comparison between individuals in Western societies and those in indigenous societies. I am not saying that the former benefit from a greater amount of knowledge or information. The comparison I am trying to draw is strictly at the social level. I'm saying than Western societies have a greater number of hetarchical interactions among individuals that indigenous societies, and that this greater number, by allowing them to exist in more different states, gives them greater complexity.
One example of this complexity, which also illustrates the difference between the properties of a society and those of its individual members, is provided by the depth of Western knowledge of the world. Many observers of indigeneous societies have claimed that the oral traditions of these societies provide their members with a much richer view of history, because their records go further back in time. Thus on the basis of their deep familiarity with Alaskan native traditions, Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley and Ray Barnhardt claim that:
"One of the most important contributions that indigenous people are bringing to the scientific and educational arenas is a temporal dimension, that is a long-term perspective spanning many generations of observation and experimentation, which enriches the relatively short-term, time-bound observations of the itinerant western-oriented scientists and educators."5
It's true that some of our sciences, such as climatology, are relatively new, and have records that go back only a few decades. But this is not an intrinsic short-coming of the Western worldview; it simply reflects the fact that certain areas of knowledge have not been around long enough to have accumulated much history. That an awareness of history has long been very much a part of the Western approach to knowledge is clearly shown by those areas that have been around for a long time, such as philosophy, literature, and physics, as well as those that deliberately search the past, such as anthropology, evolutionary biology, and of course, history itself. In all these and many other areas of knowledge,we have records that go back much, much further than those of any native peoples'--and which are much more detailed and accurate. It may well be that most individuals in Western societies are not familiar with all this information, but again, we are comparing social knowledge here, not individual knowledge. On the social level, the temporal dimension of Western knowledge is much better developed than that of indigneous societies.
A third general characteristic of most indigenous societies is a strong holistic worldview, in which the individual and the society are experienced as very deeply embedded in and integrated with the surrounding natural world. In contrast to the Western tendency to focus on and analyze one part of the world at a time, indigenous people are frequently described as being more likely to be cognizant of everything in their environment, and to see this environment as an inseparable whole or seamless web. And in contrast to the Western tendency towards specialization, where different individuals are trained and educated to perform discrete tasks, indigenous people have a broad knowledge of many aspects of their world. A typical member of an indigenous society, for example, is skilled in all the practices necessary to his life, from hunting and food gathering to making clothes and shelter to crafts, arts and entertainment.
How does this relate to complexity? I believe it's further evidence for the greater complexity of Western societies. It's one thing to have a holistic view of the world when that world is largely limited to a few dozens or hundreds of square miles of natural environment containing a few thousand people. It is quite another matter to preserve that holistic view when confronting an entire globe, containing multiple societies and technology that has totally altered the potentials of the natural world. We Westerns, at least mostof us, can't take direct responsbility for producing our own food, clothing, shelter and other necessities of life, because the way in which these necessities are produced is too complex to be achieved by any single individual. Likewise, we can't have a holistic view of our world, because our systems of knowledge have revealed a world so complex that no single individual is capable of grasping it. No member of an indigenous society could have a holistic view of the world that we are aware of. His or her holism is made possible by a greatly limited scope of observation.
This does not mean, I think it's worth adding, that Western society as a whole has a less holistic view than that of an indigenous society, that knowledge in the West is less integrated into a unified understanding of existence. Perhaps it does--holism and reductionism can be considered two equally valuable and also equally limited ways of understanding--but again, we must carefully distinguish the knowledge and the perceptions of an entire society from those of its individual members. It may be that Western society has a highly unified view, but one that is so complex, and made up of some much information, that any single individual can access only a fragment of it.
An analogy with a lower level of existence may be instructive here. In invertebrate organisms, such as insects, molluscs and crustacea, the central nervous systems are relatively simple, consisting of just a few thousand cells. In such simple systems, a single cell may play a very large role in the function of the entire organism For example, stimulation of a single cell in these organisms can trigger complete patterns of behavior, involving all or much of the organism's body (Kennedy et al. 1966; Willows 1967). In contrast, in the brain of a higher vertebrate, containing millions or billions of cells, no single cell can have much of an effect. Behavior results from the coordinated action of large numbers of cells. This obviously doesn't mean that the vertebrate brain has a less integrated view of the world than the invertebrate brain, or that the vertebrate is capable of less integrated behavior. It simply means that as the complexity of behavior increases, the role of any single individual holon in that behavior is inevitably diminished. This is true of any level of existence. An individual atom can play a much greater role in the function of a small molecule than it can in the function of a large protein.
The final characteristic feature of indigenous societies I want to discuss here is that they tend to be more egalitarian, in some respects, than those of the West. Land, and other forms of material property, are shared among all members of the community, and men and women, though usually performing different roles, are given equal respect. In the West, of course, ownership of private property is considered an inalienable right, and while dramatic changes in the way women are viewed in our societies have taken place in recent decades, they are generally considered equal to men only to the extent that they abandon their traditional domestic and child-caring roles, and join the workforce. In other words, in the West, there is a definite stratification of roles if not of individuals, with some activities considered definitely superior to others.
I regard these differences, again, as directly related to the fact that Western societies are larger and more complex than indigenous ones. A moment ago, I pointed out that in larger, more complex holons, the relative importance of any single individual holon tends to be much less than is the case in smaller, simpler holons. It is also the case, however, that as the size and complexity of a social holon increases, differences in the roles that certain individual holons play can become larger. That is, certain individual holons may become much more important to the function of the whole--not essential, to repeat, but nevertheless, more important--than other individual holons.
To appreciate this, recall the earlier description of a level of existence as composed of several different stages. There are several different kinds of molecules in cells, each formed by combining those that preceded it, and likewise there are several different kinds of multicellular holons in organisms. As I emphasized in this discussion, individual holons, by virtue of both direct and indirect interactions, may communicate with other individual holons that are components of different lower-stage holons. Thus within any protein, atoms in one amino acid molecule may interact with atoms in some other molecule. Not all atoms do this equally, though. Some atoms, by virtue of their direct physical interactions with others, are much more important to the function of the protein. This has been shown by studies in which these atoms are replaced, by substituting a different amino acid in certain positions (Botstein and Shortle 1985). Similarly, in many tissues, there are individual cells which play a much greater role than other cells.
In other words, the more complex a holon becomes, the greater the opportunities for certain individual holons to participate in this complexity, to play key roles in the interactions that create this complexity. This same principle is clearly at work in Western societies. One aspect of our complexity, as I pointed out earlier, is our science-based knowledge system. While no individual person can grasp this system in its entirety, and while no individual is essential to the integrity of this system, it nonetheless is clearly the case that some individuals have much more access to this knowledge than do others. They therefore play a greater role in the functioning of the society as a whole. This view, I contend--regardless of whether everyone agrees that it is a correct one, or one that we should take with respect to individuals--is the basis for much of the stratification of roles that we see in Western societies.
I have made the claim here that a holon can be compared to, and ranked against, another holon, by its complexity, which in turn I have defined as the number of distinct states in which the holon can exist. In addition to demonstrating that application of this criterion generates the same order of physical and biological holons deduced using other commonly-used criteria, I have used this definition to compare the holarchical status of modern societies in the West with that of currently-existing indigenous societies. I don't want to make the blanket statement that any Western society is more complex than any indigenous society, because I have not attempted to quantitate the degree of complexity of any society. I believe this is possible in principle, but the argument in this paper has been purely qualitative. Nevertheless, it seems very clear to me that Western societies, in general, are far more complex than indigenous societies in general, and therefore must be considered to occupy a higher position in the holarchy.
The idea of ranking societies is very controversial, and I can imagine a number of objections being raised to this conclusion. The first objection is that my definition of complexity is arbitrary, and that by another definition, indigenous societies would be found to be as complex as those of the West. To this objection I simply respond: give me an alternative definition. Define complexity in such a way that not only are indigenous societies concluded to be approximately equal in complexity with those of the West (or if you prefer, the issue can't be resolved at all), but all the other established holarchical relationships are preserved. Thus application of this definition of complexity must lead to the conclusion that molecules are more complex than atoms, some molecules more complex than other molecules, cells more complex than any molecules, tissues more complex than cells, and so on. I don't think such a definition can be produced, because intrinsic to the preceding argument was the point, richly illustrated with examples, that the relationships of different stages on lower levels of existence are much like those of different kinds of societies to each other.
The second objection I can imagine being raised is that while Western societies may be more complex than indigenous ones, it doesn't necessarily follow that they are holarchically higher. In other words, complexity is not strictly correlated with evolutionary development. Again, I challenge the critic to come up with an alternative definition or criterion for higher that, again, generates all the lower levels of existence about which virtually everyone agrees.. And again, I seriously doubt that such a definition is possible, because almost everyone agrees that there is a very close correlation of complexity with higher. That what we mean when we say one form of existence is higher than another is that it's more complex.
The third objection might be phrased as simply, So what? So what if Western societies are higher and more complex than indigenous societies. What does this mean? I think it means some things, and does not mean some other things. To begin with the latter, it does not mean that a) we have nothing to learn from indigenous societies, or that b) these societies are doomed to disappear, either becoming extinct or being absorbed into Western societies. With respect to a), nothing in the previous discussion should be taken to mean that we have nothing to learn from them. As I emphasized earlier, a signal characteristic of transformation, the process by which stages of existence on one level create still higher stages on the same level, is that while new properties emerge, older properties disappear. The societies that we in the West live in were created from, according to my model of holarchy as well as Ken Wilber's, societies very much like those that are indigeneous today, in their most general characteristics. These characteristics, some of which I briefly discussed in the preceding section, have largely been lost in the process of the emergence of modern societies, but they live on in indigenous societies. Honoring and understanding the latter, therefore, is a way of retaining these values, mores and practices. I am very much in agreement, then, with those who seek to preserve indigenous societies. This preservation definitely adds something to our world that is missing from Western culture.
This leads to the second point. One major difference between my model of holarchy and Wilber's is that in my model lower stages are preserved in autonomous form during the development of a new level of existence, whereas in his model there are no stages but only levels, each of which is incorporated into the new, higher level. My model is based on the fact that, for example, the cell preserves small molecules, macromolecules and all other molecular stages, while the organism preserves individual cells and various forms of intercellular holons. Thus my model predicts that a new level of existence will preserve all stages of social organization, including indigenous societies or something like them, as well as the Western model or something like it. The Wilber model, as I understand it, predicts that indigenous societies will disappear entirely as autonomous holons, being incorporated into those of the West. The very fact that there is so much current interest in indigenous societies by some in the West, and dedicated, even at times vehement, efforts to preserve them, I take as support for my model. In my view, this is one manifestation of the development of a new, higher level of existence, one that transcends Western as well as indigenous societies.6
If my conclusion that Western societies are more complex than indigenous ones does not mean that we can learn nothing from these societies, or that they are necessarily doomed to become extinct, what does it mean? What implications does it have? The most important one concerns how we view individual members of these societies. A central feature of my model of holarchy, as discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001b) is the concept of participation. Individual holons, by virtue of existing within higher stage holons on their level of existence, have access to some of the properties of these higher holons. The higher the stage, the higher, more complex , the properties that are accessible. Thus a clear-cut implication of the conclusion that Western societies are higher and more complex than indigenous ones is that members of the former societies may also be higher than those of the latter. They have potential access to more information and a more complex view of the world.7
This is just the sort of notion that makes many people object to the idea of hierarchy or holarchy, and I want to emphasize I'm pointing it out precisely to make it clear that I'm not completely insensitive to this criticism. One could well imagine an individual or an entire society using this reasoning to discriminate against members of indigenous societies. But I don't agree that the possibility of such abuse is a sufficient reason for jettisoning the idea of holarchy, or of any specific model of it. On the contrary, I think the idea of holarchy helps us better understand the source of this kind of attitude.
It seems to me that the real problem is not the implications of holarchy, but the belief of many people, even--perhaps especially--those who are particularly sensitive to the treatment of indigenous societies, that a model of this kind can and should be used to determine the appropriate kinds of behavior we should have towards each other. I disagree very strongly with this view. I believe that any model of our world, if it's comprehensive enough, will inevitably have implications about what people actually do, the way they in fact behave. The model is ahead of us in this respect. We can't use it to tell us what we should do, because it is already telling us what we are doing, including why we think we should do particular things. In other words, while we can and should have standards of behavior, moral and ethical codes, the form these codes take and the extent to which they are followed will ultimately reflect the needs of holarchical systems to grow and survive. Understanding the principles underlying holarchy will thus help us to appreciate why particular codes evolve.
To deny ourselves this kind of knowledge because it seems to justify certain forms of behavior is like trying to deny the theory of evolution because it implies that human beings are higher than other animals, and therefore justifies our domination of them. Believing we are higher than other animals does not justify our domination of them. On the contrary, it's the other way around; the fact that we dominate animals is evidence (not proof, but certainly evidence) that we are indeed higher than them, for if we were not, how could we dominate them? Arguably, acceptance of the theory of evolution has led to greater, not less, sensitivity to other species, because we have a deeper understanding of their relationship to us. Surely the concept of the holarchy has the power to increase this understanding even more, and to extend it to relationships among different societies and their individuals.
The New Anthropomorphic Fallacy
The major conclusion of this discussion has been that different societies existing on earth today can be meaningfully ranked, and that we should not shirk from embracing this understanding. I think that in this respect, my one-scale model of holarchy and Wilber's four-quadrant model lead to similar conclusions. But lurking within my arguments is another conclusion which I feel we should also embrace, and this one is very definitely at odds with that of the Wilber model. This is the claim that the members of any particular society are holons within a higher form of existence, and are therefore not as holarchically high as their society as a whole. In the Wilber model, no society is higher than its members. A society is just another aspect of the same holon that is manifested in individuals. In my model, in contrast, societies are higher, in the same way that molecules are higher than atoms, and tissues higher than cells.
Elsewhere (Smith 2000a; 2001b), I have shown that Wilber's view of societies is inconsistent with general holarchical principles as well as with his own criterion for distinguishing higher from lower. Yet his view continues to enjoy widespread support, in very large part, I believe, because it's a more comfortable one. Most of us don't like to believe there is any social organization that can be considered higher, more evolved, more complex, or more intelligent than ourselves. This idea, at best, deals a serious blow to the pride we take as the dominant form of life on earth. At worst, it seems to justify totalitarian political systems, in which the rights of the individual become subordinated to the rights of the state.
In the previous section, I argued that there is a fallacy in opposing holarchical models on the basis of their political implications. This fallacy, as I have discussed in some detail previously (Smith 2001a) applies as much to arguments against ranking individuals lower than societies as it does to ranking some societies as lower than others. Here I would like to address the question of wounded pride and vanity, which I believe may be an even greater source of opposition to acceptance of societies as higher than individuals than any political implications of this view.
The resistance to this view, I contend, is another version of the anthropomorphic fallacy, which has played a major role in opposing new human knowledge for the past five centuries. The first version of this fallacy held that the earth was the center of the universe. This belief was demolished by Copernicus, who showed that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. The second version was that human beings were created to be different from all other forms of life on earth. This view was shown to be false by Darwin, whose theory demonstrated that we evolved from earlier forms of life.
What 's left to bolster the modern ego? The assumption that we are the highest form of life on earth. At first thought, this notion,which Darwin left unchallenged, seems uncontroversial. Of course, we're the highest form of life on earth. If we weren't, we'd be aware of who or what was higher, right? But Darwin, like so many others--including, apparently and most surprisingly, Ken Wilber--overlooked the point that higher forms of existence, by definition, are not easily visible to lower. If we are holons within higher-order holons,we can't readily grasp this fact. We can see that we interact with other holons like ourselves, and we refer to the totality of these interactions as a society, but we have a lot of trouble seeing that emergent from these interactions as a new form of existence in its own right.
To claim that societies are a higher form of life is not to claim that they are super-organisms, like us in every respect but much more so. In the Wilber model, societies (of other organisms as well as humans), unlike their individual members, have no centralized consciousness, but only manifest the consciousness of their individual members. I take no position on this question, but I do deny that it's decisive to determining whether societies are higher than their individual members. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere, societies do have emergent properties not found in their individual members, so by the same standard that applies everywhere else in the holarchy, they must be considered higher. Regardless of whether or not societies can be said to be conscious, they definitely manifest intelligence, including collective or social forms of thought, feeling, perception, learning, memory, and all or most of the other cognitive features of individuals. Furthermore, the way in which they manifest these properties--specifically, the time scale on which these processes occur--bears the same relationship to the way we individuals mentate as exists between social holons and their component individual holons on lower levels of existence (Smith 2000a).
I can understand the resistance of many people to the idea that societies are higher than we as individuals are, but I'm quite surprised that the more spiritually-oriented people who follow Wilber's ideas would have a problem with this notion. Most spiritual traditions I'm aware of teach that we are not free, that we are slaves to our thoughts and desires. Where do the people who follow these traditions imagine that our thoughts and desires come from? Do they think we are slaves to lower levels of existence, that the bottom of the holarchy controls the top? It's true that we are composed of lower order holons--atoms, molecules, and cells--and their properties do set some limits on our ordinary existence. But to transcend this existence, we must confront not our lower boundaries, but our upper ones. These upper boundaries are the indirect hetarchical interactions that link us to one another to create our societies. This is the way, and the sense, in which we are controlled by these societies. To imagine otherwise is to believe that our thoughts and desires are nothing but a product of physical and chemical processes in the brain. What an un-Wilber idea that is!
1. A simpler type of molecule, such as water, also has emergent properties, but these are much less clearly distinguished from those of atoms in general. For this reason, I don't regard such simple molecules as existingon a stage completely above that of atoms. See Smith (2000a) for further discussion.
2. We should probably distinguish between the potential states of a holon, and the ones it actually exists in under some conditions. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman (1993) has used computer simulations of what he calls the NK model to determine which states of a complex system are actually manifested. In this model, there are N interacting units which have an average of K interactions with other units. It turns out that for many values of K, the number of actual states the system exists in is a very tiny fraction of the total number of possible states.
Though Kauffman does not apply the NK model to the question of atomic interactions in a protein molecule, it appears that it would be possible to do so. The number of atoms in the protein is represented by N, and the average number of other atoms they interact with is K. A simplifying assumption of this model, which may not apply to proteins, is that these interactions are Boolean, that is, any particular atom can exist in only two possible states, and which state it takes depends on interactions with other atoms of the "and" "or" and "not" variety. However, even if these assumptions are too simple, the general conclusion seems sound that a protein, or any other complex holon, can exist in only a fraction of the theoretically possible states available to it.
3. Not everyone lives in or belongs to a family, of course, and those social organizations that people do belong to are not always as neatly embedded in each other as social holons in lower levels of existence are. Thus an individual may belong to both a family and a work organization, neither of which includes the other. However, such arrangements are also found in lower levels of existence. For example, a cell in the brain may function as part of two different higher-order holons. Also, as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a), some of the apparent differences in organization between societies and lower-level social holons may reflect the fact that our level of existence is not fully evolved. Specifically, a higher-level holon, analogous to a cell or an organism, has not yet emerged.
4. See footnote 2. The NK model used by Kauffman assumes that the interactions of every holon within a higher-order holon change simultaneously, as the system moves from one state to the next.
5. Kawagely and Barnhardt (1998)
6. History may not provide a clear-cut test between these models. My model does not predict that those indigenous societies existing today will necessarily be preserved; it would be quite consisent with my model if these died out, but were subsequently replaced by new ones created in an attempt to preserve some of their general characteristics (if not their rich history). And while my model does predict that such societies will be autonomous of more complex societies, in a new level of existence they would exist within some larger, global super-organization. On the other hand, a scenario consistent withtheWilber model, as I understand it, would be one in which indigenous societies were absorbed within larger Western societies, but still maintained such distinguishing characteristics, if no genuine autonomy.
7. I said earlier that I was not comparing individuals in different societies, but the societies themselves. Now I have switched the focus of comparison. Therefore, arguments about differences in the quality of direct vs. indirect interactions become relevant. It becomes reasonable to claim that individuals in one type of society can't be ranked above or below those in another. While I think there are arguments that can be made against this claim, I won't make them here, because the whole point of this discussion is that we should not be using any beliefs about rankings to guide our behavior towards others.
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