Weiss, part four
Hierarchy: a biological necessity
To stress the need for viewing living organisms as hierarchically
ordered systems, ponder the following facts. The average cell in the human body
consists of about eighty per cent of water and for the rest contains about 10^5
macromolecules [^ is symbol for exponent, editor]. “The human brain alone
contains about 10^10 cells, hence about 10^15 (1,000,000,000,000,000) macromolecules”
(give or take one order of magnitude).
Could you actually believe that such an enormous number of elements, shuffled around as we have demonstrated in our cell studies, “could ever guarantee to you your sense of identity and constancy in life without this constancy being insured by a superordinated principle of integration?”
Each nerve cell in the brain receives an average of 10^4 connections
from other brain cells, and in addition, “although the cells themselves retain their
individuality, their macro-molecular contingent is renewed about 10^4
times in a lifetime (P.W. 1969a). In short, every cell of your brain
actually harbors and has to deal with approximately 10^9 macromolecules
during its life”. But there is more. “The brain loses, on the average, about 10^3 cells per day,
so that the brain cell population is decimated during the life
span by about 10^7 cells, expunging 10^11 conducting cross linkages.”
Despite this ceaseless change of detail in that large population of elements,
“our basic patterns of behavior, our memories, our sense of
integral existence as an individual, have retained throughout their
unitary continuity of pattern”.
When one looks at biology exclusively from the molecular end, one might feel
satisfied by “calculating that a contingent at any one time of 10^15
brain molecules in intercommunication could numerically account for any
conceivable number of resultant functional manifestations by their mass.
However, this misses the real problem.”
It is redundant to confirm that which we already know to happen;
what scientists have to explain, is not that it happens, but why it happens
just the way it does. 'And this is exactly where the above molecular computation fails
abysmally, for it ignores the crucial fact that contrary to that "conceivable" infinite
number and variety of possible kaleidoscopic constellations and combinations,
the real brain processes, taken as a whole, retain their overall patterns.'
This example has taken us up to one of the highest levels of organismic organization - the brain.
Erwin Schrödinger wrestled with the same issue in his lecture series on “What Is Life?” (1945):
the contrast between the degrees of potential freedom among trillions of molecules making up
the brain on the one hand and on the other hand, “the perseverance in an essentially
invariant pattern of the functions of our nervous system, our thoughts, our ideas, our
memories (and as for the whole body, of our structure and the harmonious
physiological co-operation of all our parts)”.
He was forced to conclude that every conscious mind that has ever felt or said 'I' .. is “the person, if any, who controls the 'motion of the atoms' according to the laws of nature."
Let us forget the implied brain-mind dualism, for the emphasis lies on the word "control" – 'the subordination of the blind play of atoms and molecules to an overall regulatory control system with features of continuity and relative invariability of pattern; in short, the postulation of a systems principle'.
The integral systems operation, of the body as a whole, or of the
brain within it, deals not directly with the molecules, “but only
through the agency of intermediate subordinate sub-systems,
ranged in a hierarchical scale of orders of magnitude” (see the description of hierarchical order in cells below). Each sub-system dominates its own subordinate smaller parts within its own domain, restraining their degrees of freedom “according to its own integral portion of the overall pattern”, much like its own degrees of freedom “have been restrained by the pattern of activities of the higher system of which it is a part and participant”.*
* Gerard (1958) and Koestler (1967) have endowed systems and subsystems of this
description with symbolic names, (Gerard: "orgs", Koestler: "holons").
Weiss fears that such terms might be naively misconstrued for “labels of disembodied super-agencies conceived as something that might after all somehow some day materialize, distilled off and separable from the conservative dynamics, whose special rules those terms aim at categorizing.”
The history of science shows the conceptual hazards inherent in raising adjectives to the rank of nouns; “particularly, in the description of living phenomena, where the temptation to personify nouns is ever present”.
This picture of the organism is the lesson learned from biological study:
the organism is composed of cells, which are composed of organelles, which are in turn composed of macromolecular complexes, down to the macromolecules and smaller molecules, which are the link to inorganic nature. “The principle is valid for the single cell as much as for the multicellular community of the higher animal, and for the latter's development as much as for its homeostatic maintenance of
physiological equilibrium in later life.”
On each one of the planes or levels of this systemic hierarchy, “we encounter the same type of descriptive rule summarized in the inequality formula outlined earlier; namely, that any one of the particular complexes that show that high degree of constancy and unity that marks them as systems loses that
aspect of invariance the more we concentrate our attention on smaller samples of its content”.
So, at each level of descent, we recognize entities like organs, cells, organelles, macromolecules; or brain functions, as expressed in concepts, thoughts, sentences, words, symbols, “but whose methodical behavior on that level cannot be ascribed to any fixity of regularities in the behavior of the units of next lower order”; knowing the properties of intermediary entities “would not permit us to describe
by sheer additive reconstruction the behavioral features of their next superordinate level in precise and specific terms”.
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts" is translated by Weiss into a mandate for action: “a call for spelling out the irreducible minimum of supplementary information that is required beyond the information derivable from the knowledge of the ideally separated parts in order to yield a complete and
meaningful description of the ordered behavior of the collective”.
The reference to hierarchically ordered systems in terms of "levels" has to do with our habit of thinking in spatial imagery. “In our imagination, we visualize the system as a whole on one plane; we then dissect it mentally or physically into its components, which we display on another, a lower, plane”.
Yet, in reality, the system and its parts “are co-extensive and congruous, that nothing need be presumed to have been disrupted or lost in the dissection process except the pattern or orderly relations among the parts”.
The "level" we are speaking of signifies the “level of attention of an observer whose interest has been attracted by certain regularities of pattern prevailing at that level, as he scans across the range of
orders of magnitude”.
The observer finds constancies on every level. It does not matter whether one uses a visual image or verbiage as a model
of hierarchic structure as long as one realizes that this model is a simplified artifact “reflecting the inadequacy of our faculty for visualizing abstract concepts”. They all become equivalent, whether one prefers the layered structure intimated by the term "level" or “Arthur Koestler's tree scheme
of reanastomosing arborizations” or Weiss' own preference for "inscribed domains". The latter refers to a simple figure of his showing concentric circles which have in the center the label “gene”, then chromosome, nucleus, cytoplasm, tissue, organism with connections between all the circles (interactive relations among hierarchically ordered subsystems of an organism). The whole is embedded in an environment.
Weiss, part three
Index of Beyond Reductionism blog postings