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Ecodynamics and societal evolution


Development of Comprehension and Comprehension of Development (Part #13)


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Under the concept ecodynamics, Kenneth Boulding, an economist, has attempted an ambitious synthesis which interrelates many physical, biological and social processes that are usually kept apart (152). Of special interest in the light of the argument of this paper is that his synthesis internalizes both its conflictural relationship to other competing visions and the recognition of its own mortality as an artifact.

"Every vision, of course, conflicts with other visions...Each vision must be understood in terms of what it is not as well as in terms of what it is" (152, p. 19)

He therefore indicates how his evolutionary vision is "unfriendly" to various other visions to which his is an alternative. A special feature of his vision is the recognition of the dynamics of the relationship between such visions as they emerge as artifacts and occupy and expand various riches in society.

For Boulding "The pattern of human development is therefore seen to be an extension, enlargement, and acceleration of the pattern of biological development, operating through mutation and selection." (152, p. 18). Social dynamics is then to be thought of primarily as the evolution of human artifacts. Human artifacts not only include material structures and objects, they also include organizations, institutions and social groupings. These all originate and are sustained by images in the human mind. Such artifacts are species just as much as biological artifacts. And:

"Just as there is the genosphere or genetic know-how in the biosphere, so there is a noosphere of human knowledge and know-how in the sociosphere. The noosphere is the totality of the cognitive content, including values, of all human nervous systems, plus the prosthetic devices by which this system is extended and integrated in the form of libraries, computers, telephones..." (152, p. 122)

The processes of biological evolution are also to be found in the evolution of human artifacts, namely replication, recombination, reconstitution, redefinition (mutation) and selection. Boulding suggests that Darwin's metaphor concerning the "survival of the fittest" is unfortunate. "A more accurate metaphor would be the survival of the fitting, the fitting being what fits into a niche in an ecosystem" (152, p. 110). This corresponds to the self-consistency constraint imposed on the organization of dissipative structures. Furthermore:

The social dynamics of human history, even more than that of biological evolution, illustrate the fundamental principle of ecological evolution - that everything depends on everything else. The nine elements that we have described in societal evolution of the three families of phenotypes - the phyla of things, organizations and people, the genetic bases in knowledge operating through energy and materials to produce phenotypes, and the three bonding relations of threat, integration and exchange - all interact on each other." (152, p. 224)

Boulding sharpens the generality of this statement by noting that it is changes in knowledge or know-how that are the basic source of all other changes. In biological evolution it is the genetic structure that evolves with the phenotypes as encoded carriers of it. In societal evolution it is the human artifacts which are encoders of the knowledge structure that is nevertheless continually expressed in human beings. Knowledge is therefore primal as "what evolves" (152, pp. 224-5). The "noogenetic" processes by which each generation of human beings learns from the last then come to be of far greater importance than the biogenetic processes by which genes are transmitted. But, as noted earlier, Boulding sees as the ultimate constraint that "we learn not to learn" and that "the learning patterns themselves are self-limiting." (152, p. 123)

The question is then what self-limiting patterns emerge and how are they to be comprehended? For it is then these patterns which govern the kinds of human and social development that are currently possible - unless richer patterns can be designed or comprehended.

Boulding has many reservations about dialectics as one of the basic patterns, aside from the problems of the confused variety of meanings associated with it. "The substantive question, which is very difficult to answer, is just what is the quantitative or even qualitative significance of dialectical processes, interpreted narrowly as involving conscious conflict, struggle, victory and defeat, winning or losing, revolution and counterrevolution, war and peace, in the great four-dimensional tapestry of the universe." (152, p. 262) He asks when it matters who wins and suggests that such processes affect the details rather than the larger patterns of history, arguing that this could however be significant on historical "watersheds" (152, p. 262-5).

Boulding recognizes that few people accept this view:

"Dialectics in many different forms has a surprisingly good press. Most people believe that struggle is very important and that it is important to be on the right side in a conflict....Part of the difficulty is that the human race has an enormous and by no means unreasonable passion for the dramatic, and conflict is much more dramatic than production....The awful truth about the universe - that it is not only rather a muddle, but also pretty dull - is wholly unacceptable to the human imagination. Nevertheless, it is the dull, nondialectical processes that hold the world together, that move it forward, and that provide the setting within which the dialectical processes take place. Evolution is the theatre, dialectics the play. It is a tragic error to mistake the play for the yheatre, however, because that all too easily ends in the theatre burning down...Unless there is a reasonably widespread appreciation of the proper role of dialectical processes, these tend to get out of hand and become extremely destructive....doing more harm than good." (152, p. 266)

The popularity of dialectics, regretfully noted by Boulding, is however due to the ("seductive") sense of transformation with which it is associated. This is necessarily absent from the "dull" production processes which "hold the world together", protecting it from the effects of random disturbances. The two can however best be perceived as complementary. But the problem is indeed one of how to provide the setting within which the dialectical processes can take place. Is this not the problem of comprehending equilibrium processes as a context for disequilibrium processes, or at least of designing the (shifting) balance between them? Here however Boulding does not offer many insights because he is seemingly handicapped by his stress on "everything depends on everything else". How indeed is the manifold to be structured for comprehension, or by it?

Boulding offers a useful point of departure in a discussion of types of ecological interaction between two species. These are (152, p. 78):

  1. Mutual cooperation
  2. Parasitism
  3. Predation
  4. Mutual competition
  5. Dominant - cooperative
  6. Dominent - competitive
  7. Mutual independence

Now in a biological environment the species may well be locked into one of these types of interaction. In the case of the social environment interacting species, including organizations and roles, may well switch from one type of interaction to another. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the case of two individuals (e.g. husband and wife) or of two nation-states. In both cases there can be an alternation between many of the types according to circumstances. Within any type the interaction may well have dramatic potential as a disequilibrium process for the individuals involved. For the population of those interacting species, however, such interactions may form part of a non-transformative equilibrium cycle (e.g. predation cycles). Switching between types of interaction may also constitute a dramatic change of strategy as a disequilibrium process for the individuals involved. But the pattern of alternation between strategies would then provide an equilibrium context for such shifts.

Conventional values stress the importance of everyone abandoning other types of interaction in favour of the "mutual cooperation" type. Boulding suggests, using the classic example of the "prisoner's dilemma", that "there is a very long-run evolutionary process in this direction that is precarious, however, in the sense that it is constantly being interrupted by lapses" (152, p. 204). He points out that there are "limits to love" about which little is known (152, p. 203 and 304). Of course these "lapses" are the very ingredients of much that is valued for its dramatic significance in any period of culture. It is these lapses, continually engendered by the birth of "ignorant" children, which renew the learning cycle associated with alternation through the other types.

Now in the case of the biological environment, Boulding points out that "the biosphere recycles its materials through all the organisms that comprise it" (152, p. S6). Examples are the nitrogen cycle and the carbon dioxide-oxygen cycle. But he does not suggest, as his vision implies, that the noosphere could recycle its materials through the organizations (and other artifacts) which comprise it. The question is if it did, or rather does, what are those cycles and how do they interweave? For it is then their interweaving that provides the context for the transformative, dialectical processes which are hopefully to be appropriately contained.

The tragedy of the seven types of interaction is that they emerge as the only credible set of alternatives because of the binary valued logic which governs their generation (e.g. 3 species, each affected positively or negatively by the interaction, or not at all). Such a limited set has the twofold disadvantage of reinforcing the conflictual logic of dialectics without strengthening and enriching the non-dialectical context through which such transformative processes play themselves out. (The "mutual cooperation" type then merely functions as a "day of rest" which evokes the dramatic opportunities of the other six.) They constitute a self-limiting pattern.

If the number of basic distinctions made was greater (e.g. N = 20, for example) a much finer grained set of alternatives would emerge. These would provide a richer ecology of interactions within which people and groups could develop. The finer the grain the more probable it is that people would find that one or more such interaction categories was specifically meaningful to their condition. The ability to vary N would introduce a new degree of conceptual freedom. The problem is of course to safeguard the integrity of each such set and relate it to others.

This suggests the need to elaborate a continuumce of patterns of which the simplest would correspond to the transformative diseqilibrium processes. The more complex would correspond to the equilibrium processes based on a richer set of interaction types woven together by a variety of interlocking and mutual stabilizing cycles through which alternation takes place. This possibility is explored in Annex I. In the light of Sheldrake's argument, the existence of such a range of patterns should make it easier to avoid learning not to learn within the current self-limiting patterns. This should help to release the potential for healthier human and social development.


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