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biophile's picture

Social and Biological Hierarchies

When I was much younger, an aspect of biology that fascinated me was hierarchical systems and the ways in which the living world was categorized. In hindsight I can see that they’re not as pervasive as I thought, but the way in which the subject was simplified and taught at a middle school level made it seem that way. I enjoyed tracing through phylogenetic trees, seeing how we organized the world and narrowed everything down into highly specific little boxes. I liked to look to each level of organization, from ecological communities to single cells, and see how the patterns behind them related to each other. I knew that there was much interaction within those levels and between those levels in both directions, but it didn’t occur to me to think of the world in a way other than hierarchical. Later on as I took more advanced courses I realized that the world was not so easily cut into parts and that the interactions between organisms and their parts were not so simple or easy to follow. When I first heard of biological systems in which there was no pacemaker or leader I was thrown for a loop. Humans really don’t think in terms of mutual interactions between individuals starting a cascade. For example, when we think of a revolution we picture a group of underground rebels led by a few exceptional people who convince others to follow them. It almost seems as if we’re trained to look for a hero or a leader and to focus on that one in the story. We tend to think that without a leader any movement will be uncoordinated and will break down quickly. Whether it is the brain sending signals to muscles to contract or a political leader gathering support for a campaign, we often see the leader in the system without an appreciation of how much work is done by individuals within the system. Perhaps that’s why so many people cannot comprehend a universe in which there is no grand designer: where does this order and this appearance of purpose come from if not from a purposeful, ordering force? To use the terminology in the paper, the storyteller in us wants to assign a purpose or objective to the order we see around us because that’s what it has evolved to do. Even applying the emergence perspective to what is around us and saying that more complex things arise with no architect is making a story that fits the observations we have made.

I have been convinced that distributed interactive systems are the norm in biology (though I wonder why systems with a leader evolved in a few particular cases, such as the pacemaker cells in the heart). Still, I’m not sure how a society based on reciprocal action would work. We’re not unthinking matter; we’re all very much conscious of the world around us and we want to look after our own best interests. I can see this system working in a smaller, more intimate environment like in a family or in the classroom. In fact, I think that we could really benefit from it. I think that many children rebel against authority because they feel as if they are powerless. Children aren’t listened to very much, even when they have something important to say. I remember feeling very frustrated in an environment in which I was treated like a nonperson, being subjected to lectures and forced into activities I found pointless. Even today in places where children are well cared for they are still constantly reminded that they have no power. If there were more communication between teachers or parents and children I think that there would not be so much tension. I find that children respond to lessons better when you ask them questions directly and talk with them instead of telling them what we feel they need to know. Again, though, I really can’t see how this would work on a larger scale. Even though humans are very creative, we display the same tendencies throughout history and we are creatures of habit. Such an approach would probably would very well in smaller settings, but would be impossible to uphold in larger ones.

The next point that stuck with me was the importance of listening to scholars in other fields with open ears instead of holding onto the belief that one’s own research and opinions are more valuable. There is a peculiar tendency in academic and research communities to hole up inside one’s own circle and to hold other subjects in contempt. That’s not to say that everyone is guilty of that, but I’ve encountered it often enough even at the undergraduate level. It seems as if so much effort goes into tearing down others’ work and bragging about one’s own. At the same time, it can be difficult to find a worthwhile interdisciplinary program. Even though it’s important to keep what we’re studying and researching in a broader context and to make it accessible to anyone who’s interested it’s very easy to water down certain areas when taking this approach. It’s easy to say that we need to foster cooperation between different fields and to bring greater perspective to our studies, but how can we do it without losing something of each field in the process?

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