A critique of the self-organization ideology

I think that it is worthwhile to challenge our almost reflexive belief, today, in the power of emergence or self-organization. It’s all too easy for “spontaneous emergence” or “self-organization” to be put into play as a catch-all explanation for things that cannot be explained any other way.

From a very interesting and provocative post by Steven Shaviro:

Peter Ward’s new book The Medea Hypothesisis a critique of the quite popular Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life.”

Ward “directly contests all these claims. According to Ward, the ecosphere is not homeostatic or self-regulating; to the contrary, it is continually being driven by positive feedback mechanisms to unsustainable extremes. Most of the mass extinction events in the fossil record, Ward says, were caused by out-of-control life processes — rather than by an external interruption of such processes.”

Ward does not see any evidence that cooperation or altruism can evolve on a meta-, or planetary, level.

If true, then Ward has undermined one of the key tenets of the new cultural beliefs in self-organization, explains Dr. Shaviro:

“The widespread contemporary belief in “self-organization” is almost religious in its intensity. We tend not to believe any more in the Enlightenment myth (as it seems to us now) of rationality and progress. We are skeptical of any sort of “progress” aside from technological innovation and improvement; and we no longer believe in the power of Reason to dispel superstition and to make plans for human betterment. The dominant ideology in these (still, despite the economic crisis) neoliberal times denounces any sort of rational planning as “utopian” and thereby “totalitarian,” an effort to impose the will on matter that absolutely resists it. This also entails a rejection of “grand narratives” (as Lyotard said in the 1980s), and an overall sense that “unintended consequences” make all willful and determinate action futile.

Instead, we turn to “self-organization” as something that will save us. The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the harcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.

Now, it is certainly true that many phenomena can be better understood in terms of networked complexity, than in those of linear cause and effect. It is rare for an occurrence to be so isolated that linear models are really sufficient to explain it. And it is also certainly true that unexpected consequences, due to factors that we did not take into account (and in some cases, as in chaos theory, that were too small or insignificant to measure in advance, but that turned out to have incommensurably larger effects), interfere with our ability to make clear predictions and to impose our will. The best laid plans, etc. But still –

I think that we need to question our reflexive belief — or unwarranted expectation, if you prefer — that emergent or self-organizing phenomena are some how always (or, at least, generally) for the best. And this is where Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, even if taken only as a thought experiment, is useful and provocative. Lovelock is almost apocalyptic in his worries about environmental disruption; his recent books The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia warn us that human activity is catastrophically interfering with the self-regulating and self-correcting mechanisms that have otherwise maintained life on this planet. For Lovelock, human beings seem entirely separate from, and opposed to, “nature,” or Gaia. From Ward’s perspective, to the contrary, human beings are themselves a part of nature. Human-created climate change and ecological destruction are not unique; other organisms have caused similar catastrophes throughout the history of life on earth. All actions have “unintended” consequences; these consequences may well be destructive to others, and even to the actors themselves. Presumably bacteria do not plan and foresee the possible consequences of their actions, and discursively reason about them, in the ways that we do; but this does not mean that ecological catastrophes caused by bacteria should be put in a fundamentally different category than ecological catastrophes caused by human beings. [I am enough of a Whiteheadian that I am inclined to think that bacterial actions have a “mental pole” as well as a “physical pole” just as human actions do, albeit to a far feebler extent; there is definite scientific evidence for bacterial cognition.] Rather than separating destructive human actions from “nature”, Ward suggests that “nature” itself (or the organisms that compose it) frequently issues forth in such destructive actions. The mistake is to assume that the networks from which actions emerge, and through which they resonate, are themselves somehow homeostatic or self-preserving. Rather, destructive as well as constructive actions can be propagated through a network — including actions destructive of the network itself.

Of course, on some level we are already aware of this destructive potential — as is witnessed in discussions of the propagation of both biological and computer viruses, for instance. Yet somehow, we tend to cling to the idea that positive self-organization somehow has precedence. And this idea tends to arise especially in discussions that cross over from biology to economics. Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.”

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