Holarchy vs. hierarchy

From a really interesting essay by Andrew P.Smith, where he discusses animal vs. human consciousness, the return of panpsychist philosophies and science, etc …

This very well written philosophical essay, understandable to any generally educated person, is a particular interpretation of human consciousness, also the introductory chapter of a e-book: “The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness” (Xlibris, 2008).

Read it here.

In one of the special ‘boxes’ added to the text, he contrasts hierarchy vs. holarchy.

The more egalitarian nature of holarchies clearly connects it to peer to peer dynamics.

Andrew P.Smith:

The word hierarchy, for many, evokes a rigid system of roles, such as traditionally exists in the military, the Catholic Church, and many government institutions. The nested hierarchies or holarchies found in nature, however, are somewhat different, and frequently natural hierarchies are, too.

Hierarchies as they exist in human institutions consist of individuals who are at progressively higher stages within some social structure. Holarchies consist of the social structures themselves.

Hierarchy: It’s lonely at the top. Hierarchy is frequently shaped like a pyramid, with the number of individual members progressively decreasing at higher stages.

Holarchy: The higher, the more inclusive. In holarchy, higher stages contain lower stages, so are necessarily larger.

Hierarchy: Control from the top down. In institutional hierarchies, individuals at higher stages may command or control the behavior of individuals at lower levels.

Holarchy: Bidirectional interactions. In natural holarchies, lower holons and higher holons influence each other. In protein molecules, for example, the overall conformation tightly constrains the positions of individual amino acids. But changes or modifications of individual amino acids can alter conformation. In the organism, the rates of growth and reproduction of individual cells are strictly regulated, but some individual cells control changes in the overall metabolic state of the organism. In human societies, certain forms of behavior are forbidden, but behavior by some individuals may result in changes in social organization.

Hierarchy: a linear chain of command. Hierarchical relationships can generally be traced from higher individuals to lower individuals in a sequential order.

Holarchy: Networks. Holarchies can exhibit complex relationships. For example, scale-free networks, which characterize many forms of human interaction (Barabasi 2002; Buchanan 2002), can form in a manner in which smaller networks are holarchically combined into larger networks (Ravasz et al. 2002; Ravasz and Barabasi 2003). Many randomly organized networks also form holarchies, for example, amino acid interactions within protein molecules. In fact, in nature, all networks are formed by the interactions of holons of some kind, and most networks are in turn holarchically combined into higher forms of life.

Hierarchy: Fixed Roles. Individuals in institutional hierarchies are defined by particular functions they fulfill in the organization.

Holarchy: Multiple states. Many natural holarchies feature different kinds of interactions among members. For example, metabolic networks within cells are holarchical organizations of enzymes, receptors and other biological macromolecules, each of which has a characteristic function. But such networks can adopt different states in which the functions of some members become more prominent, while those of others are reduced or eliminated. Within organisms, the roles of certain cells, tissues and other multicellular holons vary according to a variety of factors, both internal and external to the organism; in the brain, cells can take on new functions in response to injury of other cells. In all higher vertebrate societies, members adopt different roles in different situations.

Hierarchy: Power rankings. Individuals within a hierarchy can be distinguished according to how much influence they have. Those at one stage are ranked higher than those at a lower stage.

Holarchy: Egalitarian. In most natural holarchies, most individual members are equal or nearly equal in their functions and properties. In some holarchies, a few members are better connected to other members, and these better connections may result in enhanced properties. For example, the ability of individual atoms within a protein molecule to discriminate other individual atoms is restricted. In the brain, some neurons have more connections to other neurons than other members, and play a greater role in information processing. In human societies, there are frequently great disparities in wealth and power. But even in these examples, the great majority of individual members are roughly equal in their properties, functions or access to resources. Moreover, such inequalities that do exist among individual members of these holarchies are not necessarily a result of hierarchical organization per se. For example, they are featured in all scale-free networks, even those that are not hierarchically organized. “

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