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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume 13 · Number 2 · Winter 1970 BEYOND ATOMISMAND HOLISM—THE CONCEPT OF THE HOLON* ARTHUR KOESTLER] This is an exercise in general systems theory—which seems to be all the more appropriate as its founding father sits next to me. Ludwig von Bertalanffy launched that venture here in Alpbach twenty years ago. It seems equally appropriate that I should take as my text a sentence from von Bertalanffy's Problems ofLife [1]; it reads: "Hierarchical organization on the one hand, and the characteristics of open systems on the other, are fundamental principles ofliving nature." If we combine these two fundamental principles, and add a dash of cybernetics to them, we get a system-theoretical model ofSelf-regulating Open Hierarchic Order, or SOHO for short. I intend to discuss some of the properties ofthis SOHO model as an alternative to the S-R model of linear causation, derived from classical mechanics, which we at this symposium seem to be unanimous in rejecting. I can only give here a sketchy outline ofthe idea, butI have tried to tabulate the axioms and propositions relating to it in a more systematic way in an appendix to my last book [2], which I have also appended to this paper, as a sort of Tractatus Logico Hierarchicus. Some ofthese propositions may appear trivial, others rest on incomplete evidence, still others will need correcting or qualifying. But they may provide a basis for discussion. * From "Beyond Reductionism—New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, the Alpbach Symposium , 1968," ed. Arthur Koesder and J. R. Smythies. Published by Hutchinson, London, 1969; to be published by Macmillan, New York, 1970. t Address: 8 Montpelier Square, London S.W. 7, England. I3I Hierarchies and Old Hats When one talks about hierarchic organization as a fundamental principle oflife, one often encounters a strong emotional resistance. For one thing, hierarchy is an ugly word, loaded with ecclesiastic and military associations , and conveys to some people a wrong impression ofa rigid or authoritarian structure. (Perhaps the assonance with "hieratic," which is a quite diffèrent matter, plays a part in this confusion.) Apart from this, the term is often wrongly used to refer simply to order of rank on a linear scale, or ladder (e.g. Clark Hull's "habit-family hierarchies"). But that is not at all what the term is meant to signify. Its correctsymbol is not a rigid ladder but a living tree—a multi-levelled, stratified, out-branching pattern oforganization, a system branching into sub-systems, which branch into sub-systems of a lower order, and so on; a structure encapsulating substructures and so on; aprocess activating sub-processes and so on. To quote Paul Weiss [3]: "The phenomenon ofhierarchic structure is a real one, presented to us by the biological object, and not the fiction ofa speculative mind." It is at the same time a conceptual tool, a way of thinking, an alternative to the linear chaining of events torn from their multidimensionally stratified contexts. Paul Weiss's dislike ofthe tree image, which he expressed in his paper [3], seems to derive from a misunderstanding: he apparently thought the metaphoric tree was meant to be takenliterally. His remark that the spatial structures in the organism are "telescoped" or "encapsulated" into each other rather than "arborized" is an objection frequently voiced by scientists inclined to think in concrete images rather than abstract schemata. The objection can be met by making a horizontal cross-section across the tree and drawing a schematized bird's eye view which shows how the twigs stem from branches, branches from limbs, and so on. Thus the treediagram is transformed into a Chinese-box diagram, but the latter is clumsy and contains less information (see fig. 1). All complex structures and processes ofa relatively stable character display hierarchic organization, and this applies regardless whether we are considering inanimate systems, living organisms, social organizations, or patterns of behaviour. The linguist who thinks primarily in terms of Chomsky's [4] hierarchic modelexperiences a déjà vu reaction—as McNeill [5] expressed it—towards the physiologist's intra-cellular hierarchy; and this may equally apply to Bruner's [6] presentation ofthe hierarchic struc132 Arthur...


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