Directionality Theory: Neo-Organicism and Dialectical Complexity  

Wood 3

Glenn Albrecht (Draft 12/4/2000)  Published in Democracy and Nature Vol. 6, Number 3, November 2000. pp. 401-422.

For some light reading on life, love and complexity.


In this paper I shall examine the evolution of directionality theory expressed as organicist, dialectical approaches to the nature of reality and conclude with an assessment of its newly expressed form, that of complexity theory. In the history of ideas before complexity theory, Hegelian philosophy came closest to providing a systematic, organicist and evolutionary approach to the comprehension of life as a complex adaptive system moving in a particular direction and of knowledge as a conceptual complement of the achievements of self-organised physical and biological evolution. In the work of Murray Bookchin, we find a Neo-Hegelian iteration of the directionality thesis expressed as the theory of dialectical naturalism. Beyond Bookchin, in the last few decades we have seen the emergence of new ways of understanding complex systems. Complexity theorists have provided novel insights into the way complex systems evolve and produce increasing states of complexity and diversity. I shall argue that these new insights provide important links to the directionality tradition of Aristotle and Hegel. However, the elements of chance and uncertainty within complexity theory are at odds with the more deterministic aspects of dialectical naturalism. The tensions between these two perspectives shall be resolved through the synthesis of dialectical complexity.

A brief overview of Directionality

From ancient times to the present humans have attempted to comprehend the world they find themselves in. As a newly emerged species in evolutionary terms, humans have lived within a physical world and biological and ecological diversity and complexity that predates them by billions of years. Explaining how this pre-existing complexity and diversity arose and the place humans have within it has been a major preoccupation of all human cultures.  Cosmology, religion, philosophy, art and science have all made their contributions to this most human of projects.

Claims about directionality have been made within all types of changing systems, be they social or biological. I shall focus on the domain of ethics in this paper because it is within ethical theory that directionality has been applied to the resolution of one of the most pressing issues in the history of ideas; what is the ideal relationship between humans and nature? The link between a direction or movement in the evolution of the world or cosmos and human choice is one that has provided key insight into ethics. Humans can, as it were, go with the direction of the greater flow or swim against the tide. Different approaches to the issue of directionality have included the following:

  • That directionality is provided by God or gods and that humans can live within such guidance or be excluded from it (external teleology)
  • That directionality is provided by the self-organised orderly unfolding of latent potential in the cosmos that was present in its formation (internal or immanent teleology)
  • Directionality is provided by the application of rationality (logic and science) and that humans can move from states of ignorance to states of complete knowledge.
  • That religion and science provide no objective guidance on such matters and that there is no directionality present. (nihilism, post-modernism)

Ancient Views on Complexity and Directionality

 In Western traditions in philosophy, it was the Pre-Socratics who first attempted to comprehend human existence within an overarching framework that gave it meaning and coherence. They saw within the diversity of life and its physical foundations an underlying organic order which transcended the chaotic and the contradictory. In addition, the interconnections between human communities and natural systems, was one that the ancient Greeks well understood. Seemingly hostile elements (air, fire, water, earth; hot, cold, moist and dry) can be reconciled in a state of delicate and dynamic balance. Out of chaos there can be order; from the appearance of ‘strife’ (Heraclitus) can come the reality of process and a natural order. Reality is in constant transition from the elementary to the complex, it unfolds or develops over time. Human knowledge must, on the basis of understanding that there is a distinction between appearance and reality, look for the underlying unity and order that is present.

In the works of Plato, the idea that a union of interests (harmony) can be achieved through a reconciliation of opposites, is to be found in the Dialogues. In the Symposium, Eryximachus argues:

… when … the elements of hot and cold, moist and dry, attain the temperate love of one another and blend in chastened harmony, they bring to men, animals, and plants health and plenty … whereas the wanton love, getting the upper hand and affecting the seasons of the year, is very destructive and injurious, being the source of pestilence, and bringing many different kinds of diseases on animals and plants … [1]

With Aristotle, a new and important contribution is made to the understanding of natural order. The idea of ‘inner teleology’ or the notion that all development and activity can be understood as being guided by an internal necessity or purpose is fundamentally Aristotelian. When applied to nature, but in particular, the human mind, such an idea conveys the sense that development is the process of self-realisation from potential to fulfillment. It is the form of life itself and living things are engaged in a normative process of self-realisation … the end or logos is actualised at the end of development (an entelechy).

Within human social life Aristotle argues that the potential of human beings as social animals can be achieved. In the city-state citizens achieve self-sufficiency and the best form of human social life or the ‘good life’. In The Politics, Aristotle argues that out of all previous forms of human association comes the realisation of the final form. He argues that such an association:

… is the end of those others and its nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the perfecting process of any object, that we call its nature, that which man, house, household, or anything else aims at being. Moreover the aim and the end can only be that which is best, perfection and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection. [2]

In this passage Aristotle sets down a pattern of thought that can be found repeated in many subsequent philosophical and related writings.  This is the idea that human society moves through various phases or stages from an immature to a mature state.  This movement is in a sense pre-determined because the end is immanent in the very beginning of the process. Internal or immanent teleology describes the evolution of form via what might be called the ‘laws’ of order and development. As is the case with the development of an individual organism, all development can be understood as determined by a final cause, not external, but internal to that which is developing. Such a view gives Aristotle’s philosophy an organic view of both the unity of purpose within the related ‘parts’ (unity) of a whole and its development (directionality).

Hegel, the Dialectic and Organic Complexity

Even in Hegel’s early theological writings there is evidence that he was searching for an internal principle which could account for the special type of unity to be found within organic wholes. In the essay on Love, Hegel (1797-1798) identifies the process of development whereby internal development differentiates itself, yet remains unified. Using a metaphor that plays a central role in his mature writings, Hegel suggests that all types of organic development follow a common pathway:

The seed breaks free from its original unity, turns ever more into opposition, and begins to develop. Each stage of its development is a separation, and its aim in each is to regain for itself the full riches of life … Thus the process is: unity, separated opposites, reunion. [3]

Within a human community, love can be understood as exemplifying such a ‘dialectic’. There is unity within diversity if a common principle animates the whole. Hegel, in a passage that presages a key element of complexity theory in the late twentieth century  argues:

In love man has found himself in another. Since love is a unification of life, it presupposes division, a development of life, a developed many-sidedness of life. The more variegated the manifold in which life is alive, the more places in which it can sense itself, the deeper does life become.[4]

In his early writings Hegel was convinced that philosophical thought was incapable of giving adequate expression to the unified totality that is life and reserved that role for religion.  Abstract thought simply divided life into an infinite number of discrete parts and only within the ‘spiritual’ realm of religion, “a reality beyond all reflection”[5] did true unification take place.

However, an early expression of the dialectic, or Hegel’s method of explicating the dynamic, self-generated continuity of organically unified entities, does emerge from the early writings. Hegel, in the Fragment of a System (1800), argues that the infinite regress of terms and relations in abstract thinking about the totality of life can be thought of as the union of opposition and relation or that “union is opposed to non-union”.  To avoid this contradiction Hegel suggested a better formulation of life as “… the union of union and non-union”. [6]

This formulation of life replaces the earlier conception based on love and is refined itself in the mature Hegel’s writings with the concept of identity. The common theme running through all formulations is the attempt to present a philosophical account of the distinctive features of organically unified entities, those of identity and continuity despite difference, unity despite diversity. Hegel’s philosophical project within his early philosophy was to “think pure life” [7] and his later works remained true to this aim.

Hegel’s mature organicism reinstates Aristotle’s view that it is human intellectual development that is the culmination of the self-developing system of life. While the system of physical and living things (nature) changes over time, Hegel argues that it is only by understanding the evolution of the human mind that directionality within this ceaseless movement that can be discovered and defended.

In the Phenomenology of Mind (1807) we find Hegel’s mature expression of the dialectic as the “progressive evolution of the truth”. Despite the appearance of contingency and contradiction in the development of human consciousness, Hegel identifies one continuous stream of development from infancy (potential) to maturity (actualisation). As is often the case, Hegel illustrates this thesis with an example from the organic realm:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as another; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes from the outset the life of the whole. [8]

The aim of the Phenomenology was to disclose the systematic development in the stages of human consciousness from genesis to maturity. The dialectic was used by Hegel to show that the apparently self-sufficient determinations of human consciousness are never really complete, but are always part of an immanent progression. Hegel’s internal or immanent teleology can be contrasted with external teleology. External teleology applies where the apparent function or purpose of a thing is linked to an external agent. Hegel has nothing but contempt for the trivial application of such thinking where, for example, “the wisdom of God is admired because he causes cork trees to grow, that we might have bottle stoppers”. [9]

The idea of infinite or internal teleology is forwarded by Hegel to highlight the inherent, self-organising activity characteristic of living organisms and consciousness. According to Hegel, there is, immanent in organic life and human consciousness, an inherent goal or end state that is a determining factor in all development. In opposition to seeing purpose as externally applied, Hegel argues:

To see purpose as inherent within natural objects, is to grasp nature in its simple determinateness, e.g. the seed of a plant, which contains the real potential of everything to the tree, which as purposeful activity is therefore orientated solely towards self-preservation. Aristotle had already noticed this notion of purpose in nature, and he called the activity the ‘nature of a thing’. This is the true teleological view, for it regards nature in its proper animation as free, and is therefore the highest view of nature. [10]

I indicated above that Hegel sees the most developed manifestation of inner teleology as the process of self-realisation in human consciousness. He saw human self-consciousness as a conceptual manifestation of the same underlying structure of all reality, but a reality (nature) actively achieving its own potential, a potential that lay immanent in the system at the very beginning. Although operating at qualitatively different levels of reality, both mind and nature are inherently purposive, self-determining dimensions of the one evolving organic totality. Philosophy (Mind) as the active and conscious expression of the development process can then reconstruct the unconscious development of nature. As Hegel argues, we can comprehend the progressive evolution of truth only at the leading edge the process of its development:

The truth is the whole. The whole however is merely the essential nature reaching its own completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is what it is in every truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development.[11]

Hegel’s system of philosophy opens many avenues for the evaluation of human social and intellectual development. The fact that something exists does not make it ‘actual’. Actuality, for Hegel, is the correspondence of a thing with its inner essence (wesen). As part of their developmental process, things might deviate, be inadequate or be ‘untrue’ with respect to their essence. The stages from immaturity to maturity might also be used to evaluate where in the continuum something lies. As shall be seen below, an appreciation of Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of dialectical naturalism is crucially dependent on understanding these key normative dimensions in Hegel’s philosophy.

Bookchin, Directionality and Dialectical Naturalism

Bookchin is quite explicit in his debt to Hegel’s organicist philosophy. In The Ecology of Freedom he identifies the “logic of differentiation” that is common to all forms of organic development. Differentiation must be understood as occurring within an overall larger framework or process. Bookchin argues:

By wholeness, I mean varying levels of actualization, an unfolding of the wealth of particularities, that are latent in an as-yet-undeveloped potentiality. This potentiality may be a newly planted seed, a newly born infant, a newly born community, or a newly born society. [12]

He then immediately quotes that “remarkable passage” from Hegel about “the “bud, blossom and fruit” (above) to illustrate what he means by the process of “self-consummation” or the achievement of full potential.

In The Philosophy of Social Ecology Bookchin defends his interpretation of the dialectic against that of those who have abused its explanatory and ethical potential. He criticises popularisers of dialectical thinking such as Engels and 20th Marxists who created ‘dialectical materialism’. Of Hegel, Bookchin suggests that he rejected the idea of evolution in the biological world and that, as a result, his dialectic was unduly idealistic and ‘spiritual’.[13] Bookchin, in turn, rejects the Hegelian idea that the process of dialectical development ends in the Absolute or the complete realisation of all the potential within the evolving system[14]. He sees such an “archaism” as a “socially reactionary trap”[15] rather than the expression of truth. By contrast, he argues that his own version of the dialectic:

… does not terminate in a Hegelian absolute at the end of a cosmic developmental path, but rather advances the vision of an ever-increasing wholeness, fullness, and richness of differentiation and subjectivity.[16]

Bookchin, in creating his philosophy of Social Ecology, develops his own version of the dialectic. While accepting the Aristotelian and Hegelian tradition with which his own ideas have affinities, he wanted to “ecologise” and “evolutionise” the dialectic and remove all hints of dualistic thinking and false forms of teleology. This issue is important for Bookchin because a naturalistic account of self-organisation could supplant those that could be interpreted and used to support authoritarianism and hierarchy. He argues that religious, Hegelian and pseudo-scientific thinking can pervert freedom in the same way since “truth wears an unseen crown in the form of God or Spirit, for nature can never be trusted to develop on its own spontaneous grounds…”[17] The affinities between natural, spontaneous self-organisation and anarchistic thinking are immediately obvious.

In addition to the explication of the foundations for ethics from the philosophical perspective of inner teleology, Bookchin attempts to provide a case for the objective foundation for ethics from his analysis of the relevant scientific literature. In The Ecology of Freedom (1982), he reviews the then current bio-evolutionary literature, relying in particular on Cairns-Smith (1974), Trager (1970), Margulis (1981) and Lewin (1980) to reach the conclusion that within evolution there is an ethically significant sense of the interdependence of all life and the way this interdependence promotes the continuity of life.

 The insights from modern biological and ecological thinking could be incorporated into a new version of the dialectic, one Bookchin calls ‘dialectical naturalism’. A naturalistic dialectic seeks to identify human social development within an ongoing process of increasing complexity and diversity. Bookchin sees the free development of natural complexity and diversity as an entirely natural phenomenon.  He argues:

Hence our study of nature … exhibits a self-evolving patterning, a “grain”, so to speak, that is implicitly ethical.  Mutualism, freedom and subjectivity are not strictly human values or concerns. They appear, however germinally, in larger cosmic and organic processes that require no Aristotelian God to motivate them, no Hegelian Spirit to vitalize them.[18]

From the perspective of Social Ecology, human society has, for the greater part of its own evolution, created communities that have been consistent with this emergent natural order.  The scope, scale and organisation of society was shaped by the spontaneous natural organisation from which it arose and in which it remains embedded. As a consequence of the importance of the interrelatedness of the elements within complex systems, Bookchin stresses cooperation and symbiotic interrelationship (mutualism), rather than competition and struggle as fostering the most important outcomes of evolutionary history.

Bookchin’s Aristotelian-Hegelian philosophical background comes to the surface with his explanation of the emergence of increasing degrees of intentionality and subjectivity from spontaneous natural organisation.  Life, in spontaneously producing itself, also produces a material substance that “… eventually yields mind and intellectuality.”[19] Intentionality and self-consciousness lay as potential that remained latent in life until the evolution of complex organisms with brains. Hence, for Bookchin, directionality is the freedom manifest in life to evolve toward ever-increasing interrelated diversity and complexity.

Based on such a view of life Bookchin argues that the social values that arise out of a naturalistic ethic: unity in diversity, spontaneity and non-hierarchical relations, are objectively grounded in this understanding.  He advocates a type of ethical realism when he argues that such social values are the “elements of an ethical ontology, not rules of a game that can be changed to suit one’s personal needs.”[20] Value exists independently of any human valuer (objectivity) but can be discovered alongside other facts about the nature of reality. Bookchin suggests of dialectical naturalism, that it is:

… integrally wedded to the objective world – a world in which Being is Becoming. Let me emphasize that dialectical naturalism not only grasps reality as an existentially unfolding continuum; it also forms an objective framework for moral judgements. The “what-should-be” can be seen as an ethical criterion for the truth or validity of an objective “what-is”. Ethics is not merely a matter of personal taste and values; it is factually anchored in the world as an objective standard of self-realization. Whether a society is “good” or “bad”, moral or immoral, for example, can be objectively determined by whether it has fulfilled its potentialities for a rational and moral society. Potentialities that are themselves actualizations of a dialectical continuum present the challenge of ethical self-fulfilment – not simply in the privacy of the mind but in the reality of the processual world.[21]

Bookchin sees the values of mutualism, freedom and subjectivity as “implicit in nature” and must be made explicit by humans, who can act as the “self-reflexive voice of nature” in the production of an ecologically inspired rationality and ethic.[22] Hegel had thought of such a state of affairs as “Nature as absorbed in itself”.[23] Humans are in a position to do this since their sense organs, language and intelligence are themselves the products of natural evolution and have the potential to reflect the structure and processes of nature in a conceptual form.  Bookchin believes that we must find concrete social expressions of these naturalistic ethical values and they will be manifest in ideas and action that assist the “grain of nature” in that they will support the movement of “self-organising reality toward ever-greater complexity and rationality”.[24]  By contrast, the fight against homogeneity and anti-rational forces is a fight against the forces that might wish to destroy the diversity of life and the order (unity) it promotes.

According to Bookchin, actions that would support or complement the direction or grain of nature include technologies that are based on an array of renewable energy resources and are on a human scale and in harmony with the environment, direct democracy, decentralised urban communities and forms of organic food production.  All of these strategies and actions would have to be artistically and intimately integrated to create eco-communities. The eco-community is a human response to the imperative to live with the grain of nature and to find human expressions of unity within diversity.

Contemporary complexity theory

 The ancient idea that within life and the cosmos there might be fundamental ordering processes which provide a basis for directionality has received support from contemporary theorists of complex adaptive systems. Such support suggests, in line with the traditions of inner teleology of Aristotle and the dialectical traditions of Hegel and Bookchin, that spontaneous self-organisation is an inherent property of many types of simple and complex systems. Such self-organisation may be the product of ‘laws of order’ that operate beyond other known ordering factors such as natural selection and genetic inheritance. As one of the leading theorists in this area has claimed:

… in sufficiently complex systems, much of the order found is that spontaneously present in the class of systems under selection. Therefore, I have made bold to suggest that much of the order seen in organisms is precisely the spontaneous order in the systems of which we are composed. Such order has beauty and elegance, casting an image of permanence and underlying law over biology. Evolution is not just “chance caught on the wing.” It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection.[25]

Theorists of complex systems have contributed a great deal of new insight into how it is possible for there to be emergent order through spontaneous self-organisation. There has been a consistent emphasis in what is now a large theoretical and research foundation on how open systems far-from-equilibrium (open to energy and materials flows from outside the system), as they dissipate or disperse energy, engage in self-organising behaviour that increases complexity and diversity. As described by Prigogine and Stengers:

We now know that far from equilibrium, new types of structures may originate spontaneously. In far from equilibrium conditions we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos, into order. New dynamic states of matter may originate, states that reflect the interaction of a given system with its surroundings. We call these structures dissipative structures to emphasize the constructive role of dissipative processes in their formation.[26]

Such open systems are able to maintain or increase their level of organisation because they are more efficient at using energy than the wider system within which they exist and are also able to efficiently export their waste (entropy) into the larger surrounding system.[27] Energy and materials gradients allow throughput of energy, materials and information through the system. In the non-living context, cyclones, twisters, autocatalytic chemical reactions and lasers are examples of such coherent structures that maintain order at the expense of the wider environment. Living systems are more obvious examples of self-organisation that retain coherence by the same process of exporting entropy into the environment. The complex systems that humans create through technology and social organisation (e.g., cities) have also been studied from the perspective of dissipative structures and processes.[28]

In addition to a Darwinian perspective, evolution can be understood in terms of dissipative structures. This suggests that biological systems are engaged in an endogenous (modern science) or immanent (Hegelian nature philosophy) movement toward complexity and that this feature of life leads, unlike in Darwinian theory, to the idea that the direction of evolution is irreversible. That is, an evolving system, cannot within its own dynamic, return to an earlier and simpler state.  As argued by Depew and Weber it is a feature of systems explicated in terms of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to be:

… irreversible not just in fact, but in principle, because, lacking inertial states to which they would tend to return when forces are removed, the entities in the system are defined historically – in terms of the entire sequence of their interactions over a series of irreversible changes …[29]

Once biological systems are conceptualised as non-equilibrium dissipative structures (NEDS), the self-generated movement from simplicity to complexity in living systems provides a measure of support for Bookchin’s philosophical and evolutionary arguments that there is directionality in nature. The order which arises out of increasing complexity in biological systems is not then something which can be treated in atomistic and reductionistic terms. The creation of order-in-complexity when understood in eco-evolutionary terms and NEDS is the outcome of the interaction of energy systems over very long periods of time.  Although periods of stability may occur in geological time, changes that create new levels of complexity will be the result of fluctuations or perturbations in that system.  The stability we have now in biogeochemical systems is itself the product of irreversible movement from simplicity to complexity over deep time.

According to the first law of thermodynamics, the amount of energy in a closed system is constant, however, the classical formation of the second law suggests that in a closed system the amount of useable energy (gradating from high to low) available for any process will always decrease. There is a gradient or ‘directionality’ within such systems from high level energy to useless waste heat, and ultimately to the “cessation of all interesting activity throughout the universe”[30] or what is termed “equilibrium”. Similar considerations apply to open systems.

However, dissipative structures in non-living and living systems seem to defy this process; they manifest an opposing ‘directionality’ in that they increase complexity and diversity at local levels while entropy continues to increase at the global level. A reformulated second law makes this apparent contradiction understandable. As explained by Schneider and Kay[31] a restated second law suggests that:

As systems are moved from equilibrium, they will utilize all avenues to counter the applied gradients. As the applied gradients increase, so does the system’s ability to oppose further movement from equilibrium.

 Hence, it is to be expected that complex systems should adapt to change and self organize to negate the influence of an imposed energy gradient. The earth as a whole could be considered just such an open system as it has a large energy gradient imposed upon it by the sun. This view has been used to argue the case that the great diversity of life on earth is mainly a response to the thermodynamic imperative to dissipate energy in the gradient from high quality (useable) to lower quality (difficult to use) energy. As argued by Schneider and Kay, “as more high quality energy is pumped into an ecosystem, more organization emerges to dissipate the energy. Thus we have order emerging from disorder in the service of causing even more disorder”.[32]

As evidence supporting such a hypothesis, Schneider and Kay point out that at the earth’s equator, where 5/6 of the earth’s radiation occurs, the greatest species diversity is present. They argue that:

Trophic levels and food chains are based on photosynthetic fixed material and further dissipate these gradients by making more highly ordered structures. Thus we would expect more species diversity to occur where there is more available exergy (energy available to perform useful work).[33]

The theory of dissipative structures gives us a new perspective on directionality. There is an emerging perspective that dissipative structures develop in an irreversible way through self-organization, to states of increased complexity.  As Depew and Weber argue:

It is an essential property, as we have seen, of dissipative structures, when proper kinetic pathways are available, to self-organise and, when initial boundary conditions are specified, to evolve toward greater complexity… Thus if we grant that biological systems are constrained by the same physical laws that made their emergence possible, we can expect that such systems – organisms, populations, species, clades, ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole – will evolve, and evolve toward greater complexity.[34]

The fossil record also supports the directionality thesis in that it shows increasing complexity and biodiversity over geological time. Directionality is also present in the current distribution of plants and animals on earth, from high biodiversity at the equator to low biodiversity at the poles. As argued by the leading biologist, E.O. Wilson[35] ‘progress’ from simple to the complex as an expression of directionality is not simply a philosophical assertion, it is supported by a wide range of evidence:

During the past billion years, animals as a whole evolved upward in body size, feeding and defensive techniques, brain and behavioural complexity, social organization, and precision of environmental control – in each case farther from the non-living state than their simpler antecedents did… Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals. It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.[36]

The search for the fundamental principles of order in the creation of life has seen the suggestion that “attractors”, or states toward which a dynamic system eventually settles, play an important role in the maintenance and creation of diversity.  In Complexity Theory there is a recurrent theme that very complex and seemingly chaotic systems can give rise to regularity and order. The order that is achieved, is, however, not always stable, it can be delicately poised between order and instability. As Goodwin summarises:

For complex non-linear dynamic systems with rich networks of interacting elements, there is an attractor that lies between a region of chaotic behaviour and one that is ‘frozen’ in the ordered regime, with little spontaneous activity. Then any such system, be it a developing organism, a brain, an insect colony, or an ecosystem will tend to settle dynamically at the edge of chaos. If it moves into the chaotic regime it will come out again of its own accord; and if it strays too far into the ordered regime it will tend to ‘melt’ back into dynamic fluidity where there is rich but labile order, one that is inherently unstable and open to change.[37]

 Complexity theorists have developed the concept of a point called ‘the edge of chaos’ to account for the dialectical interplay between the forces of order and disorder and the creation of new levels of complexity. As a system reaches its most chaotic state, it also has the ability to self-organise into a new form of order. Such creative self-organisation is possible because of the richness of the interactions that occur with maximum potential for the constructive exchange and processing of information.[38] There are identifiable influences that can pull the system one way or the other and theorists have termed these influences ‘attractors’. What attractors do is act to pull a complex dynamic system out of instability or chaos into order or vice versa.

Different attractors can influence a complex system in different ways causing new forms of order/disorder to emerge. Major system shocks or ‘perturbations’ might also act so as to push or pull the system toward a new attractor and the establishment of a new pattern. Thus self-organised criticality can be understood as a ‘general type of attractor’[39] that assists in the understanding of systems that exhibit patterned behaviour. Cascades of change in all types of dynamic systems might follow power laws and such laws are in principle discoverable.

Goodwin has applied this type of thinking to explain the evolution of the eye, a structure that has evolved independently in about forty different evolutionary lines. Following patterns layed out in embryonic development and other forms of cellular growth, the recognisable form of an eye is the result of pattern emergence within a sea of possibilities. As Goodwin explains it, “I’m saying that there’s a large attractor in morphogenic space that results in a functional visual system”.[40] Rather than a situation of infinite flexibility and possibilities, certain ‘laws of form’ might operate in all kinds of contexts where complexity exists and emergence is possible. As argued by Kauffman, “morphology is a marriage of underlying laws of form and the agency of selection, the task is to find the laws and hallow the marriage.”[41]

The application of Complexity Theory to all types of complex, dynamic systems has produced renewed interest in a project that unifies all natural phenomena under common natural laws.  Biological and physical entities are subject to the same natural forces and different levels of biological organisation are also subject to common principles of organisation.

In addition to throwing light on how it is that order can emerge from disorder, complexity theory has now been able to link with other known producers of order, natural selection and genetics. Schneider and Kay see genes and biodiversity as “information databases of self-organization strategies that work”[42] and their role in the continuity of life is critical. Innovation and increasing complexity and diversity is the inevitable product of unstable thermodynamic forces while maintaining the survival of that complexity and diversity (successful self-organisation) is the role of genes and populations of diverse species.

The constructive role of disorder and perturbation in the creation of complexity and diversity has also emerged within conventional ecological theory in the last decade. From within ecological biology itself, has come the additional argument that nonequilibrium determinants of ecological order may be far more significant in the production of the biodiversity currently present on the planet than are the processes that are tied to the maintenance of equilibrium. The role of natural disturbance in the form of flood, storm and fire, for example, is such that it creates new energy gradients and hence new opportunities for evolution, and subsequently, biological diversity as the system in question recovers from the impact of the last perturbation or change. The biologist, Seth Reice argues:

I suggest that the normal state of communities and ecosystems is to be recovering from the last disturbance. Natural systems are so frequently disturbed that equilibrium is rarely achieved.[43]

Such a view of the control of community structure transforms the way we see the origins of ecological complexity. High levels of complexity are caused and maintained by regular disturbance that is continually prompting dynamic readjustment from within the ecosystem in question. According to Reice:

Disturbance should be viewed as both natural and beneficial to the world’s biodiversity. The most diverse systems are the ones that are frequently disturbed – such as streams, pine savannas, prairies and grasslands, tropical rain forests and coral reefs. The positive impact of disturbance on biodiversity is apparent.[44]

The traditional emphasis in ecology on stability and equilibrium within so called ‘climax communities’ is the result of not applying a sufficiently long time frame to investigation and understanding of the system in question. As argued by Reice:

In some systems the return frequency of disturbance is so long that the impression of equilibrium conditions develops. This is what underlies the traditional idea of climax communities. However, careful observation reveals that disturbance is ubiquitous and frequent relative to the life spans of the dominant taxa.[45]

The new nonequilibrium view of complex adaptive living systems has profound implications for the way that humans interact with nature. If biodiversity is valued because it represents the cumulative ability of genes, species and ecosystems to create order from disorder, life from decay, then the maintenance of existing and further evolutionary development of biodiversity (higher level order) may well depend on subtle and intelligent interaction between human induced disturbance and the spontaneous emergence of complexity in natural systems.

Policies and technologies that permit a degree of disturbance to complex systems can generate an adaptive response that could lead to greater complexity and diversity. Such is the case in biological systems when anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic disturbance allows a recolonisation response by species that maintain or increase complexity and diversity. Overemphasis on stability and equilibrium in ecosystems leads to a failure to see human beings as legitimate agents of change within natural systems and as potentially creative ‘disturbers’ that contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity.[46]

The emphasis on the maintenance of complexity and biodiversity within natural systems introduces one way of evaluating human action. According to Reice, from the perspective of the world’s biodiversity, if human action moves a complex adaptive system from heterogeneity to homogeneity, lowers the level of disturbance and as a consequence arrests the opportunities for recolonisation, then it is likely to be undesirable and ought not to be done.

Bookchin, Systems and Complexity

Bookchin explicitly connects his dialectical naturalism to the early expressions of complexity theory. Based on Bergson’s idea of life as a “counteracting force to the second law of thermodynamics”, he argues that the evolution of order is an expression of matter’s own “inherent self-organising properties” in the production of “increasingly complex forms”.[47] The achievement of stability and new variety in the face of the second law is, for Bookchin, both scientifically and ethically important.

Bookchin, however, has expressed major reservations about the implications of complexity theory and its applications. He argues that the whole theoretical framework is incompatible with the understanding of eco-evolution as explicated by dialectical naturalism.  He comments with regard to Prigoginian systems theory that:

… I feel obliged to note that a system of positive feedback allows for no concept of potentiality.  We know only from Prigoginian “fluctuations” that when a system approaches a “far from equilibrium” situation … there is no way to determine whether the system will simply fall apart into “chaos” or assume an immanently predictable form. Given “far from equilibrium disorder”, or a succeeding orderly system, speculative thought is reduced to mere observation. In the succession of systems, development seems to give way to thermodynamics and phases of growth to “dissipative structures.” Prigogine’s emphasis on the irreversibility of time, appropriate as it may be in exorcising a mechanistic dynamics based on time’s irreversibility, is not congruent with process and evolution… Indeed, in Prigoginian systems theory, it is chance and stochastic phenomena that act as “mediating” phases between one “dissipative structure” and another, not potentiality and immanence.[48]

Bookchin’s continued advocacy of ‘immanence’ and ‘potentiality’ as the driving forces of directionality in the face of chance and chaos is driven by his concern that such fluctuations within an evolving system could produce the Post-modernist version of Chaos theory where everything is open and indeterminate. Such outcomes Bookchin quite rightly sees as leading to relativism and the inability to make any kind of ethical judgements.

In addition, Bookchin castigates those system theorists, who, influenced by Prigoginian versions of complexity, then use such theory in “careless” ways and see the market and capitalism as prime examples of self-organisation. He is also critical of systems theory for its “mechanistic mentality” leading to the reduction of organismic thinking into mathematical abstraction.  However, there is a concession that “randomness is subject to a directive ordering principle”[49] so Bookchin does seem to be prepared for the possibility that there can be greater understanding of such ordering principles.

Bookchin also demonstrates familiarity with the arguments about the need to understand the role of diversity in ecosystem stability. He correctly sees stability in natural systems as the outcome not of homogeneity, but of heterogeneity. He argues that wholeness in ecosystems must be understood as a “dynamic unity of diversity” and that:

In nature, balance and harmony are achieved by ever-changing differentiation, by ever expanding diversity. Ecological stability, in effect, is a function not of simplicity and homogeneity but of complexity and variety. The capacity of an ecosystem to retain its integrity depends not on the uniformity of the environment but on its diversity.[50]

However, the one area where Bookchin seems at odds with the new developments in complexity theory and contemporary biology is with the creative role of chance and uncertainty in the production of complexity and diversity. The uncertainty of far from equilibrium situations that Bookchin identifies is a part of the new picture, however, their irreversibility or directionality, if “appropriate boundary conditions are maintained”[51] is particularly relevant for biological systems understood in terms of non-equilibrium dissipative structures (NEDS).

In addition, the rich interactions that are possible at the edge of chaos are the very things that allow the potential for greater complexity and diversity to emerge. Hence, the qualities and properties that Bookchin identifies as desirable; potentiality, development and immanence, are only possible when complexity and complex processes are understood as events that can emerge at the edge of chaos. From this point onwards, under the influence of the greater complexity generated by the ‘laws of form and order’, there is spontaneous self-organisation and the creation of greater complexity, diversity and unity. Such a perspective is a post Darwinian and post-systems theory view of complexity, one that Bookchin has not fully appreciated as having profound implications for his own work.

Dialectical Complexity and the Future of Social Ecology

Bookchin has long championed the cause of social and cultural diversity. He also has a voluminous list of publications, going back to the 1950s that argue that such social diversity should be located within natural diversity. His arguments for social and natural diversity have been partly philosophical and partly empirical. The union of the dialectical tradition in philosophy and ecological science certainly places Bookchin at the centre of a new and important contribution to the project of ‘thinking life’. I have argued in this paper and elsewhere[52] that the dialectic has now moved once more and that we now have the emergence of ‘dialectical complexity’. New science and theory have produced profound new insights into the nature of complex systems, including ecological and social systems. Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism can be incorporated into this new dialectic without contradiction, as emergent directionality remains a centrally important component. However, ‘emergent’, rather than immanent teleology is the most appropriate way to describe such directionality. The direction of increasing complexity and diversity in life is the outcome of necessity (order) and chance (chaos), or what might be termed ‘the order of order and disorder’. Such a view may well be more Hegelian than Bookchin’s own position.

Bookchin and those influenced by social ecology have an expanded foundation on which to make and defend claims about the need for a human ethic that complements the underlying laws of order and process in natural systems. For example, as an integral part of the critique of globalisation, its entropy maximising tendencies and the homogenisation of social systems, social ecologists can draw the biophysical limits of human settlements and institutions, at specific places on earth. The form of such settlements and social structures can be designed in terms of entropy minimising dissipative structures and dynamic, self-organising systems as well as the creative and aesthetic response humans have to such sustainability foundations.[53]

It has taken the whole of the 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history to achieve the complexity and diversity we see extant on the planet today. However, in the last three hundred years since the industrial revolution, humans have embarked on a wholesale removal of such complexity in both biological and cultural contexts. In the early twenty first century, humans are creating vast global monocultures (agribusiness) and failing dissipative structures (cities) that put at risk the long-term order and stability that self-organising systems have produced. Such human created systems (e.g., highly engineered rivers) are susceptible to dangerous fluctuations and potentially lethal changes.  Similar considerations apply to the global pollution (anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions) humans are now inflicting on what were formally self-regulatory systems connected to a relatively stable climate.

As a response to such uncertainty humans can choose to support the ongoing free evolution of self-organised systems or work to impose structures that destroy complexity and diversity. Bookchin strongly advocates that we engage in human praxis that works within the free unfolding of self-organised systems. He sees human involvement in such systems, as Charles Elton had observed, as “more like steering a boat” in a complex stream than applying rigid rules to a fixed system.  Bookchin suggests that such sensitive management of human activity requires detailed knowledge and that “what ecology, both natural and social, can hope to teach us is the way to find the current and understand the direction of the stream”.[54]  As I have argued in this paper, understanding the underlying directionality within the emergence of complexity provides a framework, as Bookchin puts it, to “… help us distinguish which of our actions serve the thrust of evolution and which of them impede them”.[55]

While it may be possible to understand the immediate implications of complexity theory to the design and construction of the built environment and agriculture, it is more difficult to envisage the way micro-economic and political activity can be shaped by its insights. The application of the broad principle that we should simultaneously maintain or increase the complexity and diversity of both natural and social systems will drive the creation of whole new ways of doing economics, politics, technology, education, art and architecture. To permit such new social evolution to occur within the context of self-organising, dynamic systems has additional profound implications to the way that order is currently achieved. The earth and its inhabitants are currently under the dominant influence of an elite group of manipulators and regulators who artificially maintain the global system in a state that suits their vested and sectional interests. This artificial equilibrium is achieved only with the exercise of considerable force and engineering at local levels. The lesson from complexity theory is that the stresses inherent within such a system will ultimately cause a radical spontaneous reorganisation of the system as a whole. Such radical reorganisation may well put social development on an unsustainable path. A safer route is to allow greater freedom for the system to self-regulate at local levels and permit local adaptation and re-organisation in the face of the pressure to change.

Bookchin’s advocacy of ecocommunities run by participatory democracies (municipal libertarianism) can be defended as one of many appropriate political responses to the challenge of new understanding we have of complex, dynamic systems and the way they can self-organise to increased states of complexity and diversity. Local and regional involvement in the maintenance and creation of complexity and diversity is a non-negotiable element of human social sustainability.

References and Notes

[1] The Symposium, (Jowett trans.), (Great Britain: Sphere Books, 1970) p.200 (186d)

[2] The Politics (Sinclair trans.) Middlesex: Penguin, 1975), p.28.

[3]  G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings (Knox trans.) (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), pp.307, 308.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, pp. 278-279.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, p.312.

[6] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, p.312.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegels Theologische Jugendscriften (Nohl, ed.) (Frankfurt, Minerva,1966) p.302.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (Baillie trans) in Hegel Selections (J. Lowenberg, ed.) (New York, Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1957), pp.2-3.

[9] G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Nature (Petry trans and ed.) (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1970), p.196.

[10] G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Nature, p.196.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, p.16.

[12] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, (Palo Alto, Cheshire, 1982), p.31.

[13] I have argued elsewhere that Hegel did accept evolution in the natural world but saw it as of no great philosophical significance. See G. Albrecht, ‘Hegel and Darwin: A Reassessment’, Dialectic, Vol. 27, 1986.

[14] Hegel can be interpreted as suggesting that the Absolute is both the fullness of the present and a position in the future which represents the culmination of philosophical progress up to that point. Hence, there is no terminus, but a perpetual destination, where the Absolute is the rear-view vision of the journey from the advantage of each stop along the way at any one point in time.

[15] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.363.

[16] Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, (Montreal, Black Rose Books,1990), p.30.

[17] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.363.

[18] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 364.

[19] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 364.

[20] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 365.

[21] Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, p.35.

[22] See his article ‘Recovering Evolution: A Reply to Eckersley and Fox’, in Environmental Ethics, 12 (1990) pp. 255-256.

[23] G.W.F. Hegel, Logic, (Wallace, trans) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1892), p.180.

[24] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.365.

[25] Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, (New York, Oxford University Press 1993) p.644.

[26] I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, (New York, Bantam, 1984), p.12.

[27] P. Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, London, Unwin, 1989), p.85.

[28] See C. Dyke, ‘Cities as Dissipative Structures’ in B.Weber, D.Depew, and J. Smith, (eds.,) Entropy, Information and Evolution: New Perspectives on Physical and Biological Evolution, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1988), pp. 355-368.

[29] D. Depew and B. Weber, ‘Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition’ in .Weber, D. et al (eds.,) Entropy, Information and Evolution, p.333.

[30] Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, p.19.

[31] E. Schneider and J. Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’ in M. Murphy and L. O’Neill (eds) What is Life? The Next Fifty Years, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.165.

[32] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.170.

[33] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.168.

[34] David Depew & Bruce Weber, “Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition” in Weber, et al (eds.), Entropy, Information and Evolution, pp. 337-338.

[35] E.O. Wilson is recruited here to support the directionality thesis from the perspective of the evolution of biodiversity. He does not, as far as I understand, support complexity theory.

[36] See E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (London, Penguin Books, 1992), p.175.

[37] Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: the evolution of complexity, (London, Phoenix Giants, 1995), p.169.

[38] It is this idea that Hegel anticipated with his linking of variety with the potential for complexity.

[39] Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, (London, Phoenix Giants, 1995), p.175.

[40] in R. Lewin, Complexity: Life on the Edge of Chaos, (London, Phoenix, 1993), p.40.

[41] Kauffman, The Origins of Order, P.xvii.

[42] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.171.

[43] Seth Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, in American Scientist, Vol. 82, September-October, 1994, p.434.

[44] Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, p.434.

[45] Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, p.434.

[46] Equally, over-emphasis on disturbance could lead to catastrophic change and the cessation of evolutionary succession.

[47] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.357.

[48] Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, pp. 192-3.

[49] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.84.

[50] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.84.

[51] Depew & Weber, ‘Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition’, p. 333.

[52] See also, Glenn Albrecht, ‘Ethics and Directionality in Nature’ in A. Light (ed) Social Ecology After Bookchin, (New York, The Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 92-113.

[53] See Glenn Albrecht, Social Ecology and Organic Environmental Design, in Birkeland, J (ed) Rethinking the Built Environment: Proceedings of Catalyst ’95, (Canberra, The University of Canberra, 1995).

[54] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 25.

[55] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.342.


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