Holism and cooperation

By Thane on Mon 05 December 2011

It seems as though I tend to only really gain insight into things that I've read quite some time after I've finished reading them, after I've had some time to chew on them and reflect their content against my existing mental frameworks. Mulling over SuperCooperators by Martin Nowak, it dawned on me that there might be a bit of an overlap between what Nowak was saying and what Jan Smuts said in the 1920s in his book Holism and Evolution.

Nowak writes of "cooperation" as if it were some sort of fundamental force or property in the universe: that the universe has this tendency towards the cooperation of "parts". For example, atoms cooperate to form molecules, molecules cooperate to form RNA, RNA combines in interesting ways through the evolutionary chain to eventually form single- and multi-celled organisms, all the way up to our planetary ecosystem. In society, we cooperate to form interest groups such as "organisations", cities, countries, and "humanity".

Smuts wrote way back in 1927 that he observed this strange tendency of the universe to form "wholes", whose properties were somehow greater than a simple linear sum of their constituent parts. It is quite interesting to look at the universe from this perspective: instead of organised wholes (such as you and me) being purely coincidental by-products of perchance encounters between smaller constituent parts, what if there is some sort of intrinsic law in the universe which drives constituent parts towards forming "wholes"? These wholes are then often said to exhibit new types of properties (emergent ones) which cannot simply be inferred from the properties of their constituents.

To me, it looks as though there's quite a bit of overlap between Nowak's "law of cooperation" and Smuts' "holism". From what I can remember, Nowak doesn't cite Smuts as a reference, and so it's really interesting to me that this paradigm has been developed by two quite different individuals in different time periods. Could this be yet further rumblings of an emerging field of inquiry, which by its very nature is interdisciplinary and holistic, making its way over the scientific horizon?

Several questions pop up in my mind (so far) after thinking about these sorts of things, reflecting against other thinking in emergence and complexity.

  1. Can all of the emergent properties of the whole be accounted for by linear and non-linear relationships (i.e. mathematically) between the parts of the whole, or is there perhaps something else, intrinsic to "interaction" itself, which produces the emergent properties? [In what we understand to be human consciousness, for example, does consciousness only look as though it's emergent as a result of our inability to measure certain attributes of individual neurons and/or derive accurate mathematical formulae to represent the relationships between neurons, or is there genuinely something in the "fabric" of the interaction between neurons that we're omitting when we're developing our mathematical models?]
  2. Following from the previous question, what exactly is "interaction"? (Or is this just another futile attempt at developing a blanket term for things which should not be categorised together?).
  3. Do different types of "interaction" produce different types of emergent properties? If so, can we establish useful, repeatable patterns in the different interactions which produce different emergent properties? If so, what are these patterns?
  4. In what ways do the "materials" that are "interacting" have an effect on these emergent properties?

These are, no doubt, pretty big questions. I'm not sure yet if they have answers. Any takers?