Nested systems

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This is an initial pile of text
but not extensively revised

Big Maple on Nancy's Land

I was rereading part of J.T. Lyle's Design for Human Ecosystems the other day, and finally noticed a single citation from which he appears to have derived his concepts of multi-scale ecological design. The paper, published in the 1954 British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, was J.K. Feibleman's Theory of Integrative Levels. It seems that that back in 1954 there were people who thought that the detailed observations provided by science were only windows into the understanding of whole systems, and that we needed to be very carefull in our use of the scientific method at multiple scales of space and time in order to understand the systems in which we actually lived.

Now first of all, you may be interested to know that my more geeky associates and I actually say things like "in space and time".

In Feibleman's space and time, computers were allowed multi-variate statistical calculations, theretofore only attempted by real masochists. These analyses enabled the quantitative observation of complex multi-dimensional patterns in nature. Vegetation geeks everywhere were excited, as vegetation is difficult to describe without lots and lots of variables. But the question remained: what were we observing? Was wild vegetation a random assembly of individuals, each responding to a mixture of stimuli and chance, or were certain vegetative communities integrated entities unto themselves with unique emergent properties? If you are trying to design and build a Garden of Eden on a shoestring, these are important considerations.

The Theory of Integrative Levels, like all good thinking, didn't answer the question, but offered some tools to help us observe and think. I first met one of Feibleman's theories through the statements of one of my teachers, L. Brubaker. Unlike her usual approach, it didn't come as a query, but as a belief: "if you want to understand something you need to understand dynamics at both a larger and smaller scale than the thing itself". I believe she even mentioned both space and time. At the time we were studying the variable water stress physiology of tree species and the distribution of moisture in landscapes to explain (in part) wild forest composition and configuration.

Now to actually read Feibleman's theories requires that you get to an academic library or pay $25 a day on-line. So needless to say, very few people, either for fun or profit, click through scanned copies of the British philosophical journals from the 1950's. Feibleman's theories are both so esoteric and so foundational, that when I finally got a copy I felt like I was reopening the arc of the covenant.

Not unlike Moses, Feibleman proposes 12 laws, with very little discussion. I paraphrase them here, illustrating them to the best of my ability using a flip "forest and trees" metaphor. I hope that the spirit of Feibleman (who by the way has not yet been given Wikipedia page) will forgive me for my best intentions.

Central to Feibleman's laws is that assumption that big complicated things are made up of smaller things that are made up of smaller things. Each of these things he calls an organization. This is not daring stuff. Particles make atoms make elements, make structures, make cells, make organs, make organisms, make communities, make ecosystems. Simple. So here come the laws:

Rhubarb emerging from winter sleep
  1. Each scale of organization organizes the smaller scales, but also has unique emergent properties. While the forest affects what trees grow where, the forest itself has properties that are uniquely provided only when trees grow in groups.
  2. Complexity increases as you try to understand larger and larger scales of organization. The forest is more complicated that a single tree, as forest is made of hundreds of individual trees interacting over time. So far so good.
  3. The larger scales of organization depend on the smaller scales. So in order to have a forest you need trees, if you cut down all the trees you don't have a forest. Check.
  4. However the smaller scales of organization are controlled by larger scale patterns. So where and how a tree grows is strongly affected by the structure created by the collective of trees known as a forest. Kind of the inverse of three.
  5. Thus for any particular scale of organization, its purpose is defined by larger scale systems, but its mechanisms are defined by smaller scale systems. Just as Brubaker instructed me, to understand what the forest is responding to (its purpose) you need to understand a landscape of microclimates and disturbances. To understand how it responds you must understand the physiology and life history of individual trees. That wraps together three and four.
  6. A disturbance at a particular scale reverberates through all other scales, though Feibleman himself suggests that some organizations are more tightly integrated than others.
  7. At higher and higher levels of organization, the ability to change the organization itself can occur with increasing speed. What?! So, the cell of a tree may take millennia to alter its form through genetic selection. The structure of a forest can change with a single wind storm. Big complicated things are fragile.
  8. There are greater numbers of small organizations than large organizations. Good easy again, there are more trees than forests.
  9. You cannot fully explain the larger organization by examining its smaller constituents. There are properties unique to the configuration and composition of trees within a stand that are not explainable by looking at a single tree, pointing to the fundamental risk of reductionism.
  10. The properties of a level of organization distort the structure of smaller levels. He's getting a little weird again. The climate created by a forest can affect the growth, form and survival of individual trees.
  11. An event at any scale of an organization affects all other levels. A perhaps excessively nuanced extension of rule six.
  12. Whenever an organization is affected it in turn has an effect. Creating the potential for feedbacks, and cycles.
Candyflower, Claytonia siberica

Feibleman goes on to talk about levels within levels, and non-linear branching patterns of levels. His proclamations are directly cited in 156 subsequent publications and likely influenced a generation of thinkers. I spent nine years being indoctrinated in Feibleman's laws without knowing where they came from. Feibleman's Theory of Integrative Levels influenced psychology, neurology, electronics, ecology, as well as information and business management.

Feibleman tells us that a thing is not just a thing, but rather that a thing is part of and is shaped by the larger system to which it belongs, and is composed of smaller things to which it owes its function.

So this essay is about keeping your garden in perspective.

How we collectively use the land we own, determines the structure and function of the ecosystem in which we live. The patterns of the ecosystem tell us how to design gardens upon which the ecosystem depends. We cannot explain or understand our garden without considering these relationships. Our perception of what is real in our garden uses the mechanism of our senses, but is controlled by our psychological relationships to self, to others, and to the unknown. When we change how we garden, we change ourselves, and we change the world.

Lyle, John Tillman. Design for Human Ecosystems. 1985. Island Press, Washington DC, (1999 edition).

Feibleman, James K. 1954. Theory of integrative levels. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol 5, pp. 59-66.

© Paul Cereghino, 2011-16, All Rights Reserved

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