The Rise of the Synthesizing Mind in the Planetary Age

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Following in the footsteps of TJ's Fugue Fugue, and my Mashup About Mashups, this article attempts a synthesis about synthesis. Although that's not quite true, it more or less lays out the parts of the synthesis and adds only minimal commentary connecting them, the rest being left up to the reader. I've been collecting these bits over a fairly long period of time, and I hope they provide a worthy meditation on why the growth of integrative (or synthetic) thinking is important in the 21st century.


“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing”. – T.S Eliot, commenting on Dante’s Inferno.


Carter Phipps wrote an article recently called In Defense of the Generalist. In it he writes:

 "Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists,” writes Craig Eisendrath. “Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture’s evolution, and of Evolutionaries-Phipps-Carterframing a new cultural paradigm, is the generalist’s capacity to look at culture’s many dimensions and to put together ideas from disparate sources.”

The people I have come to call “ Evolutionaries” are generalists for this very reason. Their critical insights are a result of thinking as a generalist must think—with a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details. An Evolutionary must be able to look at the movements of nature, culture, and cosmos as a whole, yet without denying the infinite detail that surrounds us.

My own experience resonates with what Carter’s saying, and that synthesizing project is a part of the zeitgeist of Beams and Struts. What frustrates me, however, is that talk about integral or integrative thinking is often reduced- by adherents and critics alike- to simply being about the work of Ken Wilber, when this epistemic impulse is far more widespread than Wilber’s own particular contribution to this ever growing drive.

For example, in a recent paper called The Rise of Neo-Integrative Worldviews, scholars Markus Molz and Roland Benedikter trace the growth of integrative worldviews over the past hundred years. They also provide important context for what’s increasingly driving the need for (and growth of) integrative thinking in our times:

rhizomeCuff_white-2_large[There’s been] a specific insight which has become more or less commonly accepted among decision-makers, opinion-leaders, scientists and analysts around the globe. This is the notion that no nation, no country, no culture and no political actor ‘can meet the world’s challenges alone’ any longer. No nation can face the problems we face in today’s world alone, because all problems are increasingly interconnected and multi-faceted. Indeed, all of them show different sides and ask different, sometimes opposing questions at the same time, and thus they are becoming far too complex to be solved from one or two perspectives alone

The more Western societies of the present move slowly forward – willingly or unwillingly – towards a ‘planetary civilization’, the more their different stages of development necessarily evolve towards a greater interchange with each other and with less developed societies and are thus integrated at least to a certain extent, if they do not want to be fragmented at their centers (inter alia by uncontrolled amalgamation and hybridization) to the point at which they either implode or break apart. Thus they must necessarily become a pro-active part of a patchwork destined to constitute a diverse and pluralistic, but at least primordially inclusive, planetary culture…The more the demand for a worldview capable of bridging the ideological, cultural and institutional gaps between the different angles, facets and perspectives of the first planetary civilization arises, the more the challenges to build a newly integrative paradigm designed for the specific needs of our transitional age seem to be growing.


One of the hallmarks of the modern rational scientific mind is analysis and reductionism as a means of investigating, understanding (and controlling) the world around us. It’s a very powerful tool no doubt, but as a primary way to interact with the world it has shown itself to have serious limitations. The French Edgar-Morinphilosopher Edgar Morin - a towering intellectual figure whose work is sadly under translated into English- has been very critical of this mindset and its planetary results. Morin is well versed in both systems theory and the sciences of complexity. In his 1999 text Homeland Earth: Manifesto for a New Millennium, he speaks to the issue:

One aspect of the planetary problem is that intellectual solutions, whether scientific or philosophical, to which we habitually appeal, are themselves the most urgent problems and the ones most difficult to resolve…The reductionist approach, which consists in relying on a single series of factors to regulate the totality of problems associated with the multiform crisis we are currently in the middle of, is less a solution than the problem itself….

Intelligence that is fragmented, compartmentalized, mechanistic, disjunctive, and reductionistic breaks the complexity of the world into disjointed pieces, splits up problems, separates that which is linked together, and renders unidimensional the multidimensional…The more problems are multidimensional, the less chance there is to grasp the crisis. The more problems become planetary, the more unthinkable they become. Incapable of seeing the planetary context in all its complexity, blind intelligence fosters unconsciousness and irresponsibility. It has become the bearer of death”. (1)


Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary

analysis, n., separation of a whole into its component parts. –Gk. ‘a loosing, releasing’, fr. ‘to unloose, to release, set free’, fr. ‘up, on, throughout’ (see ana-), and ‘to unfasten, loosen, slacken’. See lysis.

integrate, tr. v., to form a whole. ---L. integratus, pp. of integrare, ‘to make whole, renew’, fr. integer. See integer and verbal suff. –ate.

integrity, n., wholeness, completeness; uprightness. ---F. integrite, fr. L. integritatem, acc. of integritas, ‘completeness, soundness, blamelessness’, fr. integer. See integer and –ity.


The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayer talks about the role and limitations of analysis, and the counter-importance of synthesis, in his paper The Autonomy of Biology.

What reductionists confused was reduction and analysis. Of course we learn a great deal about any complex system by analyzing it. Indeed analysis is a most important and heuristic method in all branchesecosystem-diagram-wedged-tailed-eagle-kookaburra-bird-rabbit-mouse-grass-snake-grasshopper-food-web-illustration-arrows-image of science, including biology. [But] this is what the reductionists usually overlooked, in order to understand a system one needs to know not only the properties of its components but also the nature of the interactions among these components. And it is precisely these interactions that are so important in living systems…

Nothing is as characteristic of biological processes as interactions at all levels…To repeat what I said before, rejecting the philosophy of reductionism is not an attack on analysis. No complex system can be understood except through careful analysis. However, the interactions of the components must be considered as much as the properties of the isolated components. And this is what the reductionists had neglected.



There are many places in Michael Pollan’s writings on food and the industrial food supply where he talks about the harm that reductionist thinking has wrought. In Omnivore’s Dilemma he comes to a highly synthetic conclusion:

Our personal health cannot be divorced from the health of the entire food web. We need to treat the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.


There has been a mirroring of this analytic atomism in modern academics, with its emphasis on disciplines and specialization. However, Immanuel Wallerstein and others in the school of thought known as World-Systems Analysis have fundamentally challenged this organizational form with their concept of “undisciplinarity”:

Kika_Thorne_RhizomeUnidiscplinarity- This term should be clearly distinguished from multi- or trans-disciplinarity. The latter terms refer to the now-popular ideas that much research would be better done if the researcher(s) combined the skills of two or more disciplines. Unidisciplinarity refers to the belief that in the social sciences at least, there exists today no sufficient reason to distinguish the separate disciplines at all, and that instead all work should be considered part of a single discipline, sometimes called the historical social sciences. (2)


Buckminster Fuller, himself a systems thinker par excellence, had this to say about the culture of specialization in his book Critical Path:fuller

The way the power structure keeps the wit and cunning of the intelligentsia...from making trouble for the power structure (if the intelligentsia are too broadly informed, unwatched, and with time of their own in which to think) is to make each one a specialist with tools and an office or lab. That is exactly why bright people today have become streamlined into specialists.

Nobody is born a specialist. Every child is born with comprehensive interests, asking the most comprehensively logical and relevant questions... Conventionally educated grown-ups rarely know how to answer such questions. They're all too specialized
. (3)





The American educator Ernest Boyer agreed with this assessment, and called for a new way forward:

In the coming century, there will be an urgent need for scholars who go beyond the isolated facts; who make connections across the disciplines; and who begin to discover a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life. (4)





Professor Robert Harrison did one of his Entitled Opinions radio-podcasts on the obscure 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, an enormously integrative thinker whose work has seen a recent revival. Here’s Harrison near the end of the show:

Well I don’t know how deep the Kircher enthusiasm or cult goes in our times, but I think its an excellent sign if there is such a one, because we have after centuries of science and knowledge being under the regime of analysis, we’ve gotten to the kind of point where the synthetic drive has to start coming into play sooner or later, otherwise we’re going to get to that point where there’s going to be a whole breakdown of the very phenomena of understanding in the name of just amassing knowledge and information.



In the business section of my local bookstore I found a book called 5 Minds for the Future by the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. For Gardner one of these five minds is the “synthesizing mind”:

The ability to knit together information from disparate sources into a coherent whole is vital today…Sources of information are vast and disparate, and individuals crave coherence and integration. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann has asserted that the mind most at a premium in the twenty-first century will be the mind that can synthesize well. (5)


There are several features of what Spiral Dynamics Integral calls “turquoise consciousness” that are worth considering in this context; a globally aware FightBackOrange_h-thumb-640xauto-4624synthesizing mind seems to be central to this emerging worldview according to SDi. From the level one training manual, here are some general characteristics of this unfolding wave of consciousness:

Holistic conception of multiple realities; reliance on holistic consciousness; community beyond nationalities or partisanship; ecological interdependency and interconnections; multidimensional chunks of insight; self is seen as part of a larger, conscious whole; global networking seen as routine; blending, harmonizing, strong collective.

Conditions/problem = knows the earth needs a coordinated approach to new global problems.

Management systems = holistic blend of insights from anywhere, anytime coming together for purposes impacting Global Village and all life forms.


And lastly, as I said at the beginning of the article, this synthesizing project is a central aim here at Beams and Struts too. We’ve recently re-written our About Us section of the site, but the first iteration contained these words:

Beams and Struts is an experiment in collective intelligence. The modern knowledge quest has largely been characterized by specialization and analysis, issues broken down into their component parts and studied in isolation. The postmodern period has brought with it many advancements, but has also left a lot of 73a_humpty-dumptyfragmentation in its wake. It’s now time to find out how that vast body of post/modern knowledge hangs together. This is the age of integration and synthesis.

But we also followed that opening paragraph up with this all-important line:

Since no one person can possibly accomplish this project alone, we’ve gathered an assemblage to work together.

And so it is. A big rhizomatic network is forming, and humpty dumpty is slowly but surely being put back together again. There are movements toward synthesis/integration in academia, in business, in biology, in education, in the way we understand food production and human health, in institutional leaders, and in the general population with the growing popularity of TED talks, P2P production and the networks of websites and information sharing happening online. This is all arising in a planetary context desiring a new planetary wholeness, and it's a project that needs as many people as possible for it's success. Fragmentation, alienation and atomism are our modern inheritance- it's time to stop this unraveling and turn our gaze the other way, and sew the coat of Earth, self, society and Spirit back together again.



1) Morin, Edgar. Homeland Earth: Manifesto for a New Millenium. USA: Hampton Press, 1999. p.128.

2) Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis- An Introduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. p.98.

3) Critical Path, p.63.

4) Boyer, E. L. (1994). 'Scholarship reconsidered: priorities for a new century'. In G. Rigby (Ed.), Universities in the twenty-first century. London: National Commission on Education, p. 118).

5) Gardner, Howard. 5 Minds of the Future. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008. p.48.

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  • Comment Link Joe Corbett Wednesday, 28 March 2012 07:56 posted by Joe Corbett

    trevor, integration and synthesis are the defining features of post-postmodernism, and so what you have here in this nice little collage is the beginning of a post-postmodern manifesto, a vision beyond relativism and plurality to unity and integration, an intimation of the divine itself.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Wednesday, 28 March 2012 11:52 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    This article has a really clear voice. Thank you. What I see in it -- which I am not sure you are pointing to at all -- is that is demonstrates that there are different types of integrative thinking AND there are different types of systems thinking. Systems thinking based on developmental process dialectics (transcend and include) generate nested hierarchies such as holarchies. This results in a systems view where the "top tiers" or "furthest developed" have an overwhelming capacity with respect to the whole -- more agency, more choice, more obligation, more responsibility. However, another type of system is an ecology -- where the dynamics are not linear, and inter-relationships more complex. Ecologies scale in multiple dimensions, instead of a linear holarchical system. Moving toward the dynamics of emergence gives us still a more complex and therefore rich system-view of understanding in an integrative way. While it is true that global interactions need to be understood *systemically* and solutions solved *integratively* - what dynamic one chooses to understand the world results in incommensurable action plans to solve global problems. A developmental view tends toward establishing globalized federations to push agency downward (top-down instrumentalization) while an ecological view can see that the whole processes in real time, through multiple agentic paths at multiple, complexly-interelated scales which are only damaged by such top-down approaches. There is something in an ecology that defies rational engineering. The pioneers in the field of systems thinking are also working with autopoeitic systems where the agency and capacity for transformation of the whole is relegated to even smaller, monadic units, in structural coupling with their environment. Think Stuart Kaufmann, Varela and Thompson... THese are crucial distinctions going forward, in my opinion. The more sophisticated the understanding, the more rich the integration, and the more promising the action-logics. As I have argued elsewhere, what is needed today is an integrative approach to the systems dynamics itself -- laying out a foundation for a true process ontology -- by considering the universe to be something like an organism or generative process enacting multiple objects through multiple teleological streams. Sean Hargens is working on the notion of ontological pluralism (and the notion of multiple objects)-- yet his notion of enactment is contained within a developmental bias (carried from AQAL lens) .. so there is more work to do on this exciting front to make it truly integrative (or systatic, as Gebser might say).

  • Comment Link Luke Fullagar Thursday, 29 March 2012 04:47 posted by Luke Fullagar

    Thanks so much for this ripping yarn.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Thursday, 29 March 2012 04:57 posted by David MacLeod

    Trevor, indeed, very important for the 21st Century. I can't pass up the opportunity to latch on to this stream and offer up quotes from my favorite systems thinkers. The first is from the pioneering systems ecologist Howard Odum (, and the second from the co-initiator of Permaculture, David Holmgren ( Holmgren is deeply influenced by Odum.

    "In the 1600s, when Leeuwenhoek ushered in the Enlightenment through the study of the invisible world with the microscope, and when some of the atomistic theories of the Greeks received step-by-step observable verification in chemical studies, concepts of the structure and function of the natural world emerged as parts within parts within parts. Many of the advances of human civilization have come from these microscopic dissections. Yet in the 21st century the ever-accelerating knowledge of the microscopic view has not provided us with the solutions to problems with the human environment, social systems, economics, and survival, for the missing information is not wholly in the microscopic components or in identification of the parts. On the familiar scale of human life, we see the parts very well (people, economic assets, environmental components), but rarely do we think of it as a single-system operation. Pioneering thinkers such as V. I. Vernadsky (1926) recognized the intricate interdependence of humans in the processes of the earth, but many regard the scale of human life as free of controlling principles.
    Astronomical systems, although infinitely larger, are seen through such dis¬tances that only the main features show (chapter 4). But on Earth, progress in un¬derstanding is slow because we are too close to see. As in the old adage about the forest and the trees, we cannot see the pattern for the parts. Figure 1.2 is a cartoon view of the steps we must take in going from detailed data to system viewing and prediction, a process we call using the macroscope. Whereas people often search among the parts to find mechanistic explanations, the macroscopic view is the reverse. Humans, already having a clear view of the parts in their fantastically com¬plex detail, must somehow get away, rise above, step back, group parts, simplify concepts, and interpose frosted glass to somehow see the big picture."

    - Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society (1970, 2007)

    "Most philosophers reject the primacy of energetic and ecological forces. I see this rejection as a continuing expression of the “Cartesian dualism” that separates mind and body, humanity and nature, thought and action, subject and object. Reductionist science, which seeks the fundamental causes of material and living complexity in simple constituents, arises from the same philosophical base. Reductionism both explained the physical reality of the industrial world and reflected its fundamental ideology. Despite the substantial philosophical critiques and alternatives to the world-view created by reductionism, it has held sway partly because it is powerful in dealing with the increasingly disintegrated world created by the rising energy base. Through it we have achieved much. But, despite the hubris about the contributions to humanity’s well being, I believe reductionist science is now an impediment to human survival.
    Some productive alternatives have emerged within the culture of science, such as dialectical materialism, systems theory and design science. The development of a truly wholistic science in important; otherwise we will see a wholesale rejection of the culture of science in the new millennium as it increasingly fails to explain and predict the novel phenomena of energy descent. The fundamentalist adherence to reductionism and rationality that chracterises much of the scientific, economic and political establishment will increase the likelihood of cultural revolutions similar to those that have already occurred in several Islamic countries. Arguably, the centre of scientific rational power, the United States, is the most likely candidate for this type of revolution in response to the major decline in the well-being and security of people brought on by the energy crisis and related phenomena."
    - David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002)

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Thursday, 29 March 2012 18:35 posted by David MacLeod

    Thank you for this comment, which packs a lot in one paragraph. I think there's a lot here for me to learn more about, and I'm not as familiar with your ideas about integral theory as I'd like to be.

    I did read Sean Hargens Ontology of Climate Change paper which discussed ontological pluralism, and found it fascinating, as well as Tim Winton's follow-up.

    When you say "Ecologies scale in multiple dimensions, instead of a linear holarchical system.", I take it that you are NOT saying that nested holarchies don't exist in ecologies, but just that they are not always linear. Can you say more about that?

    I agree with you on working bottom-up rather than top down, but also that nested holarchies play important roles in ecosystems - Natural succession that eventually leads to a (relatively) steady state.

    Have you read David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability? Holmgren likes to say Top Down Thinking (big picture) and bottom up action is going to be the effective path going forward.

    The synthesis I'd like to see includes AQAL theory (with lots of expertise in the left hand quadrants) with Permaculture design (lots of expertise from the LR, putting a good balance on energy/ecology/economy).

  • Comment Link Brian McConnell Friday, 30 March 2012 16:07 posted by Brian McConnell

    Thanks for this article Trevor. Of all the things I've read of yours to date, this is my favorite thus far. In it I see an author/practitioner effectively engaging the creative process from a new and innovative perspective.

    I especially appreciate how you're enlisting technical skills and abilities to transcend and explore the 'non-rational' realms of literary expression. In adding kudos to your credit . . . bravo.

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Saturday, 31 March 2012 15:08 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Hey Trevor,

    Great piece, this synthesizing of writing on synthesis. My take away is the clear distinction between analysis and reductionism, and unidisciplinarity.

    And thanks Bonnitta for the distinction between developmental holarchies (and the potential top-down engineering) and emergence. I'm thinking within the emergent paradigm the only way to intelligently intervene (probably the wrong word) is to be in a state of differentiated unity with the whole such that one acts as the intelligence of the whole—a kind of a transrational practice, an intuitive knowing.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 01 April 2012 22:00 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    thanks for the comments everyone.

    David, thanks for introducing me to these passages by Odum and Holmgren, I haven't read either thinker (but was familiar with Holmgren. In fact, three of the core Beams crew are going to be doing a weekend long introduction to permaculture in a couple of weeks. looking forward to that). And by all means, "latch on to this stream" or any other, anytime. That seems very appropriate behavior given the content of this piece. The epistemic endeavor seems to be moving towards a mass network of interconnections and overlapping nodes of shared knowledge gathering and inquiry. So yes, plug your node into the rhizome at any point, by all means.

    Which brings me to your comment Bonnitta, wow. Such rich stuff, I've been having a hard time knowing how to approach it all! Just a few preliminary remarks I guess. When I put these pieces together I was more or less agnostic on the ability to think the whole in any kind of totality. It wasn't really in the forefront of my consciousness, I just knew that analysis as a fundamental orientation to the world has run its course, and I also wanted to open up some space for integrative thinking more generally. So I'm definitely open to what you're saying here, and would love to learn more.

    I should offer that I find the notion of "a highest holon" that orders the rest instinctually repugnant. Too much potential for tyranny in that worldview. And from what it sounds like given the content of your reply, it's probably ontologically incorrect as well, which, as you say, means it will be much less capable of solving world problems. Politically I lean much more toward decentralized bottom up organization. Following Hardt and Negri (who are Deleuzian's in the autonomist Marxist/anarcho-syndicalist lineages) I think the transition to the next stage of society will be achieved through a bottom up mass participatory movement (as I wrote about here-

    So that's a couple orientations of mine to put out there. Now, let me ask you a couple of philosophically minded questions about what you've written above. I surely don't understand the full extent of what you've written, so I'm going to just riff a bit and hopefully you can use that as grist for further discussion. So are we saying that thinking the whole (or totality) is no longer possible, given what we know about the multiple scaling of systems etc.? On the one side you have that philosophical tradition that includes folks like Kant, Hegel and Wilber, who are systematizers who try to think the whole. On the other, you have the (post)modern critics of this epistemological pursuit/conceit in the likes of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Delueze and so on. I increasingly lean towards the second stream of thought, but acknowledge some part of me that still has an epistemic drive to grasp the greater wholes and patterns of reality. Is that a project that should be given up? If so, why in your estimation? And if yes, what does the next phase of epistemology look like? If we agree that no one person will ever be able to grasp the complexity of the whole(s), then does this necessitate a epistemic network? Nietzsche seems to say something to this effect in the Genealogy of Morals:

    "There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective "knowing"; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more complete will our "concept" of this thing, our "objectivity" be". (GM III. 12).

    I also wonder what place structures, repeating patterns, and our ability to recognize gestalts has in the epistemology you point to above. These all seems to be abilities to think wholes or totality. How does this change (or how is this viewed differently) given what you've said, and if there's "multiple teleological streams", can we not still recognize, understand and integrate our understanding of these overlapping yet disparate realities?

    Ok, I'll leave it there for the moment, that's a lot of questions. I hope some of that was intelligible. Clarity can quickly burn away when pushing into new territory like this, but I appreciate the exchange.

    Lastly, I just wanted to say that I really resonate with what Bruce has to say about the intuitive practice of responding to/as the whole. Despite my series of questions above (pushing back toward the possibility of thinking totality), my experience and daily orientation has moved in the direction Bruce mentions.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 01 April 2012 22:48 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I came across this passage on collective intelligence by the science writer Matt Ridley recently, thought it had something to add to this discussion here:

    Collective intelligence

    "Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place.

    They are all barking up the wrong tree. The key to human achievement is not individual intelligence at all. The reason human beings dominate the planet is not because they have big brains: Neanderthals had big brains but were just another kind of predatory ape. Evolving a 1200-cc brain and a lot of fancy software like language was necessary but not sufficient for civilization. The reason some economies work better than others is certainly not because they have cleverer people in charge, and the reason some places make great discoveries is not because they have smarter people.

    Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon. It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialisation — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species. We can see this in all sorts of phenomena: the correlation between technology and connected population size in Pacific islands; the collapse of technology in people who became isolated, like native Tasmanians; the success of trading city states in Greece, Italy, Holland and south-east Asia; the creative consequences of trade.

    Human achievement is based on collective intelligence — the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves. By each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing things they do not even understand. As the economist Leonard Read observed in his essay "I, Pencil' (which I'd like everybody to read), no single person knows how to make even a pencil — the knowledge is distributed in society among many thousands of graphite miners, lumberjacks, designers and factory workers.

    That's why, as Friedrich Hayek observed, central planning never worked: the cleverest person is no match for the collective brain at working out how to distribute consumer goods. The idea of bottom-up collective intelligence, which Adam Smith understood and Charles Darwin echoed, and which Hayek expounded in his remarkable essay "The use of knowledge in society", is one idea I wish everybody had in their cognitive toolkit".

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Monday, 02 April 2012 05:32 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Interesting that you came across Ridley, Trevor. I once blogged and preached about his book, The Rational Optimist, and man, I took a lot of heat from my "progressive" colleagues. The fact that he was forced to resign from Northern Rock Bank during the debt crisis was enough for many of my friends to be suspicious of his claims that a capacity for trade and commerce is what separated Neanderthal from Homo sapiens sapiens. Still, his point about collective intelligence resonates with me. In terms of his optimism, he seemed to gloss over a few things, but it was very interesting for me to discover how defensive I am about my right to pessimism. :-)

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Wednesday, 04 April 2012 11:54 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Hi David,
    Actually, I AM saying that the notion of an ecology entails non-linear relations, and the notion of a holarchy (or nested sets) entails merely linear dynamics between whole-parts in a simple system.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Thursday, 05 April 2012 10:55 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Hey Trevor,
    What I am thinking is that yes, and yes ... there are many different types of systems (systemic organization) that we can glean from nature. The problem comes in when we only see our particular default pattern and apply this system to all change. This is what Wilber and Hegel have done. Everything in their system is transcend and include -- and this is a developmental dynamic. Implicit in the developmental dynamic is the notion of a single agentic monad, therefore Hegel's Spirit, for example, tends toward dominator hierarhcy. If you study systems theory, you will find that the systems and their dynamics are discrete, and function according to "rules" of dynamics and relationship that make them quite different from each other. Evolutionary systems are really very different from developmental ones, which in turn are very different from emergent (chaordic) systems. We tend to conflate all of them, conveniently switching terms. Underlying our "stories", however, one can usually find a "default" or "preferred" narrative that biases all our interpretations- even when we are trying to make distinctions by using different terms. So for example, David wants to see nested sets in "ecologies" -- but from a systems/process perspective, this is a contradiction in terms. And as you say, by default of your personality, you tend to see/ and or prefer, bottom-up / grass-roots sort of dynamics - which best translate to networks or ecologies. Note this distinction - networks are based on linear systems dynamics, and ecologies are non-linear, much more complex. So where this is pointing to is 1) the need to disambiguate process dynamics from the systems that one is trying to describe, 2) the need to make distinctions between "how things work" and the "systems that result from different process dynamics", 3) a need for a kind of "process pluralism" -- to acknowledge that there are multiple processes occurring at multiple scales and across domains... and that they are irreducible to each other (although different processes can be sub-processes at different scales). Finally, to make things more complicated (and to tease you a bit)... it is possible to create a meta-system by overlaying one of the process streams as a meta-framework over a constellation of systems with different dynamics and different structural forms -- this leads to a process cybernetics (a la Bucky)... So this is a new kind of science sandbox we (meta-systematics) can play in.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Thursday, 05 April 2012 11:13 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    On your second note, for example, if you interview different people you will find that the phrase "collective intelligence" means different things to different mindsets. Some people will narrate a developmental structure -- as if there is a top agentic holon that, like the Leviathan, *has* this intelligence. Other people narrate a kind of networked intelligence - this translates into a constructive narrative where intelligence is primarily associated with transporting information across networks like railroads and stations. Still, other people see collective intelligence as an emergent phenomenon - in which case the systems scientists are still arguing over the precise agentic nature of emergent structures (goolge "mereological supervenience" in emergent systems) .. so there is a division between people who consider emergent systems to be what is called ontologically real, or merely epistemologically real -- so from a systems science perspective, calling collective intelligence and emergent phenomenon, begs the question of just what kind of intelligence is it... So I suppose my comments here are information overload,but I offer them to those who want to learn more, in the hope that there is some benefit to life in all forms, however storied.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Friday, 06 April 2012 04:53 posted by David MacLeod


    That's cool that some of you are taking a weekend Permaculture class. I myself am facilitating a day long workshop I call Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I say "facilitating," because the real teacher is David Holmgren himself on DVD. It's important to realize that Permaculture is not a set of gardening techniques. It is a design science, and it is the principles that I believe are universally applicable that we focus on in this class.

    It's happening on April 28th in Bellingham, WA. More info here:

    And btw, some good free info can be found at, including an available download of The Essence of Permaculture E-Book by David Holmgren. This book is a short summary of the main points from the book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
    Download here:

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Friday, 06 April 2012 05:19 posted by David MacLeod

    Hi Bonnitta,

    This is fascinating material for discussion. I am really in the mode here of wanting to learn more, and am holding my views lightly, ready to shift where it makes sense.

    You wrote: "there are many different types of systems (systemic organization) that we can glean from nature. The problem comes in when we only see our particular default pattern and apply this system to all change."

    My sense is that this is a very important point, and you bring in a much needed perspective to counteract an imbalance in much of our "integral" subculture.

    And I think I understand and agree with the "need for a kind of "process pluralism" -- to acknowledge that there are multiple processes occurring at multiple scales and across domains... and that they are irreducible to each other (although different processes can be sub-processes at different scales)."

    But I am still a bit stumped when you say "David wants to see nested sets in "ecologies" -- but from a systems/process perspective, this is a contradiction in terms."

    It seems to me that one of the most important words in post post-modernism is the word "AND." My current thinking is that nested holarchies exist in ecologies, AND that there is so much more going on as well. I am not seeing the contradiction.

    Perhaps the most important pioneer in the field of systems ecology was Howard Odum, and one of his important contributions was the notion of energy hierarchies. These hierarchies can most easily be seen in ecological food chains, and in what has been called natural succession in ecological systems. Odum even has a chart on p. 120 of A Prosperous Way Down that looks quite similar to one of Wilber's developmental charts of the LR quadrant.

    Holmgren, deeply inspired by Odum, carries forward these ideas, but also incorporates a number of the concepts you describe. He goes from talking about ecological succession ("classic") to a modified Pulsing concept of succession to Chaos Theory to a Four Phase model of ecosystem change, ecosynthesis, etc. I think there's room for all of this.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 06 April 2012 12:01 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    some of this is merely a question of taxonomy -- and that requires us to dig into details. so at the end of the day, there may be barely a thread of difference between us. so i would be more favorable to the notion of an "energy hierarchy" system within an ecology. but an "energy hierarchy" is not an ecology - it is a hierarchy. on the other hand, one might construe the energetics of an ecology as a food web or network, or merely distributed energy... also, within an ecology. i guess i am playing "word police" - for what its worth -- its not the most generative type of conversation -- apologies for this.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Sunday, 08 April 2012 19:33 posted by David MacLeod

    Bonnitta wrote "i would be more favorable to the notion of an "energy hierarchy" system within an ecology. but an "energy hierarchy" is not an ecology."

    I can agree with that.

    Some background: Five years ago I was very anti-hierarchical in orientation, and I resonated with the concept that the dominator paradigm was the root cause of our current predicament in civilization. (

    Then I discovered Wilber's Integral/AQAL theory that included ideas about nested holarchical development; and Odum's theory of systems ecology that included ideas about energy hierarchies; and Holmgren's Permaculture principles, where I learned more about natural succession, and how all of these concepts can be applied to a wide range of domains.

    All of these ideas opened my thinking to a broader range of possibilities, as I saw that hierarchies do exist in nature. As does interdependence, cooperation, nurturance, partnerships. In the ideas of the three thinkers named above, I think I am seeing the "pattern that connects"...but there's also the possibility that I am "conflating" ideas in less than helpful ways.

    I still agree with Trevor in finding "the notion of "a highest holon" that orders the rest instinctually repugnant." And yet I now see that both hierarchical and non-hierarchical relationships both exist in healthy ecosystems.

    It seems that competitive and hierarchical relationships predominate in pioneer/growth phases (what our society is now coming out of), and cooperative partnership relationships are more appropriate for the Conservation/Climax & Transition phase.

    And so in the end I can still agree with many aspects of the anti-dominator paradigm folks, such as Dave Ewoldt when he says:

    "In order to save ourselves and our world, we must learn to see and feel the connections between the personal and the planetary. We must discover that our individual work has a collective significance...

    The shift from an industrial growth society of exploitation and domination to a just, equitable, and sustainable partnership culture based on attraction relationships constitutes the intellectual and spiritual challenge of our time."

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Sunday, 08 April 2012 19:50 posted by David MacLeod


    Do you have any thoughts on the work of Erich Jantsch? He wrote "The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution" in 1980, and Wilber cites him as a very strong influence regarding the concept of holonic development.

    I've read numerous books were he's been referenced, but I have not read Jantsch directly. His book is out of print, and after a very quick search, there doesn't seem to be as much on the internet about him as I would have thought.

    I did find this interesting paper (which I have not digested), which includes some of Jantsch's charts.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Monday, 16 April 2012 03:03 posted by David MacLeod

    I just found an article that is relevant to our discussion about energy hierarchies in ecology. In fact, the article is titled "Whatever Happened to Heirarchies in Ecology?"

    And it turns out the article was written by Howard Odum's daughter, Mary Logan.

    Here's one provocative quote:
    "Critiques from Goldsmith (1985, 2002) suggest that ecologists may have turned away from energetically-based theories of hierarchy and succession in favor of theories focusing on genetics and evolution in order to achieve consistency with the reigning growth-oriented social paradigm of the past 30 years. Is this why ecologists gave up the food chain in favor of food “webs?” It is difficult to retain oppositional world views, and scientific theories are arguably derived from world views rather than vice versa. Most ecosystems reach a stable, pulsing successional climax, eventually being replaced over the larger scale of time. This theory does not fit our world views regarding the future of industrial society. And in an energy hierarchy that is quantified, humans must either exist within the limiting energy budget of renewable resources, or else the assumption about the temporary nature of exponential growth due to nonrenewable resources must be made explicit. Quantifying these implied assumptions would mean that we would have to either change our world view to match our inevitable energetic limits, or else change our scientific theories?"

    The quote above is interesting, because I would have thought the opposite...that food webs were chosen over food chains because of a post-modern response to hierarchies. Yet her point makes sense to me when thinking about the bigger implications of the successional food chains - they cannot grow forever. Which is why I constantly argue that we need to carefully consider the role of energy in all life processes.

    But really, the whole article should be read. I found it to be a "brilliant and much needed analysis." Thirsty brains should appreciate it.

  • Comment Link Daniel O'Connor Monday, 23 April 2012 21:23 posted by Daniel O'Connor

    Hi David,

    I know you asked for Bonnitta’s opinion on this, but, for whatever it might be worth to you or others, I think Erich Jantsch’s Self-Organizing Universe is an underappreciated masterpiece in the “integral” genre, broadly defined. It’s not actually about “holons,” per se, or even “development” as used in developmental psychology, but rather the self-organizing dynamics of interdependent micro/macro-evolution, from chemical to biological/ecological to distinctively human socio-cultural stages.

    In Wilberian terms, for those interested in AQAL, it is a rigorous formulation of “individual” (micro) and “collective” (macro) evolution through multiple “levels,” with a clear distinction between “subjective” and “objective” aspects as they become apparent in the self-reflexive socio-cultural levels. He even devotes a whole chapter to what Wilber has popularized as “states” of consciousness, which he outlines in terms of subjective states of hyper/hypo-arousal between the normal “I” and the transcendental Self, consistent with Yoga-Vedanta, and to which he adds objective brain wave correlations, all of which was based on research published by others in the 1970s.

    Therefore, it can be retroactively interpreted as a proto-AQAL formulation (from 1980!) that has never been appropriately acknowledged as such. In fact, if you combine Jantsch’s Self-Organizing Universe with Habermas’s Communication and the Evolution of Society and Theory of Communicative Action, Aurobindo’s Life Divine and Human Cycle, Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin, Alastair Taylor’s multi-level geopolitical systems, and a Buddhist/Advaitin nondualism, you’d have all the structural ingredients needed to formulate AQAL. That may or may not have been the route taken by Wilber in his original AQAL synthesis, and it certainly does not imply that AQAL does justice to these seminal works, but it is impossible to miss the makings of the AQAL synthesis if you read these works and then re-read Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

    Not being an expert in autopoietic system theory or evolutionary theory, I can’t say how well Jantsch’s specific hypotheses have held up in the past 30 years of development within these fields. But the book itself should at least be appreciated (along with all the others mentioned in the preceding paragraph) as an exemplary artifact of the all-important synthetic reason to which Trevor’s essay is pointing.

    Best regards,


  • Comment Link David MacLeod Tuesday, 24 April 2012 20:43 posted by David MacLeod

    Thank you Daniel, this is very helpful!

    I haven't read any of the books you listed (including SES); but I might as well throw in another book I haven't read, William Irwin Thompson's The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light.

    It may not support the AQAL theory, but might be interesting in how it compares with the others. Bonnita mentions Thompson above, and Jeremy Johnson in another post wrote that it "is a fascinating synthesis of science, mythology, mysticism, evolution and sexuality. I'd recommend this book to be read alongside Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality."

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Tuesday, 21 August 2012 12:41 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    See for example, this systemic analysis of FOOD WEB: there is no indication of nested hierarchies in any of the studies.

    My point is, that the system you are working with is the lens you are looking through...


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