Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

10. Hierarchy

Because new systems come into being from previously existing ones they often appear to be nested within and dependent on one of lesser complexity. The totality of everything might be listed this way


Hierarchy of inclusiveness – the relationship among systems in which smaller systems make up and are nested in a larger system; as in the above.

Hierarchy of control – the relationship among systems in which the more dominant system controls the actions of the less dominant; as in a pecking order.


The idea that a hierarchical order of things was a natural one must have come to humankind very early in its intellectual development. In its first form it manifests itself as a pecking order. The stronger, more dominant individuals are literally on top of the weaker ones. Lowering ones head, eyes or body are signals of submission. Many animal groups other than human, exhibit this behavior.

As early human society developed, it was the common feeling that the individual belonged to a tribe or clan, that the smaller was part of a larger group. This sense of belonging constitutes another kind of hierarchy. It exists today in the attitude of allegiance to ethnic or national groups and, in some individuals, the sense of being part of the family of humankind. The feeling is so strong that many people find life fulfillment in group belonging and many others long to experience being part of something greater than one's self.

There is another version of the idea of hierarchic order that has developed recently out of ecological studies. It is a hierarchy of composition in which the larger unit is made up of smaller ones but the element of control is not the dominant factor as it is in the previously mentioned hierarchies. In ecological hierarchies the elements of mutual influence and cooperation are key. It is this view of mutualistic interdependence that is part of self-organizing systems.


The concept of hierarchic order in the universe is fundamental to the general theory of systems. The universe is seen to develop from atomic particulates to galactic systems, pausing on the way to develop stellar, planetary, chemical, biological, and cultural systems. The architecture of nature indicates that the building blocks on one level combine into new structures with new properties. This is one of the fundamental organizing principles of the world.

The human body is a familiar example of a hierarchical system in the sense defined above. Atoms make up molecules which in their billions make cells. Cells make up tissues and organs are constructed out of those tissues. Tissues and organs have properties that are not those of the individual cells. Muscle tone and kidney function are examples. Various combinations of tissues and organs make the systems within the human body. The cooperation of the systems (circulatory, digestive, nervous, etc.) enable the body to function as an integrated unit. Reciprocally, experiences of the whole organism affect the interior workings of the bodys organs.

Higher and lower levels of hierarchy

Often in the discussion of hierarchical systems the terms higher and lower levels are used. These are not indicators of value nor do they necessarily indicate increased complexity. They serve to indicate which systems are components and which are collections of the systems under discussion. The solar system is at a higher level of hierarchy than its planets. The planets, however, have structures considerably more complex than the overall structure of the solar system. The same can be said of the individual cell whose interior functions are more complex than the action or functions of the tissue of which it is a part.

Nevertheless, it still must be recognized that at higher levels of hierarchy there is usually greater diversity of structure and function simply because higher levels are made up of many lower-level systems plus all their interrelations.

The philosopher Michael Polanyi put this idea in an interesting way: Lower levels do not lack a bearing on higher levels; they define the conditions of their success and account for their failures, but they cannot account for their successes, for they cannot even define it. Note (Italics in the original)

Emergence at higher levels of hierarchy

As biologists and ecologists examined nature, they found a pyramid of levels. This, as noted, was not a new idea. What is new is the notion that at each higher level of organization new structures and functions appear. These new properties emerge from the new organization of systems and are quite impossible to predict from the lower levels of organization. As an example; there seems to be no way that mental phenomena could be predicted only from an understanding of the how the neurons in the brain are organized. Thinking, planning, imagining, and the other features of mental life are new functions that emerge from a special organization of neurons.

The differences between prokaryotic cells (DNA dispersed throughout the cell) and eukaryotic cells (DNA enclosed in a nucleus) is another example of biological emergence. Eukaryotic cells have thousands of specialized internal structures each about the size of a prokaryotic cell. These organelles have assorted metabolic functions that permit the eukaryotic cell to do things the more primitive prokaryotic cells cannot do. Considerations such as these lend themselves to a concept of an evolutionary process in which new characteristics emerge and enrich higher levels of organization.

Arthur Koestler and the holon

Although well known for his political novels (particularly Darkness at Noon ) and for his essays, Arthur Koestler (19051983) was also an excellent writer on science. His study of the development of our concept of the universe from the early Greeks to Isaac Newton, The Sleepwalkers (1959), was detailed and insightful; albeit heavily biased against Galileo. He was particularly original in the fields of psychology and holism. In The Ghost in the Machine (1967) he set forth his concept of the holon as a unit of hierarchies. A holon is defined as an entity which has the dual tendency to behave as a unit and, at the same time, act as an integrated part of a larger whole in multi-leveled hierarchies. An individual is a holon in that he or she, while capable of acting alone, is also a member of a social group. There is an interesting Appendix in the book entitled General Properties of Open Hierarchical Systems (pages 341-348), in which he outlines his ideas about holons and hierarchies.

The above mentioned Appendix is repeated in Koestler's Janus: a summing up (1978) but with the important addition of 15 pages of new material in front of it. The new Appendix is entitled Beyond Atomism and Holism The Concept of the Holon. Koestler's stated effort was to reconcile the fact of existence of independent parts with the concept of the integrated whole. He hoped to get beyond reductionism and present a comprehensive system, which rejects materialism and throws some new light on the human condition.