November 19, 2017

The development of the ecosphere as a single process

The Hellenic philosophers assumed that the world could be explained in terms of one all-embracing theory. They built general models that may appear naive today, but many of which were probably, at different moments in time, the best that could be built with the available knowledge. Since then, the tendency has been for science to split into ever more specialised fields, each using its own method and terminology. Only in the last decade has a movement arisen to link the various fields into one general science. The principle involved, however, is still little understood, and the necessity for such a general science is only recognised by a minority of enlightened people.

Owing to our tendency towards subjective classification, we recognise that certain events among which a connexion can be made within our immediate experience can be regarded as forming one process, while, on the other hand, we refuse to admit that this can be the case with events whose connecting bond lies outside our experience.

Thus, we are willing to admit that the development of a foetus into an adult is a single process, and that it is difficult to examine, separately and in isolation, any of its particular stages apart from the process as a whole. On the other hand, we are less ready to regard evolution in this way.

We still imply that radical frontiers exist between life at different levels of complexity, in spite of the fact that they are part of the same evolutionary process. Yet, it can be demonstrated that no such frontiers obtain. When Kohler synthesised urea, the barrier between the ‘organic’ and the ‘inorganic’ was suddenly shattered, as did that between the ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ when the virus was found to manifest certain conditions associated with life on being confronted with a source of protein, and at other periods to display the normal behaviour pattern of a crystal. Again, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that no barrier exists separating men from the simpler animals. He is more ‘intelligent’; and that is about all that can be said, (see Towards a Unified Science The Ecologist Vol. 1. No. 7.)

If this is so, we should be able to establish laws of development applying to the process as a whole, i.e., it should be possible to build a general behavioural model that will be applicable to behaviour to all levels of complexity.

It is only when one attempts to do this that we realise the necessity for such a model.

Thus, it can be shown that any principles that appear to apply in the initial and more general stages of development, must also apply at the later, and more particular ones. The best illustration of this is the applicability of the laws of physics not only to inanimate objects, but also to the most sophisticated organisms, such as a human being.

Thus, if you drop a rock and a university Professor from the top of a tower, in both cases the way they fall will be predictable in terms of the same physical laws. They will both obey the law of gravity, for instance. This essential principle I refer to as the accumulation principle. It follows from the fact that behaviour proceeds by the accretion of successive strata, each one of which will constitute a differentiation of the preceding one.

The accumulation principle is apparent, also, from the following consideration. In its development from the simple to the complex, matter passes through certain critical stages, where the possibilities of a particular type or organisation are exhausted and further advance can only be achieved by the development of a new type.

Thus, an atom can be developed only up to a certain point. This point will vary with different types of atoms, some of which, such as the tungsten atom, are relatively large.

Beyond this critical point, however, development can occur only by associating several atoms together to form a molecule. As soon as the latter stage is reached, the constituent atoms undergo a considerable change, in that a radical division of labour occurs, in accordance with the law of economy.

To explain their behaviour now requires the introduction of new principles. These, however, do not replace those required to explain the behaviour of the atoms before their association rather they complement them. An accumulation has occurred.

The same thing happens when we pass to the next level of complexity, the cell, which is made up of associated and differentiated molecules, and so on. In each case, as we proceed to a higher level of complexity, there must be an increase in the number of disciplines required to explain behaviour. The sociologist who deals with behaviour at the highest level should thus understand behaviour at all the preceding ones: for a society is made up of men, made up of organs and tissues, in turn made up of cells, in turn made up of molecules, atomic particles, etc.

The accumulation principle is also apparent from yet another consideration. The genetic instructions transmitted from one generation to the next are not determined by the experience of the previous generation. If they were, modern science would not condemn so radically the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. On the contrary, that part of the instructions, that can be ascribed to the experience of the preceding generation is but a minute fraction of the total instructions contained in the genetic material.

The latter in fact, will reflect the experience of the unit of phylogeny taken as a whole, i.e., of the species to which the system belongs, taken four-dimensionally. From that it must follow that if we are to understand the process of phylogeny, it is the latter that must be taken as behaving, and not one of its differentiated parts.

The same principle is infinitely easier to understand in the case of ontogenetic development. Each step in the embryological process is not regarded as separate. The embryo as a whole is taken as the unit of behaviour.

Thus, the accumulation principle makes it clear that to understand a process one must not only take into account the unit of behaviour that appears to be directly involved, but the vast four-dimensional system of which it is an integral part, from which it derives its general instructions, and of which it constitutes but a differentiated part.

For this reason, sociologists, who attempt to explain behaviour without reference to the preceding stages of development, are like neuro-physiologists who seek to understand the development of the cerebral cortex in a child without reference to the midbrain, the brain-stem, and the other parts of the nervous system. The study of processes, which are but part of much larger processes, in an artificial vacuum can give rise only to the most superficial understanding.

Another principle of development that emerges from such an approach can be referred to as the sequential principle, or the principle of succession as it is known in ecology. All behaviour is made up of a sequence of steps. These steps must occur in the right order. If one step in the sequence does not occur, the sequence can proceed no further. In addition, the environmental situation to which they constitute adaptive reactions, and to which each one is therefore linked, must also occur in exactly the right order.

Thus, if a given step does not occur at the ‘right time’, it will not occur at all, or will occur imperfectly. Once more, embryology furnishes us with a very clear illustration of this principle.

Behavioural reactions, though they may occur spontaneously, are also ‘triggered off’, by corresponding environmental situations. The latter are said to act as ‘stimuli’. The less discriminating the system concerned, the more specific will be the stimulus required to determine a given reaction.

Discriminatory ability is low in an embryological system, where the cytoplasm constitutes a very highly ordered environment. In such a situation, environmental situation ‘A’ triggers off reaction ‘a’, which in turn gives rise to a modified environment, ‘B’, which in turn triggers off specific reaction ‘b’, etc. It is evident that in these conditions any departure from the correct sequence of environmental situations and of behavioural reactions, will prevent the total process from occurring.

This sequential principle is also apparent in everyday behaviour. If a man is hungry, he goes to the kitchen to make a sandwich. He cannot possibly perform the steps in reverse, i.e., eat the sandwich before he has made it, and before he has gone to the kitchen to collect the ingredients. The correct sequence of steps must be observed.

Similarly, in the development of an eco-system, or of the ecosphere as a whole, the steps must occur in the right order. An eco-system cannot support carnivores until it has first given rise to herbivores, and the latter cannot possibly come into being unless the requisite vegetation has first appeared. Only a fixed sequence of events, from which but slight deviations can be tolerated, can account for the development of the highly complex biosphere of which we are part. This principle once more confirms the need for a general behavioural model. There is every reason to believe that this principle must apply to all behavioural processes.

A third principle of behaviour is worth considering. In embryology, Van Baer’s law states that development is from the general to the particular, from which it must follow that the earlier an interference occurs the greater the damage it will do. The reason for this is that development occurs by differentiation.

Van Baer’s law can be shown to apply equally well to everyday behaviour.

When a man decides to eat a sandwich, a general instruction is issued by that particular centre in the brain that mediates eating behaviour. This message is differentiated at more and more particular strata, at each of which the instructions are adapted to specific environmental requirements. Similarly, when a General issues an order at Army HQ, the instructions will be differentiated at each echelon, i.e, at divisional HQ, brigade HQ, battalion HQ, company HQ, platoon HQ, etc, and further adapted to local systemic requirements.

It is also evident that as we pass from the amoeba, whose single cell fulfils all those functions that are necessary to the maintenance of life, such as the seizing of prey, its digestion, the excretion of waste matter, respiration, reproduction, locomotion, etc, to the complex multi-cellular organism into which it eventually evolves, these same functions are fulfilled in an infinitely more differentiated manner.

Specialised mechanisms have developed, perfectly adapted to fulfilling functions that were previously fulfilled in a more general way by a single cell. The same is also true as the artisanal workshop evolves into the large commercial enterprise, or a tribal society into a large centralised kingdom.

If those processes occurring at a particular level of development are but a differentiation of the more general processes occurring at the previous level, it is impossible to understand the former without reference to the latter. Once more, we find ourselves faced with the necessity for a general behavioural model in order to understand any of the differentiated parts of the process ensuring the development of the total eco-system.


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