February 20, 2012

Leveling Up

Amoeba roteus At some level of size and interconnectedness, interacting individuals become something other than the sum of their parts. Our history is filled with examples.

Mutlicellularity began with independent single-celled organisms, interacting with each other. As those interactions became more complex, they began to act as a single organism. By working together, they could avoid being eaten, attack larger organisms, etc. They began to divide the tasks of survival, until eventually, they became one organism.

At that point, organisms could act on the world (and be acted upon) on two levels. Because the cells work so closely together, natural selection began to work on the organism as a whole instead of just on the cells. This led to the creation of a middle "level" of organization, in between cells and organisms: organs. Organs are groups of specialized cells. The cells communicate with each other in order to make the organ work, but they also communicate, as an organ, with other organs.

Thus, all of us are composed of levels of semi-independent, interconnecting parts. Although each level is composed only of its parts, it is something greater and different from the sum of those parts, and an attempt to understand one level by understanding its components misses out on this fact.

For example, we could be described as a bundle of interacting organs. We could (theoretically) map out exactly how each of those organs interacts with each other, and this would describe humans and their behavior convincingly. It would miss out, however, on what it means to be human. We are living the interaction between those organs, and it is something more than a medical school diagram.

Similarly, we could describe our lungs by mapping out how each of the cells acts and reacts to stimuli, but we would be missing out on the fact that the lung is not just cells, but a breathing machine. Understanding how each cell works does not describe how they work together, because they are doing something at a different level.

This exercise works all the way down. Understanding organelles is not the same as understanding the life of a cell; understanding protons and neutrons misses out on most of what chemistry is, etc.

The second half of my argument is that this complexity - this "levelling up", happens because it is beneficial to be able to interact at another level. Companies are nothing more than a group of people connected together, yet they can make commitments, sign contracts, etc. Even if all of the people who sign a contract for a company are fired, the contract is still in effect. Despite all of the brouhaha over "corporate personhood", in some real sense corporations are, if not people, agents that can act and be held responsible for their actions.

This is a very good thing. If Boeing had to get agreement from all of its employees before making a government contract, then it would never happen. By acting as one organism, the members of a corporation can make decisions and agreements that would not be possible as individuals, or even as a group.

The big unanswered question is whether there are other levels. Do economies, countries, or the Internet have a sort of autonomy?