Boulding and the Hierarchy of Systems Complexity

As one of the founding fathers of the Systems Movement, Kenneth Boulding presented his classical paper, General Systems Theory The Skeleton of Science, in 1956. In this paper the author is deeply concerned about the existing over-specialization of science and the lack of communication between the different areas. He proposes as a way of overcoming this dilemma the use of an over-arching language of concepts, and an arrangement of theoretical systems and constructs in a hierarchy of complexity. This should be a ‘system of systems’ possible to use in all areas. Each scientific area studies some kind of system and a classification is necessary if a general methodology for their study is to be developed.

The first level in Boulding’s hierarchy is the level of static structures and relationships or, using his term, frameworks. Examples are the arrangement of atoms in a crystal, the anatomy of genes, cells, plants or the organization of the astronomical universe. These can all be accurately described in terms of static relationship, of function or position. Organized theoretical knowledge in many fields emanates from static relationship, which is also a prerequisite for the understanding of systems behaviour.

The second level is called clockworks. The solar system offers an example of a simple dynamic system with predetermined motion. Machines such as car engines and dynamos, as well as the theoretical structures of physics, chemistry and economics, belong to this category; they all strive for some kind of equilibrium.

The third level is that of control mechanisms or cybernetic systems. A thermostat with its teleological (purpose-geared) behaviour is an often used example for this level; another is the regulation called homeostasis. This level is characterized by feedback mechanisms with transmission and interpretation of information.

The fourth level is the level of the cell or the self-maintaining structure. Since life begins and develops here this is also called the open- system level. Life presupposes throughput of matter and energy and the ability to maintain and reproduce itself.

The fifth level can be called the plant level and is identified by its genetic/societal processes. The main qualities of these processes are differentiation and division of labour respectively, and mutual dependence between the various components for both. Since the life processes of the plant level take place without specialized sense organs, the reaction to changes in the environment is slow.

The sixth level is the level of the animal where the main characteristics are various degrees of consciousness, teleological behaviour and increased mobility. Here, a wide range of specialized sensors convey a great amount of information via a nervous system to a brain where information can be stored and structured. Reactions to changes in the environment are more or less instantaneous.

The seventh level is the human, wherein the individual is defined as a system. Man possesses in addition to the qualities of the animal level, self-consciousness. This is a self-reflective quality: he not only knows but knows that he knows. A consequence of this is the awareness of one’s own mortality. Another quality is a sophisticated- language capability and the use of internal symbols through which man accumulates knowledge, transmitting it from brain to brain and from generation to generation.

The eighth level is defined as that of social organization. A single human being, that is, one isolated from fellow human beings, is rare. The units of this level are the assumed roles and these are tied together by the channels of communication. Many cultural factors — value systems, symbolization through art and music, complex areas of emotion, history are significant for this level.

The ninth level is the transcendental, or that of the unknowable. While one can only speculate about its structure and relationships, it is presupposed that this level does exhibit systemic structure and relationship.

A system of systems or a hierarchy of complexity indicating the relationships between the different levels is shown in Figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1 A hierarchy of systems complexity according to Boulding.

A closer examination shows that the first three levels belong to the category of physical and mechanical systems and are mainly the concern of physical scientists. Classical natural science is most at home at the clockwork level. Levels of the cell, the plant and the animal are typically the levels of biologists, botanists and zoologists. The next two levels of human and social organization are mainly the interest of the social scientists. Speculation concerning the nature of transcendental systems belongs primarily to the area of philosophy.

One of the motives behind Boulding’s hierarchy was to present the status of the scientific knowledge of his time. Obviously, relevant theoretical models existed up to and including the cell level.  Higher levels have only rudiments of relevant models. Boulding emphasized the gap between theoretical models and pertinent empirical referents which in his opinion were deficient within all levels. Another idea was that valuable knowledge can be obtained by applying low level systems knowledge to high level subject matter. This is possible inasmuch as each system level incorporates all levels below it.

In 1985, Boulding presented The World as a Total System, a book in which his original systems hierarchy is reworked and the levels are extended to eleven and are given slightly different names and contents. The first and most basic category in the level hierarchy can be described as a static and descriptive structure of space. The next category contains the description of dynamic systems — that is, of changes in static structures over time. The final category contains explanatory systems which, besides the pattern of structure in space and time, explain several basic regularities. Levels of complexity and regulation and control of the different subsystems are also to be found in the new hierarchy. All levels have their counterparts in the real world.

The first level consists of mechanical systems controlled by simple connections and few parameters. The connections are in mathematical terms seldom more complex than equations of the third degree. Examples are the laws of gravitation, Ohm’s law and Boyle’s law.

The second level is that of cybernetic systems. These more complex systems strive towards a state of equilibrium through negative feedback. Such a process exists in living bodies under the name of homeostasis and is dependent upon the processing of information. The basic units of receptor, transmitter and effector are always present.

The third level is called positive feedback systems. Owing to the nature of positive feedback these systems are seldom long-lived; they accelerate toward breakdown, or breakthrough. The faster a forest fire burns, the hotter it gets, and the more one learns, the easier it is to learn more. Evolution can also represent an anti-entropic positive feedback process.

The fourth level is the level of creodic systems (from Greek, meaning ‘necessary path’). It includes all systems which strive towards a goal and which may be called planned in a wide sense as they are guided by some kind of initial plan. The morphogenesis in the development of both egg to chicken and the economy of a society can illustrate this level.

The fifth level is one of reproductive systems which implies that genetic instructions guide both reproduction and growth. Besides that for individuals, a reproductive process takes place in social organizations. Language and printed matter disseminate ideas; a member who is promoted, retired or dismissed is, through mechanisms for role occupancy, replaced.

The sixth level concerns demographic systems and consists of populations of reproductive systems. A population is a collection of comparable objects, not necessarily identical but similar enough to create a meaningful classification. A biological population increases through birth and decreases through death. If birth and death rates are equal and if normal age distribution is paralleled by the survival distribution, the population is said to be in equilibrium, a situation which is, however, rare.

The seventh level, ecological systems, consists of a number of interacting populations of different species. The size of a population is determined by its own structure and the size of its competitors. If in a given environment of other populations a specific population has reached equilibrium, it is said to occupy an ecological niche. If more populations are stable in their interactions they form an ecological system. The tropical rainforest is a useful example.

Ecological interaction between different populations takes place by means of mutual competition, cooperation or predation. In a sense a similar interaction takes place between the artificial ecosystems of human artefacts, for example cars predate on people. The main difference is that the biological organisms can reproduce themselves, human artefacts cannot. Since a ‘genetical structure’ of artefacts exists in human minds as well as in artificial memories, artefacts can be said to reproduce in a figurative sense (‘noogenetics’).

The eighth level is that of evolutionary systems. Such systems can be both ecological, changing under the influence of selection and mutation, and artificial, obeying the same influence but in the transferred sense of new ideas. The fact that the evolutionary process moves towards ever- increasing complexity may be seen in the emergence of human self- consciousness or in the growth of the city.

The ninth level, human systems, differs from other living systems owing to the superior information processing capability of the brain. Advanced pattern recognition and communication abilities with speech, writing and the use of sophisticated artefacts are distinctive marks. (There are more species and subspecies of human artefacts than plants in Linne’s sexual system.)

The tenth level is that of social systems, a result of the interaction between human beings and/or their artefacts. They arise thanks to the capability of human minds to form images and to convey complicated concepts from one mind to another. An interactive learning process where various types of experience and evaluations are communicated through the system is essential. The nature of these interactions can be classified as threat, exchange or integration. The social activity itself may be classified as belonging to economic, political, communicative and integrative systems. Processes of mutation and selection are at work both within the mass of human individuals as well as among their artefacts. The biological concept of an empty niche makes sense also when speaking of these artefacts. Cars fill up empty spaces all over the world; CocaCola competes successfully with a myriad of available beverages.

Figure 3.2 Combination of threat, exchange and integration in society (from Boulding 1978).

Figure 3.3 The second hierarchy of systems complexity according to Boulding.

The eleventh level is that of transcendental systems. Here certain religious or philosophical experiences may serve, at least in part, as examples. Being a level of the unknowable, the eleventh is one of speculation.

The hierarchical relationships between the different levels are shown below in Figure 3.3.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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