Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Features of Analyzing Complex Social Systems: Individuals vs Superorganism

In Yaneer Bar-Yam's textbook "Dynamics of Complex Systems" (1997), the final chapter considers looking at complex social systems, i.e. civilizations. There have been numerous posts around the blogosphere in the past few months that have been focused on issues involving complex systems, network theory, emergence, resilience, consilience, and so on, as they apply to a variety of systems, both physical and social, including a number on this blog. One aspect of these types of analyses that has been overlooked is the role of the individual within the collective system, and this is precisely what Bar-Yam warns against.

A term that has arisen within biology, the "superorganism," generally relates to the existence of collective behavior or organisms, such that the actual system of interest is not an individual organism but rather a collective system formed from many individuals. Ant colonies are an example, and this term may indeed apply to human civilization. If we want to apply features of complexity theory to assist us as we create social policy, for instance, presumably we would need to try to determine how the superorganism is affected. But we must do this with care. How do we treat individual people in such an analysis? Real people, perhaps our friends and neighbors, may be personally affected by a particular policy decision that an analysis predicts would be wonderful for the superorganism, but damaging to (vulnerable) subgroups of individuals. We see this everyday, and how we may approach such analyses can broadly be broken into two camps: place a larger emphasis on the superorganism, or place a larger emphasis on the individual. Not so surprisingly, this has given rise to two political parties.

Placing more of an emphasis on the business sector in economic/fiscal policy, for instance, seems to be focused more on the superorganism. Big business is a sort of faceless, complex system in its own right, and one type of policy can be derived from this perspective. Placing an emphasis on how it affects individuals who make up the system, such as the poor and middle class (i.e. the average, individual citizen), leads to a separate approach for fiscal policy. Proponents of gun control laws, on the other hand, seem to be looking more closely at the superorganism, while those who are against gun control laws seem to focus more on individuals within the system. Interestingly, political parties such as the Republicans and Democrats may swap which perspective they take toward policy-making in these two examples.

There is so much we still do not know about complexity, emergence, and interdependence, it makes any analysis of complex social systems difficult. At some level we need to be careful not to neglect the role and importance of individuals within a system, and yet there is a need to take care of the collective society. The Constitution sets up a governmental structure that is meant to protect both the nation, a collective, complex system of individual states and counties and local governments, while simultaneously giving each individual great freedoms and importance. To me, thinking in terms of complexity, it makes more sense than ever that we were destined to have only two major political parties, and that third parties are improbable. There are the two, and only two, broad approaches we can make when considering policy, as described above. In the gray areas where there is overlap between the two approaches, we essentially find the principle of superposition at work, rather than a unique, new approach or party philosophy. Where we draw the lines between 'superorganism' and 'individual' will continue to dominate the political landscape. As if a single society wasn't hard enough, there is still a consideration of how things work within the globalization of economics and cultures.


mark said...

Hey Von,

Social policy ( education, welfare, medicare, affirmative action etc.) is every bit as directed at the "superorganism" as fiscal or monetary policy, in structure as well as process.

Not only does the federal budget process require attention to aggregate mean data for purposes of estimation, 14th amendment case requires due process administration that requires refraining from disparate treatment unless there is some compelling state interest to do otherwise.

Discretionary regulatory action outside of statutory authority on behalf of individuals is very hard to accomplish as Congress writes the laws to prevent those activities (see _The Death of Common Sense_).

That last chapter sounds very interesting BTW

vonny said...

Hi Mark,

Policymakers generally need to keep the focus on the superorganism, this is true. But they can and do make exceptions for smaller subsets, particularly specific businesses or constituencies. For example, tax policy is manipulated to a particular party's advantage, depending who is in power at the time. State and local governments tend to get closer to keeping individuals in mind, at least as close as is possible. It is the nature of the beast, and this is what makes a society a complex system: one cannot predict the nature or behavior of the collective population based on the behaviors and properties of the individuals that make it up.

I need to start thinking about this in terms of globalization. The behavior of a large collection of individual economies and markets, for example, cannot necessarily be determined from knowing the details of the individual economies/markets.

How is Mrs. Zen? Give her my best.

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