Thursday, March 5, 2015

Life in Levels

This is a draft of Chapter 4, in the book outline

Life Grows From Level to Level


The Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM) suggests that life grows in levels. This chapter develops this Life-in-Levels (LiL) concept.

Note about the term “level”
In this writing I adopt the term “level” for a central concept. Previously I have used “generation” for the same concept – while apologizing that I was stretching the meaning of “generation”. I could not think of a better term. But now I have learned of a paper by Herbert Simon (1962) in which he uses “level” for an analogous concept. I follow his lead.

Look at our biological past: Life has grown in levels

We have evidence that life on Earth has grown in levels. We know that our human bodies are made of many cells, that is we are multicellular organisms. But other living things on earth, such as amoeba and paramecia, have just one cell, and, as we learn from biology, our multicellular type of body is a newcomer in the history of evolution. Perhaps a billion years ago there were no multicellular organisms; single-cellular organisms were the fanciest creatures on Earth. Somehow, through a historical process which we are only beginning to understand, it seems that single cellular organisms discovered ways to live together, to create gradually more complex multicellular organisms.

Even though this seems like fantastic progress, from single- to multi-cellular organisms, I have read that some biologists are even more impressed by the progress made in an earlier step of evolution. The single cells which I have mentioned, and the “cells” of which we usually speak, are called eukaryotic cells by biologists. These eukaryotic cells, when examined under a powerful modern microscope, are seen to be incredibly complex. Like a human city, eukaryotic cells contain a large number of specialized structures. And many of the specialized structures in eukaryotic cells look to biologists like close cousins of even smaller and simpler life-forms known as prokaryotic cells. Biologists are impressed by that evident feat of organization, from single prokaryotic cells to municipalities of prokaryotic cells (to eukaryotic cells).

Prokaryotic cells, a class which includes simple bacteria, were once, in their turn, the masters of the Universe. Or at least they were the largest and most advanced form of life on Earth, and that for a few billion years! According to the fossil record, it seems that prokaryotic cells first appeared perhaps three billion years ago, and stood atop life’s kingdom until the development of eukaryotic cells about one billion years ago.

To summarize, we can pretty clearly see three levels.
  1. prokaryotes,
  2. eukaryotes,
  3. multi-cellular present-day organisms, like us.
Notice that each visible organism in the higher levels (2 and 3), which at first appears to our senses to be a single entity, turns out, when we look more carefully, to be composed of many smaller living components. I suppose the same may turn out to be true of prokaryotes, the level to which I have assigned number 1. But these three levels are enough for this introductory discussion. The challenge for us humans, as I suggest next, concerns the possibility of level 4.

A new level of life now grows as we organize our lives

I propose that this growing process continues. As we people go about organizing our affairs we are in process of building a next-higher-level of life. Think about all the kinds of organizations that we form: families, partnerships, business companies, churches, governments, the United Nations. These organizations are able, because of their internal order, to accomplish things which would not be accomplished by a disorganized but otherwise equal set of constituent individuals.

A contrast with methodological individualism

This proposition, that we are engaged in building new super-organisms, may seem incredible to some readers. Some of my friends staunchly defend methodological individualism, which asserts that analysis of human affairs must focus on the choices of individual humans, and which denies that useful analysis can be performed while viewing organizations or aggregates of human individuals. But I would like to ask methodological individualists to consider the idea that a human organization can have a voice. I choose “voice” as an activity to consider, since its expression includes both thought and physical action.

Voice of an organization
It seems clear to me that a representative of an organization, while speaking on behalf of the organization, speaks with a power which is lacked by an individual while acting alone. Barak Obama, while speaking as President of the United States, gets much more respect and attention from other heads of state than he got while speaking as a member of the state Senate in Illinois, because as President he is in fact speaking as the executive officer of the United States government. The United States government has a voice, I assert, and even though it comes from an individual human, it differs in significant respects from the voice of an unaffiliated human.

Voice of a human
To continue my argument, consider the voice of a human. One of us proud humans will probably assert with confidence that he, as an individual human, speaks with a voice which he possess and controls. But think about the biological production of a voice, about the nerve cells and the muscle cells. Any one of those cells could discredit the idea that the human has a voice, using logic parallel to that used by methodological individualists to discredit the idea that an organization made of humans has a voice. Each cell can accurately assert that the human did nothing which was not actually the work of individual cells. To the cells it probably seems that they are making all the decisions, they are doing all the work.

So, on the question of whether you might perceive that an organization has a voice, it may depend upon whether you, the observer, represent an organization yourself in your communications.  If you do then you may be especially interested in the communications of your organization’s peers; you may be interested in the voices expressed by other organizations.

Emphasizing the growth between levels

So far I have tried to establish a view of levels in the growth of life. But obviously what is interesting and important to us humans now is what goes on between levels, on the process of organizing. How does life advance from one level to another? How do the constituent organisms accomplish their reproduction, organization, and survival within a larger “skin”?

The process of growth in levels which we have discussed so far may be represented like this:
1 → 2 → 3 → 4
Here I am saying that the most interesting part is not the numbered stages which we can recognize, but rather the arrows between stages. We humans, organisms living in level 3, grapple every day with frustrations and tensions in the organizations of which we are members. We try to improve the organizations. In this way we are thrusting toward level 4, I suggest.

Aspects of LiL

Here we will clarify a few aspects of growth from level to level.

Outsiders remain on the scene
When a new level of organisms takes shape and comes into view, some organisms from the earlier level remain living independently in the environment. That is, not all members of that earlier level joined in the new order. After eukaryotic cells formed, for example, there still remained many prokaryotic elements living in the environment. These prokaryotes were cousins of the others which had joined into the new order, and their descendants still live independently in our environment today. This suggests that the environment which could support the earlier level can still support the earlier level, even though many members of that earlier level have become subsumed, in our view, in larger organizations. The earlier level was, and remains, a viable way for a race of organisms to survive.

Organizations are heterogeneous
My discussion so far has suggested the possibility of similar or related organisms on one level joining together to form the higher level. But actually the larger organization probably includes many dissimilar constituents, including some lifeless raw materials which are manipulated by the living elements. For example, consider the prototype of a family farm of the early 20th century. We envision the farm containing its family of humans, its cows, chickens, hay and corn fields, fences, barns, and machines. This gathering of diverse elements into a productive farm organization may represent a stage in the development of a single, new, and larger organism.

A way to separate organizations into eight classes

As we focus upon the growth of organizations we naturally notice that organizations differ. There is a bewildering array of organizations. To clarify our thinking we will find it helpful to subdivide what we mean by “organization”, by noticing characteristics which are possessed by some organizations but not by others. I suggest three characteristics with which we may accomplish such a division:

  1. Member-Aware. In some organizations the members are aware of the existence of the larger organizations. In other organizations this is not the case.
  2. Self-Aware. Some organizations possess a self-awareness, by which I mean these organizations have headquarters which can make conscious decisions on behalf of the organizations. Other organizations lack this trait. 
  3. Encoded. Some organizations have an ability to reproduce themselves. I call this "encoded" because I suppose that ability to reproduce requires that the constitution (or the set of decision rules) of the organization be codified somehow. Other organizations lack this trait.

These three yes-or-no (boolean) characteristics create a taxonomy with eight categories of organizations (because 2x2x2 = 8). In my 1999 paper I have written more about this taxonomy and given examples of each of these eight types.

The relationship between organizations and resource patterns

Some of the types of organizations which we humans form, such as families, business firms, religious orders, and states, can be seen frequently whenever we look at a human society. This frequent appearance of a type of organization suggests there is a resource pattern in the environment. It suggests we humans are suited to exploit the resource pattern when we cooperate appropriately, accepting rules conforming to the resource pattern. The business practice of franchising suggests, where it succeeds, a planned order, a mastery of some of the necessary factors that hold a specific style of organization together.

The importance of this thesis to the Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM)

This idea, that life grows in levels as outlined above, mixes with other ideas in RPM. I think it is part of RPM, but not the most important part. Most of RPM can stand independently of this life-in-levels idea. So RPM may offer valuable insights to you even if you reject LiL. But I have to admit that I want to take more time to explore the interdependence of the several ideas that mingle with RPM.

The possibility of inter-level learning

You might reasonably doubt that this grand idea of LiL could be of any use. So consider this. We might take what we have learned about organization on one level and see if it might help us understand organization on another level. For example, our successes and failures as humans, as we try to build businesses and other super-human organizations, may give hints to biologists who are trying to understand how single-cellular organisms managed to overcome the organizational difficulties entailed in establishing multi-cellular organisms.

The tantalizing "Origin of Death" thesis of George Wald

A poster caught my eye on the campus of SUNY at Buffalo when I was an undergraduate. Probably this was in fall 1969. The poster announced a guest lecture titled “The Origin of Death”. The thesis, presented by George Wald of Harvard, struck me and has lingered in the background of my thoughts ever since. Now I see that it may promise inter-level learning.

We should notice, Wald told, two facts about most primitive forms of life such as most single cellular organisms:

  1. they reproduce by dividing in two. They divide their bodies while giving each offspring a copy of the parent’s DNA; 
  2. they do not necessarily die of old age.

So an amoeba that we see today could arguably be a billion years old. Throughout all that time it never grew old and died, although obviously it has divided many, many times along the way. We, on the other hand are not so lucky. We necessarily die of old age, as do all other higher forms of life.

Wald examined the advance of the complexity of organisms, an advance parallel with the progress of evolution, looking for the origin of death. He discovered that death appeared on the scene at the same time as sexual reproduction. Apparently, at this stage in the history of evolution, organisms discovered the way to create an embryo which would grow its own new body, after mixing DNA with a partner. At this stage is was no longer necessary for the body of the parent to survive. The genes had found a way to continue their existence, while each body would live only for a time as a temporary carrier. Death as we know it originated at the same time as sex as we know it.

For me this suggests a possibility of inter-level learning, which I will describe by using anthropomorphism. Imagine if you will that you can identify with genes. The genes faced an organizational problem. They had discovered a design, an organization plan that worked except for one flaw. The managers, whom the genes hired and placed in charge of the organization, always expressed their own selfish interests by diverting the aim of the organization to serve their (the managers’) interests, rather than the interests of the founders and owners (the genes). Try as they might, the genes never discovered any way to manage the self-interests of the managers. The genes knew how to start an organization with rules which enabled it to thrive and succeed for a time in that given environment, but every single time the managers, in whose hands the genes entrusted the organization, steered the organization onto a different and ultimately self-destructive path.

To recap, the genes knew a good organizational plan and knew how to write it down, but the genes could not learn how to entrust this plan for any prolonged period of time to a management team. The genes found a solution in sexual reproduction. In that solution, the managers empowered by the genes were given motivation to reproduce and thereby to pass on copies of the genes’ management plan – copies which had not been edited in any way by the current managers. Thus the genes discovered, in sexual reproduction, how to give prolonged life to their good organizational plan.


Leading up to this chapter, we have learned that when we observe many organisms of a similar size surviving in an environment, it should suggest to us that the environment contains resource patterns appropriately scaled to exploitation by those organisms. Otherwise those organisms could not survive.

In this chapter we have learned to suspect that our universe contains resource patterns on a large range of scales, and living things growing into those scales. We probably assume that life started on a tiny scale, sustained by tiny resource patterns. But the universe also has resource patterns on medium and large scales. We living things seem to be building ourselves level by level so that we can reach, one day, the astronomical scales.


Alchian, Armen, "Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory", Journal of Political Economy, 58:211-21, 1950.

Hammer, Richard, “The State Is a Form of Life, a Legitimate Peer in the Family of Organizations”, Formulations, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1999. Available on Internet.

Kabnick, Karen and Debra Peattie, “Giardia: A Missing Link between Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes”, American Scientist, January-February 1991, pg 34-43. Available on Internet.

Kelly, Kevin, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, 1994.

Simon, Herbert, “The Architecture of Complexity”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 106, No. 6. (Dec. 12, 1962), pp. 467-482.

Wald, George, “The Origin of Death”, 1970, a lecture given apparently many times (once attended by this author in Buffalo, NY), and published by Wald’s son on Internet.

Wikipedia pages on: Eukaryote, Prokaryote, Symbiogenesis.

Wilson, David Sloan, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, 2007.

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