While browsing a recent issue of Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, I came across an essay titled, "Towards a heterarchical approach to biology and cognition," and my heart soared. "What a strange heart," you say. "What an odd person to be so moved by such esoterica!" But there's a story behind my leaping heart, and it's one that has increasing relevance to the geopolitical pickle we find ourselves in today.
The story starts just over 70 years ago with polymath Warren McCulloch's 1945 publication of an essay titled, "A heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nervous nets." The term "heterarchy" is best defined by its opposition to hierarchy. In a hierarchy, if A is over B, and B is over C, then A is over C — your basic pecking order. In a heterarchy, though, you can have A over B, B over C, and C over A.
Think of the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors." Paper covers rock; rock crushes scissors; scissors cut paper. Think also of the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution. Different branches of government have supreme authority in some situations, but not in others. And no one is above the law. No kings or tyrants allowed.
After reading McCulloch's essay, I made much of his concept of heterarchy in a book I published in 1977, Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society, and the Sacred. Then a friend and I convened a series of meetings during the 1980s under the title, "Making heterarchy work," because it was not immediately clear to us that heterarchy would work.
The History of Heterarchy
The problem was nailed by McCulloch, who actually dissected minute, circular configurations of neurons he called "dromes of diallels." While the flesh and blood realities of brains are a lot messier, the essential logical core could be captured in the ideal case of just six neurons arranged in a circular configuration such that A would stimulate B and inhibit C. B would stimulate C and inhibit A. C would stimulate A and inhibit B.
Interestingly enough — and here's where both problems and possibilities start popping up — this circular logic is identical to what Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow described as the "Voter's Paradox." The problem goes all the way back to the late 18th century when it was identified by Marquis de Condorcet. Consider the case in which one faction prefers candidate A over B and candidate B over C; a second, equal faction prefers B over C and C over A; and a third faction prefers, you guessed it, C over A and A over B. The choice that eventually gets made will not be a reflection of the real preference of the whole society, but will instead result from "irrational" and arbitrary issues like who voted first and who voted last. And over time and subsequent elections, the decision may cycle from one choice to another with no apparent reason.
Why the quotation marks around "irrational?" Because in the analysis of the relationship between hierarchy and heterarchy, it is precisely the definition of what counts as rational that is at stake. As McCulloch explained:
"Circularities in preference instead of indicating inconsistencies, actually demonstrate consistency of a higher order than had been dreamed of in our philosophy. An organism possessed of this nervous system — six neurons — is sufficiently endowed to be unpredictable from any theory founded on a scale of values. It has a heterarchy of values, and is thus internectively too rich to submit to a summum bonum [highest good]."
Now there is a phrase to conjure with: "internectively too rich to submit to a summum bonum." This sounds like the Middle East. Or the geopolitical, global problematique. Or the Republican primaries in the United States. Or the problems of the European Union.
The problem with heterarchy, and the challenge to making it work, is not the lack of hierarchy, but too many competing hierarchies. And that's the reality we live in.
Heterarchy, Hierarchy and Anarchy
"Heterarchy" is an unwieldy word. Our ongoing discussion group on making heterarchy work eventually abandoned the word when one of our members looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found the definition to be "rule by aliens." That's not what we meant at all. Despite its unwieldiness, and shadows of aliens, though, the term recommends itself for the way it mediates the dialectic between hierarchy and anarchy.
The root "archai" is Greek for "principle" or "guiding rule." In a hierarchy, as defined, there are clear principles in an unambiguous pecking order. Wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple? The word "anarchy" uses the privative "a-" to say "no principles, no highest good, anything goes." Most anarchists are disappointed hierarchists. From Mikhail Bakunin to Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, anarchists have taken potshots at the failings of hierarchy: They shoot holes in the purported legitimacy of exercises of authority, whether by the divine right of kings or the use of violence to impose subordination.
Most anarchists are disappointed hierarchists.
As Francis Fukuyama showed in The Origins of Political Order, the first hierarchies were imposed by "strongmen" and then later justified by ancestor worship and a priestly caste. From all we can determine, primitive hunter-gatherer bands were heterarchical. Teamwork joining different skills was necessary to bag a woolly bison. But no one leader called for deference to a summum bonum.
With the transition from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to larger settlements with agricultural surpluses, patriarchy and hierarchy were required to maintain some degree of order. As my colleague in this space, Ian Morris, argues in his several books, the bargain we humans made with hierarchies might strike a visiting Martian as odd once it compares the life of the unencumbered hunter-gatherer with the lives of later citizens suborned under often onerous hierarchies. But once you start down that road toward hierarchy, from the point of view of defense and security, bigger is almost always better. So there is a natural logic of larger, more powerful hierarchies conquering and subsuming smaller, less powerful hierarchies.
Next thing you know, people are talking about "the American Century," or "the Chinese Century," as if it is perfectly natural that some nation must be number one. I recall an invitation to give a talk at Rand a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The concern at Rand was how to manage a "unipolar world" now that the bipolar order of the Cold War had come to an end. I tried to tell the researchers at Rand about heterarchy ... but they were not interested. There was a mindset there, a hierarchical mindset, that insisted that somebody must be "number one," and it better be us.
You see this mindset at play in the well-worn epithet of the lion as "king of the jungle." Who says that the jungle has to have a king? The jungle is not a political order, however many alpha male gorillas may roam its paths. The jungle is an ecology — an incredibly complex web of metabolisms, relationships and interactions, some of which may be hierarchical. But there is no summum bonum in the jungle.
Anarchists: The Disappointed Hierarchists
Some political theorists, like our former colleague in this space, Robert D. Kaplan, author of the famous Atlantic article, "The Coming Anarchy," fear that it's a jungle out there in our current geopolitical disorder. Given the strains on existing hierarchies, that conclusion is not implausible.
Other political theorists like Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, defend anarchy, in part by appealing to the Voters' Paradox. But Wolff, a Kant scholar, is clearly a disappointed Kantian. He looks at the world around him, sees that it does not conform to the non-contradictory rational order of the Kantian architectonic, and concludes that if we can't have Kant's perpetual peace, then anarchy is the only alternative. But anarchy is not the only alternative to failed hierarchy. There's heterarchy.
Still others, such as the stealth leader of the supposedly leaderless Occupy movement, David Graeber, insist that anarchy is the only answer to today's overgrown hierarchies. In retrospect, I think we can see that Occupy's commitment to anarchy robbed it of political efficacy.
Impressed in my youth with the work of anarchists like Murray Bookchin, I once hosted a pair of meetings "On the New Anarchism," one at Harvard and one at Yale. For all the Ivy prestige, I ask you: How stupid was I to try to organize anarchists? Talk about herding cats! But, hey, it was the early 1970s when the news of Watergate and the sounds of helicopters over Vietnam were ringing in our ears. We were not about to submit to the reigning hierarchy in Washington. The anti-authoritarianism of the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, and the brash intellectual courage of its tradition, made anarchism attractive to many of us back then.
But, as I put it in an email to Graeber, "I got over it." Shouldn't he? Not a chance, came his frosty reply. He is not ready to countenance the need for a monopoly on the application of legitimate violence. Can't we all just get along?
But if you want to live in a world that has airplanes, airports, hospitals and a banking system, you're simply not going to be able to do so without some form of governance.
Graeber did his anthropological fieldwork in rural Madagascar. When you are miles away from the instruments of government, I have no doubt that a kind of libertarian, damn-the-government anarchism might be preferable to the iron cage of hierarchical bureaucracy and the threat of violence against outlaws. But if you want to live in a world that has airplanes, airports, hospitals and a banking system, you're simply not going to be able to do so without some form of governance. The question is not whether government. The question for mature moderns who bear the legacy of the long march from heterarchical hunter-gatherers to hierarchically organized citizens is: Which form of government will be least onerous and most effective?
Bobbitt's Real-World Heterarchy
In order to answer this very big question, and if you want a truly beautiful example of a detailed exposition of heterarchy in the modern world, go to Chapter 25 of Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles. In those 60 pages, Bobbitt develops three scenarios:
"The world of The Meadow is that of a society of states in which the entrepreneurial market-state has become predominant. In this world, success comes to those who nimbly exploit the fast-moving, evanescent opportunities... The world view portrayed in The Park... reflects a society in which the values and attitudes of the managerial market-state have prevailed. Governments play a far larger role... Finally, The Garden describes an approach associated with the mercantile market-state... Unlike the regional groupings fostered by The Park, the states of The Garden have become more and more ethnocentric, and more and more protective of their respective cultures."
As you will not be surprised to hear, these scenarios and their names can be associated with certain geopolitical avatars, namely, North America for the wide open Meadow, Europe for the publicly managed Park, and East Asia for the ethnocentric Garden. "In a meadow all is profusion, randomness, variety. A park is for the most part publicly maintained, highly regulated with different sectors for different uses. A garden is smaller, more inwardly turned — it aims for the sublime, not the efficient or the just."
Bobbitt then explores a range of drivers and trends, possible events and challenging decisions prior to the articulation of the three scenarios in which all of these elements play out in different ways. In my humble opinion, the truly remarkable climax of Bobbitt's very long book is the elegant construction of the heterarchy of choices playing out in the global geopolitical dynamic involving the United States, Europe and East Asia.
"Think of The Meadow as 'A,' The Park as 'B,' and The Garden as 'C.' If we rank these approaches with respect to the security decisions taken in each scenario, A is preferred to B, which is preferred to C. That is, peace with some justice (the protection of nonaggressors, for example) is to be preferred to simple peace (bought at the price of sacrificing innocent peoples), which is still preferable to a cataclysm that would destroy the innocent and guilty alike. Or perhaps we get B/A/C — no conflict is preferred to frustrating low-intensity conflict, which is still preferable to a high risk of cataclysm. In any case, we can agree that C (The Garden) presents the worst option for satisfying the world's security needs. But if we do the same sort of exercise with respect to the issues raised by the 'culture' scenarios, preferring genuine pluralism to mere cultural protectionism, and yet preferring the protection of minorities to their marginalization, we get B/C/A. Or at least we get C/B/A, for some will feel that the protection of sanctified ways of life trumps pluralism. In any case, we can agree that A — The Meadow — is an inhospitable place for the serenity, continuity, and community that protect cultures. And if we conduct this same exercise with respect to the scenarios devoted to economic issues, ranking sustainable growth ahead of recovery, which is still preferable to stagnation, we get C/A/B. Or, if growth alone is our objective, we get A/C/B: the insatiable but impressive engine of dynamic, innovative risk taking is preferred to the methods of mercantilist competition. In any case we must concede that regional protectionism — the world created in the Park — is a sure route to high unemployment, slow growth, and the costliness (and uneven diffusion) of new technology."
In short, as some sage once put it, not all good things go together. There are hard choices to be made, and trade-offs to be acknowledged. Each of these scenarios with its respective geopolitical avatars has a different rank ordering of values. And this is the world we live in, not the anarchy of no hierarchy, not the simplistic, rationalist utopia of a single hierarchy, but a heterarchy of many hierarchies.
So that is why my heart soared at the sight of an article on heterarchy in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. To see that its authors, Luis Emilio Bruni and Franco Giorgi, had gone back to McCulloch and given scientific rigor to his ideas was, to me, encouraging. Because this concept of heterarchy needs broader exposure and application as a tool for understanding our current situation.
We'll be hearing more about heterarchy. But meanwhile, think about this: What are the several overlapping heterarchies in and around the Middle East?