The Ghost in the Machine
By Arthur Koestler
A couple of years ago, J.P. Rangaswami visited Austin for the summer and graciously invited me to breakfast, where we discussed a number of things, including his recent acquisition of Ribbit for BT. We also discussed the increasingly open way of doing business in organizations and industries, and I mentioned the networked organization of the telecomm company I had described in Network. "Oh yes," he said, "we used to call them holons."
At that point I realized that I would have to look up holons and see how they squared with networked organizations. I have been sidetracked by many things, both large (getting some projects finished) and small (the UT library failed to list a book as missing). But I eventually used the researcher's best friend - Wikipedia - to track down the origination of the term "holon": Arthur Koestler's 1967 classic The Ghost in the Machine.
If that name rings a bell, yes, the book's title was borrowed by the Police for their 1981 album. According to Wikipedia, Koestler did not seem impressed by this borrowing. Maybe Sting had missed the references that Koestler had made to pop music in this book: "Even from the aesthetic point of view we have managed to contaminate the luminiferous ether as we have contaminated our air, rivers, and seashores; you fiddle with the dials of your radio and from all over the world, instead of celestial harmonies, the ether disgorges its musical latrine slush" (p.321), he argued. (Recall that the publication year, 1967, was the Summer of Love.)
As you may have gathered from the above quote, Koestler was a first-class polemicist as well as a pessimist and a bit of a classist. At one point, for instance, he complains that "the more crowded [humans] are in slums, ghettoes and poverty-stricken areas, the faster they breed" (p.330). Hmm. He was also at one point an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party and a Soviet propagandist, a fact we'll come back to later.
The thing about polemicists, of course, is that they are quite entertaining when they are attacking those with whom you disagree. Koestler starts out the book with some terrific broadsides against behavioralist psychology, pointing out its oversimplifications with a polemicist's flair. "Pavlov counted the number of drops which his dogs salivated through their artificial fistulae, and distilled them into a philosophy of man," he summed scornfully (p.10). Soon he moved to the impoverished way that behavioralist psychology treated language, contrasting it unfavorably with Noah Chomsky's work. (Some of you may know Chomsky best for his photo op with Rage Against the Machine, but in 1967, only one member of that band had been born.) Later, he turns his guns on Darwinist evolution, arguing that random mutation was insufficient to explain evolutionary patterns and especially "lietmotivs" such as strong parallels between mammals in Europe and independently evolving marsupials in Australia.
But Koestler is no creationist - and he's no socioculturalist either. To understand his point of view, you have to understand the "holon," literally, the "whole-part": a hierarchically organized unit that can be a part of a more complex unit, and is in turn composed of smaller and simpler holons. These units are hierarchically organized, but they are also interlocking, not necessarily fitting together in one single way. They are Janus-like intermediaries between levels of organization.
Holons apply in biological evolution, of course, and Koestler sees them as the solution to the puzzle of parallel evolution between mammals and marsupials. But Koestler also sees social holons (pp.50-51); developmental holons; language holons; he states that habits are behavioral holons (p.76); he states that "habits and skills are functional holons" (p.207). In fact, holons become a Theory of Everything.
Holons have both integrative tendencies (tendencies to function in a larger whole) and self-assertive tendencies (tendencies to assert their own patterns as a unit) (p.56). The interplay between these is both creative and destructive. Applied to evolution - and as we eventually see, to everything else - this interplay translates to "drawing back to leap," or undoing and redoing (p.167; Here, Koestler applies the principle to evolution, science, and art).
I'll talk more on holons in a minute, but see if they sound familiar to you.
As we get closer to the end of the book, Koestler's themes become more urgent. He postulates that we human beings have an evolutionary flaw, and makes the case that evolutionary flaws occur. For instance, in Chapter 16, "The Three Brains," he describes three brains with significant flaws. Arthopods' brains, for instance, are built around their gullets - something that creates a built-in limit to brain capacity, since greater capacity means less room to swallow (p.268). Marsupials, on the other hand, are generally arboreal animals, but their brains dedicate too much capacity to the relatively useless sense of smell and they lack a corpus callosum to link the evolutionarily "new" areas of the right and left hemispheres of the brain (p.272). The third flawed brain is ours: Koestler argues that we have insufficient coordination between our archicortex and neocortex, and consequently a dichotomy in function (p.273). Our reptilian ("lizard") brain, limbic or paleo-mammalian ("lower mammal") brain, and "late mammal" brain are "relatively autonomous holons" with parallel functions (p.278). Koestler sees this result as due to rapid evolution of the brain, which has "overshot" our immediate needs (p.299). He goes on to detail the results, including our fondness for interspecial violence (p.307).
Let's take a moment to recall what the world was like in 1967. World War II was a recent memory. So was the 1948 Berlin Airlift. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a few years earlier, in 1961. Proxy wars such as Vietnam were raging. Paul Erlich was about to publish The Population Bomb, arguing that overpopulation was inevitable and would bring mass starvation. Indeed, in Chapter 18, The Age of Climax, Koestler warns that we will reach "7 billion people in 2000" - but concurs with a Ford Foundation report that the "four horsemen" would "take over" long before then (p.315). On top of that, Koestler expected nuclear war. To bring it back to Sting, Koestler didn't dare hope that the Russians' love for their children would forestall genosuicide (p.322). To put it simply, the evolutionary flaw was too powerful.
At this point, Koestler only saw one hope: that we could artificially induce change in human behavior through genetic modification (p.327). The old propagandist prescribes the top-down solution of developing, then convincing people to take pharmaceuticals that would help them coordinate their limbic, reptilian, and late-mammal brains. Here, he sounds more like A.E. van Vogt than anything. Today, this prescription seems bizarre.
Okay. So have you thought about holons? If they sound strangely familiar to you, think back to Koestler's Soviet past. Holons sound an awful lot like the universally applicable, totalizing, and ultimately mad dream of Engelsian dialectics. (Koestler, frankly, did not advance the ball very far here.) Thanks for playing!