2008/07/18 09:50 Tim Allen, "Hierarchies over time: Hierarchy theory in relation to ecological economic theory of return

ISSS Madison 2008, 52nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the ISSS web site by David Ing.

(continuing session)

Impetus from Jim Gustavson, who will be speaking later

  • Have vertical hierarchies, but what about horizontal hierarchies ... which are changes over time

Have coauthors, Joe Tainter, plus undergrads

Take ideas of high gain and low gain from ecological economics, and take a look over time

Introduce some bare bones to hierarchy theory

  • There is scaling, but also some other significance
  • Power:  keep straight very messy systems
  • Biota --> community --> species
  • Can look at the same material system, but look at thing in a different foreground
  • Then evolution doesn't matter (to an ecosystem)
  • Process ecosystem --> carbon storage --> tree bole
  • Tree bole are separated in tree in the biota view, whereas separate in the process ecosystem

Classical hierarchy (which annoys me) if fast to slow and wide to narrow

  • Used by Buzz Holling
  • There's some stuff that is long and fast, and slow and narrow
  • e.g. English channel influenced by earth's rotation:  20 miles could mean 70,000 years
  • e.g. corridors separating the flora from Asia and the flora from Australia (which is similar to South America, as both have marsupials)

Another issue, looking at things at different levels

  • Herbert Simon:  the world is not decomposable, but nearly decomposable
  • A weak connection at one level becomes a strong connection at another level

Central problem:  hierarchies require different level of analyses, and they change over time

Biological and social systems have anticipation:  models

  • Foal knows its mother, because previous foals and models come from the essence (after Rosen)
  • The foal is a realization of the past embodied in its essence
  • The essence does not exist independent of the observer's model
  • Why underlies dogs?  It's dogginess
  • If Australians had taken over the world, we would have been talking about Tasmanian lions, which look like dogs
  • Dogs and cats separated 55 million years ago; at 25 million years ago, cats went one way, and hyenas went another:  dogginess?

Essence, with realization of an essence via DNA

  • DNA is merely the means for realization, it isn't the essence
  • Similarly, in social systems ...
  • Presidency has an essence, with a realization of essence, which changed the presidency, electing Jimmy Carter as the first fundamentalist presidence


  • Actually external gradient, burning up brain
  • Rate dependence versus rate independence
  • Coded planning element is rate independent:  we need a plan

Protein synthesis constructs metabolism

  • Organism moves forward with narratives
  • Biologists observe the story, and tell us
  • End product of science is not predictions, it's narratives
  • Narratives don't have to be internally consistent, model have to be internally consistent
  • If want to talk about anything important, can't do it with models
  • Cycle means become more efficient

Can speak in terms of causes

  • Rate independent, and rate dependent
  • Thus need hierarchy theory

Vertical versus hierarchy

  • Over time, the changes switch controls between scalar hierarchies and ...

Economist like average returns:  things get more expensive, and we hardly ever run out of stuff

  • Marginal returns:  economists don't run this over time
  • When run this, people quite at lower levels

Marginal return and complexity

  • Will run through resource, and then switch to something else, e.g. first trees, then coal that requires digging up
  • Russia will be a country of great progress, and always will be, because they didn't run out of wood, whereas Britain did

New hierarchy emerges, move to high gain

  • Otherwise use the old resource more efficiently, move to low gain

A system is high gain if it takes in high level resources and burns them up, e.g. nuclear power

  • World gives nuclear energy fuel rods:  high gain
  • But if remember that it takes mining, it's really low gain

High gain uses ready made quality resources

  • Low gain gathers and refines low quality resources
  • High gain works on steep resource gradients
  • High gain is ephemeral
  • High gain reamins in local hot spots, e.g. Romans coming in (over Germans), changing identities, but problem with raping and pillaging is that you can only do it once, then have to world real time
  • When the gold is gone, have to generate sunshine in real time ... which is called taxation
  • High gain is self-organized, low gain is planned

High gain sucks up resources as need, low gain increases efficiency:  hitchhiking in Wales, had hills as 13 year old, but have since been used up

  • High gain is impressive in energy capture, low gain is impressive in high organization:  Florence switched from wool underwear to cotton underwear, which led to rags that could be used of paper (which led to the printing press)
  • High gain can only be managed from context because of self-repair, e.g. can't win the war on drugs, should make cocaine cheap, which would reduce the gradient (although government wouldn't have the will to spend money gained from cocaine)
  • Low gain can be managted by manipulating the parts, no self repair

Jevon's paradox:  in the 1880s, increase in the efficiency of steam engines

  • Improvement from 1800s where 1% efficiency, but then steam engines powered by coal used for cotton ginnies
  • Increasing number of highways reduced to SUVs, but increasing the price of gasoline makes it inefficient

Leaf cutting ants:  don't eat leaves, they rot them with fungus

  • Food ants get the good stuff, which is competitive
  • Fungus farmers go after feces, which is low energy, unless you have fungus, in which case it's jet fuel
  • Inside every low gain phases, there's a new high gain
  • Today, saw a lot of leaves, didn't see a lot of caterpillar feces
  • Lots and lots of leaves
  • Small colonies that grow into mature colonies and become pests
  • In addition to raising fungi, there's also energetics

Evolution --> --> 

Origins <-- <--


Contradiction / complementary

  • ... which is what hierarchies give you


  • Could have a strategy of eating good wood, leading to a high gain collapse
  • Could go a different direction on a prudent course, eating bad wood, for a low gain collapse
  • High gain collapse of Roman republic, versus low gain collapse of Roman empire (i.e. 60% taxation)
  • Alternative, super-low gain:  when wood has decayed into soil, then the memory of colony function now resides in individuals, e.g. gut flora, there's so little for them to work on, they need to work on
  • Low gain termites live in the tropics, because they couldn't survive in a winter

Gunderson and Holling 2002 Panarchy shows high-gain low-gain

  • Etruscans become Romans, which collapse
  • Italians aren't Etruscans, which have memory
  • In the new upper level structures of organization are the lower memories
  • Two memories:  thermodynamics, and encoding by different people
  • EU is similar to Rome .. it's part of the memory

Different ways to look at dogs

  • Multiple ways of observing

Hierarchies reveal different meanings at different levels of observation

If respond to changes in level of hierarchies, then can move without getting lost

High and low gain applies to historical, economic, psychological, political and ecological systems


Economists are right, we don't run out of resources, they get more expensive; ecologists know that things that died

Rate dependence.  Ontological versus epistemological pursuit

  • Howard Pattee knew about rate dependence
  • Can study emergence
  • Social systems generate new structures, could be physical, but happen to be biological
  • Physical systems are high gain
  • Problem with using entropy, is that's what left when it's all over:  want to use exergy
  • Gasoline isn't good if your transportation is a donkey cart
  • Look at James Kay's web site, it cleans up the issue of entropy