The paradigm through which we view the major challenges facing humanity, in which broad category I would include climate change, soil depletion, the availability of fresh water, continued population explosion, and the future of organisms like the honey
bee which are vital to our existence, reflects a philosophical debate that has simmered over four centuries.
With the advent of the scientific revolution in the C17th, inspired by giants like Galileo, Newton, Kepler and Descartes,
came an attitude called reductionism, the essential notion being that phenomena can best be understood by breaking them down into their component parts. Certainly this works effectively in many situations; for example, studying the molecular
structure of materials so that we can better understand their physical attributes, or studying the genome of the honey bee to better understand the triggers that explain certain behaviors and diseases.
But some attributes of complex systems,
and living systems in particular, are hard to understand through an inventory of their separate parts. One cannot understand consciousness, for example, by studying the molecular structure of the brain. Another often cited example is
that table salt is composed of atoms of sodium and chlorine, neither of which by itself has any hint of a taste of saltiness. Nor, I would argue, can one understand the operation and behavior of a colony of honey bees by studying a worker bee, a drone
or a queen in isolation.
The human brain, salt and a honey bee colony are examples of what is called emergent properties, ie. something that ‘emerges’ when component parts come together in relationship
to form a higher-level aggregate object with properties that cannot be predicted by a knowledge of the constituent parts alone. It’s a form of synergy, and the result in honey bees is a superorganism, or complex system with functions
determined by its individual parts, by the character of the whole that they compose, and by the relations of the parts to that whole.
The study of complex systems and their emergent properties is known as holism, from the Greek
word holos meaning whole or entire, and was coined by the South African statesman and philosopher Jan Smuts in his book, ‘Holism and Evolution,’ first published in 1926. A good example of inherent holism is the science of ecology, another
word with Greek origins that means literally, ‘the study of our house.’ Ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environment, in particular how ecosystems emerge from the sum of their parts, whether living or inert.
By comparison, medicine historically has tended to be more reductionist. First year medical students are typically immersed in studies of chemistry and anatomy, and perhaps in their third year, introduced to actual patients. I
recall on a visit to McGill University in Montreal in the late 90’s, being impressed by their emphasis on medical students working with patients from day one, on the grounds that they needed to see the latter from the outset as complex, emergent human
beings (biological, social, economic, psychological and linguistic,) rather than as the aggregate of a bunch of anatomical parts.
Both reductionism and holism can be useful pathways to understanding provided we do not rely on one
exclusively at the expense of the other. It is tempting to look for that silver bullet panacea that will magically resolve problems with climate change, health care or honey bees; indeed simple reductionist solutions are relatively easy to explain (and
sell) and the public can relax in the belief that science will solve it for us, even though the sciences have their own ethical complexities and for centuries have been integral to the problem itself. One has to think only of the the phenomenal development
of the oil industry over the last one hundred years, made possible by developments in geology, physics and chemistry, all of the bi-products that have resulted from oil, not least plastics, and the repercussions for our environment and global climate.
According to an article in The Guardian last year, ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, was aware as early as 1981 of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the potential for carbon-cutting regulations that could hurt
its bottom line, seven years before it became a public issue, Despite this, according to Greenpeace, the firm spent $30 million over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.
Shades of the tobacco industry and their denial
of the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.
Holistic solutions are more difficult to explain in 30 second sound bites, but more importantly they invariably require changes in individual or societal behavior. Rather than
being passive on-lookers, we become an essential part of the solution.
To apply these two models to climate change, for example, the reductionist school of thought sees it as resulting primarily from the technical problem
of carbon emissions, so why not continue burning fossil fuels but somehow capture the carbon? If scientists can design huge machines that will suck excess carbon out of the atmosphere, we can maintain our current economy and way of life.
The holistic school of thought views climate change as it relates to complex disorders that plague our global ecosystem, including soil degradation, desertification, species extinction, decline of marine life, deforestation, overpopulation,
fossil fuels and unlimited economic expansion. To the holistic thinker, climate change will continue to worsen until we either deal with all of the systematic causes or until it overwhelms the biosphere and with it, civilization as we have come to know
In the first scenario we can choose to change; in the second, change is forced upon us. We can be proactive or reactive, with very different consequences for each.
A honey bee colony is holistic -
a eusocial superorganism. There have been several journal articles in recent months highlighting one finding in particular of the sequencing of the honey bee genome - individual bees have relatively few genes that code for immune response, fewer than
the common house fly. That number may grow as research continues, but the explanation, as Jamie Ellis outlines in the March 2016 issue of the American Bee Journal, is that the colony is the unit of selection. Thus it is in the colony that
the most significant immune responses occur, not in individual bees.
So we can study the genes of specific honey bees (reductionism) but immune response in this case is an emergent property, something that manifests itself when the
component parts synergize to form a conglomerate and that cannot be predicted by a knowledge of the constituent parts in isolation.
Whereas only Beethoven, working alone, could compose any of his 722 various arrangements, it takes an average
of two hundred support personnel to put one military pilot into the sky, or thousands of people working together to sustain astronauts on a space station. And in a good marriage, two healthy people bring the the best of themselves to the relationship,
so that like a good bee colony, one + one is more than two.