Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 2

Chapter 2: The Structure of Evolution

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I define a “power-relationship” as the ability of one entity to influence the action of another entity. Such relationships appear to exist across all scales. One can view people, companies or governments as single, coherent entities exerting influence on others. One can also interpret each as a network of internal entities and power-relationships from which the whole emerges. For example, one can model a simple oxygen atom as a vast array of power relationships, with strong forces holding together a variety of elusive quarks to form protons and neutrons, and weak forces constraining electrons to certain regions of possible location. Even the simplest particles appear as no more than a stable pattern of energy and power.[1] Work at the frontiers of physics suggests that discrete particles exist as nothing more than a construct of the observer: that the true fabric of reality lies in the connection, and that the particles connected appear as an illusion. Connections assemble into patterns and networks, forming everything around us. On any scale, from the sub-atomic to the global, understanding the behavior of the coherent whole requires an understanding of the underlying networks of connections, the networks of power-relationships.

Exactly how the universe came into being remains an uncertainty, but most physicists and astronomers today agree that the present state came about through a long period of particle evolution—energies and interactions coalescing and colliding to form new, more complex entities. If new patterns of forces could survive their impacts with one another, if they tended to hold together rather than tear apart, then they represented a stable collection of power-relationships. They survived. Other patterns lasted only millionths of a second before breaking apart or being consumed by outside forces. Such patterns of connection appear to self-organize, not through some conscious design, but through one simple rule: if random events lead to the creation of a stable complex of power-relationships, then that entity persists.

Today, particle accelerators provide scientists with a tool to study the dance of sub-atomic energies. Sub-atomic physicists consider it critical to understand the component power-relationships of even simple elements in order to predict characteristics of the element as a whole. With a particle accelerator, the addition of great outside forces (the force required to accelerate one particle to collision with another at high speed) overcomes the inherent stability of the power-relationships inside the particle. This collision provides physicists with the opportunity to briefly peer inside the works of a seemingly monolithic entity and catch a glimpse of the underlying web of connections. By observing how sub-atomic entities and energies interact, we gain the capability to better understand the forces that animate and define the coherent atom. The same concept of power-relationships that defines sub-atomic structure also seems to define the larger world we live in—ecologies, societies and economies. It acts like opening the back of a watch to reveal the works inside. When we realize the illusion of monolithic structures, that everything actually appears composed of internal and external networks of connections, we gain a much more useful understanding of the nature of the world around us. Breaking down complex entities to observe and learn about their component power-relationships provides the knowledge, the power to influence the world.

Deconstruction serves as a key to understanding systemic evolution—the rules and processes by which everything constantly changes, replicates and interacts. Most people express a general familiarity with evolution from the teachings of Charles Darwin and the evolution of biological organisms. Here we will use a broader interpretation; one that applies to much more than just biology. This interpretation suggests a dynamic nature of everything—entirely inanimate entities, societies, economies, all governed by the same basic principles that define biology.[2] The attempt to get to the root structure of nature must focus on this broader, systemic view of evolution, and its two key components: self-replication and natural selection.

I define self-replication as the process by which one pattern of power-relationships, whether a molecule, computer virus or management style, causes the reproduction of itself.[3] The mechanism of reproduction may vary, from the genetic reproduction process of living organisms to conscious mimicry, as demonstrated by the imitation of a successful management style. The salient point remains that some patterns of power-relationships demonstrate the quality of self-replication, regardless of the actual mechanics by which they accomplish replication.

The second core process, natural selection, has close ties to the process of self-replication. When several self-replicating entities exist in the same environment, their ongoing reproduction will eventually run into a limited supply of some resource that they all require. Regardless of what the required “resource” may consist of (i.e. money, food, electrons, attention, etc.), the specific pattern-entity most capable of obtaining or utilizing that scarce resource will most likely survive. It will self-replicate more than, and at the expense of, less capable patterns of power-relationships.

Every entity, every pattern of power-relationships, demonstrates dependence on some type of resource for survival, maintenance and reproduction. The self-replicating nature of most such entities creates a dynamic environment of competition for scarce resources. In competition, one pattern in particular has proven exceptionally successful: imperfect replication. Self-replicating entities often fail to create a perfect copy of themselves. This creates variation, or mutation, in the originating pattern. Often the mutation fails miserably in the fight for scarce resources. Sometimes, however, a slightly different pattern has far more success than the original. The process of imperfect replication leads to the evolution of entities that exhibit ever greater capability in their quest for resources.[4]

The fact that one can see the process of evolution itself as an example of patterns and power-relationships demonstrates just how broadly the concepts apply. Fundamental methods of organization, such as hierarchy and rhizome—topics we will revisit later—also serve as examples of patterns of power-relationships. We can view everything in our world, traditionally divided between “living” and “non-living”, through a new lens of perception. Now we can see that what once appeared as nothing more than a static object or abstract concept now consists of an entity emerging from the dynamic competition for scarce resources.

Take this lens and reconsider the nature of everything around you. What constitutes a catchy tune, a new expression, a popular business practice or an innovative military technique? Of the thousands of new businesses created each year, those that exhibit the most economic fitness will tend to survive the selection process, proving more capable of replicating (or expanding) themselves (as will their component business practices). Look to nature: sand dunes, for example, represent an even more abstract illustration of self-replication—they appear as shapes that can act like life forms. Some dunes will channel turbulent wind flows to continuously increase the size of the dune. Other dune shapes will create vortexes that propagate a chain of repetitive dunes extending off from the first. These spectacular dunes consist only superficially of particles of sand. Dig deeper and it becomes clear that their essential substance consists of a network of connections, a pattern of power-relationships. Sand and wind merely represent resources that this entity harnesses. The organizing pattern itself most essentially defines their identity.[5] The pattern-entity of a sand dune serves as an example of a “body without organs”, the concept that the organizing process, the underlying pattern of power relationships represents the true essence and identity of anything.[6] There exist nearly endless examples of how the lens of pattern and power-relationship can provide new insight and understanding of the world. We will follow patterns of power down the rabbit hole to see if they change our understanding of ourselves, and of reality.

The approach of deconstructing something to reveal its underlying connections serves as a useful tool in the examination of patterns of biological self and ego, as well as those patterns that we have become a part of: our societies, economic and political structures and concepts of spirituality. We will take a developmental, historical approach in the deconstruction of our world. In order to provide any value, this deconstruction must yield an understanding that improves the efficacy of our actions. With the prevalence of dynamic processes in this model, it appears necessary to understand a process’ ontogeny, its evolutionary development and progression from the past in order to affect its development in the future. Such understanding represents a step toward the construction of tools to attack essential problems of philosophy: How do we define ourselves? What do we want? What should we see as our role in life? If we can resolve these questions, and gain greater understanding of patterns and power-relationships, we can apply this knowledge toward realizing our visions of the future.


[1] For an excellent, accessible introduction to quantum physics and wave-particle duality, read “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav. For a more technical coverage of the topic, see “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” by Richard Feynman. For the truly adventurous, those interested in the most current theories on the birth and death of “particles” from energy, see “Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell” by Anthony Zee (2003).
[2] The concept is explored in depth in 1000 Years of Non-Linear History by Manuel de Landa. One of his many examples of dynamic nature—that of a sand dune—is presented later in this chapter.
[3] Other examples include the turbulent flow of fluids, cells creating structured tissue and fish forming into schools. For an in-depth look at self-replication, see “Self-Organization in Biological Systems” by Scott Camazine, et al.
[4] It has been suggested, by Alan Turing among others, that to simulate something is to truly understand it. If true, then there can be few better books on understanding evolution than John Holland’s A Hidden Order. Holland explains incipient life by providing a step-by-step guide to its simulation.
[5] Major Ralph Bagnold, working in the Sahara for the British Royal Signals in the 1930’s, commented that “Dunes are mobile heaps of sand whose existence is independent of either ground form or fixed wind obstruction. They appear to retain their shape and identity indefinitely, and so have an interesting life of their own.”
[6] “[A] body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles of pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as a trace of an intensity.” This is the definition of ‘a body without organs’ in the words of its inventor, Gilles Deleuze. It is one of the key concepts of Deleuzian philosophy, more of which will be discussed in Chapter IX. Cited from “A Thousand Plateaus” by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, pg 4.

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