Holism – The Sum of Any Systems Parts Creates Something More Than Its Component Parts

A recent and perhaps much needed debate in South Africa on the role of icons of the past in the makeup of its history and culture got me thinking of one of South Africa’s greatest statesmen, Jan Smuts, and some astonishing theoretical writing he did that had a major influence on my career and research thinking. While Smuts had blind spots as a leader, such as his lack of effort to solve the race issues which bedevilled South Africa in the 20th Century, he also had an amazing life and was perhaps the ultimate polymath, filling roles such as Prime Minister of his country, Boer War Field General, Oxford trained lawyer, Field Marshal in the British Army, and strategic confidante and ‘revered uncle’ to Winston Churchill, amongst his other life successes. But what is not well know about Smuts was his interest in nature and the control of life processes, and that he wrote a book called ‘Holism’ which was published in 1926, that I have read many times and which has pride of place on my bookshelf, and was simply ‘way ahead of its time’ in the concepts it outlined such as his philosophical response to Darwinism, whose tenets were very much in vogue (and obviously still are) when he wrote it.

Holism, as described by Smuts, and its partner philosophy, Emergence, proposes the idea that all natural systems should be viewed as ‘wholes’, which while made up of ‘parts’, have characteristics associated with their whole system that are more than can be explained by simply understanding and examining all their parts. While any system, be it physical, chemical, biological, psychological, or social, can surely have no separate existence without its underlying components, they can and do form more complex behaviour as a collective when the component parts operate as part of the complete system being observed. For example, at the level of physics, particles and how they interact create particular activity and behaviour which are associated with ‘laws’ developed by physicists to explain the observed behaviour at this physical level, such as the laws of thermodynamics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. However, this subatomic activity ‘creates’ activity at a ‘higher’ level, namely chemistry, which is the study of the substances which are responsible for creating ‘matter’, which operate and ‘work’ under a different set of rules and properties, that cannot be explained by looking at behaviour at the subatomic level as physicists do. Similarly, chemical reactions and combinations of matter make up biological process such as occur in our body, which again while composed of chemical matter, operate very differently and appear to have a ‘life of its own – the life as we physically know it – as what occurs at the chemical level. Again psychology and our conscious interpretation of life ‘arises’ from physical processes, but are different to them, and social interactions occur as a result of our psychological drives and physical activity, but operate again in different ways, and with different properties, that would not be able to be predicted from observing activity at the underlying levels. So at each ‘higher’ level, in the best holistic principles, actions occur which cannot be understood by observing and understanding activity at a ‘lower’ level or hierarchy – though physicists of course believe their level of academic interest is the ‘highest’ form of understanding, and would not appreciate being described as occupying the ‘lowest’ level of system activity!

Holism and its twin concept Emergence are in opposition to the concept of reductionism, which suggests that to best understand a system one observes, one should simplify the issue and examine one component of the system, and by understanding that one component, one has a better chance of understanding the system in its entirety. The reductionistic approach in science has ‘held sway’ for at least the last century, which has resulted in the ‘primacy of the gene’ and the success of molecular biology in understanding how very specific processes in biology occur, has focussed neuroscience on examining how single, or indeed multiple, cells in the brain fire and interact with each other, or how in physics particles interact with each other or other particles at the subatomic level, such as the Higgs Boson, which physicists believe has recently been ‘found’ to occur as a real entity. But while the reductionist approach is great for demonstrating ‘new’ activity or processes in the body, it does not help us explain how for example all genes in the body are coordinated in a three dimensional and both spatial and temporal manner to create the incredibly complex physical human which we are, it does not help explain how consciousness arises from the neurons whose firing rate is being examined, and it does not explain how the subatomic particles work as a ‘gestalt’ in both creating physical matter, or heck, whether subatomic particle activity is involved with, or whether it can ‘influence’, our conscious thoughts and social interactions.

The pendulum of how science is done is now to a degree ‘swinging back to a more ‘holistic’ / emergent / gestalt (another popular word associated with defining holistic processes) way of attempting to understand these more ‘big picture’ questions that reductionistic scientific methods will never likely be able to answer (though in science, one can never say never!), and fields such as complex system science, chaos and fractal theory, have attempted to explore and explain the emergent properties of systems, and the ‘big’ questions that still await explanation. Why the groundbreaking philosophical work of Jan Smuts is so difficult to accept and is largely ignored by most folk in science, is because it is so hard to test and explain, and also generates uncomfortable / very difficult questions for research folk, such as that it is difficult for theories like evolution to ‘explain’ concepts like emergence, and it brings into play philosophical concepts such as Universals (in the best Platonic tradition), which are of course intangible and create the ‘which comes first’ in the development of life conundrum – the ‘map of how it all works’, or its component parts. But that does not mean that surely a future generation will develop the laboratory techniques that will enable us to understand Holism related processes, and perhaps by doing so will help us explain the ‘big questions’ described above which to date defy explanation, and which are so important to our understanding of ‘life’ and how it works. A physicist working at the subatomic level will surely show us great things which we can (and do) all marvel at, but until the physicists understand that they are working within the constraints of a ‘closed system’ approach, and until they understand that biology, and indeed psychology and social behavior will affect activity at the sub-atomic level in our bodies (dare I say control it?), and work in big cross-discipline teams to develop holistic methods of understanding life’s properties, we will surely be ‘stuck in first gear’ and keep on working in closed silos, which will surely lead to great understanding of each silo, but perhaps not understand how ‘it all’ fits together to create the life as we know it, and that which we don’t.

So going back to Jan Smuts and his brilliant book describing holism, which he wrote amidst a period when he must have been working huge hours on a variety of ‘big issues’ that come with governing a country, leading nations in times of war, and influencing the thinking of great leaders, made me think how brilliant such folk are who are able to do so, and think about, so many things at once. Perhaps though, it is the very capacity of such folk such as Smuts to multi-task, and who ‘juggle many plates’ at any one time, who are the folk that are able to see the ‘big picture’ and that after a century or more of the specialist, perhaps it is time once more for the concept of the ‘renaissance person’ / polymath individual to take up a more pre-eminent place in the academic and world stage. Perhaps Smuts developed his innovative ideas from his own work managing large and complex organizational systems, which made him realize that changes in one area of the organization did not affect the ‘whole’. Perhaps like everything, life and scientific discovery occurs in cyclical phases, and we are at the cusp of moving from a reductionist to a ‘holistic’ way of understanding things, as we seek to make use of the astonishing scientific discoveries of the last few decades developed by reductionistic folk working in their labs and computer rooms, in a ‘bringing it all together’ manner which will help us understand how it ‘all’ works. But whatever happens going forward, hopefully the brilliant work and thinking of Jan Smuts and other which has in many ways been ‘lost in time’, will take its rightful place in the pantheon of great academic achievements, as it surely deserves. Whether he deserves to have a statue put up to acknowledge his excellent academic work, in the face of his leadership ‘blind spots’ and in the context of South Africa’s history and current issues, is for another discussion, of course!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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