The Systems Science of Disintegration and Integration

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 22. May 2017 - 16:30
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

The Systems Science of Disintegration and Integration

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at
The Justice Conference 2017
From Disintegration to Integration: Navigating the Forces of Our Time
de Poort, The Netherlands, 14-17 April 2017
also the International Environment Forum 21st International Conference
(see report at

If we are to explore the processes of disintegration and integration as they are affecting our society today, we first need to be clear as to what we mean by integration. A dictionary definition might include: making whole or entire, to unite into a perfect whole, and harmony with one’s environment. But is that sufficient? Do we see integration as something static, like a well-mixed collection of different entities, or a crowd where different races and cultures are all together?

Integration, and its opposite disintegration, refer more to dynamic processes, of coming together with increasing interactions, or breaking down again into component parts. Does any whole last forever? In this material world, nothing is permanent. Everything goes through cycles of integration and disintegration. Our sun coalesced out of cosmic dust, and will eventually burn out or explode. We were born, will grow and mature, and eventually age and die. Religions are born and decline, civilisations rise and fall. Everything is faced ultimately with disintegration. This is one of the subjects of systems science, and it can shed light on the processes involved.

What, for example, are some of the qualities of young integrating systems versus old disintegrating ones? Young systems are flexible and adaptive, while old ones tend to be rigid. Young systems are characterised by innovation, while old ones are resistant to change. The components of young systems diversify, whereas old ones reject differences.

The coral reef ecosystem is a good example of a highly evolved complex integrated system. Some of its characteristics are:
- high diversity and specialisation of functions;
- cooperation, symbiosis and complementarity among the component species;
- inclusiveness with each species contributing something the the well-being of the whole system;
- efficiency of exchanges, communications and networking within and between species;
- increasing the capital stock of the system, with economy in resource use, efficient cycling of materials, and little waste; and
- high energy capture and effective use of the flow of energy through the system.

What causes disintegration? Sometimes there are internal causes for a system failure, like imbalances escaping from homeostatic mechanisms which usually maintain an equilibrium. There may be failures in resilience, or excessive rigidity and overspecialization. Inadequate diversity within the system can lead to instability. Often there is an accumulation of dysfunctions with age. A system can also be upset by external causes beyond its own control, such as changing environmental conditions beyond the limits to which it is adapted, or sudden shocks or damaging events. There may be competition from a more dominant system or one with new potentials. Conditions may arise that create new potentials for which the system is not well adapted.

Complex systems do not usually follow a smooth evolutionary curve towards greater integration and complexity, but experience what is called a punctuated equilibrium, with periods of stability interrupted by times of rapid change with bursts of creativity and reorganization.

graph of punctuated equilibrium
graph of punctuated equilibrium

Nature provides many examples of the variable paths towards greater integration. Dominant entities like the dinosaurs, that over-specialized and lost the capacity to adapt when an asteroid strike disrupted the planetary system, died out, to be replaced by the early mammals that could control their body temperature and were capable of rapid change. Mammals had new potentials for increased efficiency and integration. No complex system lasts for ever, and they all ultimately break down or transform rapidly to make way for a new cycle of integration.

Human social systems follow a similar pattern with corresponding mechanisms. For example, Peter Turchin has mathematically modelled the rise and fall of civilizations. The creation of a civilization or empire depends on social cohesion, for which Turchin took internal collective violence as an indicator. Population growth and the discovery of new technologies generate wealth for an elite, and the civilization advances until some limit is reached. Since the population is still growing, there is an oversupply of labour that increases poverty while enabling a greater concentration of wealth at the top, but it is never the poor that revolt. Only when wealth concentration reaches the point that the young of the wealthy are falling into poverty, they become the revolutionaries, with a rise in factionalism and ultimately anarchy, leading to the collapse of the social system. Civilization building may restart again, with about a 200 year cycle. Turchin predicted political instability and an impending crisis in Western Europe and the US peaking in 2020, unless there was an effort to reduce social inequality (Turchin 2010).

The process of integration is similar for natural systems and human systems, but the mechanisms are often different. Research has shown that cooperation is more efficient than competition (Nowak 2011), despite what most economists believe. In humans, the internal control of behaviour by ethics and values is more efficient than reliance on laws and regulations. Reward is more effective than punishment. In fact, recent research suggests that the higher levels of human organization that allowed great empires and civilizations to emerge encompassing many diverse peoples and cultures can only be explained by the ethical principles of religion, that produced leaders motivated by more than self-interest and a disinterested civil service (Turchin 2016). It follows that new values such as those embodied in the Bahá’í Faith can become the catalysts for a new cycle of integration, this time at the global level.

At present, we are experiencing the accelerating disintegration of the old social and economic system and the embryonic development of the new more integrated system that will lead to a planetary civilization. This calls for us to build learning communities that are accustomed to a culture of change and founded on strong spiritual principles.


Nowak, Martin A., with Roger Highfield. 2011. SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Free Press.

Turchin, Peter, 2010. Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade. Nature, vol. 463, Issue 7281, p. 608. (4 February 2010). doi:10.1038/463608a

Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

Last updated 22 May 2017