Systems Science Beyond Diversity
Arthur Lyon Dahl
Opening keynote for the ebbf - Ethical Business Building the Future May event Beyond Diversity, 4-7 May 2017
Systems science shows that the real significance of diversity lies not in the number of different entities and their differences, but how they interact. Diversity is the dynamic driver for greater systems complexity, integration and efficiency. In a coral reef ecosystem, it is the increasing cooperation among the species expressed in mutual assistance and symbioses that make high levels of productivity possible. Similarly, human diversity unaccompanied by values of justice, cooperation and reciprocity can produce the negative reactions we see today. Recent research has suggested that higher levels of ethnically-diverse civilization are catalysed by ethical values from religion, building trust and providing the energy for new levels of organization and efficiency. Businesses and communities can follow this example. Recent guidance from the international Bahá'í administrative body invites us to explore the moral requirements for a new economic paradigm, and to start learning what this might mean in practice.
Diversity from a systems perspective
Diversity refers to the variety of different thing in an assemblage. We may use the metaphore of a beautiful garden with many different varieties of flowers, with different colours and shapes adding to the visual interest. But is that enough? If it was just the gardener who planted them all side by side or in some aesthetic arrangement, how long would that beauty last? Over time, would some die out and others take over?
Suppose that you put in the same community people of a wide variety of races, cultures, languages and classes, all of whom though that they were from the superior group. What would that diversity contribute to efforts to build a sense of community? Quarrels and boycotts, or worse? Imagine a zoo, with all kinds of animals in separate cages, fascinating to admire perhaps, but far from being a harmonious ecosystem and totally dependent on the zoo keepers for their survival.
Systems science can help to explain these phenomena. What is important in a complex system is not just the number of different entities and their distinct qualities, but how they interact. Will they simply fight until one comes out the winner? Or do they have a common purpose, with complementary functions, each contributing to the well-being and productivity of the whole? How do they communicate and share information? Is the system more than the sum of the parts? Has it evolved higher levels of complexity and efficiency? Diversity is only the raw material; it is the dynamic interactions among all the diverse components that allows diversity to fulfil its potential.
Fortunately we have examples from the natural world that can illustrate what is necessary beyond diversity. They show that diversity is the dynamic driver for greater systems complexity, integration, efficiency and resilience. Through long processes of evolution, and both individual and group selection, varieties multiply and interactions are selected for that enhance the interrelationships beneficial for all concerned. The greater the number of potential interactions among diverse entities, the greater the capacity of the system to evolve higher levels of efficiency, complexity and productivity.
In a coral reef ecosystem, full of life in the biological desert that is the tropical sea, it is the increasing cooperation among the thousands of species expressed in mutual assistance and symbioses that make such high levels of productivity possible. Corals themselves are already a community of colonial animals living in symbiosis with tiny algae inside of their tissues, fertilized with their wastes and producing much of their food. Corals and other animals and plants in their multiple forms build their own complex environment, much like a city. Among the many kinds of fish, each has a special role in the community. Damsel fish cultivate seaweeds in their garden for food. Parrot fish bite off chunks of coral, creating bare areas where the larvae of other corals can settle, increasing coral diversity. Clown fish attract predatory fish as food for their anemone, and are protected in turn. Cleaner fish pick parasites off the skin, teeth and gills of big predatory fish at cleaning stations. Everything has its place and function, and together they create one of the world's most diverse and productive ecosystems.
Unlike the present economic paradigm, where increasing productivity means keeping only the individually most productive and discarding the rest, on the coral reef, the gaps between the most productive are filled by slightly less productive forms, on down to the only marginally productive, because the sum total of all of these is far more than the most productive by itself, not to mention variations in productivity and comparative advantage under different conditions. Different life forms perform different services, all contributing to the overall productivity, resilience and well-being of the community as a whole.
We need to look at human diversity, both individually and its various collective forms, in the same way. Every human being has some capacity to contribute to the material, social, intellectual and spiritual wealth of the society, if we can discover and cultivate those qualities and find the right place in society for them. Our tragedy at the moment is that this rich human diversity, unaccompanied by values of justice, cooperation and reciprocity, can produce the negative reactions and phenomena we see today.
The Institute for Studies of Global Prosperity has described the systems perspective on diversity this way: "Much like the human body, the interdependent body of humanity is composed of diverse elements whose well-being can only be achieved through integration and coordination. No cell or organ lives apart from the human body, and the well-being of each derives from the well-being of the whole. At the same time, it is the unity and interdependence of the body’s diverse cells and organs that permits the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each. The organic unity suggested by this analogy does not imply uniformity. On the contrary, the diversity of the component parts of an organic body permits the full realization of its collective capacity. Within human societies, diversity is a source of inspiration, creativity, productivity, resilience, innovation, and adaptation. Only when diverse segments of society are able to contribute appropriately to the governance of human affairs, within a framework characterized by unity and integration, will real prosperity and well-being be achieved. Such unity can only be achieved, however, as justice becomes the guiding principle of governance at all levels. An essential expression of justice is the desire to ensure that every individual and group has the opportunity to develop their full potential in order to contribute to the betterment of society. A concern for justice is thus an indispensable compass in collective decision making. In the design and implementation of plans, programs, and policies, justice is the sole means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved and sustained among diverse peoples." (ISGP 2012)
Civilizations have always experienced rise and fall, and ours is no exception. But the decline of an old bankrupt system creates the opportunity to build a new one. Recent historical research by an avowed atheist has suggested that higher levels of ethnically-diverse civilization are catalysed by ethical values from religion, building trust among otherwise competing groups, increasing the level of altruism among leaders, and providing the foundation and energy for new levels of organization and efficiency (Turchin 2016).
Moral dimension to economic life
This systems approach is beautifully illustrated in the recent message to the Bahá'í World from the Universal House of Justice, the supreme Bahá'í administrative body, dated 1 March 2017 (UHJ 2017), parts of which are summarized below. It starts by describing the social conditions today, in which the prolonged suffering of so many is evidence of deep-seated structural defects in society (causing system failure). It makes the classic systems statement that the welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole.
The dominant forces of materialism are in fact a negation of the systems
perspective, glorifying the individual at the expense of collective
welfare. This is obvious in beliefs that:
- happiness comes from constant acquisition,
- the more one has the better, and
- worry for the environment is for another day.
These seductive messages fuel an increasingly entrenched sense of personal entitlement, which uses the language of justice and rights to disguise self-interest. Indifference to the hardship experienced by others becomes commonplace. Entertainment and distracting amusements are voraciously consumed to cover up this reality. This enervating influence of materialism has seeped into every culture.
The message warns that:
- unless you strive to remain conscious of its effects, you may to one degree or another unwittingly adopt its ways of seeing the world;
- very young children absorb the norms of their surroundings;
- for junior youth, the call of materialism grows more insistent;
- adulthood brings a responsibility not to allow worldly pursuits to blind one's eyes to injustice and privation.
Conscious of this state of affairs, we need to see past the illusions that, at every stage of life, the world uses to pull our attention away from service (the systems perspective) and towards the self, and to manage our material affairs in keeping with spiritual principles. This is what systems science also says is needed for integration.
How anti-systemic it is for each group to think of its own well-being in isolation, to pursue economic gain without regard for the natural environment, and to allow avarice and self-interest to prevail at the expense of the common good. The extremes of wealth and poverty in the world are becoming ever more untenable, with unconscionable quantities of wealth being amassed, while income and opportunity are spread so unevenly, deepening the fractures that affect societies large and small. These are clear signs of systems failure. The message states that there is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples.
Behind this systems failure is a moral failure, since morals, in a systemic perspective, can be considered the principles on which social systems are founded and which create their evolutionary potential. There is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.
The vision of Baha'u'llah highlighted in the message challenges the materialistic assumptions that self-interest, far from needing to be restrained, drives prosperity; that progress depends upon its expression through relentless competition; and that the worth of an individual is chiefly in terms of how much one can accumulate and how many goods one can consume relative to others.
What, then, are the systems requirements for a new economic paradigm capable of meeting the material and social needs of all people, leaving no one behind as the UN 2030 Agenda calls for? Wealth must serve humanity and be used in accordance with spiritual principles. "No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquillity of the nations depend upon it." (Baha’u’llah)
The message calls for the reorganization of human society. Collective prosperity can be advanced through justice and generosity, collaboration and mutual assistance, qualities that are essential to integrated and productive human systems. Every choice we make—as employee or employer, producer or consumer, borrower or lender, benefactor or beneficiary—leaves a trace, and the moral duty to lead a coherent life demands that one's economic decisions be in accordance with lofty ideals, that the purity of one's aims be matched by the purity of one's actions to fulfil those aims.
At this ebbf event in particular, we each need to consider how we can make our own individual and collective contributions to economic justice and social progress wherever we reside. We have the responsibility to find ways of addressing the root causes of the poverty in our own surroundings.
Underlying this, we must acknowledge the spiritual reality of humanity, and the nobility inherent to every human being, one of ebbf's core values. The individual is not merely a self-interested economic unit, striving to claim an ever-greater share of the world's material resources. Economic life is an arena for the expression of honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, generosity, and other qualities of the spirit.
"Man's merit lieth in service and virtue, and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches." (Baha'u'llah)
"Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavours be spent in promoting your personal interest." (Baha'u'llah)
By consecrating oneself to the service of others, one finds meaning and purpose in life and contributes to the upliftment of society itself, a complete systems frame of reference. In this way, we raise economics out of the slough of materialism, and recognize the higher purpose of economic activity. We can see that ordinary economic activities have the potential to add to human welfare and prosperity.
"Every person must have an occupation, a trade or a craft, so that he may carry other people's burdens, and not himself be a burden to others." (‘Abdu’l-Baha)
"Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual's own efforts… in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes." (‘Abdu’l-Baha)
"Wealth is most commendable provided the entire population is wealthy." (‘Abdu’l-Baha)
An important theme in the message is the need for learning based on practical action. We do not have a complete model of an alternative economic system, but only some spiritual principles that should be reflected in systems to emerge in the future. What we can do now is experiment, in our businesses, workplaces and communities, with alternatives to the present ways of doing things, and through action, reflection and consultation in a humble posture of learning, try to take some small steps towards a new vision of the economy.
I hope that, at the end of this event, you will go away with feelings of contentment and moderation, benevolence and fellow feeling, sacrifice and reliance on the divine will, as we work from the bottom up to transform the economy and society.
ISGP. 2012. Reflections on Governance. Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, Bahá'í International Community. Bahá'í World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 21 July 2012. http://www.globalprosperity.org/documents/ISGP_Reflections_on_Governanc…
Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.
UHJ. 2017. Universal House of Justice, To the Bahá'ís of the World, 1 March 2017. Bahá'í World Centre, Haifa, Israel.
Last updated 22 May 2017