[Humanist] 31.335 different from the sum of its parts?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Oct 5 07:16:54 CEST 2017


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 335.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
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        Date: Wed, 4 Oct 2017 09:20:20 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the sum of the parts


Robert Jervis, in System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social 
Life (Princeton, 1997) and Frank Golley, in The History of the Ecosystem 
Concept: More than the Sum of the Parts (Yale, 1993), argue, as Jervis 
writes, that "If we are dealing with a system, the whole is different 
from, not greater than, the sum of the parts." He cities work across 
several disciplines, pointing to biology as the starting point of many 
scholars who have reached this conclusion. What about the disciplines of 
computing?

Our machine, comprised of numerous 'black boxes' whose inner dynamic 
workings are in principle unknowable, would seem to me an example worth 
our consideration. It was explicitly designed as such an 'ecosystem', 
though in the language of human neurophysiology (von Neumann 1945). Its 
user-interface is obviously not more than but different from all the 
operations which sum to it. (Indeed, from an engineering perspective, 
those operations are clearly more than what they sum to.) Golley writes 
that "There was an exact moment of birth" for the concept of an 
ecosystem, "when the English ecologist Arthur Tansley created the word 
and presented it in a technical paper" in 1935. Here's the passage:

 > THE ECOSYSTEM
 > [...]
> Clements' earlier term "biome" for the whole complex of organisms
> inhabiting a given region is unobjectionable, and for some purposes
> convenient. But the more fundamental conception is, as it seems to
> me, the whole system (in the sense of physics), including not only
> the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors
> forming what we call the environment of the biome - the habitat factors
> in the widest sense. Though the organisms may claim our primary
> interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally we cannot
> separate them from their special environment, with which they form
> one physical system.
> 
> It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the
> ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth....
> These ecosystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds
> and sizes.
(Tansley, "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms", 
Ecology 16.3, p. 299)

There is the historical question when we extend Robin Gandy's 
"confluence of ideas in 1936", i.e. "the almost simultaneous appearance 
in 1936 of several independent characterizations of the notion of 
effective calculability" (in The Universal Turing Machine, ed. Herken), 
among which was Turing's, to the systems-thinking of the above. But 
there's also the question of computer systems as ecologies 
that include and perhaps now come close to defining us.

Who has written along such lines?

Yours,
WM
-- 
Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor emeritus, Department of
Digital Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western
Sydney University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)




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