notes on


Levels of organization


“Hierarchical organization on the one hand,

and the characteristics of open systems on the other,

are fundamental principles of living nature”

(von Bertalanffry, Problems of Life 1952)

[note: this page needs to have its several entries organized and integrated]

Levels of organization refer to phenomena of relative complexity where it appears that more complex phenomena are composed of hierarchically subordinate units: so biochemistry is organized in organelles and cells which are organized into tissues or organs which are organized into organisms or even societies.   The human disposition to characterize unknown entities by interpolating or extrapolating from better known phenomena –that is characterizing the unknown in terms of the known—can even extend these hierarchical relationships to ecosystems and the earth itself (Gaia). 


The embedding of one level within another led to Arthur Koestler’s concept of the holon (discussed below).     


The unpredictable –or at least unexpected—natures of higher orders of organization are characterized as emergent phenomena.    This appears to increase complexity and give a direction to levels.  Seeking insight by discovery and description of the  presumed less complex phenomena is termed reductionism, and those phenomena that could not have been predicted from our most complete knowledge are regarded as emergent[i].  The study of constituent parts as an indissoluble whole is termed holism.  



[1] Emergencein evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. 

George Henry Lewes, the 19th-century English philosopher of science, distinguished between resultants and emergents—phenomena that are predictable from their constituent parts and those that are not (e.g., a physical mixture of sand and talcum powder as contrasted with a chemical compound such as salt, which looks nothing like sodium or chlorine). The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle. These are thus cases of emergence.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica on-line)

“Levels” encourages a systems approach to the flow of information in living systems.  The level of organization of the problem you choose to solve affects the specific questions you ask, the methods used to answer them, and even standards of evidence. [More on RESEARCH METHODS]


“Bertalanffy [1967] applied general systems theory not only to biology, but to psychology, economics, and social science as well. In his view, old-fashioned science “tried to explain observable phenomena by reducing them to an interplay of elementary units investigatable independently of each other.” Contemporary science, on the other hand, recognized the importance of “wholeness,” defined as “problems of organization, phenomena not resolvable into local events, dynamic interactions manifest in the difference of behavior of parts when isolated or in higher configuration, etc.; in short, ‘systems’ of various orders not understandable by investigation of their respective parts in isolation.” And this remains an effective definition of systems biology as practiced today with the integration and application of mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science to understanding a range of complex biological regulatory systems. (excerpted from Chong and Ray 2002) [More on SYSTEMS BIOLOGY]



“The physical world is “largely ­illusory,” an editorial in The New York Times announced on Nov. 25, 1944. Wishful thinking on a depressing day? No. Had The Times gone mad? Not quite. It was discussing the ideas of Sir Arthur Eddington, an eminent British astronomer and popularizer of science, who had just died.

Eddington began his best-known book, “The Nature of the Physical World,” by explaining that he had written it at two tables, sitting on two chairs and with two pens. The first table was the familiar kind: It was colored, substantial and relatively long-lasting. The second was what he called a “scientific table,” a colorless cloud of evanescent electric charges that is “mostly emptiness.” Likewise the two chairs and two pens. Only the scientific objects were really there, according to ­Eddington. Hence the idea that our familiar world is a deception on a grand scale.

Anthony Gottlieb recently (2016) reviewed Sean Carroll’s “THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” and pointed out that    … phenomena may usefully be investigated at many levels. You can consider the individual atoms in a box of gas, for example, or you can instead treat the gas as a liquid and study its fluid properties. Similarly, the actions of a person may be described psychologically, in terms of his or her desires and beliefs, or in terms of physiology. Underlying all these scientific stories, there is, he insists, a rock-bottom level of description: “a quantum wave function, or a collection of particles and forces — whatever the fundamental stuff turns out to be.” But Carroll rejects the sort of reductionism that says all valid descriptions can be deduced from fundamental physics. That venerable idea seems to have been a mirage.”

Instead, Carroll defends what he calls “poetic naturalism.” “Naturalism,” because there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no gods or spooks to transcend or interfere with natural laws. So Einstein’s dice are rolling themselves. “Poetic,” because “there is more than one way of talking about the world.” True enough, but “poetic” is a bit of a stretch. Carroll might just as well have called his position “romantic reductionism” or “fragrant physicalism,” since what he’s trying to convey is a stance that is hard-nosed yet soft to the touch — a kinder, gentler, more capacious science.” (Carroll 2016)[i]





Ecologists: looking from the outside in,

  • considering contexts;
  •  evaluating costs and benefits of alternative  forms in the same habitat, alternative habitats for the same organism

Physiologists: looking from the inside out,

  • considering maintaining stability of organism
  • evaluating costs and benefits of alternative strategies when the context changes or when the organism changes





SOCIAL LEVELS of organization:  

Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousins, we and our cousins against the enemy,” Pashtun saying[ii] (cited by Isabel Hilton New Yorker Dec 03 2001 p59)












in Arthur Koestler’s (1969) view, looking at hierarchy as a “ladder” of complexity is misleading — a tree-like “multi-leveled, stratified, out-branching pattern of organization” is more accurate.

“The term holon may be applied to any stable sub-whole in an organismic, cognitive, or social hierarchy which displays rule-governed behaviour and/or structural Gestalt constancy. Thus biological holons are self-regulating “open systems” . . .” (Koestler 1969:197)



Can’t see the forest for the trees! (or is it the other way around?)  We frequently contrast seeing the forest or the trees — it is a common observation that all levels of organization cannot be simultaneously perceived at the same level of resolution.  It recalls an optical illusion where our mind shifts from one interpretation to another.  I’m always concerned that there a phenomenon might better be interpreted in terms of an alternative I never really perceived.  In nature, organisms struggling to survive must often make “snap” decisions.  Considering alternative interpretations in pursuit of the “best one” for a given situation is a luxury enjoyed by science and its system of open sharing of information and bringing many minds to bear on possible interpretations. That is one of the reasons that scrupulously detailed and precise DESCRIPTION is so valued.   


WHY we should respect each level:  It is often assumed that any particular level represents either a deconstruction of a more complex level or an assemblage of units from a less complex level.   BUT AT EVERY LEVEL there may be unique (“emergent”) properties that questions and methods cannot address.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?  An emergent phenomenon or property is one that could not have been predicted even if one had a perfect knowldege of the individual causes that converged on evoking it.  Epiphenomena are also hard to predict but the chain of causation is it principle accessible.  Generally it is a medical term referring to “something that appears in addition; a secondary symptom (e.g., fever) –a collateral or incidental consequence. BUT in psychology it has (since Henry James 1890) referred to consciousness “as a by-product of the material activities of the brain and nervous system.”  Conscioiusness or even life itself seems trivialized by regarding it as a by-product of one or more other phenomena, buteverything came from something, and once constituted, often develop their own machinery of self-perpetuation.  It can even create an evolutionary context –new selection pressures– in which it its development as a favorable trait would be progressively selected for. 































LEVELS of ANALYSIS.  “Confusion over explanatory levels and ensuing inconclusive arguments nag all branches of biology, and the literature is full of examples.  A classic is the so-called ‘nature-nurture’ controversy (e.g. Lorenz 1950 versus Lehrman 1953), which arose over whether certain behaviours of chicks are innate ‘or’ acquired through experience.  After two decades of unenlightening debate, it became apparent to Mayr (1961), Tinbergen (1963) and Lehrman (1970) that the lack of consensus was mainly due to semantic and conceptual issues, rather than to discrepancies of fact.  In his 1961 paper, Mayr observed that life scientists conceptualize research questions in two ways: functional biologists study ‘proximate’ causality, and evolutionary biologists concentrate on ‘ultimate’ causes.  Proximate factors operate in the day-to-day lives of individuals, and ultimate causes derive from evolutionary history.  Tinbergen (1963) suggested that each of these categories should be subdivided.  Thus, proximate or ‘how?’ questions require investigations of both individual ontogeny (e.g. effects of age and experience) and physiological substrates, including neuronal, hormonal and biochemical mechanisms.  Ultimate or ‘why?’ questions require understanding both evolutionary origins and current adaptive value.  Answering the former entails unravelling the history of phenomena in geological time, while the latter involves comparing the fitness consequences of naturally occurring variants in ecological time.” (Paul W. Sherman. 1988:616)

Sherman correctly characterizes some of the conflicts in terms of semantics but seems only to be relating to “explanatory” levels — in fact, attention to the levels of DESCRIPTION of the phenomenon of interest — the temporal or spatial scales in which the question or problem is framed — would probably go a long ways to resolving these hollow quarrels.


LEVELS of ORGANIZATION.  (from A&O – DEEP ETHOLOGY)  it is worth keeping in mind that a behavioral pattern  is a biological phenomenon at the ORGANISMIC level and there are levels below and beyond.  Tight correlations with phenomena that cause behavior and others that are likely consequences work together to create a narrative: a story that starts (someplace) has action (more-or-less) and ends (someplace).  Taken together, “causes” (such as activity in a set of muscles controlled by cells in the brain) It is the key set of CONNECTIONS that organizes our conscious awareness and it can be exquisitely sensitive to conditions of the surrounding environment within the body and in its “outer” environment.  The interaction of the body and the brain in causing behavior is the topic of EMBODIED COGNITION.  Relentlessly followed to all possible levels of organization of causes and consequences leads, ultimately, to metaphysics.   Our understanding is good at our organismic level, but the deeper or further we go, the more we approach the unknowable.  (A question for scholars of the infinitesimal (physicists) and of the vast (cosmologists) is whether the information we seek in unknown or unknowable.)   The opt-out for some biologists is that we do not really have to know it all, just enough to meet  ultimate biological need for self-actualization . The problem with opting out is that historically (and intuitively) the mere pursuit of such knowledge has led to many unanticipated inventions and discoveries that have dramatically improved the potential for self actualization.   

Page Initiated Feb 22, 2005 / updated July 30 2017

A related idea, “supervenience, is a relation that is used to describe cases where (roughly speaking) the upper-level properties of a system are not determined by its lower level properties. Some philosophers hold that the world is structured into a kind of hierarchy of properties, where the higher level properties supervene on the lower level properties. According to this type of view, social properties supervene on psychological properties, psychological properties supervene on biological properties, biological properties supervene on chemical properties, etc. That is, the chemical properties of the world determine a distribution of biological properties, those biological properties determine a distribution of psychological properties, and so forth. So, for example, mind-body supervenience holds that “every mental phenomenon must be grounded in, or anchored to, some underlying physical base (presumably a neural state). This means that mental states can occur only in systems that can have physical properties; namely physical systems.”[1] However, mental states cannot be reduced to physical properties.” (Wikipedia)

[i]ANTHONY GOTTLIEB  NYTBR on-line JUNE 10, 2016 Review of  THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself  by Sean Carroll    Illustrated. 470 pp. Dutton. $28. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/books/review/the-big-picture-by-sean-carroll.html?_r=0

[ii]. From Isabel Hilton’s “The Pashtun Code” in the New Yorker, December 3, 2001: 59-71 The Pashtun have always felt themselves rulers of Afghanistan, validated by the British who accepted them as the ruling tribe in Afghanistan since 1747.   Their homeland is a large area west of where the Kabul and Indus rivers converge.