Can Endobiogeny as a systemic and integrative approach to medicine inform organisational change?
Could it help us understand how social organisms evolve, thrive or die?
Interview with Dr.Kamyar Hedayat
Why social systems have not functioned like individual biologic systems have
The theory of endobiogeny is a theory of terrain. And in that sense Endobiogeny is looking at how a living system comes into being and how it manages itself at every level of its interaction with itself, with other living systems and within the larger context of the environment in which it lives. So Endobiogeny is interested in both the internal functioning of the living system and how it functions with all other living systems around it. In principle the essence of any living system is defined by its harmonious rhythms within its own internal interactions first and foremost.
The way that the rhythmicity and harmonious process of functioning occurs is when the organism is able to maintain it’s appropriate levels of integration and interrelatedness. Integration refers to the way in which various processes and actions follow one another. So if something is working particularly hard, other processes should work at the same level of intensity and if something is working for a shorter or longer amount of time the processes related to it will need to adjust themselves to working in a similar fashion. This is integration.
Interrelatedness refers to degree of connectedness of structures and functions to each other. It can be intense or weak, short or long-lived, frequent or infrequent. To give you some examples from everyday life, a infant has a high degree of interrelatedness with its parents that is intense, long-lived and frequent. Everything the infant does affects the caregiver and vice versa. When the child goes to school, it maintains the original interrelatedness with its caregivers and develops weaker and shorter relatedness with classmates. It sees the classmates for a few hours and they have only passing influence on each other. But as the child grows and reaches adolescence and adulthood, those relationships with other students and then co-workers develop a higher degree of interrelatedness and the relationship with parents might develop a slightly lower degree of interrelatedness. Finally we can see interrelatedness that is not very frequent but can be very strong in the moment. So, co-religionists on pilgrimage did not know each other beforehand. They had a weak degree of interrelatedness. In the process of pilgrimage they develop a very strong sense but short-lived interrelatedness.
These same concepts apply to different organs, for example, within a living system, or, different units of function. When we start with the simplest unit of function, for example in a human organism we could consider the cells as the most basic level of integral function. That is to say, at the level of a biologic system or living system, this is the smallest unit we would see. Now, the cell functions in a certain way both in relationship to itself and in relationship to neighbouring cells. The basic principle of functioning is that each unit of function has to function for its own benefit but within an integration and interrelatedness of how its own actions affect others around it. And the more integrated it feels with those other units of function, the more it will regulate how it acts according to how it affects the other units.
When we start with subatomic particles and go to atomic particles and then chemicals and then biologic organisms we have what are called emergent properties. An emergent property is a property which was not present at one level of organisation and becomes present at another level of organisation. So even though cells are made out of chemicals and other structural elements, that are made out of molecules that are made out of atoms, that are made out of subatomic particles, according to the limits of modern science, we don’t consider something as self-organising and living until it gets to a certain level of organisation that we call a cell. So there is an emergent property of life which occurs when all of these molecules come together in a certain arranged way and that arrangement is what we call a living system. As you move from the cell to the tissue, to the organs and from the organ to the entire organism you have increasing emergent properties that were not present at lower hierarchies of organisation.
One of the challenges in my opinion to our living systems theory is the fact that there is also a concept that I call demergent properties. That is to say with greater levels of organisation and a greater number of interrelatedness of different units and subunits we also lose certain levels of efficiency of function. If you take a human society or a human organisation such as an intellectual society or a government or a transnational organisation it consists of the people who choose to be members of that organisation and those people are made of cells. If it was only a matter of emergent properties, every society, every organisation, every grouping of people would work in a completely harmonious way just like each cell and tissue and organ in the body functions and yet we don’t see that type of harmonious activity, or, historically we have seen it less frequently than we would have anticipated. One of the things that explains why at this time social systems don’t work as living systems is because there is a demergence or loss of certain levels of connectivity which occurs with higher levels of organisation. The other explanation that we would say is that living systems work best when they allow themselves to function in a rhythmic way according to the internal rhythm of their own biologic needs as well as the external rhythm of the universe in which they live.
In the same way if we wish to apply the principle of living systems to social systems and organisations it will be important for us to apply the same concept of rhythmicity. In the rhythm of the organisation, where a social organisations allows each member to feel connected and invested in the internal functioning of the group, the way the group interacts with other groups, and at a pace of activity respectful to the general capacities of group to function, we’ll find that it will work in a more rhythmic way and has a longer life span. Very commonly we see that people come together to form groups and there are a few people who tend to take on a leadership roles or a facilitating role and they tend to have a certain level of dynamism that requests or pushes or demands of other members of the group, a certain level of functioning which does not work with their own internal rhythms and capacities. This tendency for groups to work in ways inharmonious with the capacity of all the members as a whole is what often times leads to groups dissolving or separating. You see this over and over again in social, political and religious organisations, etc. People with nearly identical believes but different rhythms of function split apart.
The other quality that becomes demergent or is lost very often in individual human beings and then in group settings is the ability to share a certain level of consciousness or intuition. If we consider intelligence and consciousness to be defined as one’s awareness of one’s internal state and the external state with the ability to harmonise what is going on within us and around us then the cell is really a very intelligent and conscious living system.
Yet as we go to higher levels of organisation like the human being, for example, very often we find that people don’t pay attention. We have car accidents, we run into each other in the streets, we are not aware of other people’s needs and we are not aware of our own needs. One of the properties that becomes demergent in the higher levels of complexity is the ability to be sensitive to our own needs and to the needs of others and to use intuition as well as rational thought.
From the endobiogenic perspective, encouraging more rhythmicity, more awareness of the needs of the group as well as the whole and more awareness of the internal and external needs are the properties that could help social groups function better.
Wholeness versus reductionism
The importance of listening, interrelatedness and integrating different ways of knowing
To get a global / holistic understanding of a system, what are the different ways of knowing and what does Endobiogeny contribute?
Different ways of knowing and their integration is what endobiogeny contributes.
When we look at epistemology--the ways of knowing—we can say in general there have been four recognised ways of knowing.
The first we can call traditionalism, which is where people say “I know it’s right because this is the way that it is done. If it wasn’t right, it wouldn’t have been done this way.” Traditionalism has a great value because in it is proven ways of doing things that worked for extended periods of time and for groups of people. One of the problems with exclusively relying on a traditional approach to knowledge is that people tend to restrict what information they are willing to accept and what they are not.
If you have never seen the colour blue you can’t explain it to others. This is why you need to see this colour and experience it yourself. By staying in an exclusively traditional mindset that limits the degrees of freedom to receive new information, you cannot evolve your knowledge. But people who reject traditionalism lose out on the ability to learn from a rich resource of experience and wisdom that has come down across the ages.
So from the endobiogenic perspective we hold traditionalism as a wellspring of knowledge and a learning place to get some ideas of how to understand ways of doing things. It is important to have an experiential approach where the individual learner or knower verifies for themselves in their own time and in their own context the validity of what has been either traditionally known or what they have come to believe in some certain way.
In the empirical approach a person says, “I know it is right because I have personally experienced the advantage of an empirical approach.” It allows the method of knowing and the process of acting to be both crystallized and flexible. For example in medicine, a community physician says, ‘Well the academic doctor may say something because he’s done some research, but I know what works for my patients and what doesn’t,’ so they practice on what is actually working and what they see working.
The value of an empirical approach is that it respects the knowledge of the individual where the traditional approach respects the knowledge of the group. The hazard or potential limitation of growth with an empirical approach is again where we see people limiting the information they are willing to accept or exclude in order to maintain their empirical beliefs.
In other words there comes a point where you no longer can observe and analyse your own actions. We make too many assumptions about what is possible or not, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable to the group. In this case, we leave out or exaggerate certain observations that validate our pre-conceived believes. As a result, empiricism can become a form of traditionalism, or, a very rigid way of doing things. Here we cite the work of the great American physician and psychologist William James who talked about a “radical empiricism,” which means following and accepting the truth no matter what the results are. Every time you do something you hold in your head and your heart a willingness to say, “I was wrong and I have learned a better way of doing it.”
If we can practice at this level of empiricism we find that it offers a very rich and personalised experience of whatever it is we are doing.
Rationalism is the third level of knowing, which has really become the dominant mode of the last 500 years. Rationalism is a very important advancement in human knowledge and transmission of knowledge because rationalism allowed, for the first time, others to receive and verify the empirical observations of others. In other words, I don’t have to take your word for it. You say it worked for you, but I can try it out myself in a systematic way and determine if it works, not only for myself but for many people, repeatedly, without any bias or expectation of results. Rationalism allowed us to break free from rigid thinking, from superstitious thinking and from fear. It allowed us to have a bold approach to knowing. The challenges that we face with the rationalist approach is that it became inseparable from the reductionist approach. The reductionist approach was not originally problematic. Descartes said [to paraphrase], “Issues are complex; let me see what are the basic elements of the problem and study each of them together then come back up to the original complex problem.”
This was actually Descartes’s original approach to rationalism in science . It wasn’t to be permanently reductionistic. He wrote in his first work, “I reduced the problem to its basic elements so that I can examine them one by one.” The problem is that over the last 500 years we have developed what we call “naïve,” or, “absurd reductionism,” where we reduce things to the basic elements. Then we conclude that those elements alone are unconnected to anything else and are sufficient to study, that if we manipulate one factor, nothing else in the system will change. At the level of medicine we have this reductionist approach that says, for example, with hypertension (high blood pressure) “Let’s block the adrenaline receptor and you will be fine.” And it is true, it does lower blood pressure but it causes a host of other side effects, because adrenaline plays a role in physiologic events other than blood pressure.
At the level of societal or group inventions we have a similar way of thinking. For example if there are too many crimes, we throw offenders in jail and isolate them from society. That doesn’t solve problems. If you put criminals in jail there are simply new people who start to commit crimes; and once the prisoner is released he or she has a high chance of re-offending. The same is true with drug use. The limitation of rationalism is that it leads to a reductionist approach where we try to solve complex problems with simple solutions. We take something out of the context of complexity and put it in an oversimplified model that doesn’t actually reflect the true dynamism of the problem.
The fourth way of knowing is an intuitive way. What is different about intuition? It allows the whole picture, or, gestalt to be seen instantaneously. It is a way of knowing that doesn’t use a rational, analytical approach. The advantage of an intuitive approach is that it allows you to see the big picture in all of its complexity and to find a solution that addresses the entire dynamic rather than an individual element. In fact many of the most significant discoveries in science have occurred through an intuitive process by great scientists. Examples include Einstein’s theory of relativity, Linus Pauling’s discovery of the concave nature of the red blood cell, which lead to an understanding of the complications related to sickle cell disease, Kükle’s discovery of the benzene ring’s hexagonal structure. All of these things came through intuitive visions or dreams, etc.
The challenge that we face now in our rational or post-rational society is that no one has access to the intuitive knowledge except for the person who has the intuition. And there is no a way for other people at this time to verify what other people have intuited. The intuitive model, while highly valuable, needs to be brought together with the rational and empirical levels of knowing so people who have intuition can demonstrate to those who don’t the veracity of what they have intuited through rigorous research and application of their intuition.
Endobiogeny as a synthetic and syncretic approach
It becomes clear by evaluating the strength and weaknesses of each of these ways of knowing that if we could take advantage of each of them depending on the situation and the knowledge base of the individual knower, we could have the greatest and highest degrees of freedom to be creative in our problem solving approaches.
So what we have proposed in endobiogeny is a 5th way of knowing: the synthetic and syncretic approach. This approach is grounded in the observation that the four other types of knowledge can be constantly interacting with each other in a dynamic and seamless way so that each problem can be viewed in a holographic and fractal way. Using this approach, we can go into different levels of a problem and use different ways of knowing in order to find the most creative and flexible solutions.
The role of a manager in Endobiogeny
According to the theory of endobiogeny, a manager must have certain qualities in order to allow the organism to regulate itself and maintain the highest degree of integration and the most appropriate number of degrees of interrelatedness between the different parts in the system. The three qualities that a manager must have are ubiquity which means being able to be in contact with all parts of the system, ability to regulate those systems by allowing them to be aware of what other parts of the system are doing, matching their level of activity to their own needs, the needs of the other parts of the system and the system as a whole. Finally, the manager must be able to regulate itself. At the level of living organisms, or living systems, the endocrine (hormonal) system is the only system that meets these criteria. It is responsible for metabolism: the ceaseless flow of breaking down and building up material. It is the union of opposites that constantly creates and ensures survival through the very act of destruction and reconstruction.
In fact I’d like to quote a poem by Rumi where he talks about this very concept. He says: ‘The peace of opposites is what gives life to the universe. The war of opposites is what gives eternal life to the universe. The union of opposites arises from necessity, then once again in a time of bewilderment there is discernment to start again’. Here, this poem by Rumi can be talking about quantum mechanics, and matter and anti-matter, and we can understand this at the level of metabolism and the dialectical tension between catabolism and anabolism and the need to have conflict and harmony.
Now, when we talk about managers of systems, what we have lacked in the organisational model throughout most of human history are three qualities. The first is that human organisations have primarily tended, especially over the last 500-1000 years, to be pyramidal structures, with a singular head which controls all other levels of function and has very little relationship with those other units that it’s controlling. We think about kings and emperors. We think about headmasters and heads of organisations, CEO’s, etc. But we see that in living systems there is no single master, there’s only a manager, and the name implies that a manager helps other units do whatever they do best. In other words, the endocrine system does not make the liver act like a spleen, it helps the liver manage its five hundred functions so the liver can be the best liver it can possibly be.
In our new approach to human organisation, if we consider the role of the endocrine system as a model, then our managers at the level of human interaction will need to have the same qualities as the endocrine system, they will need to move amongst the people in the organisation and understand the individual needs of each person at each level of activity and responsibility and their role will be more to facilitate the performance of individuals and groups who are dedicated to certain functions, rather than commanding or asking them to do something that’s not inherent in their nature of part of their skillset.
The other way that a manager in a system could function like the endocrine system is to be aware of the rate of success or efficiency of different groups within an organisation, and to inform and support the other groups of how they need to modify their level of activity. For example, imagine we had an organisation that was responsible for producing a product, making the packaging and advertising the product. If the advertisements are being produced before there are enough packages or there are more packages than there are products to put in those packaging devices, you’re going to have a very inharmonious organisation. The role of the manager in this case would be to integrate the functions so the product comes first and then the packaging and then the advertising, and to make sure the other groups are not working faster than the manufacturing group, or that the manufacturing group communicate with the packaging group.
Consider the kidney. It communicates with the brain and vice versa to regulate the proper rate of hydration, acid-base balance and electrolyte balance. It doesn’t just do what it wants because it wants to do it. It has an inherent need to protect itself and to accomplish its own tasks, but also to assist in allowing the other organs to do what they do. Taking a page from the playbook of the human organism, the company in our example might say ‘we want to make our product this size; are you able to make a package that would fit it?’ If they worked in isolation and said ‘we’ve made a product, now make a package that fits it’, it may not be practical. And again, both of those groups would want to talk to the advertising group, and the advertising group would want to understand: ‘How does the product supposed to make the consumer feel? What is the product made to do? When is it available? How does the packaging enhance the product?’ Then in this way, each group is talking to the other groups and they have an integrated level of function.
Structure and Function
The role of both, and how they maintain an equilibrium in the face of challenges.
According to the theory of endobiogeny, any type of material organisation, be it a cell or group, has a basic element that is its structure, and a second element that is its function. So structure refers to the basic material organisation of its element. For a cell, the structure includes the cell wall, the nucleus, the mitochondria, the different organelles, the enzymes that do different things. Structure you can think about in very concrete terms, like the structure of a house. When you come to human organisations, structure would be something akin to, say, the constitution, the vision statement, the essence of what makes the organisation the organisation, and the number of people in the organisation.
When we talk about function in endobiogeny, there are two levels of function. One is the function of structure. Once you have a structure, that structure does something for itself to maintain its own survival. A cell makes a certain amount of energy called ATP, and it makes that energy so it can function in the way that it needs to function. This is what we call the function of structure. At the level of an organisation, the function of structure would be the activity that is done to maintain the physical integrity of the store: its cleanliness, the minimum profit generated just to pay for electricity, stock items, etc. For example, if your group was a group that runs a juice store, the basic structure is the store (bricks and mortar, windows, doors, furniture, juicing equipment, etc.) and the maintenance staff and accounting personnel. The function of structure is how they keep the doors open, the equipment working and the lights on.
The second level of function is the function of the whole. This is when an individual unit, like a cell, tissues or organ, changes its basic level of activity for good of other cells, tissues or the entire organisms but not because of its own in inherent needs. In the example of our juice bar, the global level of function is how each individual works as a whole when you have a greater number of customers than anticipated. Or it’s a very hot day and people are particularly thirsty. But conversely, the functioning of the entire organisation or system would also be to recognise what you do when business is slower than expected. In the case of the juice bar, say that it’s a particularly chilly day in summer and not many people feel like drinking lemonade, the manager will reassign juicers to another task—like customer service classes. So for example, the American car company, Saturn (now defunct), as an organisation decided that instead of laying off people or firing them when sales were not what was anticipated or the production rate declined, they would constantly invest in re-education, expanding the skill set of employees, allowing them to work and practice their skills when business was faster. That would be a way in which an organisation exhibits a level of functional adaptation based on the needs of the entire group as a whole and its relationship with, in this case, their customers or their environment, rather than the demands of a small group of shareholders or the CEO’s whims.
The role of adaptation and mal-adaptation
The adaptive capabilities of a system, in this case, were creative: they maintained the workers.
Does adaptation lead to creating a new structure?
Well, it can. For example, one level of adaptation is to create new structures, that would be like hiring more people, or buying more computers, upgrading software, etc.. That would be adapting structure by creating more structure. Another way to do it is to take the structure you already have and make it larger. For example you could increase the size of your factory. You could increase the square footage of the physical location of your organisation. Or you could do both: you could bring more people into the organisation and expand the capacity of the organisation. But the point here is that adaptation is always dynamic and creative, and that it is limited. The challenges that we face with organisations is constant tension between resistance and acceptance of change because it is inversely related to stability but positively related to creativity. Conversely, we have organizations that change too frequently or expand too rapidly. This is kind of like the problem that Marxism faced with the concept of permanent revolution. Human beings, and any type of living system, cannot live in a permanent state of adaptation indefinitely. Every war must come to an end, every challenge must lead to a resolution. It allows the organism or the organisation to regroup and repair and refresh itself in order to continue to function.
When we come to a critical point of global instability due to fluctuations in environment and also demand and supply of depletable resources, how do we understand emergence in such a situation from an endobiogenic perspective?
Emergence in this context has two aspects: Emergence in the sense of emergent properties that are expressed when things are organised in the higher level of function and emergence like criticality in shifts of consciousness?
I think that when we look at living systems, they’re highly efficient in their processes and they are constantly engaged in biochemical conversion. So in the case of a biological organism, its preferred energy source is glucose. It can convert protein or fat to glucose if it needs to. And it can convert glucose into fat and store it for a later time. There’s very little waste or inefficiency in a biological organism. When we talk about competition for resources and scarcity and abundance, much of the scarcity that we face today is because of over-consumption by certain parts of the global collection of humanity and a high degree of inefficiency in the production and distribution and utilisation of material. It’s not for a lack of resources. Again, one of the tragic errors that was committed in the observation of inefficiency or desire to improve efficiency of, say, crop output, was this rationalist, reductionist approach which says that if plants grow faster with nitrogen let’s just give them a lot of nitrogen (as fertiliser). And with the birth of artificial fertilisers and growth agents, we have, of course, over-farming and depletion of topsoil, avoidance of crop rotation, introduction of crops into areas where they’re not native and where they don’t grow well, and where they are resource-intensive for areas that do not have an abundance of those resources. A good example is growing corn in Africa.
It is always a question that comes back to Rumi’s observation of the war and peace of opposites: it’s the dialectic tension between consumption and production that needs to be balanced. In other words, consumers need to consume less, and producers need to be more productive. So for example, in the US, because farmers receive a subsidy for the growth of certain crops like corn, they’re actually paid to allow a certain amount of corn, or other crops to rot in silos because now they’ve become so efficient that they would flood the market and drop the prices. Another problem that we have is that corn is being used to make ethanol, and it’s a very inefficient source of ethanol (compared to beet sugar), which leads to a manipulation of prices. Because animals are fed corn instead of grass, the price of meat goes up, the price of milk goes up. These are not true problems with the ability to produce or to feed: it’s a problem of greed. If we functioned as efficiently as a living system does, we would have a better sense of awareness of how a group’s decision affects all humankind. So for example, another great Iranian poet, Sa’adi says that human beings are like one whole body and when the tip of your finger is in pain, the rest of the body cannot stand idly by it, it rushes to its defence. You have an adaptation response. You know, the brain doesn’t say ‘what do I care about the tip of the finger, I’m sitting pretty in the skull and it can rot for all I care’. Because the brain and the liver and the kidney know that if the finger is suffering, if it doesn’t help it now, eventually that same inflammation, that same infection is going to touch it.
As human beings, if we felt we were connected to our brothers and sisters in humanity at the same level in which a living organism, a living system feels connected one to the whole, we would be distributing food in a much smarter way. We would have a much more just system of economy, of trading. We would balance the needs of producers and consumers, of workers and owners, or we would come up with more fair systems of management and regulation of production of items.
In a lot of organisations they’re using mindfulness practices to help innovation, to create spaces for people to connect more to themselves and others. From an endobiogenic perspective, and organisational change or social change, how would you see the function or the role of mindfulness?
I think mindfulness and any technique that allows us to expand our consciousness and our feeling of connectivity to other beings as inherently connected to us, that their fate is our fate, is positive. It helps us act more and more like cells and bacteria – they’ve really mastered the art of connectivity and of cooperative behaviour.
Communities of Practice to support emergence
There are growing numbers of communities of practice where people from the same domain come together to learn with and from each other, where they are not answerable to management but have dedicated times and spaces and permission from management because there is hope that new ideas will emerge from those interactions and people would be become happier in their roles or find new roles. Would you see that trend of developing communities of practice along the same lines?
If we come back to the concept of living systems, there is a level of peer-to-peer communication which occurs all the time, but it appears to be limited to cells which have a similar function. So if we think about liver cells and spleen cells, liver cells that sit next to each other inform each other of their level of function and what they’ve learnt, and they start to harmonise through small diffusible molecules that pass through each others’ cells, what they’re doing, and coordinate that. But liver cells don’t share with spleen cells, or lung cells, how to act like a liver. So there’s a certain level of peer-to-peer exchange, which is very helpful and good to occur when the peers are working in a similar domain of function.
But when we’re talking about peer-to-peer exchange where there are different skillsets that are trying to be taught without some formal level of supervision of the accuracy of the transmission and the quality of the receiver of learning and applying that knowledge, I think we can run into complications. That’s why, again, we come to the concept of the manager. And again, just thinking about cells, every cell has within itself the capability of doing what any other cell is doing. It’s just that over time, it becomes specialised and becomes very, very good at doing what it does. But it could conceivably change. For example, our bones can make stem cells that can then go and help out and do anything in any part of the body. Anybody can learn and anyone can learn new skills, but I believe that there’s still a role for managers, and for the sake of public interest, some level of acknowledgement or standards of what the standards are for efficiency and competency.
Do living systems have natural hierarchies?
They have hierarchies but they’re not hierarchies of control. They are hierarchies of organisation, that is to say, complexity of organisation. Being organised and consisting of a greater number of subunits does not make one part of a living system better than another, it only means it has more responsibility. It has more service that it needs to do to the whole organisation. But those nested hierarchies exist in living systems. For example, just sticking to the liver again, you have a liver cell, you have a group of liver cells that form what’s called the hepatic lobule, or a mini part of the liver, and then all of those different mini parts form the liver as a whole. There is a hierarchy between an individual cell, liver tissue, the grouping into lobules or mini sections, and then the liver as a whole. But the only result of that hierarchy is to say the liver as a whole has a much greater responsibility to all of the tissues and the cells within it than any one cell does to another cell. In living systems a hierarchy does not mean more power; it means more responsibility and more service and more complexity.
Kamyar M. Hedayat, MD is a Stanford-trained critical physician who specializes in complex living systems. He writes on theoretical and applied systems biology and integrative physiology from the perspective of a medical theory called Endobiogeny. The study and treatment of complex systems in human beings has brought to Dr. Hedayat a deep appreciation of physiologic management. Endobiogeny offers a model of how multiple complex systems within the body are regulated and managed by the endocrine system (i.e. hormones). According to the theory of endobiogeny, Life is expressed in a coherent and organized fashion. This organization arises not from control but dynamism. Dynamism can only occur because of two observations: all sub-systems are interconnected and interrelated in their functions. The genius of evolution has ensured that our physiology acts in a cooperative manner for the good of each part and the whole of the system. From these observations we find that a theory of management of human beings as super-systems can be developed using the same principles that regulate our individual bodies.