The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why do we Always Choose the Decisional Systems that do the Most Damage? A Plea for the way of the Holobiont


Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck in the 1956 film version of "Moby Dick." Ahab is a fictional character, but there are plenty of real-world cases when handing all the decisional power to a single person led to catastrophe. The problem is not just about ships, it is general for many kinds of organizations, including states and empires, Why, then, this governance system is so common? It is one of the many mysteries of the behavior of human beings who tend to find comfort, and often their doom, in the "strong man" at the top. A much better way to organize complex systems would be to use the concept of "holobiont," taken from biology. 

In "Moby Dick," Ahab’s madness ultimately causes the sinking of the Pequod and the death of the entire crew. It is a fictional story, but there are plenty of real-world cases where mistakes by the captain led a ship to disaster. One recent case is the sinking of the "El Faro" container ship, in 2015. It was, first of all, a human tragedy: none of the 33 members of the crew survived. The records of the ship's black box were recovered, and we can still hear what they were telling each other in the hours before the disaster. It is impressive to hear how, up to nearly the last moment, they didn't realize the mortal danger they were facing in the form of a category 4 hurricane. An especially poignant moment is when, on the morning of the last day of the ship, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, prepares coffee on the bridge, and one of the members of the crew asks for artificial sweetener. He didn't need to worry about his waistline. One hour later, he would be dead, just like everyone else on board.  

What went wrong with the "El Faro"? It would be too easy to fault the captain, Michael Davidson. He surely made mistakes: he underestimated the threat, and -- probably -- acted emotionally, thinking he could show his bravery by sailing straight into what he believed was just a tropical storm. It is normal: everyone makes mistakes, and human males are especially prone to making the kind of mistakes that derive from a macho attitude. The point is to detect the mistakes and correct them before they create disastrous damage. And, here, the ship's command system failed completely. It is typical for ships to be managed by a "vertical" organization that pivots around a single man (rarely a woman) at the top. It is the captain, whose orders cannot be questioned. You may remember the quarrel between Starbuck and Ahab described in Melville's "Moby Dick," where Ahab cuts short Starbuck by saying that "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod". Again, this fictional episode is not unlike what happens in the real world. 

The kind of vertical command structure nearly guarantees disaster when the man at the top turns out to be mad, drunk, or simply not up to the task. And then disasters happen. Not all of them are as spectacular as the sinking of the "El Faro," but if you consult Wikipedia's entry on "shipwrecks," you'll be surprised by how long it is, even for recent years. The same kind of disasters happen with planes, working teams, and, often, with the military, where the list of incompetent, stupid, and evil commanders is long and detailed (the charge of the 300 at Balaklava is just one of the many examples, even going on right now in the world). 

It may be that rigid hierarchical structures have their origin in the overstretching of the role of the "alpha male," typical of many social creatures. Indeed, in human society, these structures are typical of all-male environments. In the case of the El Faro, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, was the only woman on the command deck. Women are known to be more flexible and less obsessed with rank than men (of course, with plenty of exceptions!), and it may be for this reason that she was the only one who explicitly proposed to steer the ship toward safety. Other members of the command deck seem to have had doubts, too, but they didn't discuss the captain's decision. So, the second mate was overruled by the captain who, in doing that, was signing his (and everybody's on board) death sentence. Another poignant element of the story is the last message that Randolph sent to her mother. It ended with "love to you all" -- which was not her usual way to end her messages. She understood what was going to happen, but was powerless to avoid it. 

In nature, alpha males have no power to give orders to other members of the group. The concept of "orders" is purely human and also relatively recent in our evolutionary history.  From what we know, rigid pyramidal hierarchies started to appear only with the development of city-states, some 5,000 years ago, when there also appeared kings and God-kings. Apparently, people were fascinated by these larger-than-life figures, to the point that they put their trust in them. So much that they even invented imaginary overlords, truly out-of-this-world alpha males, to be obeyed and worshiped.

Democracy doesn't change things so much. Imagine that the captain of the "El Faro" had been elected by the crew. That would have changed little or nothing about his power to give orders to everybody. Then, if the second mate had been a member of the opposition, it is even more certain that she would have been overruled when she proposed to change course. That's how democracy works: the opposition is always wrong.

So, where can we find better ideas on how to manage complex systems? Maybe there are ways. Let me report a paragraph from Prigogine's "The End of Certainty" (1996), where he cites Bierbacher, Nicolis, and Shuster:

The maintenance of organization in nature is not -- and cannot be -- achieved by central management. Order can only be maintained by self-organization. Self-organizing systems allow adaptation to the prevailing environment, i.e. they react to changes in the the environment with a thermodynamic response which makes the system extraordinarily flexible and robust against perturbations from outside conditions. We want to point out the superiority of self-organizing systems over conventional human technology which carefully avoids complexity and hierarchically manages nearly all technical processes. 

The authors, here, are actually describing the concept of "holobiont," even though they do not use the term. The holobiont is the most common and efficient way for complex systems to organize themselves in nature. The elements of a holobionts interact with each other horizontally, not hierarchically. It is what gives the system its extraordinary flexibility and adaptability. If the command system of the El Faro had been organized as a holobiont, the captain couldn't (and wouldn't) have ignored or overruled the suggestion of the second mate.

Would it be possible to organize human society in this way? Yes, we know plenty of examples of societies that self-organize into forms that mimic the holobiont structure. Elinor Ostrom reported how several of these structures can manage natural resources at the local level, much better than heavy top-down hierarchies. So, it may well be that God-kings are an evolutionary dead-end and that, as we march into the future, we'll learn to behave more like the natural way of behaving is, it is the wisdom of holobionts. On the other hand, for the time being, this idea looks a little difficult to put into practice, considering how much people seem to love the idea of kneeling down and receiving orders from the Great Man at the top. And I don't have to tell you about the unending string of disasters that this attitude has caused, and is still causing. But you never know: in the end, all humans are holobionts. And holobionts can learn!

These concepts and more are discussed in "The Proud Holobionts" blog

(you can find here a dramatized version of the sinking of the El Faro aired on the Discovery Channel in 2020. The trailer of the fantastic 1956 movie, "Moby Dick" is here


  1. I really agree, also with the sentence "On the other hand, for the time being, this idea looks a little difficult to put into practice", but kneeling down in front of the alpha man is not the only issue, greed is a major problem, but like Buffy Sainte Marie wrote in the song "Universal Soldier":

    "But without him
    How would Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?
    Without him Caesar would have stood alone
    He's the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war
    And without him all this killing can't go on"

    Of course, this is also valid for the economic and financial wars, so the kneeling aspect is quite right and is often rewarded with revenues and/or glory, also posthumous.

  2. Hello Ugo and all. Very good. I've been hoping to read more about self organizing systems ... as silly as it may sound, but if climate is one such system , so is war ... so is economics, inequality, technology, and so on.

  3. "If the command system of the El Faro had been organized as a holobiont, the captain couldn't (and wouldn't) have ignored or overruled the suggestion of the second mate."

    Can you explain more how this would work?

    In hindsight, we know the second mate was right in her judgement. However, there is always a level of information uncertainty in such situations and a big part of the decision making is based on risk. We can see that the captain and other mates were playing down the risk eg. "we've seen worse than this before". Are you saying the holobiont decision making structure would reduce uncertainty in information or create a better risk assessment?

    1. Elinor Ostrom has described the decisional system at work in small communities. It is based, mainly, on mediating an agreement between different viewpoints. Once this agreement is obtained, everyone shares the responsibility for the consequences of the action that will be taken. That ensures moderation. It is not evident that it would reduce uncertainties but, surely, it excludes reckless people from the decision making process. Of course, it is a slow process and in some circumnstances a quick decision is needed. That may be the reason why ships have captains. But, on the El Faro, there was plenty of time to reach an agreement, and if you read the details of the story (there is the link in the post), you see it was not just the second mate to be worried about the situation. But nobody dared to challenge the captain. So, I don't think there is a perfect command structure for all situations. But if you charge a single man at the top to take all the decisions, disaster is guaranteed. And I guess that you understand what I refer to when I say that it is happening right now in a place not so far away.

    2. Interestingly, pirate ships seem to have been (and maybe still are) a good example of a more communal decision making structure. There was a captain. But he was elected by the crew. Furthermore, his power was balanced by a quartermaster whose job was to represent the crew. It seems that complete power was only given to the captain during times of battle. At all other times, decision making was democratic and the captain could be removed at any time.

      If the El Faro had been a pirate ship, the crew would have voted on whether to sail into the storm or not. Once they decided to do so, the captain would probably have to take total charge because an emergency (eg. battle, hurricane) requires levels of coordinated action that can only happen with centralised decision making.

  4. This is a deep psychological problem in humans, we are most often ruled by fear throughout our lives and will first seek to evade responsibility by deferring to others to decide important things for us, even and especially if they are lifechanging and those leaders are strangers.

    I wonder if this is because we are also just herd animals, like sheep and there is indisputedly some safety in being part of a herd, so following is an unfortunate consequence of the other activity that has an evolutionary advantage for survival?

    1. It is the fascination of ethological studies. Herds are another example of holobionts. Every member communicates with every other member, but there is no decisional hierarchy. The herd moves as a whole. Konrad Lorenz wrote extensively on this subject. If herds exist, anyway, it must be because they are efficient for their purposes.

  5. I like your essay Ugo. Moby Dick was fiction but based on a real disaster. In the book: In the Heart of the Sea, N. Philbrick argues that the captain deferred to his first mate, rather than his own decision, and on more than one occasion this turned out to be disastrous.

  6. "The End of Certainty" - as fossil fuel reserves deplete - by the hour....

    Humans have destroyed all their fossil fuel reserves - just chasing that elusive Certainty...

    When Science failed in the quest - Quantum Mechanics has proposed holding the stick from the middle - "Let's calculate for the - Uncertainty"...

    That has corrupted Science all the last 100 years, failing to acknowledge that the Calculation requires infinite Energy - and that's the only Certainty guaranteed...

    Without fossil fuels, humans would have given up capitalising on Uncertainty-Calculated - tried stupidly by the outgoing 20th Century Science...

    Instead, humans would have resorted to calculate for - what is Certain - "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"....

    Today, the more new oil wells drilled in Iraq, the more the media is Certain - the country is drifting into a civil war...

    ...the Certainty of an Energy Musical Chairs Game - if you like...

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most".

    The quest of the last 100 year to control Certainty - proved - humans will always prove primitive and end up - killing each other - as the Certainty...


    Iraq plans to drill another 130 new oil wells -

  7. Free markets are a great example of this sort of organisation in practice. They are resilient to disturbances, great at responding to stimuli... not so good at planning or coordination.
    It looks like the efficient / resilient thing again. Can't be both at the same time.

  8. Are holobionts eternal, or do they also perish after a while?