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 examples of captains who led their ships to disaster, as Ahab did. Handling all the decisional power to a single person nearly guarantees catastrophic results if the lone man on top loses his bearing. 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. 

The story of the sinking of the “El Faro” container ship, in 2015 is, first of all, a human tragedy. The records of the ship’s black box were recovered and we can still hear what the crew members were telling each other in the hours before the disaster. It is impressive to hear how these men (and two women) simply didn’t realize the mortal danger they were facing in the form of a category 4 hurricane. An especially poignant moment is when, the morning of the day when the ship sank, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, prepares a coffee on the command deck, and one of the members of the crew asks for artificial sweetener. He didn’t have to worry about his waistline. One hour later, he would be dead, just like everyone else on board.  

What went so disastrously wrong with the “El Faro”? There was no single, critical mistake, but a series of misunderstandings, wrong decisions, complacency, stress,  missed opportunities, and sheer bad luck. The main factor was, simply, overconfidence: it had never happened that a large American container ship sank because of bad weather. These huge and powerful ships looked impossible to sink by mere waves and winds. And, yet, there is always a first time for everything. 

The real problem was with the chain of command: a “vertical” organization that pivots around a single man (rarely a woman) at the top who has the ultimate power to take all the decisions. That’s typical of ships: you may remember the quarrel between Starbuck and Ahab described in Melville’s “Moby Dick.”  The story of the “Pequod” whaler is fictional, but it ends just like the story of the “El Faro,” with the captain taking the ship to its doom.  

It would be too easy to fault the captain of the El Faro, Michael Davidson, for the disaster and 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. Everyone makes mistakes and human males are especially prone to the disastrous behavior we call “macho.” But none of the crew members objected to the captain’s orders or let him know that they didn’t agree with him.  

This kind of command structure nearly guarantees disaster considering that the man at the top may be incompetent, drunk, or simply gone bonkers. And disasters do happen, not all of them as spectacular as the “El Faro,” but if you consult Wikipedia’s entry on  “shipwrecks,” you’ll be surprised by how long it is, even in recent times. 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). 

It may be that the rigid hierarchical organization of the human social structures is the result of having overstretched the role of the “alpha male,” typical of many social creatures. Indeed, rigid hierarchies 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, there are plenty of exceptions!), and it may be for this reason that she was the only one who proposed to steer the ship toward safety. She was explicitly overruled by the captain who, in doing that, was explicitly signing his (and everybody’s on board) death sentence. Incidentally, 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. 

Hyper-alpha-males exist only in human societies. 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 Godkings. 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. Actually, it would have been enhanced on the basis of having received a majority of the votes. 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.  

So, where can we find better ideas on how to manage complex systems? Let me report a paragraph from Prigogine’s “The End of Certainty” (1996), where he cites Biebacrher, 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 overruled the suggestion of the second mate to change course.

Would it be possible to organize human society as a “holobiont-like” structure? Yes, it is possible because there are 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 Godkings 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 are good at learning things!

These concepts, and more, are discussed in “The Proud Holobionts” blog

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More