Wagensberg on Identity / Individuality

‘Any real object divides the world into two parts: itself and the rest of the universe. Both parts mutually influence each other through some boundary. So that changes in one part induce changes in the other. Living systems are characterized by their tendency to become independent of the uncertainties of their environments, which is equivalent to to the perpetuation of a certain identity of their own.’

Wagensberg – 2010

I have taken the view that a firm be seen as a ‘black box’ or as transparant with regards to their inner workings, the mechanisms that drive the subsystems. My claim is that it is entirely possible to make valuable expressions about the behaviour of a firm in its context, without knowing every detail that is going on. However, to allow me to move away from the detail of the subsystems, I need a new perspective, i.e. that of the firm as a system. Taking the systems view, or defining the boundary between the system and its environment, I need to be able to identify what separates the firm from its environment, at least what it is that interacts with its context, e.g. competes for scarce resources. Taking a view of the firm as such a unit of evolution (in a Universal Darwinian sense), allows me to treat it as a single unit, a single individual so to say. In this chapter I will not (yet) engage in the logic that moves the system, but rather to suggest a terminology (for everyday use so to say) as a basis to enable the conversation about this logic to develop. In this chapter I will, in other words, attempt to bridge the gap between biological evolution and memetic (or cultural) evolution of a firm, or in fact reduce the size of it in light of Universal Darwinism.

Darwinian thought is driven by individualism: reproduction and selection act on individuals in a species. The success of the species hinges on this school of thought, i.e. on the sequential successes of individuals: it is based on their successful matings, their battles and in the long run, their adaptations when changes in their context occur. However, natural selection acts on many levels, not only on an individual level. In addition, the concept of individuality of some lifeforms is unclear, which leads to the question whether the concept of individuality has degrees. In the same vein to suggest the treatment of a firm as a single unit, while it encompasses many subsystems and people at its core requires a clear vocabulary at least. Wagensberg c.s. have proposed a conceptual scheme in which selection levels at that above that of the individual organism is interpreted as the evolutionary emergence of higher-level individuality [Wagensberg, García Leal, Lins de Barros, 2010] with an eye on the development of a hierarchichal evolution theory.

Biological individuality can, based on the quote above this chapter be defined as: ‘A living individual is a part of the world with some identity that tends to become independent from the uncertainty of the rest of the world‘ [Wagensberg, 2009]. Because all isolated systems tend to thermodynamic equilibrium, in biological terms this means death, any such system cannot afford to isolate itself from its environment. To remain alive, the system must maintain some steady state far from thermodynamic equilibrium by exchanging material , energy and information with its environment. The exchange of material and energy is described by the entropy balance:

δS = δiS + δeS (6)

Where: δS = the variation in the entropy of the system; δiS = the production of entropy dependent on the irreversible processes inside the system; δeS = the exchange of entropy bewteen the system and its environment.

The steady state is described by this necesssary condition:

δiS = – δeS (7)

The exchange of information bewteen the system and its environment is described by information theory [Shannon, 1948]:

H (E) – H (E / B) = H (B) – H (B / E) = I (E, B) (8)

Where: E = source of information the environment; B = source of information the system (B for Biota); H (E) = the complexity of the environment; H (B) = complexity of the system; H (E / B) = the ability of the system to anticipate uncertainty of the environment; H(E / B) = the sensitivity (to change) of the environment with regards to the complexity of the system; I (E, B) = I (E, B) = the information transfer bewteen the system and the environment.

Assume as an example an increase in the complexity of the environment H (E). Is the system now capable of establishing a new steady state? The system can survive this by: increasing its own complexity H (B), by increasing its ability to cope with the environmental uncertainty by learning new tricks. Another option is by moving away from the environment or by changing it.

It may also change itself, lose some of its own identity, by joining forces with other individual systems and in so doing recover independance from the uncertainty in the environment. The ‘objective’ of this exercise of course is to arrive at a nee steady state as per the above. This method of evolutionary innovation is called association (the other method is mutation).

In a biological sense the ways of generating a new identity by changing its identity are: cloning (corals, siphonophores), symbiosis in which species permanently rely on each others existence to fulfill (replace) a metabolic requirement, and kinship in which structured and differentiated societies consisting of family groups (insects, e.g. species of bees, ants). Associations lead to a rise in the hierarchichal level of organisation of living matter. In a biological sense, cloning does not pose a problem with regards to identity, because there is no genetic differentiation: the members of the identity are all of the same genetic make-up and so the unit of selection can be extended to the entire population. Symbiosis also doesn’t pose a problem, because the individuals participating in the association evolve mutually genetically independent, albeit in a process of parallel co-evolution. However in a biological context, sexual reproduction poses problems to the unit of selection, because it hinges on crossover and mutation. When sexual selection has occured, the selection pressures are on the descendants of the unit reproducing. The offspring ar per definition not equal to the unit reproducing: gene and organism selections are not equivalent. By transferring the unit from the phenotypic level to the genotype, the problem is not solved: a gene is not a material but merely a packet of information with no capability to directly interact with the world. The process of sexual selaction does not preserve the genotype. It does, however, protect the genome, that part of the genotype (the set of genes) that defines each species. In other word, although a lot of information in the genotype is prone to change, the set that detemines the identity, and prevents humans from turning out to be a cow or a lizard in the next generation. Variations in genotype provide not an increase the average apritude but in variation in aptitude: descendants have more capabilities to adapt built-in. In summary: what is selected is not a ‘clone with optimal aptitude’ but a clad (a set of organisms related through descendancy and with an array of different aptitudes). This therefore is the unit of selection and its definition must connect with the definition of identity. Wagensberg suggest to rise above the level of organisms instead of dropping down to the level of genes. A higher level of individuality is required. The identity that is perpetuated is is not the genotype, but rather that defined by the a reproductively compatible genomen and a shared gene pool. That is the identity of a biological species. As an example: sexual reproduction represents a minimum case of group selection, in this case two individuals, a male and a female and this group represents a higher-level individuality, which is the minimum unit of selection in this case. From this follows the definition:

A Darwinian individuality is any living entity that is the object of selection as a whole and has a genetic identity that can be perpetuated.

This in turn leads to the extension of the definition from an individual organism to a degree of individuality for organisms: an example of a minimum is a reversible symbiotic relation, an example of a maximum is a human being, in which many different species of organisms have evolved into one unit. Useful criteria to identify the degree of individuality, relevant from an evolutionary perspective are:

Unit of selection – is the pressure of selection rather on the whole or on the parts (i.e. on the higher-level individuality or on the constituents – negative -1, positive +1, 0 no significant change if we change level

Identity – individualities must have a genetic identity that can be perpetuated. We can assess the degree of genetic individuality of a group of individuals as the intersection between the genotypic identities of the elements making up the group. The (metaphorical) equation is:


Where: i = individual in the group of n; identity of individual, characterised by j attributes Ai = {ai ,1 ,ai ,2 , ai ,3 , .. ai ,j }

Identity of individual member i of the group, Ii is defined by:

Ii = Ai – Ω


The collective identity is minimum (individual identity is maximum) when there is no intersection, Ω = φ, and Ii = Ai. Collective identity is maximum (individual identity is minimum) when there is perfect homogeneity and Ai = A = Ω. This can be scored as follows:

+1 if the members of the whole share the same genotype (Volvox, siphonophores, corals, to a lesser extent mole rats, fungus cultivating ants, termites), 0 to individual associations of of the same species and -1 to symbiotic associations between individuals of different species.

Independence of the whole from the parts – an individuality is an independent whole made up of interdependent parts. Examples in biology are the male and the female in any sexually reproductive relation. Another is the relation between the sterile worker and the fertile reproductive castes; this is a seeming paradox if the individuality of the object of selection is transferred to the entire swarm. Another aspect of the parts sacrificing some their independence to the whole is that the individual parts are less viable than the whole: the death of an ant is less unlikely than the extinction of an ant’s nest. The related question: is the whole more (+1), equally (0) or less (-1) viable than its parts? Or: are the individuals more (+1), equally (0) or less (-1) dedicated to the whole (the individuality) than to the preservation of themselves? This is relevant as individuals group into a new individuality as a defence against an environment whose uncertainty is rising.

Irreversibility – This means that the collective identity of an individuality constructed by association becomes so robust that the new cohesion is irreversible. In the article at hand this aspect is merely illustrated with examples from biology. The question to ask is: to what extent are the individuals that consitute a higher-level individuality capable of disassociating themselves to return to an independent life? Not at all (+1), to some extent (0) or without effort (-1).

Internal organisation – If the individuality is of a higher order, the functions of the parts are at the service of the whole and the activities of the associated elements are connected and coordinated. A Darwinian individuality is closer to an individual the more centralised the control of its activities and specialisation in the functions of its parts. The question to ask is: does the higher-level individuality exhibit centralisation and functional differentiation: to a large extent (+1), some of these (0), none at all (-1).

Reproduction – an individuality resembles an individual in the classical sense when, in addition to consituting a selective unit, it also represents a reproductive unit. This means that such individuality can give rise to another similar individuality. The question to ask is whether the individuality reproduces as such and whether it needs (some of) the constituent individuals to reassociate after the reproduction? The collective completely achieves (+1), partially (0) or not achieved (-1) relative to the individuals.

Development – the issue here is whether the individuals associating have a common history in terms of growth and differentiation in the acquisition of their steady state? If construction takes place though growth and differentitation (+1), if either one (0) and neither (-1). As an example: all cells in a zebras descend from one zygote and all ants in a mount descend from the same queen, but not all zebras in a herd come from the same ‘source’.

Compactness – does the collective individuality have a well defined exterior and an interior and is it possible for any point in the collective to identiy exactly where it belongs? In mathematical terms: are two point on the interior (or the exterior) always connectable via points at the interior (or the exterior) of the individuality? Maximally compact, such as a zebra (+1), loosely joint colonies (0), ant’s nest or a herd of zebras (-1).

With regards to the firm, biological evolution is of course irrelevant, because no biological reporoduction takes place, not through any of the mecanisms above. And yet the concept is appealiing, because some group of individuals shows collective behaviour. So here goes, let score the concept of a firm to these citeria:

Unit of selection = +1

Identity = 0 (there is no population from which the intersection can be observed)

Independence of the whole from the parts = +1

Irreversibility = 0

Internal organisation = +1

Reproduction = -1 (from a memetic perspective 0 or +1?)

Development = -1

Compactness = +1

The overall score is +1! That leaves the firm as a unit of selection and reproduction between an ant’s nest and a lichen. In other words: the conclusion from this score is that firms can not be seen as per the definitions given, as a individuality, or only to a very limited extent. That is mainly due to the criteria related to the reproductive powers of the whole.

This might be far more interesting from the meme’s eye view.

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Complexity Scientist