Disequilibrium and the Fallacy of Composition

This a continuation of my previous post. I’m still trying to work out some ideas.


The equilibrium model seems to be tied to the whole/part differentiation, which includes the idea that society is the aggregate or sum total of people. If we think in terms of a whole that can be broken into parts, then we might go on to think about how to balance those parts or to assume that the parts should be balanced. In contrast, if we think in terms of the system/environment distinction, we will not worry about balancing parts. For instance, the economic system is not a part of society; it has, rather, differentiated out from society.

Only structurally closed (entropic) systems can be adequately described with the equilibrium model. Selectively open systems cannot achieve equilibrium because their environments are not unchanging. Some theories, such as economic theories that don’t take into account instability produced by technologies or human whims, depend on the myth of the unchanging environment.

A biological system, such as an organ, is not part of a larger whole. The pancreas, for instance, is not a part of the body. It is a system in itself with its own environment, which is everything that can potentially irritate it or destroy it. We can cut off a hand without impacting the pancreas. This implies that the hands do not belong to environment of the pancreas. And we can destroy our eyes without impairing our hearing and vice versa.

Thinking in terms of wholes and parts is known as the fallacy of composition. It says that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts; however, this only works when the parts are identical, such as when adding up the number of nuts or bolts in a piece of machinery. If the nuts or bolts are all the same, we can justifiable sum them up. One example from economics of the fallacy of composition is the assumption that because household saving leads to greater wealth if all households save then society as a whole will become wealthier. This isn’t true because if everyone saves, demand for goods and services falls, which means people will lose jobs or have their pay cut and therefore have to spend savings. Household savings when aggregated can lead to a decline of savings on the macro scale. We cannot simply scale up microeconomics to describe macroeconomics. Geoffrey Hodgson (1987) discussed this in “Economics and Systems Theory.” It’s called the paradox of thrift.

Selectively open systems must stabilize themselves (through expectational structures) because their environments are subject to change. But stability is not the same as equilibrium in closed-system terms. According to Luhmann,

In the evolution-theoretical literature . . . selection and stabilization are often combined in a single concept. The talk then is of “selective retention” or “stabilizing selection.” This was plausible as long as biology, not to mention economic theory, understood selection to be natural selection by an environment and the outcome to be “optimal fit.” Stability was described as “equilibrium,” which used homeostatic mechanisms to balance out disturbances and reestablish a state of equilibrium. However this required a fixed equilibrium point not displaced by any deviations that might occur. On condition that the environment itself did not change, this needed no further provision for stabilization after structural change. This view is now hardly upheld. It is dynamic systems that are amenable to evolution, systems far from being in equilibrium and that can reproduce. This is all the more true if we are obliged to abandon this premise, if we understand selection (as we do) to be a purely internal process. (Theory of Society, vol 1. p. 292)

A system’s operations are structurally determined; they are not determined by a system’s environment. Environmental or ecological conditions do not select traits; the environment can only irritate a system and provoke an indeterminate response. A system makes selections from among possible variations. Thus, every selection is contingent and made on a moment-to-moment basis without foreknowledge of potential advantages. Selections must be compatible with environmental conditions, but this doesn’t mean that the environment selects traits.

Innovated structures [those produced by positive selection] have to be adapted to the system and must be compatible with its environmental conditions without advance knowledge (upon selection) of whether and how this can be managed. (293)

Evolutionary innovations call for system restabilization. Both positive and negative selections bring destabilization and also initiate restabilization, which we might also think of information processing.

What is meant by positive and negative selection? These terms are employed in population genetics. Positive (Darwinian) selection is also called directional selection, while negative selection is known as purifying selection. Positive selections change structures.

Or, according to Guilherme Borges Dias, we may think of natural selection as disruptive, directional and stabilizing.

  • Disruptive: the extreme statuses of a trait are favored over the intermediate values.
  • Directional: one extreme phenotype is favored and, even if determined by a recessive allele, will eventually become fixed.
  • Stabilizing: lowers diversity and favors the intermediate variants of a trait.

Stabilizing selection, which is not synonymous with negative selection, favors the average or intermediate over the extreme. In social terms, eccentricity or exceptionality would not be favored. There is a reversion or regression to the mean. For instance, after a few generations a “great family” typically declines in status to become an ordinary family. The exceptional wealth is typically not retained.

Stabilizing selection commonly uses negative selection (a.k.a. purifying selection) to select against extreme values of the character. Stabilizing selection is the opposite of disruptive selection. Instead of favoring individuals with extreme phenotypes, it favors the intermediate variants. It reduces phenotypic variation and maintains the status quo. Natural selection tends to remove the more severe phenotypes, resulting in the reproductive success of the norm or average phenotypes. (Wikipedia)

Disruptive (or diversifying) selection favors both extremes of a spectrum. We might think of an economy that increases the numbers of the rich and the poor while reducing the middle classes.

Luhmann argues,

For living beings, the function of restabilization is performed by the formation of populations–population being understood in this context as the reproductive isolation of a gene pool that can accept variations to a limited extent and include them in reproduction . . . Very few ecological factors still intervene, namely, only those that can inhibit reproduction. (291-93).

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One Response to Disequilibrium and the Fallacy of Composition

  1. Pingback: From equilibrium to information processing/ Informationsverarbeitungsprozess  | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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