This is a longer, and more philosophic, post that explores the nature of ecosystems (both biological and social) and the processes through which they evolve. It also frames the conflict problem as an effort to guide the evolution of the social system in ways that protect and advance the common good through  "power with" ways of resolving disputes. Conversely, we seek to limit the tendency of society to evolve toward oppressive, "power over" forms of social organization.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you see as promising strategies for promoting “power-with” efforts to govern the commons in ways that advance the common good?
  • What do you see as promising strategies for promoting a more enlightened view of self-interest – one that protects the commons and every one from devastating “I’ll fight you for it” conflicts.
  • Discuss either one of these questions in D15.

Full Transcript

Hi, this is Guy Burgess. As we have been saying in previous posts, the sort of focus of the moving beyond intractability seminar series has been an exploration into the idea that conflicts, especially intractable, large-scale social conflicts, are complex adaptive systems, not merely complicated systems. What this means is that dealing with intractable conflict is not like building some elaborate complicated structure. Instead, it's like improving an ecosystem. Here we're not talking about biological ecosystems, so much as social ecosystems.

The key, then, is to understand what ecosystems are and how they evolve, because that's, in fact, how you change them. They're not designed. They're not built. Nobody has control over Them. What we're talking about is improving the way in which they evolve. Now years ago, when I was in graduate school, I had the good fortune of working with Kenneth Boulding as a graduate student when he was writing the book Ecodynamics, which I still think is one of the most remarkable books that certainly I've ever read. What it does is lay out an ecodynamic or ecological view of the way the universe works, which governs not only the physical world and biological world, but also the social world. I think that offers a window into understanding the nature of the systems, at least with respect to the kind of difficult conflicts we're talking about.

Now the core of Boulding's book is built around this notion of creation. He called it the KEM Saga: the combination of knowledge, energy, and materials, or know-how, energy, and materials. The most important part of this notion of know-how or information is that somehow or another you've got information that knows how to combine materials and energy to create new things, and this changes over time. Then those new things interact in an ecosystem in ways that select for some things, and not for others.

So he started by saying, "I suspect that ecological principles govern the evolution of the physical universe," although that happened a long time ago, and it's something that cosmologists are just starting to figure out. But the basic idea was that there was know-how embedded in the structure of matter -- electrons, protons, and all the subatomic particles -- which knows how to link up with some other particles and atoms, but not others, and that again you have the set of evolutionary interactions that govern how some physical structures survived. Others didn't. So the notion of evolutionary creation going way back before life on still makes sense, I think, but that's getting way out of the realm in which I know anything about, really, so I'll put that off to the side.

But we do know a lot about biological evolution. Here, we see the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first hit on the idea of how the phenomenal differentiation of species in the sophistication of life emerged, and here what you have is the same sort of thing: the combination of know-how, energy, and materials. But in the biological world, know-how was embodied in DNA, in bio genetics. The formula of life knew how to construct a wide range of plants and animals based on their genetic makeup. That again led to interactions in the ecosystem, and some survived and others didn't, and produced populations in the phenomenal world that we know now.

Now the thing about biological know-how that I think is so remarkable is that an awful lot of it is a instinctual, and a lot of it is encoded in DNA. Heidi and I spent a lot of time birdwatching. There are birds that do phenomenal things. There's one that on nests in northern Great Britain, flies without landing all the way around Antarctica, and flies back to the same spot. It knows how to do that because of instincts that are embedded in DNA. It didn't go to school. It didn't go to navigation class. It can't read the stars. But somehow, it can do it. So in the biological world, instinctual learning is prominent. Learned learning  also occurs. Plants and animals, especially animals, can sense the environment around them. They can learn a lot, and they get very clever. So it's not like that kind of learning doesn't exist; it's just not as dominant is the instinctual-based learning.

Next, you get the whole range of ecological interactions that occur with all of these individuals that are driven by DNA. This is the list of all the different kinds of relationships that I got off Wikipedia. But basically, you have a long-term drive towards increasing specialization, where wherever there is a niche that some planner animal can figure out how to survive, it'll take that. This is a picture of spring beauty. It's a flower that only grows on to top of the highest peaks in Colorado, and it has a very long route so it can actually grow in boulder fields where there isn't any soil for five to ten feet underground. But it still survives, and it's that kind of specialization and creativity that comes out of biological eco-dynamics. You can trace this way back to the beginning of cellular life. You have the explosion of life that occurred in Cambrian times, and the 500 million years since then, and that takes us to now. If we look at the world that has evolved, it is truly awe-inspiring.

The other thing that's key is that unlike a complicated system, or the physical world where atoms do the same thing every time, here in the biological world individuals -- and there are multitudes and multitudes of these individuals -- are all pursuing their own self-interest based on instincts and their perceptions around them. So what you have is this process of perception and decision-making that's driving behavior, that produces a vastly different kind of world.

The evolution of this has been very slow. It's been 500 million years since the sort of higher forms of life started to emerge, and the process of innovation -- that is mutations that lead to variations on species, and ultimately to new species, and allow plants and animals to try to adapt to new niches -- has been very slow and very local. Things have to be proven, and last often for millions of years in a local area before they can spread around the planet. This process by any reasonable definition has produced the intelligent evolution of life. It may not be a supreme being, but in a sense, you're building off the intelligence of everything that ever lived. The result is at least the biosphere as we saw before humans started to evolve, and it is certainly reasonable to say that humans have started to destroy this. There is certainly reason to believe that we're going to be as big of an extinction event as the commet that did in the dinosaurs.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).