Research programs and perspectives have their origins in our own life stories; it is more honest and often quite helpful to place what we do in its personal as well as its professional context. Much of my own research comes from a lifelong effort to combine my early interests and training in theoretical physics with my later curiosity about social and cultural systems. The hierarchical multi-level systems approach I take here was developed over many stimulating years of informal collaboration with a developmental and evolutionary biologist (Salthe 1985, 1993), who was a colleague and good friend. My belief that language, and more generally all our symbolic resource for making meaning, are critical to understanding human behavior also developed through another personal collaboration, with a leading social linguist (Halliday 1978, 1994). As my research interests turned first to understanding education in science (Lemke 1990), and then to the social and cultural systems in which educational and scientific practice are embedded (Lemke 1995), I drew on my reading of the physics of dynamic open systems (especially Prigogine 1961, 1962 and von Bertalanffy 1950). As I added perspectives from developmental and evolutionary biology (e.g. Waddington 1968-72, Lorenz 1965), I gradually began to realize that the larger project on which I was embarked was ultimately the integration of both semiotic insights and those from the study of complex systems.
When I first came to the study of education in science, education was dominated by the discipline of psychology and the renewed emphasis on mentalism that came from Piaget and the later cognitive science paradigm, especially in the United States. Even linguistics was being pulled out of the realm of the social into an imaginary second reality, apart from the world of physical bodies and social interactions, and traditionally known as ‘Mind’. Although, as a physicist, I could admire the formal mathematical structuralism of both Piaget and Chomsky, I could not join in their philosophical acceptance of Descartes’ mind vs. matter dualism. At least Piaget, starting from a biological training, took a sophisticated view of how developmental trajectories depended on our interactions in the social and material world. Chomsky increasingly retreated into mentalist innatism, and took most of cognitive psychology with him.
For me education and science were both social and cultural activities. You learned to make sense of the world using the vocabulary, tools, procedures, and symbolic systems of a community of scientists, with a long history. How? How did reading articles, participating in lectures and seminars, talking with experienced physicists, doing laboratory work … How did it all come to add up to a new way of thinking, a new way of talking and writing and calculating and making sense of the phenomena of science and nature? What was the critical information that was shared in these activities? How did it come to be organized into ways of doing, specific practices, systems of interrelated concepts, procedures, beliefs, values, and attitudes? How did I become a physicist, and what did my trajectory have in common with those of many others?
So I turned from Piaget to Vygotsky and his contemporary followers (e.g. Cole 1996) for a more social view of learning, still rooted in biological development. I turned from Chomsky to Halliday for a view of language not as an inherent structuring tendency of the human mind but as a system of resources for making shared social meanings in a community. I grew with the times from the seductive formal structuralism of Piaget, Chomsky, and Levi-Straus to a more dynamic view of how we make meaning: contingently within changing situations, sensitively to context, recursively and meta-communicatively, imaginatively – deploying culturally shared resources in ways that are unique in each instance, time-dependent, and organized across multiple scales from the neurological to the social.
There was one more step in setting up the perspective I will use in this paper to formulate and examine the basic problems of dynamic complexity in biosocial systems. Social science, especially theory, at the time I began trying to apply it to studying education and intellectual development were dominated by sociology, and for sociologists a social system consisted of people and relationships among people. But my own research and the theoretical model of Vygotsky both suggested that people could be the whole story. People learn and develop through interaction with tools, artifacts, and symbolic displays as well as through interaction with other people. The system in which the dynamic processes I wanted to study took place had to have its boundaries drawn properly; physics taught me that. I was not the only one looking to expand the definition of social system; the anthropological tradition had long insisted on include ‘material culture’ and ‘symbolic culture’ in its accounts, and Gregory Bateson (1972) had argued forcefully that making meaning depended on the complete circuit from organism to environment and back again. He was in good company with Heidegger, von Uexkull, J. J. Gibson, and others. He wanted ‘an ecology of mind’; I prefer to call it ‘an ecosystem with meaning’.
My collaborations with Stan Salthe in the 1980s helped me understand better that the biological hierarchy was an integrated one, with discrete levels of organization that bordered those of molecular chemistry and atomic physics at one extreme, and that in the other direction extended well beyond the level of the whole individual organism to include local and regional ecosystems, the total planetary biosphere, and in some persuasive models, the whole planet in its astronomical and cosmological setting. Ecosystems seemed to me a far better model for schools and communities than previous organic analogies to organisms. Ecosystems were also properly defined as systems to include the soil and the landscape, the solar energy flux, the inorganic as well as organic components, and not just the biota as such. Ecosystems were dynamic open systems, dissipative structures, metastable, evolved, following successional ‘developmental’ trajectories, embedded in larger organizational systems, historical, individuated.
Only one thing appeared to be missing: the semiotic component. Language, symbolic representations, and values had to be added to make a human ecosystem, a social or social-semiotic ecosystem. But the result would still be an ecosystem. An specialized kind of ecosystem, evolved and differentiated from its predecessors, but still just another variety of ecosystem. Language was a mode of animal behavior, and so was the use of other symbolic resource systems (drawings, mathematics, gestures). What difference did they make? The nature of communication between humans was changed in a variety of ways, but so was the nature of human interaction with other components of the total ecosystem. Humans acted so as to influence the distributions and flows of all components in the ecosystem, directly or indirectly, as do all lifeforms. But when symbolic value plays a role in human action, we cannot describe or account for the dynamics of the system as a whole without knowing how human activities and social practices create new, meaning-dependent and value-dependent couplings among ecosystem processes.
You can’t account for the flows and distributions in a social-semiotic ecosystem unless you take into account the meanings and cultural values that things, species, and processes/practices have for people, which affects how human act. Economic value, cultural value, and meaning are not determined solely by material properties. Which crops are planted, which pests eradicated, which minerals mined; how much water diverted where, what kinds of cities built, which chemicals vented, where energy resources are allocated – all depend on how people make meaning with and about matter as well as how we interact with it physically, chemically, and biologically. Indeed the latter is parasitic on the former, which is why ecosocial systems are a more specialized type of ecosystems in general, differentiated and evolved.
Ecosocial systems (Lemke 1993, 1995, 2000a, 2000b) are complex, multi-scale, self-organizing systems of interdependent processes/practices (including the participants in these processes) that transfer and transform matter, energy, and information in all the same ways that other ecosystems do, but also in ways that depend on what system constituents and processes mean for human agents. (See Table 1 below for a subclassification, or specification hierarchy, identifying the features which distinguish each more specified class of systems from the next more general class; each more specified class inherits all the properties of the classes above it. Examples illustrate, where possible, only the new properties. Discussion in Lemke 2000b.)
Meaning making, or semiosis, is a material process not much more complex than many other forms of organism behavior. Indeed it can be argued that rudimentary precursors to human semiosis occur in single-celled organisms and may have played a role in the origin of life itself (Hoffmeyer & Emmeche1991, Hoffmeyer 1997). Human semiosis goes beyond the rudimentary classifying power of elementary biosemiosis and gives us the means to interpret complex patterns which have a high degree of arbitrariness in relation to what they mean for us. With this power we have an incentive to create and play with possible meanings in a vastly enlarged semiotic space. Many of our creations will have no adaptive value in themselves, but they can still, over biographical and historical time, lead to communities and ecosocial systems which are unique and distinctive because in them we do things in certain ways rather than in others. The impact of our doings on the total ecosystem can in turn, over still longer timescales, make our initially arbitrary or neutral symbolic practices end up being adaptive for a world we have shaped through them.
Table 1. Specification hierarchy nesting ecosocial systems
System Types/Classes Additional Properties
Elementary Dynamical Systems
(electrons, atoms, small molecules) Energy, mass, identicality
Macroscopic Systems with Irreversibility
(paper clips, balloons, water droplets) Entropy, memory, aging, identity
Dissipative Structures = Dynamic Open Systems
(flames, dust-devils, hurricanes) Emergent organization, individuality, developmental trajectory
Autocatalytic Self-Organizing Systems
(Cairns-Smith clays, Eigen-Schuster hypercycles) Autocatalytic-crosscatalytic interdependencies
(Salthe dust-devils, ...) Recapitulation of evolvable type-specific trajectory
Genetic Evolutionary Systems
(Ecosystems > organisms; A-life configurations) Recombinant, transferable genotypes
(Ecosystems-with-cultures > semiotic practices-with-persons)
Meaning-construal-dependent material activities