Learning is reductionist but understanding is holistic.....or is it the reverse????

The opposing philosophical constructs of holism and atomism [reductionism] go back to Greek philosophers of the 5th century trying to understand the world by appealing to reason. These approaches have been at war ever since, each winning some major battles. Specialization and the reductionist approach has been so successful in the progress of science that we have a plethora of sophistication going down to very fundamental levels of analysis. How all of this reflects back into understanding nature, and how it interacts with the complexity of modern society, brings the struggle between these contrasting views to the forefront in a critical way. This is reflected in the emergence of holistic vs reductionist clashes in such diverse areas as religion and belief systems, medicine, politics and social thought, conservation and management, economics and science. Steinbeck and Ricketts were holistic thinkers ahead of their times in both social thought and the emerging field of ecology. This class will employ their lives and writings as introductions into informal philosophical considerations of the reductionist and holistic approaches to complex systems.

1. Holism in nature, society and religion.

2. Ricketts: Non-teleological Thinking and Breaking Through

3. Chaos and complexity: Can we understand and predict nature?

4. Holism and policy: Fisheries, aquaculture, marine reserves and shore development.



The course will be a blend of science and humanities that will serve to develop a platform from which to explore new paths to understanding the interactions between human society and the natural world. Philosophy deals with the nature of reality and how can we know it. Decisions must be based on rational argument rather than faith or obedience. This also describes the human endeavor we call science which historically was the offspring of philosophy. Lectures, discussion, reading, and group and individual projects will provide opportunities to explore reductionist vs holistic approaches to understanding complex systems as well as the potential synergism deriving from their combination. A short introduction to holism can be found at http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/holism.html. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html when queried for "holism" will yield an extensive list of topics in philosophy. A good and readable introduction to the philosophy of science is What is this thing called Science by A. F. Chalmers, and the skimpy index has no citation for holism.


Ed Ricketts labored over these two complex essays to express his philosophical world-view. Non-teleological Thinking is included in the text of The Log to the Sea of Cortez and has confused readers for generations. Here are six lines from the sixteen pages in the book to give an essence of his views.

In such a pattern [the structure of our universe], causality would be merely a name for something that exists only in our partial and biased mental reconstructings. The pattern which it indexes, however, would be real, but not intellectually apperceivable because the pattern goes everywhere and is everything and cannot be encompassed by finite mind or by anything short of life--which it is.

The essays probably represent his rebellion against reductionist specialization in science and a way to counter simplistic, self-satisfying thinking (which he labeled 'teleological') with a combination of deep understanding and acceptance of the unresolvable. The philosophy of science has come a long way in the last sixty years and we will try to understand what Ricketts was trying to say and how it may correspond to this pluralistic discipline.


The incredible success of specialization and reductionist approaches in all branches of science creates a paradox. As we analyze any complex system, we find simple laws and regularities as we approach lower and more fundamental levels. We can map the genetic blueprint of a species but given a genetic blueprint of an unknown we cannot predict the organism it would produce? How are frogs, coral reefs and symphonies inherent in the fundamental laws of physics that structure the cosmos? If a group of ecologists studies a community at a site and establishes species population dynamics, species interactions and how they respond to environmental forcing, how well does this knowledge transfer to similar sites and how well can we predict future species or community states? What if it is a fishery? How and why do consciousness and free will emerge from neuronal activity in the brain....or do they? Appeal to chaos, complexity theory, systems analysis and a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to unraveling complex issues have become common over the last few decades. A recent initiative of the National Science Foundation is the support of biocomplexity research to understand the dynamics of human society coupled to natural systems. The holistic nature of this approach is treated in the 2001 paper, Defining and Unraveling Biocomplexity (BioScience. 51)


For a very long time ecologists at major universities avoided applied problems and participation in policy decisions. Those who did research on fisheries, forestry and agriculture were usually in separate departments and there was no interaction with ecologists. Rachel Carson and Silent Spring may have started an environmental awakening, and soon after Paul Erlich began to voice a highly public concern about potential environmental impacts of human population growth. This began a movement in ecology that has grown to the point that most ecologists both work on environmental issues and do what they can to influence policy decisions. An excellent introduction to recommendations for ocean policy is the PEW Ocean Commission's report America's Living Oceans. PEW has additional reports on marine aquaculture, marine protected areas, ecosystem based fisheries management and other conservation issues. All are responsible and thoughtful contributions. As we deal with establishing management policy for large natural systems that interact with human society, holistic approaches become ever more important.