Short works

Books : reviews

Howard H. Pattee, ed.
Hierarchy Theory: the challenge of complex systems.
George Braziller. 1973

We are well into a decade in which man can no longer evade the responsibility for his own survival. This is not a question of survival over geological or evolutionary time spans. It is a question of survival of his children and grandchildren in a society dominated by increasingly complex local constraints, but lacking stability and rational control.

It is a central lesson of biological evolution that increasing complexity of organization is always accompanied by new levels of hierarchical controls. The loss of these controls at any level is usually malignant for the organization under that level. Furthermore, our experience with many different types of complex systems, both natural and artificial, warns us that loss of hierarchical controls often results in sudden and catastrophic failure. Simple tools may wear out slowly and predictably, but as systems grow in size and complexity they reach a limit where a new level of hierarchical control is necessary if the system is to function reliably.

This is common knowledge to administrators, industrial managers, systems engineers, and to anyone who has successfully operated a complex organization, but all too often this knowledge has only come from trial and error type of experience. The theory and understanding of complex hierarchical systems is still in a rudimentary state.

This book explores the nature of hierarchical organization from different points of view. The aim is to give a broad perspective of the problem in non-technical language. The contributors agree that the problems of hierarchical organization are of universal and fundamental significance, and that we must learn much more about their origin and evolution if we are to claim any abilities to rationally control the complexities of survival which we now face.

The papers were originally presented to a diverse audience with the hope of emphasizing the fundamental necessity of hierarchical control in all living organizations, as well as generating more interest and support toward solving fundamental problems of the origin and functioning of complex hierarchical organizations.

The purpose of this volume remains much the same; however, the editor of The International Library of Systems Theory and Philosophy has asked me to give further examples of hierarchical control, as well as some ideas on the directions the development of hierarchy theory may take. I have tried to do this in a postscript, as well as point out some of the fundamental problems about hierarchical control, which we must solve before we can safely predict the consequences of imposing such controls artificially on biological organizations.


Herbert A. Simon. The organization of complex systems. 1973
Clifford Grobstein. Hierarchical order and neogenesis. 1973
James Bonner. Hierarchical control programs in biological development. 1973
The physical basis and origin of hierarchical control. 1973
Richard Levins. The limits of complexity. 1973
Unsolved problems and potential applications of hierarchy theory. 1973