Dialectics and systems theoryThe new Fall issue of SCIENCE & SOCIETY is a special issue devoted to "dialectics: The New Frontier." It features noted Marxist scholars Bertell Ollman and Tony Smith as the guest editors and includes articles by such noted Marxists as Frederic Jameson, Richard Levins, Nancy Hartsock, Istevan Meszaros and Joel Kovel amongst others. This issue attempts to cover many of the important questions concerning dialectics why Marxism needs dialectics in the first place, whether Marx's dialectic constitutes a reflection of what the world really is (ontological dialectics)or is it a method for investigating the world (epistemological dialectics)or both. Does the dialectic apply just to history and society or does it apply to nature in general (dialectics of nature)? Is dialectical analysis applicable just to organic interactions within capitalism or is it generally applicable to historical change? Was dialectics for Marx primarily a method of exposition (especially for *Capital*) or was it also a method of inquiry as well? Also, which dialectical categories: contradictions, internal relations, the negation of the negation etc. were of central importance for Marx?
One interesting article is the one by Richard Levins, "Dialectics and Systems Theory." Levins attempts to answer the question of whether or not the development of a rigorous, quantitative mathematical systems theory makes dialectics obsolete. That is a question that Barkley Rosser and others here (if not on this list then on earlier lists like the old M-I and M-SCI) have dealt with. As Levins notes his friend the evolutionary biologist, John Maynard Smith, has argued that that systems theory has made dialectics obsolete because it offers a set of concepts like "feedback" in place of Engels' notion of the "interchange between cause and effect", the "threshold effect" in place of the mysterious "transformation of quantity into quality" and that the notion of the "negation of the negation" is one that he never could make sense of.
Levin, however, disagrees with Maynard Smith and he contends that dialectics should not be subsumed into systems theory while at the same time acknowledging that in his opinion contemporary systems theory does constitute an important example of modern science becoming more dialectical albeit in an incomplete, halting and inconsistent manner. As he point out systems theory is a "moment' in the investigation of complex systems which facilitates the formulation of problems and the interpretation of solutions so that mathematical models can be constructed that will make the obscure obvious. At the same Levins stresses that systems theory is still a product of the reductionist tradition in modern science which emerged out of that tradition's struggle to come to terms with complexity, non-linearity and change through the use of sophisticated mathematical models.
Richard Levins in beginning his article with an account of his exchanges with John Maynard Smith over whether or not mathematical systems theory can replace dialectics raises in my mind some interesting questions. First, it is worth noting that Maynard Smith, himself, is best known for his work in the application of game theory to elucidating Darwinian theory. John Maynard Smith has along with other evolutionists like William Hamilton. George Williams, and Richard Dawkins elaborated an interpretation of Darwinism that takes a "gene's eye" view of evolution - that in other words treats not organisms but individual genes within the gene pool of a given population as the units of selection. This conception arose out of Hamilton's work in developing Darwinian explanations of altruism. Hamilton concluded that altruism could not be explained if we took individual organisms as the basic units of selection since altruistic behavior almost by definition impairs the reproductive fitness of the individual organism by acting in the interests of other organisms at the expense of its own interests. Hamilton argued that such behavior becomes explicable once we realize that it is individual genes that are the units of selection. Thus, if an organism sacrifices itself to protect the lives of its siblings or offspring it is in fact ensuring that its own genes survive into future generations through its siblings or offspring so natural section will favor such behavior.
Hamilton and fellow theorists like George Williams argued that it is possible to understand evolution at the gene level if we postulate that genes are acting like rational self-interested actors or what Dawkins call "selfish genes." Maynard Smith has taken this a few steps further by using game theory to show what kinds of strategies that genes (conceived of as being rational and self-interested) will adopt to ensure their survival either in competition or in cooperation with other genes. Thus he has given to evolutionary biology such concepts as that of the evolutionary stable strategy which in his view offers us an important way for understanding evolution.
I have heard that Maynard Smith is either a Marxist or (depending on the source an ex-Marxist). What is striking to me is how his arguments against dialectics parallel the ones that some Analytical Marxists have advanced. What is even more interesting is the fact that one school of Analytical Marxism - the Rational Choice Marxism of John Roemer and Jon Elster draws heavily upon game theory(the favorite of Maynard Smith in his own work) in its reconstruction of Marxian theory. Therefore, while Maynard Smith himself, may look to systems theory as an adequate replacement for dialectics the some Analytical Marxists like Roemer and Elster look to rational choice theory including especially game theory for replacing dialectics. Indeed, there is I think much to be said for this position. Much of the Marxian analysis of the contradictions of capitalism can IMO be expressed in the language of game theory. The Prisoners' Dilemma Game provides us an excellent model for illustrating how individual rationality can under certain conditions lead to collective irrationality and that is quite relevant in illustrating the irrationalities of capitalism.
In the end just as Levins concludes that while systems theory cannot replace dialectics since it constitutes an attempt of a reductionist science tradition to cope with complexity, non-linearity, and and change through sophisticated mathematical modeling, the same can be said for rational choice theory. In either case the dialectician is likely to find much of value but in neither case can these valuable but limited tools take the place of dialectical thought.