THE SYNTROPY RATIO
— Hazel Henderson Futurist & Author, Beyond Globalisation.
The syntropy ratio theory is based on the concept of autopoiesis created by the biologist Humberto Maturana, the neuroscientist Francisco Varela and Ricardo B. Uribe at the University of Santiago in Chile in 1973. They characterised the living system as an organisation that is (a) autopoietic, i.e. self-producing, (b) autonomous, (c) cognitive, (d) structurally coupled to the envir-onment which contains it, (e) thus embedded in a larger whole, (f) constituted as a network of components organised to produce the system they embody and to bring forth the cognitive world of their experience, and (f) whose identity is thus defined by the system’s organisation rather than by its structure. They wrote "Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system.” Autopoiesis is the basis of the Santiago theory of cognition which created a paradigm-shift by grounding philosophy, epistemology & cognitive science in biology. Maturana and Varela further developed their concept in their landmark paper Autopoiesis: a characterisation of the living system, in 1980.
Michael O'Callaghan took part in a related seminar by Varela a year later at the Lindisfarne Association in New York, and then applied his definition of autopoiesis to formulate the syntropy ratio as a biocognitive concept. As mentioned above, he defined the syntropy ratio as the measure of a living organisation’s cognitive capacity in relation to the relevant complexity of the world it inhabits. A living organisation obviously requires a ratio of 1:1 or more to be able to make sense of its situation, compensate for perturbations, respond to opportunities, and thus maintain its sovereignty and responsibility for its own survival and possible evolution. O'Callaghan calls this routine autopoiesis. But it goes to follow that if the relevant complexity of the world it inhabits increases, the organisation may eventually have to compensate by increasing its cognitive capacity accordingly. There are two ways to do this. If the organisation contains sufficient available resources of the right kind (such as atoms, molecules, proteins etc.) inside the boundary that separates it from its external environment, it may be able to redeploy them into its cognitive system for this purpose. This secondary autopoiesis enables the organisation to increase its cognitive capacity until it exhausts the supply of requisite resources inside its boundary. At this point, even a small increase in the complexity-requiring-to be processed will trigger systemic dysfunction, "information overload” and syntropy ratio collapse. This is the moment of existential crisis when the organisation dies (or the species becomes limited or extinct) unless it can expand its cognitive system beyond its limits by embodying new resources that were previously located outside its boundary. O'Callaghan call this primary autopoiesis. This transformative leap enables the organisation to restore its syntropy ratio, overcome the crisis, and maintain its organisational identity by changing its structure. The syntropy ratio theory thus enables us to reconsider biological (and social) evolution is a multilevel open-ended cognitive learning process involving periodic structural change of the organism's cognitive system.
We see this structural change in the biological evolution of the single-celled Euglena into its multi-cellular descendants Volvox (with specialised cells for improved photosynthesis, vision, locomotion etc). We see it in the caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly meta-morphosis. We see it in the horizontal gene transfer between species —including the endosymbiotic merger of primitive bacteria and viruses into larger eukaryotic cells (which may contain nuclei, mitochondria & chloroplasts etc.) —the structural basis of all subsequent plants and animals which Ernst Mayr called "perhaps the most important and dramatic event in the history of life". We see it in the evolution from single to multicellular organisms, specialised organs, central nervous systems, brains and human societies with our cognitive system expanded by language, learning, transmissible knowledge, shared worldviews and institutions. We see it in the evolution from tribes to kingdoms and empires, from dictatorships to democracies, in the creation of the UN, in Earth satellite monitoring, in companies that change their legal structures to integrate people & planet in their bottom line, and in the IPCC. Syntropy Ratio theory thus enables us to redefine biology and evolution as a cognitive process in which living creatures expand their sense-making capacity to adapt to change and inhabit new, more complex ecosocial niches.
Can Homo sapiens adapt to the complexity of our planetary world? Our institutions are unable to cope. This is a classic case of syntropy ratio imbalance. To increase the cognitive capacity of our body politic, all stakeholders must now engage in collective sensemaking to forge enough of a shared global vision to be able to collaborate and manage the crisis as best we can. We must thus reconnect democracy with individual common sense— the greatest untapped resource of our age. This is the essence of creative system change.