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Herbert Simon’s parable of the watchmakers was constructed to convey his belief that complex systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms present in that evolutionary process than if they are not present.

Arthur Koestler built on this in his 1967 book “The Ghost in the Machine“, in the process coining the term holon to denote something that is simultaneously a whole or a part, depending on how you look at it. Here Mark Edwards explaining this duality:

Every identifiable unit of organization, such as a single cell in an animal or a family unit in a society, comprises more basic units (mitochondria and nucleus, parents and siblings) while at the same time forming a part of a larger unit of organization (a muscle tissue and organ, community and society). A holon, as Koestler devised the term, is an identifiable part of a system that has a unique identity, yet is made up of sub-ordinate parts and in turn is part of a larger whole.

Importantly, Koestler further described holons as

… autonomous, self-reliant units that possess a degree of independence and handle contingencies without asking higher authorities for instructions. These holons are also simultaneously subject to control from one or more of these higher authorities. The first property ensures that holons are stable forms that are able to withstand disturbances, while the latter property signifies that they are intermediate forms, providing a context for the proper functionality for the larger whole. [Summary text from wikipedia]

Though the terminology is different, I am sure the key tenets of Koestler’s principles will resonate with most people in software. Certainly, the importance of meaningful wholes (within the context of a wider system) is well recognized, and reflected in established principles such as Single Responsibility and Reuse Release Equivalency. Similarly, most would agree that the ability to withstand disturbances is hugely desirable, though we generally talk about this in terms of agility (or its converse fragility). The one aspect that might jar a little is the reference to higher authorities – I’ll revisit this later in the context of Emergent Design.

Koestler also introduced the term holarchy to denote a hierarchy of holons. As I suggested in my previous post on this subject area, I rather feel that, mostly, today’s software thinking tends to buy Koestler’s notions on holons but fall down on holarchy. Specifically, we tend to pay little or no attention to the world of complexity between the low-level coding constructs (classes, methods) and the unit of deployment (jar, dll).

Just as one example of this, see Bob Martin’s Principles of OO Development. He describes five principles that apply to the class level, and six that operate at the unit of deployment. Nothing inbetween. Similarly, and related, there are lots and lots of (not necessarily very useful) metrics that measure aspects of classes and methods, but there is an almost complete vacuum at the (what Booch would have called) “class cluster” level. One of the very few exceptions to this is DMS and related stability metrics for Java packages (based on Martin’s Acyclic Dependencies Principle). However, and somewhat amusingly, it would seem that these metrics only came into being because of confusion over Martin’s use of the term “package” (apparently, he actually intended this to denote unit of deployment)…

The situation changes instantly if we embrace hierarchy, holarchy. I do not see this as anything particularly radical, rather just a generalizing of existing principles. However, the ramifications could be quite far reaching. In the next two posts, I will explain for example how holarchy opens the door to automated visualization and holistic measurement.


  1.  The parable of the two watchmakers « sutts on software

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