Suboptimisation

Suboptimisation means that a system is being analysed or managed at too low a systems level. In systems analysis, suboptimisation leads to false conclusions. In systems management, it leads to material damage to the system. Suboptimisation is the equivalent of "not seeing the forest for the trees" or "arguing from the particular to the general". It will transpire that, in the analysis and management of our crop pathosystems, we have been suboptimising to an incredible extent, for the whole of the twentieth century. And our crop pathosystems have been damaged accordingly.

A simple example of suboptimisation comes from considering the systems levels of a book. Consider a Shakespeare play, and the personality of, say, Hamlet. This personality is an emergent. It is so complex that every great actor can have a different, although valid, interpretation of it. But the personality of Hamlet is discernible only in terms of the play as a whole. If that personality is examined in terms of only one act, one scene, one speech, one sentence, or one word, the examination will become increasingly incomplete, and increasingly inadequate.

Suboptimisation results from two distinct factors. The first, and most important, is that emergents can be discerned only at their own systems levels. An emergent cannot be discerned from lower systems levels. The personality of Hamlet is an emergent from the play as a whole. Anyone who studies that personality from only one subsystem cannot see the entire personality, and will inevitably suboptimise, reaching inadequate, and false, conclusions concerning it. The second factor contributing to suboptimisation is that other subsystems tend to be ignored and neglected. Inevitably, the systems analysis is then incomplete and inaccurate. And the systems management is inappropriate.

Two examples will illustrate the importance of these points. Richard Dawkins (1976), in a popular book called The Selfish Gene, produced what must surely be the ultimate suboptimisation, the extreme of reductionism. He attempts, light-heartedly no doubt, to explain the evolutionary emergents of the most complex living organisms in terms of the 'selfish gene'. This approximates to explaining the character of Hamlet in terms of a single letter of the alphabet.

At the opposite extreme, Vernadsky (1926), working at the highest systems level, developed the concept of the biosphere, but his work was largely ignored in the West. Then James Lovelock (1972) suggested that the entire biosphere was a single, self-organising system. He called this idea The Gaia Hypothesis. At the time, most scientists rejected his idea out of hand. But Lovelock is undoubtedly right, and his idea has already had a profound influence on the life sciences. It is also an emergent that was previously unobserved, because no one was working at that high a systems level, and the extraordinary beauty of our planet when seen from space was then quite new.

A lot of suboptimisation has occurred in crop science because of too much specialisation, and too many 'water-tight' compartments. Crop science has been divided into the principle schools of genetics, pathology, entomology, horticulture, and agronomy, and each school usually became a separate research or university department, often isolated in its own building. The members of one school rarely spoke to the members of the other schools, or to related schools, such as ecology, systems theory, and evolutionary biology. Possibly the worst example of suboptimisation in crop science involved the misuse of the vertical subsystem (see 5.3). In fact, most of our studies of the crop pathosystem during the twentieth century have been distorted by suboptimisation. As a consequence, the crop pathosystem has been seriously mismanaged, and this is why we now use crop protection chemicals costing billions of dollars a year, and suffer pre-harvest crop losses of nearly 25% (Pimental et al, 1993) in spite of the use of these expensive and hazardous chemicals.

0 0

Post a comment