What might it mean to ‘surrender sovereignty’ using biological metaphors?

The Tavistock Institute community was well aware of the challenges presented by ecosystems (Trist and Murray 1997), addressing the different nature of turbulent environments (Emery and Trist 1965), the referent or regulative organizations that arose within them (Trist 1983), and the vortical consequences of maladaptation to them (Baburoglu 1988). These challenges arose from these turbulent environments having a life of their own such that the ‘ground’ on which organizations were operating was itself in motion. The previous blog argued that it was in these turbulent environments that sovereignty had to be surrendered:

“This surrender of sovereignty in turbulent environments exposes the organisation to primary risk (Hirschhorn 1999), the risk that the primary task relation to any one customer’s context-of-use has not been defined in a way that satisfies the ‘multi-sided’ demands arising within that customer’s context-of-use.”

The blog argued that the external regulatory hierarchy of the cybernetic approach (Beer 1981) was unable to account for the dynamic nature of an organisation’s models required under these conditions (Froese and Stewart 2010).  In Bertalanffy’s terms (Bertalanffy 1950), drawing on parallels to living biological systems, applying the cybernetic approach to socio-technical open systems failed to account for adaptability being a general property of an organization competing within turbulent environments.

Before considering how such a general property might be understood, however, this blog first considers what ‘surrendering sovereignty’ might mean in terms of biological metaphors.

Using biological metaphors to describe business ecosystems

Here is an example of the use of the biological metaphor applied to business ecosystems:

“Like biological ecosystems, business ecosystems are formed by large, loosely connected networks of entities. Like species in biological ecosystems, firms interact with each other in complex ways, and the health and performance of each firm is dependent on the health and performance of the whole. Firms and species are therefore simultaneously influenced by their internal capabilities and by their complex interactions with the rest of the ecosystem.” (Iansiti and Levien 2004: p34)

While this use of the metaphor emphasises the interdependencies between the different members of an ecosystem, it still leaves the place of any individual member subject to the exigencies created by competition based on the survival of the fittest. James Moore used the ecosystem metaphor to describe “the cauldron of competition” in which the Darwinian survivors were the “vigorous and tenacious defenders of their niches” (Moore 1996b: p22):

“Instead of thinking of your “company,” think in terms of species or organisms. In today’s sophisticated world, an organism can be a process, department, business unit, or an entire company. Instead of thinking of your “customer-supplier network,” or your “extended enterprise,” think of your ecosystem, which can be far larger and richer than your immediate network.” (Moore 1996b: pp25-26)

The environment of this ecosystem was its end customers who valued what the community of allies within the ecosystem had to offer:

“A total experience is ultimately provided to customers. The total experience depends not only on the core product or service but on a variety of complementary offers that enhance the customer experience. … A continuing “innovation trajectory” of decreasing prices and expanding performance is established. End customers and allies become convinced that this core business will bring them the future – in addition to being there for them in the present. … End customers and community members come to feel that the alliances that make up the ecosystem are well led. … [creating] a “virtuous cycle” of investment and return. The cycle is double-looped to achieve continuous improvement in both the core offer and in the community of allies.” (Moore 1996b: pp30-31)

Understood in this way, the challenge to the sovereignty of any one enterprise was to be able to retain its place in the ecosystem’s community of allies as it engaged in its double-looped ‘virtuous cycle’ in service to the future interests of its end customers. The external regulatory hierarchy of the cybernetic approach was still sufficient to meeting this challenge to the sovereignty of an organisation, subject to the evolutionary pressures of ‘survival of the fittest’:

“… evolution is a two-part process: mutation and natural selection. It begins with random genetic change (mutation) in an offspring. Then, as proposed by Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species, the process of natural selection takes over. In natural selection the unfit organisms are eliminated as a result of selective pressures in the environment.” (Fulmer 2000: p37)

There was no surrendering of sovereignty here, but only processes of random mutation, i.e., market competition, in which there was the ceding of a current place within an ecosystem through processes of Darwinian natural selection.

Enter the holobiont

A holobiont associates an individual host and its microbiota, while a hologenome represents the entire metagenome of a holobiont.

“This definition does not impose any restriction on the phylogenetic origin of holobiont-constituting organisms, neither on the relationships established between them, nor on the dynamics of holobiont assembly. … The microbiota is the assemblage of microorganisms present in a defined environment, and the microbiome refers to the entire habitat (biome suffix), including the microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes, and viruses), their genomes (i.e. genes), and the surrounding environmental conditions.” (Faure, Simon, and Heulin 2018)

This concept of a holobiont (Faure, Simon, and Heulin 2018) introduces a ‘whole’ that distinguishes the host organism from its symbiotic virome, microbiome and other contributing organisms within its internal and external environments. The concept nevertheless continues to be problematic because of the challenges it faces in defining a holobiont as an ecological unit[1] (Douglas and Werren 2016). With holobionts, the Darwinian dynamic proves to be an insufficient explanation of the dynamics of adaptation:

“It is now apparent that all multicellular eukaryotes are holobionts (Gilbert 2014; Miller Jr 2013). There are no exceptions. The extensive linkages between eukaryotic cells and their microbial partners in localized tissue ecologies maintain metabolism, the immune system, and general balance of health that sustain eukaryotic macroorganisms. Until recently, our general regard of the microbial sphere was principally one of combat. Instead, our truer narrative is one of collaboration, co-linkage, and co-dependency as well as more obvious competition. Growing evidence suggests that reciprocal signaling between eukaryotic cells and their collaborating microbial partners significantly influences normal development of the eukaryotic individual (Gilbert 2014; Lee and Mazmanian 2010; McFall-Ngai et al. 2013).” (Miller Jr 2016)

A holobiont, then, refers to dynamic processes of mutual adaptation and selection that is not only a general property of the holobiont, but also that, as Miller points out, “has not been appropriately emphasized in traditional evolutionary theory”:

“The most elemental force in the organic world is the relentless search by isolated genetic material to seek its most favorable environment. The common language of genetic material is offense and defense, attempting to gain access to a favored environment and resisting that assault. All genetic aggregates and all cells are cognitive. … This cellular cognition enables a limited sense of discriminative preference. This discrimination can be directed within its own limits to seek, alter, maintain, or construct favored environments based on preference and reproductive potential. … This elemental dynamic is the basis of a continuum of responses that have traditionally been considered as largely separate and distinct. These include infectious pathogenesis, latency, symbiosis, parasitism, epidemic infection, and evolution and extinction. … Cellular cognition enables the aggregation of similar genetic elements in discrete local ecologies based on preference. The entire ability of these environments to collaborate, communicate and compete has not been appropriately emphasized in traditional evolutionary theory. (Miller Jr 2013: p477-8)

The concept of cellular cognition addresses “the inadequacy of the physical model paradigm for modeling organizations that are complex enough to themselves be observers and modelers of their world” (Pattee and Raczaszek-Leonardi 1996). It makes it necessary to include the relation between the localized nature of the physical and the non-localised nature of this ‘cellular cognition’ in a relational science (Kineman 2011), the implications of which we will pursue further in the next blog.   For now, however, it implies a re-conceptualization of what constitutes an entire complex organism:

“… not as ‘host’ and ‘symbionts’ but as a complex collaborative holobiont. A hologenome is a construct of a process of natural genetic engineering based primarily on the intentionality and sentient capacities of all affiliated genetic aggregates and cells and their search for advantage. Our previous assumption of evolutionary development since Darwin has been centered on the concept that the whole makes the parts, from the phenotype of the entire organism relating back to the central genome; but in the hologenome, the whole makes some parts and the parts make parts and the parts make the whole. .” (Miller Jr 2013: p478)

It is in the context of this dynamic process of mutual adaptation and selection taking place within a holobiont that we find the concept of surrendering sovereignty as the means by which the microbiota within it sustain their place within a holobiont. This adds a new dimension to the way the biological metaphor can be used, one in which adaptability has to become a general property of the holobiont.

This general property of a holobiont as a living system requires it to have constitutive autonomy and not simply behavioral autonomy in relation to a dynamic environment (Froese, Virgo, and Izquierdo 2007), i.e., the sovereignty of the holobiont must be constitutive of the structures determining its behaviors. In the case of human biology, this means being able to give an account not only of the dynamics of its host-microbiome relation within its environment but also of its being subject to an immune system that is both defending existing structures and enabling new forms of adaptation by those structures (Schneider 2021). Furthermore, these host-microbiome dynamics in relation to the host’s environment will involve “reciprocal scaffolding of developmental processes and mutual construction of developmental, ecological, and evolutionary niches” (Chiu and Gilbert 2015). The challenges of understanding the dynamics of mutual reliance (developmental scaffolding) and mutual construction (niche construction) parallel the challenges of understanding the processes of innovation by business ecosystems that require the construction of market systems and scaffolding structures to manage their ontological uncertainty (Lane and Maxfield 2005).

The relation of a host holobiont to its microbiomes

A fundamental assumption made of an organism is that it be self-organising:

“The term “organism” (from Greek ὀργανισμός, organismos, from ὄργανον, organon, i.e. “instrument, implement, tool, organ of sense or apprehension”) first appeared in the English language in 1703 and took on its current definition by 1834 (Oxford English Dictionary). It is directly related to the term “organization”. There is a long tradition of defining organisms as self-organizing beings, going back at least to Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organism [my italics]

The tendency is to speak of such an entity as a superorganism that, when applied to the governance of an organization, involves many individuals working together as a socio-technical system (Miller and Rice 1967):

“An organism may be defined as an assembly of molecules functioning as a more or less stable whole that exhibits the properties of life. Dictionary definitions can be broad, using phrases such as “any living structure, such as a plant, animal, fungus or bacterium, capable of growth and reproduction”. Many definitions exclude viruses and possible man-made non-organic life forms, as viruses are dependent on the biochemical machinery of a host cell for reproduction. A superorganism is an organism consisting of many individuals working together as a single functional or social unit. “ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organism  [my italics]

The economics of governance (Williamson 2005) are such, however, that the mutual dependencies between an organization and its sub-contractors extend the requirements of governance to span multiple organizations, each with its own way of self-organizing. Within the context of a business with its supplier network made up of synergetically interacting organizations of different kinds, therefore, holobiont appears to be the more appropriate term, the sub-contractors being like microbiota:

“A community of synergetically interacting organisms of different species is called a holobiont.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superorganism [my italics]

Applied to business entities within an ecosystem, therefore, the holobiont as an ecological unit would appear to be just the organizations within an ecosystem, each with its supplier network contractually bound to it. The community of allies referred to by Moore (Moore 1996a) would thus be a community of holobionts forming an ecosystem, the environment with which they are interacting being the end customers of the ecosystem.  The result is a supply-side concept of an ecosystem, the end customers of the ecosystem constituting the market environment to which the ecosystem must adapt over time. Applying this way of thinking to a business ecosystem means, however, that we are still missing an understanding of how its being self-organizing might include consideration of how it comes to include the dynamics of an end customer’s demands. For this to be so, we need to be able to think of the end customer as a holobiont.

Surrendering sovereignty, then, arises when a supply-side ecosystem becomes a part of the end-customer-as-holobiont, the environment being re-defined to be that of the end customer. Each time, therefore, that an enterprise-as-holobiont becomes a part of an end-customer-as-holobiont, there is a surrendering of sovereignty. This brings us back to understanding agency in biological systems that can include participation in a holobiont, an understanding in which adaptability becomes a general property.

Next: The three asymmetries necessary to describing agency in living biological systems

Previous: In which socio-technical open-systems reach a limit


[1] “Ecological units, comprise concepts such as population, community, and ecosystem as the basic units, which are at the basis of ecological theory and research, as well as a focus point of many conservation strategies. The concept of ecological units continues to suffer from inconsistencies and confusion over its terminology. Analyses of the existing concepts used in describing ecological units have determined that they differ in respect to four major criteria: 1. The question as to whether they are defined statistically or via a network of interactions; 2. If their boundaries are drawn by topographical or process-related criteria; 3. How high the required internal relationships are; and 4. if they are perceived as “real” entities or abstractions by an observer.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_unit  [my italics]


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