On Cells and Learning Organisations LO24180

From: AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Date: 03/13/00

Dear Organlearners,

Greetings to all you "organelles" in learning. Should this term
"organelle" leave you cold or out in the cold, then it will worry me as a
teacher. A learner cannot begin with the unknown and work towards the
known. That is why I have decided against the title "From Cells to
Learning Organisations" for this topic. I will not develop an argument
from cells to organisations, but will rather paint a rich picture in which
the one will serve as the background when the focus is on the other.

A question often asked is whether Peter Senge's concept of a "learning
organisation" (LO) is not a management gimmick which gives him temporary
fame and some consultants pretty mileage, but which will eventually fade
away like most other opportunistic gimmicks. The sure answer is to wait a
century and observe what will have become of it. But in the mean time we
have serious management problems to solve while the very concept of a LO
may be important to solving them. How will we ensure that we are not
wasting our "free energy" on the LO concept?

A less sure answer is to trace through many centuries the history of
management of all kinds of organisations and see if the concept of a LO
indeed has played an implicit and tacit role. Our problem with this answer
is that we will have to interpret history with a futuristic concept.
Another less sure answer is to think whether we each ourself had some
organisational experiences which fit that of a LO. Our problem with this
answer is that because it is highly personal, it may not be universally
applicable. Another answer is to do some field work on the LO concept by
applying it to existing practices so as to gain experiences in its
advantages and disadvantages. Our problem with this answer is that many
of the disadvantages may be caused by a lack in our own understanding
rather than the concept being inferior itself.

[Sidetrack: See how we move in the next paragraph from the "content" of
the previous paragraph to "form". This form will then be given content
from which we will emerge into yet deeper form in the subsequent

The previous paragraph signals something very important by its very form.
It contains three answers, each less than sure. You fellow learners may
also formulate more such answers. Some have already done so in the past
by contributing to Rick's ongoing theme "Why a LO?" When we look at all
these possible answers, we ought to be struck by the creativity required
in formulating all of them. Each of them is like one stroke of a brush in
"painting rich picture" of the LO. Each such stroke has a problem to it --
one stroke does not make the picture!

How many strokes and of what manner are needed to paint any "picture" (in
this case a picture in words on a LO) such that it will make living sense
to more than a few people close to the painter? Many creative people
struggle with this problem and not only some artists. They come from all
walks of life -- science, industry, economy, politics, etc. Yet they have
one thing in common -- they want to catalyze a further step in the
spiritual evolution among their fellow humans. They are as sensitive to
"mitsein" creativity as to "dassein" creativity. They want, together with
individuals feeling like them, to transcend into a collective
consciousness. It is as if they want to be midwifes in the birth of a
novel Learning Organisation.

This manifestation of the LO in spiritual evolution entails a serious
problem. Trying to explain specifically the LO by spiritual evolution (the
"metanoia" of Senge) can become like a dog biting its own tail. It will
turn around in small circles, covering little ground. To escape such a
vicious circle, the dog has to chase something else other than its own
tail. This thing to be chased must afford the dog the opportunity to run
in ever increasing circles so that it eventually can cover all the ground
providing the context for explaining the LO. Is there only one such thing
which can be chased, or are there many things of which merely one need to
be chased?

I myself belief that there is only one thing which can be chased so that
all the ground will be covered. However, as soon as I name this thing, the
name becomes chased rather than the thing itself. Since the thing has many
names depending from whatever point we view it, chasing a particular name
is not the same as chasing the thing. One name which I can give to this
thing to be chased is "deep creativity".

However, for the purpose of this contribution I will use another name for
it, namely "evolution". It means that when we want to explain the concept
of the LO, we are going to chase "evolution" in order to cover the ground
which will provide us for our explanation. I am not going to chase my own
personal idea of "evolution" in terms of "deep creativity", but will
rather stick to its common meaning -- evolution of living organisms or
biological evolution.

Biological evolution is very complex. We will have to focus on something
essential to biological evolution. Today we know that the concept of
"cell" is as essential to biology as the thing named by "cell" is
essential to biological evolution. The word cell is derived from the Latin
word "cella" which means "small room". It was already used seven
centuries ago by Wycliff in his translation of the Bible. It was first
used in a biological sense, not by a biologist, but by the writer Copland
in 1541: "How many cells hath the brayne?" Another writer, Topsell,
connected in 1607 the number of the litter of a bitch with the number of
cells in her womb. Perhaps these two writers used the word figuratively
rather than thinking with sheer imagination of tiny sacks of protoplasm.
But biologists themselves first had to wait for the invention of the

[Sidetrack: Look how slow the evolution of this concept was. Perhaps we
are too impatient when desiring evolution.]

The microscope was invented by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) of
Delft, the city in which Leo Minnigh also lives. Perhaps one day Leo can
tell us more about this intriguing man who worked as a janitor. But the
"father" of microscopy in the advancement of biology was Marcello Malpighi
(1628-1694) in Bologna, Italy. It is through his work that biologists
began to use seriously the concept cell. Thus Grew (1672) was the first
biologist in England to use the word when writing in the Anatomy of
Plants: "The microscope shew many little cells." Almost a century later
in 1751 Chambers wrote in the Cycl.of Cells: "Cells are little bags of
organic tissue."

Almost another century had to elapse before Schwann (1837) drew the
attention of biologists to the importance of cells in biology with his
theory of cells. Soon afterwards in 1845 Day refered in Anim Chem to the
"hepatitic cells" in the liver. The use of the concept soon became quickly
a flood. For example -- Carpenter (1851) "simplest form of living bodies".
Bain (1855) "countless millions of cells". Hulme (1861) "Blood cells are
vesicles of blood". Flint (1866): "unit of organisation in living matter".
Tyndall (1871): "even yeast has cells". Gray (1880): "the part common to
all living organisms". Thus, if we want to fix a date for when the concept
cell in biology began to be used commonly, the year 1850 will be close

[Sidetrack: Look how close this date is to the dates for the discovery in
physics of the LEC (Law of Energy Conservation - 1847) and LEP (Law of
Entropy Production - 1867). Is there any significance in it?]

Although the concept of a cell became most important to biologists, its
full significance had to wait nearly another century for some other
important discoveries and inventions to be made in physics and chemistry.
Firstly, the discovery of radioactivity which made the dating of historic
and prehistoric objects possible according to the laws of radioactive
decay. This began in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Secondly, the invention of the electron microscope which enabled
biologists to see the incredibly fine detail of organelles in the cell.
This happened after WWII. Thirdly, the engineering of the UC (Ultra
Centrifuge). It enabled biologists, after rupturing cells, to make
concentrated collections of specific organelles according to their size
and mass so as to subject them to further chemical analyses Fourthly, the
innovation of powerful instruments for analytical chemistry
(chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometer, etc) which
enable biologists to determine the chemical compounds and their structure
in the different organelles of the cell.. This also happened after WWII.
All these preparations culminated in the epic work of Watson and Crick who
elucidated the chemistry of genetics in terms of the supermolecule DNA.

These important breakthroughs in physics and chemistry served as midwifes
for cell biology. It is only then when biologists, taking the full
evolution of life from its simplest forms into account, became aware of
two most remarkable events in the history of life. The first was the
emergence some 4 billion years ago of recognisable life forms with
fossilised records. Life emerged as the Monera, the kingdom of prokaryotic
cells. Some of these prokaryotic life forms are still with us like the
blue-green algae and flaggelated bacteria. The second event was the
emergence of eukaryotic cells roughly one billion years later.

The name Monera (Greek: "mono"=one) means living entities which each
consists of only one cell (unicellular). All the Monera entities are
prokaryotic cells. The stem in the word prokaryotic comes from the Greek
word "karyon" which means kernel or nut. The prefix "pro-" in this case
refers to cells which came before cells with "karyons" in them. The prefix
"eu-" in eukaryotic tells the rest of the story. The "eu-" means "well",
indicating that eukaruotic cells have "well formed kernels". In the other
words, the prokaryotic cells do not yet have "well formed kernels". So
what is this "well formed kernel" in the cell? Nothing else than what we
call the "nucleus" of the cell which contains the chromosomes of genetics.

It is most significant that there are no multicellular entities in the
Monera. It means that the complexity inside a prokaryotic cell is too low
to sustain the emergence of multicellular organisms. But do not get the
notion that all eukaryotic cells make up multicellular organisms. In fact,
the far majority of organisms having eukariotic cells are also
unicellular. There are roughly ten times as many eukaryotic species as
prokaryotic entities.

Several hundreds of thousands of the suspected one million of different
prokaryotic cells have already been described. Also about two million, but
still less than a tenth, of the eukaryotic organisms have been described.
The other suspected nine tenths which still have to be scrutinized are
predominantly unicellular eukaryotic organisms. When we look at an
elephant or a fly, a tree or a tiny moss on a brick, we look at a
multicellular organism and thus an organism consisting of only eukaryotic
cells. The more complex and thus the more visible to the naked eye, the
better is the chance that an eukaryotic species have already been

The prokaryotic cells give rise to only one kingdom -- the Monera. But
the eukaryotic cells give rise to at least two kindoms: Planta and Anima.
Some taxonomists also create the kingdoms of Protista (mainly unicellular)
and Fungi (multicellular) where the LEM (Law of excluded Middle) between
plant or animal fail to hold. If you want to see a nice collection of
Protista and Fungi, find some powdered lime of the unrefined grade used
for agriculture. Put a spoon of it in bottle, add a few drops of water,
screw the lid tight, shake it and put it away for a year in a shaded
place. You will be delighted by the garden of colours which has formed in
it on the lime.

[Sidetrack: We have only THREE subatomic particles -- proton, neutron,
electron. They give rise to a little over ONE HUNDRED elements. Atoms of
some of these elements give rise to already a little over TWO MILLION
known compounds. Some of these compounds give rise to a suspected TWENTY
MILLION kinds of living organisms. Is this not a significant pattern?]

We actually should have had drawings of prokaryotic and eukariotic cells
to picture their difference in complexity. You fellow learners ought to
find such diagrams in some standard first year text books of biology. But
for now we will have to make use of words to draw the major
correspondences and differences.

Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells correspond in facets
such as the following:
* both kinds have chemical compounds which codify their
  hereditary properties,
* both kinds propagate themselves by becoming identical
  children through cell division and thus ending themselves
  as entities,
* both kinds have a solution within the cell wall to fill up most
  of the cavity inside the cell,
* both kinds have chemical compounds which catalyse certain
  chemical reactions within them,
* both kinds avoid an overload of complexity which may result
  from the repeated fusing of many cells into an indefinite
  super cell,
* both kinds have simpler organelles suspended within their
  cell solution,
* both kinds have a cell wall distinguishing their inside from
  their outside world and through which all interactions have
  to take place.

[Sidetrack: See if you can spot the seven essentialities of creativity
(liveness, sureness, wholeness, fruitfulness, spareness, otherness and
openness) in these facets.]

The differences are just as remarkable as the correspondences. It can be
summarised by one "simple" sentence -- all eukaryotic cells are far more
complex than prokaryotic cells. As has already been said to explain the
term "eukaryotic", the eukaryotic cell has a nucleus with a membrane
enclosing it, but the prokaryotic cell does not. The nucleus is the major
organelle for storing genetical information. The closest which the
prokaryotic cell comes to this is with its nucleoid, a streamed region
concentrated with genetical compounds. Some other differences are:

The eukaryotic cell also has mitochondria, but the prokaryotic cell does
not. The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell in which energy
conversions are made. The closest which the prokaryotic cell comes to this
is the mesosomes for redox reactions. The prokaryotic cell also does not
have chloroplasts, but the closest which it comes to this is with its
chromatophores. There is also a diversity of hairy tubes (microtubelae)
in the eukaryotic cells whereas in the prokaryotic cells large
structureless lumps of a specific compound may rather be found.

There are other important differences too, but the above should be
sufficient to illustrate the difference in complexity. Picture in your
mind two drawings of a house, one by a kid and one by an adult. A
prokaryotic cell is like a drawing by a kid while an eukaryotic cell is
like a drawing by an adult.

Prokaryotic cells remind me of organisations without any FORMAL Systems
Thinking. Such organisations have found a way to exist as an organisation
with various divisions and associated functions in it, but it lacks the
richness (complexity) brought about by Systems Thinking and the four
other LO disciplines. However, eukaryotic cells remind me of Learning
Organisations. Some of them are able to associate themselves into clusters
or organisational leagues just like eukaryotic cells can form
multicellular organisms. In other words, different Learning Organisations
can work together whereas ordinary organisations are doomed to work alone,
always in competition rather than cooperation with others of the same

The one very important question which has still to be answered by
biologists, is how prokaryotic cells themselves emerged from simpler
fragments of organic compounds. There is much speculation and fragmentary
information, but little coherent knowledge. For example, HCN (hydrocyanic
acid) can easily be formed in an inorganic environment. HCN is the
precursor for adenine, one of the bases in RNA which itself an important
compound in genetics. Certain clays are capable of assembling "membranes"
consisting of simple polar molecules (sugars or aminoacids) in the pores
between their particles as a result of their own charged surfaces.

The other very important question also to be answered by biologists is how
eukaryotic cells evolved from prokaryotic cells. The first main idea is
that somehow a number of different prokaryotic cells found a way to fuse
together to form the first eukaryotic cell -- a sort of symbiosis between
prokaryotic cells once they formed one cell by giving up their own cell
walls. This idea is suggested by the fact that its is not only the
nucleus of an eukaryotic cell which contains DNA. Other organelles (like
mitochondria, golgi complex and ribosomes) have their own DNA or RNA for
coding genetical information.

[Sidetrack. In meiosis -- sexual cell division and subsequent fusion --
when thinking only in terms of the nucleus, we may get the idea that a
child cell gets from each of its parents exactly half of its genetical
traits. However, we must bear the whole cell in mind. Among mammals
(including humans) the child gets from its mother most of its DNA outside
the nucleus. This DNA also mutates ten times as fast as nucleic DNA.
Thus a male child receives more from its mother than its father and
mutates faster in terms of what it has received from the mother. Perhaps
this genetical unbalance is the reason why most males in mammal species
try to dominant the females -- they are only trying to get even ;-) ]

This idea of a symbiotic fusion to form an eukaryotic cell entails that
many of the organelles (nucleus, mitochondria, golgi complex, ribosomes,
etc.) characteristic of the eukaryotic cell should have precursors among
the prokaryotic cells. However, finding such precursors are difficult
because they need to be fossilized first before they can be found. Trying
to find fossil records of them is as difficult as trying to find fossil
records of succulent plants. Thus there are large empirical gaps in this
main idea.

The other idea is now fast coming from complexity science via theories
such as autopoiesis, irreversible self-organisation and complex
adaptation. This idea is that some prokaryotic cells, after having reached
sufficient complexity, emerged spontaneously into much more complex
eukaryotic cells as a result of having been driven to the edge of chaos by
some cataclysmic event. They had to enrich themselves with more and
different internal structures, each having functions unique to it, so as
to adapt and maintain their existence in a world which has changed so much
that prokaryotic life became very precarious. The picture which geologists
are now painting of the ancient history of the earth billion years ago is
rich in such dramatic changes. Is this cataclysmic event one of them?

[Sidetrack: Can simple organisms which have little, if any, intelligence
as individuals, show apparently collective intelligence when acting
together? About two months ago I made some hair raising observations on
"brine shrimps" with regard to this question. I hope to report to you on
these observations.]

At first biologists thought so. But as they, geologists and chemists
unravelled the chemical history of life and the earth billions of years
ago in addition to the thermal history unravelled by physicists, it has
become clear that the chemical environment was completely different from
that of today. Today roughly 20% of the earth's atmosphere consists of
oxygen. This makes the chemical environment oxidative and acidic (or
electrophilic as they would say in advanced chemistry). But in the
beginning free oxygen in the atmosphere was very rare. Oxygen was rather
locked up in the oxides of most elements. The chemical environment then
was rather reductive and basic (electrodotic). It was in this kind of
environment in which prokaryotic cells flourished. However, it was also
though their very flourishing life that these prokaryotic cells gradually
changed the environment so much that it eventually became alien to them.
How? They produced free oxygen!

To form a mental picture of an electrophilic or an electrodotic
environment is difficult for the non-chemist. To imagine an electrophilic
(acidic-oxidising) environment, picture a dry savannah which gets
occasionally thunderstorms. The epitome is a desolate desert such as in
the Kahn valley of the Namib where Adenia pechuelii grows. To get but a
feint idea of an electrodotic basic-reducing) environment, picture a city
like San Francisco or London covered with smog. Picture yourself in a coal
mine a couple of years after it has been closed. Picture yourself deep
within a bog while bubbles of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide gas
burst all around you. Is it not strange that we, consisting of eukaryotic
cells, have such a natural aversion to an environment favourable to
prokaryotic cells? Perhaps it is every cell in our body screaming tacitly
"Beware of the past from which we have barely managed to escape!"

Take a spade and dug a deep hole in the ground. The top ten centimeter of
soil is in an electrophilic state while several meters down the bed rock
is in an electrodotic state. Smell a handfull of soil from each layer to
deepen the impression made by your eyes. Then -- do not be shocked --
taste a sample of each horizon. You can wash your mouth with clean water
afterwards. The impression left by taste is far more important than
possible infection. Do you still wonder why it is better to cover lawn
with top soil?

If the correspondence (analogy) between organisation/LO and
pro-/eukaryotic cells have any merit, what can we learn from it? Think of
how much humankind has changed the environment the past millennium. A
thousand years ago only patches of the environment in Europe, the Middle
East, Central America and East Asia have been changed irreversibly through
the work of humankind, i.e culture. Then four hundred years later with the
advent of the Renaissance, the pace of change increased exponentially. It
means that at first the change was gradual. But as more books became
published, reflecting the knowledge of some learning individuals,
relatively more individuals began to learn how to change their
environment. This change happened in revolutionary waves at ever
increasing rates -- shipping, agriculture, industry and technology. Each
past wave assisted the acceleration and proximity of future waves.

It was individuals who contributed quantitatively to every change in the
environment. Work with your bare hands or only tools provided by nature
and see how little you can accomplish in one day.

But it was through their ability to organise that these individuals
succeeded to change the environment intensively. In other words, the
impact of the individuals on the environment was greatly increased by
their ability to organise their individual efforts into collective
efforts. Should we think of the individuals as the organelles of a cell
and their organisations as the cells, the environment was changed through
the "cells of human culture". These "cells of human culture" are behaving
very much like the prokaryotic cells did billions of years ago.

Near the very end of the last century in the last millennium it became
clear to some individuals that the changes in the environment are
beginning to have ill effects on life in general and thus on human life
also. They became aware that as individuals<=>organelles in their
organisations<=>cells that it is becoming increasingly difficult to
function as parts of the whole. The very life of their organisations is
now becoming increasingly at stake like that of the prokaryotic cells
billions of years ago. Read books on the supportive sciences such as
agriculture, medicine, psychology and management how precarious these
"cells of human culture" have become. See the statistics on dysfunctional
families to give you the final shock.

Like those prokaryotic cells long ago the organisations of
humankind will now have to emerge to a higher level of awareness
so as to be able to adapt to the environment which they have
changed irreversibly. They will have to emerge from merely
        organisations<=>prokaryotic cells
        "learning organisations"<=>eukaryotic cells.
or immerge into who knows whatever hellish flockings.

Many people argue that the environment has not changed much and that it
definitely has not become alien in the minor changes noticeable. Almost
all of these people are city dwellers and some are paid to speak up.
However, if you fellow learners really want to become sensitive to how
alien these supposed minor changes are, go to places where there are very
few people to change the local environment. Visit these pristine places
for several decades so as to get a realistic picture. Go to deserts, to
high mountains or deep forests and get wise on the future of our planet

Which way will our "cells of human culture" have to transform so as to
make them adaptive to the environment fast becoming alien -- symbiotic
fusion or autopoiesis? Already on the global scene some unprecedented
mergers like recently Time-Warner/AOL have occurred. These mergers between
the giants suggest a symbiotic fusion. However, none of these mergers have
resulted into organisations which can be characterised as LOs. It is
rather like an attempt to bring two (and in the future more than two also)
prokaryotic cells together to form a multicellular organism consisting of
prokatyotic cells.

We do not know if this happened in the past because we have not one single
fossil record. The absence of fossil records also entails that even should
it be possible and thus happened, it was definitely not persistent. Thus
not even today do we have multicellular organisms consisting of
prokaryotic cells. In other words, the merging of two (or more) global
organisations to remain viable when none of them was on its own a LO, is
indeed a questionable practice. They may get some short term life out of
such a merger with sky high rocketings on the stock market because of
unfounded expectations, but since they remain to be prokaryotic
monstrosities ("super cells"), they will only accelerate the change of the
environment until the very edge of chaos has been reached.

[Sidetrack: Make sure that your pension fund invests as little as possible
in equities of which the value are determined by false expectations. If
you want to invest on the stock market yourself, short term investments on
false expectations can generate much capital.]

The other main possibility of autopoiesis (irreversible self-
organisation) into a higher order "cell of human culture" has happened
many times in the history of human culture the past six millennia. But it
was always for local environments which became inhospitable for humans.
What we now have to face, is far more complex -- a global environment fast
becoming alien for the majority of life forms having the same kind of
cells as humans -- eukaryotic cells.

It is here at the edge of chaos where the real testing happens in terms of
ordinate bifurcations -- either destructive immergences to a lower order
or constructive emergences to a higher order. It is here that LOs will
have to show their worth. I think that it will be wise to transform our
"cells of human culture" in good time before we are waken up by the actual
testing. Thus we have to begin with some or other kind of organisation
(kind of prokaryotic cell) and transform it into a learning-organisation
(eukaryotic cell). But the hot question then is :"Which prokaryotic cells
have to be transformed"?

Jan Smuts (Holism and Evolution, 1926) believed that it should be
international organisations. (Obviously, in his time neither the concepts
LO nor pro-/eukaryotic cells existed. Cell biology was at its infant
stage.) Being an international leader, he put much effort in the British
Commonwealth and United Nations as the kind of organisations which had to
emerge from prokaryotic cells into eukaryotic cells. Sadly, coming from a
small and low rated country like South Africa, other leaders of first
world countries were very quick to pose themselves in the limelight,
clothed by his ideas. Thus they neutralised his efforts by competition
rather than collaboration.

I think that with the additional knowledge we now have on the issue, we
can do a much better job in identifying which organisations will have to
lead the transformation. But we will have to make the correct distinction
and follow it up with the correct rhythm, otherwise we may fail. In other
words, we will have to find the keys of Systems Thinking and use them

If the correspondence between the organisation/LO and pro-/eukatyotic
cells have any merit at all, it immediately suggests what we should focus
upon. It is the nucleus ("karyon") absent in prokaryotic cells and
essential to eukaryotic cells. We know that the nucleus is responsible for
handling most of the genetical information of the eukaryotic cell. What we
now will have to do, is to identify by analogy those organisations in
which the counterpart of physical genes will play the decisive role --
spiritual genes (or "memes" as some would call it.) What is now still for
them as the nucleoid of a prokaryotic cells will have to become for them a
nucleus of a eukaryotic cell. Then, by gaining experience through setting
example, they can catalyse all the prokaryotic "cells of human culture"
into eukaryotic "cells of human culture", i.e learning organisations.

But if the correspondence between the organisation/LO and pro-/eukatyotic
cells will at most remain to be fictive imagination, then we certainly are
facing a bleak future. Also, if our youth (as Learning Individuals) and
families (as examples of Learning Organisations) have not lost their
learning to become as dysfunctional as present statistics indicate, then
there is nothing in future to worry about.

I am now tempted to write myself on this identification of the first kind
of prokaryotic "cells of human culture" which have to self-organise
irreversibly into Learning Organisations. I have a very clear "dassein"
idea on it. But let us see how far we can go with this identification in
the LO-dialogue as a "mitsein" effort!

Lastly, I want to thank Andrew Campbell and Braam van Wyk in helping me to
prepare this contribution to the LO-dialogue.

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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