The Many Faces of Variety LO25288

From: AM de Lange (
Date: 09/04/00

Dear Organlearners,

Greetings to you all.

How important is variety to the Systems Thinking needed for any LO? Let me
for formulate the question somewhat differently. What will become of any
system, natural or cultural, which cannot deal with variety in itself or
in its surroundings?

For example, consider a human organisation as a system. What will happen
to that organisation when some members cannot work with other members
because of "variety in personalities"?

Can we really speak of "variety in personalities"? Someone
else wrote recently in our LO-dialogue that
. variety means dynamic interconnected states
. in perpetuity with recursivity etc etc.
According to this description of variety, we have to deal with
the "dynamic interconnected states in perpetuity with recursivity"
of personalities. What are these "states" which do not connect
"in perpetuity with recursivity" when different personalities in
an organisation cannot work together? Will an answer to what
these "states" are tell us what variety is? Or would it serve us
better to focus on the "interconnections" than the "states"?

I think that we have to begin our learning of the concept "variety"
by observing how common people have used the concept so far.
The concept "variety" have been used in many ways. English
dictionaries will give us an indication. The following summarise
what dictionaries have to say:
. variation and diversity in being;
. the state of differences in quality or character;
. an assortment of unlike things;
. elements differing in the typical properties
. defining their class.

Interestingly enough, when these common meanings are
applied to "personality", they merely give us some description
of what we mean, namely
. variation and diversity in "personality";
. the state of differences in quality or character of
. "personality";
. an assortment of people with unlike "personalities";
. people differing in the typical property "personality"
. defining their class, namely persons.

But these meanings give me (I do not know about you fellow learners ;-)
very little help how to manage this "variety in personality" of an
organisation. So let us search deeper and look closer to how thinkers
dealt with "variety in various" systems. Perhaps it will be better to
have first a look at systems with merely a material dimension before we
bring in also the mental dimension.

There is for example the biological way of giving meaning to variety.
Biologists first establish (called "morphology") the form common to a
population of breeding individuals (the "species"). Then they seek for
"polymorphism" (recurring differences) between certain specimens and the
"species" so as to express discreet variations within the species. They
carefully distinguish between "genotypes" and "phenotypes" in this
"polymorphism". The "genotypes" are differences caused by the variation
in structure of specific genes. The "phenotypes" are differences caused
by the variation in processes involving the soil, water, light and
atmosphere of the environment.

Biologists began to conclude, without taking a hint from Ashby, and
surprisingly only late in the twentieth century, how important
"biodiversity" is to the sustaining of life in any ecosystem. They use
various concepts such as "balance of nature", "competition", "food chain",
"natural selection", "pyramid of biomass", "symbiosis" and "trophic
leveling" to systemize the complexity of interactions in an ecosystem.

There is also, for example, the chemical way of giving meaning to variety.
Chemists first extablish the "molecular formula" of a compound. For
example, a compound may have the molecular formula C2H6O. However,
several different compounds may have all the same "molecular formula". For
example, "ether" with formula CH3OCH3 and "alcohol" CH3CH2OH. Then they
seek the "molecular structure" of the specific compound. This molecule is
called a "structural isomere" since it has the same ("iso-") molecular
formula as the other compounds, but a different structure. For example,
ether and alcohol are structural isomeres. These structural isomers have
each a distinctive chemical reactivity. For example, the reactions which
an acohol can make differ vastly from that of an ether. Chemists go
further into this systematical process by identifying further kinds of
"isomerism". In each kind of "isomerism" the influence on reactivity is

Chemists seem not to be so outspoken about "chemodiversity" as the
biologists are about "biodiversity". The reason is very simple. Chemists
depend very much on "chemodiversity" and thus have many catalogues (each
thicker than the Bible) of suppliers of specific compounds (like Merck or
Aldrich) from which they can order what they need. Otherwise they
synthesise self what they need which is usely time consuming. When doing
so, they will also use various concepts such as "reaction mechanism",
"reaction order", "reaction catalist", "rate determining step", etc.

The two examples above concern nature. The first example concerned the
"biological system" and the second example concerned the "chemical
system". In each of these two systems the concept of "systematics" is
vital to how the "variety" in these systems are managed. In other words,
in both the "biological system" and the "chemical system" the
"systematics of the system" is the key necessary (but not sufficient) to
the management of "variety" in the system. This very "systematics of the
system" gives us the vital clue to indentify most, if not all, material
and mental systems in which "variety" is of paramount importance.

For example, the geologist studies "geological systems", the physicist
studies "elementary particle systems" and the physical geographer studies
"geographical systems". For each of them the "systematics of the system"
is a necessary key to advance the management of the system.

When we look at all these different material systems (physical, chemical,
geological, biological and geographical IN ORDER of complexity) and the
systematics of each, the complexity is not only mind boggling, but also
seemingly unrelated. I write "seemingly" unrelated because there are
indeed profound corresponding patterns in the systematics of each once we
begin to search for them.

However, one great stumbling block is the different names used for a
common pattern because different terminologies are used in these
"systematics of the system". We much first understand thoroughly the
pattern to which each name refers before we can even hope to find
corresponding patterns.

Another great stumbling block is what I call the Law of Requisite
Complexity (LRC). [Please do not confuse it with Ashby's Law of Requisite
Variety -- LRV. I view the LRV as merely pointing to one of the seven
dimensions of the LRC.] The LRC for each (in order of complexity) of the
physical, chemical, geological, biological and geographical systems
induces a richer systematics for each system. Trying to fathom the
systematics of the biological system with a complexity requisite for, say,
the physical system is a study in hitting solid ignorance before even
going beneath the surface.

Despite this increasing complexity in the systematics of the system, it is
possible to discern certain patterns common to all of them. It is as if
(and perhaps it is actually the case that) these patterns persist through
all these levels because they are hereditary from level to level of
complexity, perhaps by some recursivity which baffles the mind. I have
focussed on one such a pattern in my description of "variety" in
biological and chemical systems. It is the intimate relationship between
structure and process -- how structure ("being") determines process
("becoming") and vice versa.

Do a lion not eat meat whereas a buffalo eats grass?

Thinking about our problem of not only to describe the "variety" of a
system, but also how to manage the "variety" of a system, one hot question
is the following. Will this "becoming-being" pattern which occur in the
systematics of the system help us in managing the variety of the system?
Another hot question is: How many patterns are available to help us in
managing the variety of any system? A last hot question is: Is variety
itself not part of a pattern which may help us in managing a system in
other properties than variety itself?

Let us now take a quick look at the Many Faces of Variety in systems which
involves both the material (physical) and mental (spiritual) dimensions.
In other words, let us take a quick look at variety in systems in which
humans play an essential role. If we have any difficulties in finding such
systems, merely look at other humans and the "systematics" which some of
them may busy themselves with. This "systematics" concern a definite
system in which "variety" of some kind actually makes that system

Liguists, for example, toil with the systematics of langauge, using words
such as "grammer", "syntaxis", "dialects" and "language families" to
indicate further detail of their systematical studies. In other words, the
concept "grammer" has to do with the "systematics of the system"
language. Even here the pattern "becoming-being" we have discussed
earlier is used to manage the "variety" of langauge. For example, from the
verb "speak" (a becoming) we may form the noun "speaker" (a being) which
will indicate that the definite action of the "speaker" is to "speak" and
not something else, for example "paint".

The level of complexity in langauge is so high that we can even say that a
"speaker" is "painting", thus implying "painting with words". This
implication makes use of the metaphor, another dazzling aspect of the
systematics of the language. In this case we have extended the systematics
from the syntaxis (grammer) into the semantics. When we would say that a
"speaker" is "regurgitating", we use the metaphor in a critical sense,
thus introducing the aspect of "aesthetics" into the systematics of the

What about the systematics of archeology? Archeologists also have to deal
with variety in their systems, a variety of human behaviours which speak
through artifacts rather than by language. A study of the systematics of
archeology is just as fascinating as the systematics of the language or
the systematics of biology.

The "systematics of learning" is very close to my heart. Yes, even
learning is open to a systematical enquiry because of "variety" in the
system of learning. This "variety" has to be (is requisite) in the system
of learning so that the learner after learning can deal with "variety" in
other kinds of systems too. This is a typical way of applying Ashby's Law
of Requisite Variety to the system of learning.

After thirty years of experience and contemplations, I can safely say that
the "systematics of learning" is the most complex "systematics of the
system" we can explore. Whatever other system's systematics we wish to
study, we have to learn it so that this other systematics is also involved
in the "systematics of learning" itself. It is very fortunate that the
learner as a child is not aware of the "systematics of learning" since it
will intimidate the child so much that all learning will cease.

It is most unfortunate that many adult learners are not aware of the
"systematics of learning" since when they have to guide children with
their learning, they fail to do more than what the child can do self. In
the case of children they may get away with it and so put the child at
great disadvantage, but when they try to control the learning (they are
not even capable of guiding it) of other adults who are aware of the
"systematics of learning", severely destructive conflicts may ensue.

The awareness to the "systematics of learning" may be expressed in many
different ways. The first indication of such a tacit awareness will be the
use of words or phrases such as "understanding", "comprehension" and
"double loop learning". The next level of complexity is to bring
systematics to such a commonly articulated awareness. For example, once
upon a time there was much "systematics" behind "comprehensive schooling".
But failing to guide the learner also in learning the "systematics of
learning" have made such names as "comprehenive schooling" a platitudinous
term for many an adult. There are many reasons for failing to guide the
learner in the "systematics of learning", reasons which themselves are
part of the "systematics of learning" and thus making "systematics of
learning" quite contenscious .

A most important development in the "systematics of learning" happened in
1956 with the publication of BS Bloom and co-workers little book "Taxonomy
of Educational Objectives". Although "little" in comparison to other
educational books, this book is gigantic in what it has to say. What they
did through much research is to identify six successive levels of
complexity in learning objectives
. knowledge
. comprehension
. application
. analysis
. synthesis
. evaluation.

Perhaps we may not agree with their naming of these levels, for example,
"level one" as not knowledge, but information. However, their selection
of the term "taxonomy" indicates how serious they were in their
systematics of learning objectives. Any systematical undertaking which
does not reflect a "taxonomical" (or one of its many synonyms like
"classification" or "categorisation") is still unaware of the evolutionary
("deeply creative") character of the system for which the systematics is

Lastly, I do not think that it is sensible, especially with respect to the
meaning of "variety", to place a trade mark on its meaning and thus its
use by some kind of disciplinary thinking. Conforming to such an
"exclusivity in variety" will put a serious constraint on "variety",
signifying the failure of understanding Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.
It will severely restrict our ability to study and thus to evolve mentally
in the "systematics of the system". It will also severely restrict our

I would rather recommend an openness to all kinds of systematical studies,
exploring one kind after the other, so as to become aware of all the
"qualities" which are involved with "variety". Thus we may grow in what I
call the essentiality otherness. Consequently, can we really claim like
someone recently did on our LO-dialogue that
. Otherness assumes that it is either/or and
. we don't have to go down this road of Boolean
. logic or LEM again.

Otherness is like the full rainbow in the sky. Try to describe the rainbow
with words. No painter have succeed in capturing it, nor camera
technology. Yet its beauty is there for all of us to admire. And
fortunately, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we cannot
reach it to distort its beauty. This distortion happens only in our
replicas of it, like with any one of the other six essentialities.

Who owns the rainbow?

No one has ownership to the seven essentialities or whatever facet in each
of them (like "variety" is a facet of otherness). Thus we need not to run
to any expert and ask permision to think so-and-so about them. But I, for
one, will be plain stupid if I do not take into account what, as far as
possible, all other humans had to say on someting as essential as
"variety". By scrutinising what they had to say on variety, I have become
gradually aware of the Many Faces of Variety where each face has its
unique distinguishing qualities.

Variety will have a certain face for a chemist and another face for a
biologist as I have indicated in the beginning. I believe that should we
want to act as a Learning Organisation, we will have to learn to accept
and recognise these Many Faces of Variety. How will we learn it? I have
several times mention the five elementary sustainers of creativity. The
one which I have used for creating this contribution, is "examplar
studying". We can use any one of these five sustainers, for example the
"dialogue". By using more than one of them, we may deepen our creativity
and thus benefit from it in our learning.

I think that each of you fellow learners have at least one face of variety
in mind. Tell us about the features of the face which you have clearest in
mind. Let us like the masters of old make a beautiful painting reflecting
all these Many Faces of Variety. Yes, "art expressing" is also an
elementary sustainer of creativity. But "monster judging" is not. It is a
major destroyer of creativity. What I deem to be some monster may be the
very beauty for many fellow learners. I would rather learn from them what
is beautiful than for me to tell them what is monstrous to me.

Please, let us remember variety is as beautiful as the rainbow in the sky.
Let the rainbow be our sign for peace -- our unwillingness to destroy what
others are learning -- our unwillingness to compete by finding the winning
colour which may eventually turn out to be no light at all.
With care and best wishes


At de Lange <> 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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