Difference and change
in ecology, design and anthropology.

Prof.dr.ir. Taeke M. de Jong 2002-12-01


1.1        An ecological conjecture

The Dutch ecologist Van Leeuwen (Leeuwen 1964) recognised as many ecologists an interesting negative relation between difference and change in the natural environment. From that conjecture I derive a hypothesis that people in different cultures (sets of collective, often hidden concepts) primarily develop the cognitive capacity they need in the ecological circumstances given, storing the rest in an artistic-religious counter-culture. The examples are hunters, farmers and people living in industrial-commercial conditions, but they could be elaborated into their sub-cultures.


According to Van Leeuwen (Figure 1) it is easier to demolish differences (equalizing) then creating them (differentiating) and in the same time it is easier to introduce changes (disturbing) then to guarantee duration (steering).


Figure 1 Spatial and temporal variation in the theories of Van Leeuwen


Increasing change is more likely than decreasing change because the latter is change as well. Steering as a local development into less change means disturbing on another level of scale.

This is a verbal simplification of the second law of thermodynamics in the perspective of cybernetics. Within that interpretation ‘life’ is represented as a phenomenon climbing up into local diversity and duration.


However, the concept of difference is direction-sensitive. For instance a road is equal in its direction of connection (x), but at the same time different and separating in any perpendicular direction (y, z, t). Connecting equality facilitates movement. To make simultaneous perpendicular movement possible the crossing could be separated in z-direction or separated in time by traffic lights (Figure 2).

Van Leeuwen called this basic paradox of spatial arrangement ‘perpendicularity relation’.




Figure 2 Negative perpendicularity relation

Figure 3 Dimensional paradox of difference



So, Van Leeuwen’s negative relation between space(difference, separation) and time(change, discontinuity) could be regarded a special case of dimension sensitivity (Figure 3) if change is regarded as a special case of difference. Equality is not regarded as the opposite of difference but as its zero-value, for any difference could be made more different by adding attributes of difference (for instance difference of place, distance), but no equality could be made less different than equal.

1.2        Scale-sensitive concepts

In addition to direction-sensitiveness the concept of difference is also scale-sensitive, not yet recognised by Van Leeuwen. For example, speaking about a homogeneous mixture the question arises on what level of scale we call it homogeneous and on what level of scale we call it a mixture, which is heterogeneous per definition.

What we call a scale paradox means an important scientific ban on applying conclusions drawn on one level of scale to another one without any concern.

Figure 4 shows the possibility of changing conclusions on a change of scale by a factor 3. There are 10 decimals between a grain of sand (1m-3) and the earth (1m7). That gives approximately 20 possibilities of turning conclusions. Between a molecule and a grain of sand applies the same. This ban is violated so many times, that this should be an important criterion on the validity of scientific judgements.


The scale-paradox is not limited on concepts of diversity. An important example of turning conceptions into their opposite by scale is the duality of aim and means.


Figure 4 The scale paradox


For the government subsidising a municipality the subsidy is a means, for the municipality it is an aim. So, the conception of means can change in a conception of aim by crossing levels of scale downwards. In growing organizations integration on the level of the organization as a whole means often disintegration of the subsystems and perhaps a new form of integration in the sub-sub-systems.


Any discussion on difference, variety and thus variables can fall prey to confusion of scale. Even logic and science as forms of communication are prey to a scale paradox. The sentence ‘It rains and it does not rain’ is locally contradictory; globally it is not. The paradox of Achilles and the turtle is a beautiful example of a scale-paradox in time. The turtle says: 'Achilles cannot outrun me when I get a head start, because when he is where I was at the moment he started I'm already further, when he reaches that point I am again further and so on!’ This conclusion is only incorrect by changing the grain of time-scale during the reasoning. Set theory bans sets containing themselves and therefore reflexive judgements, as 'I lie’. When I lie I speak the truth and the reverse. This sentence is not only an object -statement, but in the same time a meta-linguistic statement about itself and by that producing a paradox.


In the next sections we limit ourselves to the visual daily environment of individual humans.

1.3        Perception of the environment

Humans can perceive differences or changes in the environment only. Comparing subsequent impressions we try to recognise equalities and durations. We save them in categories, concepts and theories (induction) to make projections (deduction) for effective action. So, a subtle amplitude arises: the empirical cycle of learning (Figure 5). After a period of conceptualisation again a neuro-physiological need of new impressions arises (sensory deprivation). Then one would like to experience something and looks for difference or change (variety or novelty). That is the working of a conceptual amplitude. After an excess of surprises and news a need for rest and conceptualisation arises to handle all gained experiences. The amplitude alternating action and breaks can range for hours until years alternating work and rest or holydays.




Figure 5 Conceptualization(environmental variation)

Figure 6 Spatial variation



We experience too little variety as boring, too much as confusion. Within the range of variety we can handle, we speak about recognition and surprise.

This is a simple conception, already recognized by Birkhoff and Bense (Bense 1954; Birkhoff 1933), but why did it not succeed? Because the concept of diversity is scale sensitive and so is our experience. When on one level of scale we experience confusion, in the same time on another level of scale we could experience boredom. Moreover, concerning spatial variety only we could distinguish different kinds of diversity: diversity in contrast, compound, proportion or composition.


1.4        Culture as an ecology of concepts

According to Van Leeuwen we should distinguish spatial and temporal environmental variation.

Let us try to analyse internal conceptualisation into space and time as well.




Figure 7 Perpendicular and parallel conceptual relations

Figure 8 Perpendicular conceptual relations



Analytical and causal thinking represent high values of spatial and temporal conceptualisation separating space and time in ever smaller parts. Their zero-values are covered by holistically and spontaneous ‘sui causa’ thinking. Thinking holistically one does not think the world in parts like the analyst does or the technician assembling parts (synthesis). So, holistic thinking is something else then synthetically thinking.

Synchronically thinking one does not think time in parts like cause and effect. So, one does not make plans for the future either, one lives ‘spontaneous’. When we look from this perpective into the main phases of our culture, the phases of hunting and collecting, agriculture and industrial and commercial living, we can question which kind of thinking would be adapted best to these kinds of living.


Hunters and collectors should divide their catch immediately, because meat and fruit can not be saved for a long time. They live day by day, do not care too much for tomorrow and yesterday, but they need spatial insight to find their prey. Their daily life requires more insight in spatial than temporal division. Their everyday life requires particularly analytical-synchronical attention.

That does not mean holistic-causal thinking playing no rôle at all. This ability is stored with the medicine man caring for causes and effects in an artistic-religious counter-culture of everyday life.


On the other hand this is daily life in agriculture. There is a time of sowing, caring, harvesting and storing, a time of production and a time of consumption. One has settled on one place and demarcated one’s territory. One does not leave that so easily, otherwise the harvest is stolen. So, your own land becomes a world in itself with limited plant species one should know to utilise them in multiple. In this condition the diachronic (causal, projective) thinking is coupled with holistic thinking. The artistic-religious counter culture of everyday life in this case contains anything not explicable causally. Anything appearing to have no cause, like the Scarabee from which the Egyptians could find no egg becomes divine. In Egypt of old the measuring and dividing of the land was left over to the Pharao and his priests: the analytical part of life. Christian religion stems from an agricultural culture. The Immaculate Conception belongs to the essentials of belief, as well as the analytical distinction between Good and Evil.


The industrial and commercial way of life separates the place of production and consumption. Now one not only has to keep an eye on the phases of production in time, but one also has to know how to find one’s consumers in space or the reverse. So, an analytical-causal complex arises where the holistic-suicausal ability is expelled into the realm of the artistic-religious counter-culture.







Figure 9 Parallel conceptual relations perpendicular to motivation

Figure 10 Conceptualization(motivation)



Looking for a variable with a negative perpendicularity relation opposite to the parallel connection of spatial and temporal understanding one could think of motivation by negating criticism and affirmative choice, characteristic for our industrial and commercial way of life.



Bense, M. (1954) Aesthetica. (Stuttgart) Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

Birkhoff, G.D. (1933) Aesthetic measure. (Cambridge, Mass.) Harvard University Press.

Leeuwen, C.G.v. (1964) The open- and closed theory as a possible contribution to cybernetics. (Leersum) Rijksinstituut voor Natuurbeheer.