Towards a heterarchical approach to biology and cognition

Luis Emilio Bruni, Franco Giorgi

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


In this article we challenge the pervasive notion of hierarchy in biological and cognitive systems and delineate the basis for a complementary heterarchical approach starting from the seminal ideas of Warren McCullock and Gregory Bateson. We intend these considerations as a contribution to the different scientific disciplines working towards a multilevel integrative perspective of biological and cognitive processes, such as systems and integrative biology and neuroscience, social and cultural neuroscience, social signal transduction and psychoneuroimmunology, for instance. We argue that structures and substrates are by necessity organized hierarchically, while communication processes – and their embeddedness – are rather organized heterarchically.

Before getting into the implications of the heterarchical approach and its congeniality with the semiotic perspective to biology and cognition, we introduce a set of notions and concepts in order to advance a framework that considers the heterarchical embeddedness of different layers of physiological, behavioral, affective, cognitive, technological and socio-cultural levels implicit in networks of interacting minds, considering the dynamic complementarity of bottom-up and top-down causal links. This should contribute to account for the integration, interpretation and response to complex aggregates of information at different levels of organization in a developmental context. We illustrate the dialectical nature of embedded heterarchical processes by addressing the simultaneity and circularity of cognition and volition, and how such dialectics can be present in primitive instances of proto-cognition and proto-volition, giving rise to our claim that subjectivity and semiotic freedom are scalar properties. We collate the framework with recent empirical systemic approaches to biology and integrative neuroscience, and conclude with a reflection on its implications to the understanding of the emergence of pathological conditions in multi-level semiotic systems.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProgress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology
Issue number3
Pages (from-to) 481–492
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


  • Heterarchy
  • Hierarchy
  • Second-order emergence
  • Embeddedness
  • Cognition/volition
  • Proto-subjectivity
  • Semiotic freedom
  • Systems biology
  • Integrative neuroscience

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