November 19, 2017

Bringing order to chaos – Part 2

A cybernetic approach to the study of societies and ecosystems. From Towards a Unified Science.

In the first part of this article the author defined a “system”—a key concept of cybernetics—as an autonomous unit capable of adaptive behaviour. He then showed how societies and ecosystems could be regarded as specialized instances of a system. By determining what systems have in common he showed that it is possible to establish a general theory of behaviour, or a unified science, in terms of which all systems can be analysed. Thus, all systems are made up of interrelated parts, all have a basic structure, each of the parts must have an optimum value, systems are goal-seeking, and they tend towards increasing their stability or homeostasis. This is achieved by increasing complexity and order. In addition, all systems are governed by the law of economy and the parts are developed by differentiation and not by multiplication. Systems are also integral wholes in that none of their parts can be destroyed with impunity.

In this second part of the article the author reviews the other characteristics of systems with special reference to societies and ecosystems.


It is not surprising that systems which are sufficiently differentiated, such as biological organisms and societies, will tend to develop mechanisms which will enable them to exclude foreign bodies likely to menace their integrity. At the biological level such devices are known as rejection mechanisms. Experience with organ transplants has revealed that to suppress these mechanisms is to increase one hundredfold the patient’s susceptibility to cancer, i.e. to the anarchic proliferation of cells. Mechanisms of this kind are essential at all levels, of organization. Of the 3,000 simple societies so far examined by anthropologists, all appear to have laws of exogamy and endogamy. Marriage is forbidden within a restricted family circle, but also outside the cultural group, the object being to avoid cultural hybridization and hence the production of sub-systems that are differentiated parts neither of one system nor of another. What is today regarded as prejudice against people of different ethnic groups is a normal and necessary feature of human cultural behaviour, and is absent only among members of a cultural system already far along the road to disintegration. The notion of the universal brotherhood of man is therefore totally incompatible with the systemic approach to human cultural systems. It is as absurd as the notion that the cells making up a vast number of different biological organisms can be shuffled and still give rise to viable biological systems.

The imperialist position, whereby one ethnic group attempts to dominate and, if possible, absorb other groups, is also totally incompatible with a systemic approach. It contravenes the principles of optimum structure, self-regulation and systemic controls, as well as the essential principle of complexity or, in this case, cultural variety.

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Feedback development

We have seen that behaviour is goal-directed, in that, if conditions are optimum, it will tend towards increasing homeostasis. We have seen that it is explicable in terms of the interaction between the environment and the information contained in its cybernism.* Each reaction is best regarded as selected by the environment from among all those that are cybernismically possible—(genetically possible in the case of a gene pool, neurologically possible in the case of a brain and culturally possible in the case of a culture). It is in this way that the given parts of a system can influence the other parts qualitatively and quantitatively—a sine qua non for the maintenance of its balanced structure.

* Term coined by author to refer to any organization of information

It is probable that an environmental demand for a given response that is not available at a given moment can, in time, determine its synthesis. This is usually disputed at the genetic level by those who consider that Darwinian natural selection (which is but an instance of feedback development) tells the whole story. It is controversial whether it occurs during the immunizational process—yet another instance of feedback development. In the case of human day-to-day behaviour, its occurrence is incontestable. No one can deny man’s capacity to improvise.

At the level of a human economy, the process of supply and demand, which is yet another instance of feedback development, undoubtedly involves improvisation.

In all these cases, the breakdown of the essential mechanism of feedback development can only lead to anarchic growth—growth that is not selected by the environment (in other words for which there is no environmental requirement), and which is therefore not specifically adapted to it. It must therefore constitute multiplication of parts, rather than differentiation, leading to eventual breakdown.

The establishment of systemic controls that prevent normal feedback development must bring about an imbalance in the system’s basic structure. Since most human activity today consists in establishing more and more systemic controls in an even greater number of the different systems that are hierarchically organized to form our total ecosystem, it must follow that un-integrated parts are proliferating, leading thereby to chaos. An example is to be found in the field of education. If this process were allowed to occur normally, the correct ratio between the different specialists made available by the educational system, corresponding to the economic, social and ecological demand for them, would be maintained. As it is, we are producing a vast quantity of young people with specialized knowledge in obscure branches of learning for whom there is unlikely to be any demand. In this way, we are simply creating unintegrated parts that must of necessity rebel against a system in which they have no place.

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Transmission of information

Systems are differentiated in time as well as in space. Complexity increases temporally as well as spatially, and each generation that comes into being becomes specialized in dealing with slightly different environmental situations, separated from each other in time. These must be regarded as sub-systems, just like contemporaneous parts, and, like the latter, must be in possession of the same information that will enable them to act as temporally differentiated members of the same system. If the mechanism whereby this information is communicated from generation to generation breaks down, then the four-dimensional system must disintegrate.

At the cultural level, this means that for an individual to be capable of fulfilling his function as a member of a family, community and ecosystem, he must acquire during the course of his life the corresponding information. The most general information he will receive, that which will condition all the rest, is transmitted genetically. This will then be differentiated culturally by means of a number of steps, which must occur in the correct order, and at different social levels, just like any other developmental process.

The most general cultural information must be acquired from the family itself. Less general information must be obtained, at a slightly later date, from the community to which, during the latter part of its education, the child will be consigned.

When the family or the community disintegrate, this socialization process, which alone enables an individual to fulfil his correct systemic functions, will no longer occur. Instead, the individual will be submitted to a chaotic, unprogrammed barrage of asystemic information from such random sources as television personalities, journalists, pop singers, etc. Under these conditions, the individual will no longer acquire the kind of information that will enable him to fulfil his correct systemic functions. The family, community and ecosystem will clearly suffer, and will probably not be able to retain their essential structure, but will disintegrate still further.

In the light of this principle, we must revise the current view of education.

An “educated” man must be a different thing in different societies. A Hottentot imbued with the knowledge and sense of values required to fulfil the essential social and ecological functions of an Eskimo would make a very poor Hottentot. He would, in systemic terms, be uneducated—but so would a graduate of Oxford University with a First in PPE.

Education is not simply the accumulation of random data. It is functional. Its role is, in broad terms, “systemization”, i.e. the communication to a subsystem of that information which will enable it to fulfil its functions as a differentiated part of a system.

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A balanced system will be self-regulating. The only possible way in which a system can adapt to change is by building a model of its environment. This will enable it to interpret any situation and predict changes. Its action will then be the one most likely to increase its homeostasis in the light of these interpretations and predictions, and hence increase the efficacy of its reactions, so as to achieve ever greater homeostasis. A guided missile proceeds in precisely this manner as it finds its way towards its goal. It is also in these terms that the behaviour of biological organisms, stable societies and balanced ecosystems can be understood. It is only when systems cease to be stable that the self-regulating mechanisms break down. In such conditions, their survival can only be ensured by a principle external to the system, i.e. an asystemic control. A very simple society, such as an Australian aboriginal tribe, is totally self-regulating, just like a biological organism. It requires no chiefs, certainly no tyrants. Complex societies such as Switzerland, and most North European ones, are, or were, relatively stable and required little coercive government.

The total ecosystem, was also self-regulating so long as its balanced structure was not interfered with.

A self-regulating system is not free from constraints. It has just as many constraints as one controlled asystemically. The important thing is that each individual constraint is itself subjected to the set of constraints determining the behaviour of the system as a whole. This is precisely the difference between self-government and dictatorship. Self-regulation at all levels of organization must be the ideal towards which we strive.

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Conditions under which a system will be self-regulating

It is essential to realize that a system must provide the ideal environment for its parts, since the only reason the parts were developed was so that they might fulfil specific differentiated functions within the system. Similarly, people are part of a family system, which is, in turn, part of a social system which in its turn is part of a vaster ecological one. One must therefore regard them as having been developed phylogenetically to fulfil specific functions within their family, society and ecosystem, and one must assume that it is in fulfilling these functions that they obtain maximum satisfaction.

For them to do this, they must be provided with appropriate information, and also with the correct environment, or rather, one whose characteristics are maintained within certain parameters.

When those conditions obtain, a subsystem will behave in that way which favours the survival or increased homeostasis of the system. If the system does not provide the appropriate environment, or if the information is not appropriate, then the sub-system will behave in a way which will tend to lead to the disintegration of the system.

Unfortunately, what constitutes a satisfactory environment for human beings has never been properly determined. One would have thought that this would be one of the principal goals of sociologists. However, they have not yet got round to thinking in these terms. Clearly, the external environment must have certain basic features such as the availability of food, water and air, but the presence of the physical necessities of life alone does not suffice to create a satisfactory environment. Man also needs a satisfactory social environment which involves the maintenance of the correct social structure. He needs a family, a small community, probably a larger one, and he certainly needs enemies. If he is not provided with them he tends to invent them. In this way, when the Comanche Indians were put on reservations they simply invented a host of evil spirits to replace the enemies of which they had been deprived.

Man has other requirements which his environment must also cater for. He has a sense of aesthetics. He cannot adapt readily to living in the grey, monotonous surroundings of our urban conglomerations. He cannot work up any enthusiasm for conserving an environment made up of chaotic complexes of concrete blocks or bleak fields mutilated by pylons, factories and housing estates. To create such an environment specifically for the purpose of increasing society’s “standard of living” is to sacrifice its long-term stability in the interests of acquiring dubious short-term benefits.

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Asystemic control

When a system disintegrates, it loses its capacity for self-regulation. In such conditions, its maintenance can only be ensured by the application of some sort of external control.

Thus a doctor administers drugs to a body incapable of regulating itself; a surgeon intervenes when its basic structure has so far diverged from the optimum as to be incapable of self-readjustment. Artificial fertilizers are added to the soil when the self-regulating mechanisms, which in a balanced ecosystem ensure nitrate-fixation, are no longer operative. Insecticides are sprayed over crops when natural biological controls cease to be effective.

At a social level, welfare, as unknown as it is unnecessary in a self-regulating society, becomes indispensable once the society has so disintegrated that people are no longer capable of looking after themselves. In the same way, coercive government of some kind becomes necessary when the cultural mechanisms, designed to ensure social self-reguIation, have broken down. The choice in such societies is not between “democracy” and dictatorship but between chaos, thinly disguised as democracy, and dictatorship.

The trouble with all forms of asystemic control is that:

  1. they are far less efficient than systemic ones, by virtue of the fact that they defy the law of economy (controls in optimum conditions being exercised at a lower level of organization);
  2. they upset the optimum systemic structure, by allowing a pathological situation to persist;
  3. the system adapts to them and becomes ever more dependent upon them. In fact, the more they are resorted to, the more they become necessary, and consequently the greater the difficulty involved in restoring a healthy situation. This is as true in the case of the use of drugs and of artificial fertilizers and insecticides as in that of welfare and dictatorship.

In each case, therefore, asystemic controls must be reduced to the minimum, i.e. applied to special cases only—deviants in a society—and their object should be simply to re-establish the proper functioning of the original self-regulating mechanisms.

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By joining together to form a system, sub-systems become specialized and hence incapable of fulfilling by themselves all those separate functions needed to ensure their increased stability or homeostasis.

It is this dependence on each other that gives rise to the bonds that hold the system together. When the set of constraints ensuring specialization ceases to be operative, and all the parts begin to resemble each other more and more, the bonds will relax and the system will disintegrate. Any reduction in differentiation, like any reduction in the set of constraints associated with a given system, must, therefore involve a reduction in order, or a move towards “entropy”, or disorder.

Thus in a simple ordered society there is a very clear division of labour among the members of a family. Certain functions are specifically fulfilled by the father, others by the mother, others by children of different age-groups. The breakdown of this differentiation of functions can only lead to the erosion of the bonds holding the family together and hence to an increase in social entropy or disorder. If a husband and wife have similar jobs, earn equal pay and are equally capable and willing to fulfil the household duties, then what is to hold them together? Clearly feminism is merely a symptom of the advanced disintegration of our society.

There is a variety of conditions in which disintegration is likely to occur. Thus a radical modification of the environment, to which the system will be incapable of adapting, would render its behaviour pattern redundant. Each response would no longer be selected by the environment. Feedback development would cease to occur, and differentiation would give way to multiplication of parts. The latter would cease to be specialized, would no longer be dependent upon each other, and systemic disintegration would be the outcome. This would also be likely to occur if the system’s basic structure, or that of any of its essential parts, were interfered with in some way, so that it no longer had the optimum structure which would enable it to function as a self-regulating unit of behaviour.

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Once a system has disintegrated, adaptive behaviour will only occur at the level of organization of its particular parts or sub-systems.

If the latter can adapt themselves to the disorder of their new environment, then such a situation can persist until such time as environmental challenges induce the further development of the system. If they are not so adapted, i.e. if they depend for their survival on being subjected to a more ordered environment, i.e. that with which the now defunct system once provided them, then there will be an immediate tendency for them to recreate such a system, though the one that will emerge will tend to be better adapted to its changed environmental conditions. At a cultural level, individuals find it difficult to survive when deprived of that highly structured environment consisting of a family and a home, a community and a village, fields and forests, enemies and their strongholds, and unknown areas inhabited by dreadful supernatural creatures, i.e. an environment displaying the required distribution of order. In the absence of such an environment, they will be forced to seek short-term substitutes to satisfy those of which they have been deprived. These substitutes will include taking drugs, drinking, cheap entertainments, anything in fact that will render their unenviable lot slightly more tolerable. At the same time, they will be particularly susceptible to new doctrines that might enable them to re-establish new social structures, and hence that environment to which they have been adapted by millions of years of evolution. Thus, during periods of social disorder, cults, revolutionary movements of one sort or another, usually of a “messianic” or “millenarist” nature, will proliferate. It is significant that there are 7,000 such movements in Africa at this moment. Such movements are best regarded as reintegrative.

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To conclude, the adoption of a cybernetic approach to the study of societies and ecosystems must lead to a very different view of these systems—one in which “emotion”, “wishful thinking”, and other subjective elements are, to all intents and purposes, eliminated. Above all, it should permit the development of a model capable of representing the world we live in as a whole for the purpose of accurately predicting the effect on it of any local change regardless of the level of organization at which it occurs.

It is only in these conditions that science can be of use in guiding the direction of our societies and ecosystems.

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