October 22, 2017

Responding to the environment as a whole

One of the main features of the development of the nervous system has been its gradual centralization. The primitive nerve-net slowly gave rise to the central nervous system whose functioning then became more and more dependent on the brain. This process is known as encephalization.

What is the philosophy behind this change? The answer is that, in the face of environmental disorder, the organism, if it is to survive, has to behave more and more as a unit, i.e. the number of those cases in which the separate parts can function on their own is correspondingly reduced.

This implies that, whereas previously a great many environmental changes were only relevant locally, i.e. to the behaviour of the parts, they are now taken to be relevant to the behaviour of the organism as a whole. Let us take the case of the nervous system of the octopus. This strange animal has a large ganglion, or rudimentary brain, in each of its tentacles, as well as a smaller one in its head. Such an organization of the neurons is valid only in so far as the information derived by each “brain” can be considered of so specialized a nature as to be relevant only to the corresponding tentacle and of no consequence to the rest of the organism.

Behaviour, as we go up the ladder of life, is more and more determined by the interrelationship between the whole environment and the whole organism. Significant in this respect is the fact that the centralized brain uses the same classificatory system for all parts of the environment. Thus there is no division of the information within a model in accordance with the different detecting devices used (smell, sight, taste etc.). Also an organism can only classify things in terms of the classifications that have proved useful in the interpretation of the environment they have so far been submitted to. Thus the Tahitians, when they first saw horses, classified them as “man-carrying pigs”, since the pig was the only quadruped of which they had any experience. Similarly, whatever the environment to which a lion be subjected, it can only be classifiable in terms of the latter’s behaviour pattern. This is true even if an organism is taken out of its natural habitat and put into an environment which bears no relationship to anything of which it has had previous experience. Thus, if a lion is put into a shoe-factory, the machines, the piles of shoes and all the other constituents of this new and strange environment can only be classified in a way that is relevant to the lion’s behaviour pattern.

Thus not only our normal environment—that to which our evolution and upbringing are adaptations—but also any new, unforeseen environment is classified in terms of the variables of the same model. In other words, a signal is not classified according to how it affects a single behavioural centre, but according to how it affects the brain as a whole.

Cut and dried stimuli, such as an excellent meal presented to a hungry man, will clearly affect the behavioural centres determining eating so strongly that the effect of this stimulus on other centres such as those determining sexual, paternal, aggressive behaviour, may be almost negligible, but never entirely so. More complex stimuli, such as a violin concerto, will, on the other hand, affect a variety of centres and determine a more composite response.

Nevertheless, it is only by regarding the whole of our environment as classified in the same brain, whose role it is to determine the optimum behaviour pattern to our environment, that it is possible to understand human behaviour.

Several illustrations can be given. In the advertising business, it is current to talk of “the image” of anything one is trying to sell, whether it be toothpaste or the Democratic candidate in the American presidential election. By “image” one in fact means its status as a stimulus for our various behaviour tendencies, i.e. it will tell us what “instincts” the product is appealing to, and thus what should be our method of selling it.

Thus, the success of a large number of designs for consumer products at first sight unconnected with sexual behaviour can only be explained in so far as they act as stimuli for sexual, among, of course many other types of reactions. Sports cars, cameras with a lot of stainless steel and large telescopic lenses, are obvious cases in point. If a design does not appeal to any of the basic classifications of human behaviour, it will usually be a commercial failure.

Similarly, behaviour towards political leaders can only be understood if the latter are interpretable as possible fathers, husbands, lovers, sons, grandsons, rivals, brothers, etc.

Mr. Adlai Stephenson expressed his hatred of the process involved:

“The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal . . . is the ultimate indignity of the democratic process.”

To conclude: it appears to be the case at all levels of complexity that as order develops, so the systemic model on which behaviour is based tends to represent more and more the environment as a whole. This implies that the environment ceases to be split up into different areas, behaviour towards each of which is entrusted to distinct specialized mechanisms.

There is every reason to suppose that this must be equally true of the development of a scientific model, whose division into specialized disciplines using distinct and unrelated classifications, must slowly be abandoned if scientific method is to be extended to the interpretation of behaviour at a high level of complexity.

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