December 11, 2017

The four-dimensional model

Behaviour, at all levels of organisation, is best understood as based on a model of the relationship between the system and its environment, i.e. of the larger system of which the former is a part.

If behaviour is to be adaptive, this model must permit the prediction of systemic changes, which is only possible if it is dynamic or four-dimensional.

Thus, if a zebra identifies a moving object as a lion, it may succeed in escaping because it is capable of making a prediction regarding the unpleasant consequences of remaining within reach of the hungry predator. When a baobob fills its pores to capacity with water, it is on the basis of a prediction that there is a likelihood of drought in the months ahead. When a warbler decides to migrate, it is because it has predicted that cold weather is ahead. When the green turtle leaves the coast of South America on its three thousand mile journey to Ascension Island, it is predicting that, by laying its eggs there rather than elsewhere, its young will enjoy the best chances of survival. When a rat tries to find its way out of a maze by taking one route rather than another, it is on the basis of a prediction that this route, in terms of its fast-developing model of the system, is more likely to lead to success than is any other. Every action taken can, in fact, be regarded as based on a series of predictions of ever increasing precision. Thus, when a man reaches for a glass of whisky and lifts it to his lips, this is on the basis of a series of predictions that each move will bring the delectable liquid that much closer to its destination, in the same way that a guided missile, in following its trajectory towards its target, is basing each successive move on its “prediction” as to the latter’s whereabouts in relation to itself. Empiricists will object to the fact that I am using the term “prediction” to apply to things that are, or rather, look, very different, such as men, zebras, baobobs, warblers, turtles, rats and guided missiles.

However, if the term “prediction” is to have any meaning in a scientific context, it can only be used to apply to processes that are functionally similar; the Empiricists’ subjective definition being valid only for the special requirements of everyday conversation. Basically, what I am saying is that a model must be jour-dimensional, or dynamic, for the simple reason that the world is best represented by such a model, and that a static, or three-dimensional one will not lead to adaptive behaviour.

The same principle must be true of a scientific model, whose function is also to permit a special type of behaviour, differing from those we have considered in that it is designed to permit more precise behaviour. Undoubtedly, in its early descriptive stage of development, our knowledge of a particular aspect of the world is achieved by the sheer accumulation of data, no effort being made to organise it. However, such information cannot be made use of to determine adaptive behaviour. For this to be possible, data must be organised into a four-dimensional model, which involves determining and properly formulating in terms of measurable variables the principles, which, in this particular field determine change. The achievement of this stage of scientific development has been hindered in many disciplines by the influence of empirical method.

Von Bertalanffy writes:

“Science in the past (and partly in the present), was dominated by one-sided empiricism. Only a collection of data and experiments were considered as being ‘scientific’ in biology (and psychology); forgetting that a mere accumulation of data, although steadily piling up, does not make a science.”1

Wannier recognises the essential four-dimensional aspect of physics and contrasts it with other disciplines such as crystallography that are at a purely descriptive stage:

“Crystallography provides a geometric analysis of the solid state, which is unusual in its beauty and perfection. But it is not yet physics, Johann Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which had a similar beauty, were not physics but astronomy; Newton transformed them into physics by finding the law of force to which the planets were subject. In the same way, physicists asked what forces made the atoms in crystals arrange themselves as they did, and what dynamic phenomena took place in crystals. They learned that the forces responsible for the formation of atoms, molecules and crystals are electrical, which placed solids and molecules on a similar footing.”2

Odum shows how the variables used by ecologists have slowly become less descriptive and more dynamic:

“Until recently, ecologists were content to describe how nature “looks” (sometimes by means of fantastic terms!) and to speculate on what she might have looked like in the past or may look like in the future. Now, an equal emphasis is being placed on what nature ‘does’, and rightly so, because the changing face of nature can never be understood unless her metabolism is also studied. This change in approach brings the small organisms into perspective with the large, and encourages the use of experimental methods to supplement the analytic. It is evident that so long as a purely descriptive viewpoint is maintained, there is very little in common between such structurally diverse organisms as sperma-tophytes, vertebrates and bacteria. In real life, however, all these are intimately linked functionally in ecological systems, according to well-defined laws. Thus the only kind of general ecology is that which I call a ‘functional ecology’, and this kind is of the greatest interest to all students of the subject, regardless of present or future specialisations.”3

The same principle applies to the organisation of data relevant to the behaviour of societies. In this respect, historical material is still arranged in chronological order, with little attempt to organise it into a model of any kind.

Anthropology, on the other hand, which deals basically with the same raw materials, is slowly attaining a higher stage of development, as this material becomes organised into a four-dimensional model.

As Murdock writes:

“. . . the anthropological study of social structure has gradually been emerging from its classificatory or typological phase, and . . . the changing emphasis which we can currently observe are characterised for the most part by common concern with dynamics or process . . . .”4

To understand this process, one must first understand the nature of human organisations, and of the function of the cultures that man develops. One must recognise that:

“. . . cultural change, like organic evolution, proceeds, not haphazardly, but according to a definite dynamics. Among the specific processes involved, three basic ones are today generally recognised: (1) the process of cultural innovation, most recently analysed by Barnett;5 (2) the process of cultural borrowing, whose dynamics have most clearly been set forth by Dollard,6 and (3) the process of readjustive integration (e.g. see Linton, 1936).78

The formulation of these laws of change ensures the development of four-dimensional models permitting predictions displaying that precision required for scientific purposes.


1 Von Bertalanffy, L. “General Systems Theory A Critical Review”, in General Systems Year Book, Vol. VII, 1962.

2 Wannier G. H., “The Nature of Solids”, in Scientific America, December 1962.

3 Odum, Eugene, “Fundamentals of Ecology”, Preface, p. IX. W. B. Saunders, London, 1957.

4 Murdock, G. P., “Culture and Society”, Pittsburgh University Press, 1965.

5 Barnett, H. G., 1953, “Innovation”, N.Y.

6 Miller, N. E. and Dollard J., 1941, “Social Learning and Imitation”, New Haven.

7 Linton, Ralph, 1936, “The Study of Man”, N.Y.

8 Murdock, G. P., Ibid. p. 154.

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