December 11, 2017

Limits of growth in natural systems

This paper was first published in the General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research, Volume XVI, 1971.

It subsequently appeared as Chapter 3 of Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971, and Sphere Books, London, 1971 (paperback).

The first stage in the study of any aspect of the world we live in is to gather together all the relevant material. During this stage, researchers are invariably struck by the amazing diversity of nature. During the second stage this material is organized, at which point researchers are equally struck by the surprising similarities underlying much of this diversity. It is during this stage that science really begins.

Though the process is well advanced within specific disciplines, there has been little attempt, until recently, to discover what there is really in common between things at present falling within the domain of different disciplines, such as molecules, cells, biological organisms, societies and business enterprises. Most scientists today, reared on empiricist philosophy, would in fact refuse to admit that anything more than a vague analogy could possibly obtain between things that appear so very different. This is not the view, however, of those involved in the new field of ‘general systems’ who prefer to regard these things as different specialized instances of a basic organization which they call a system.

A system is defined as something made up of parts in dynamic interrelationship with each other. I prefer to regard it as an autonomous unit of behaviour—which, by its very nature, must be made up of such parts. Systems, however different they may appear, have a basic structure in common. All are bound by the same set of laws, which they must observe as rigorously as the law of gravity and those of thermodynamics. The great value of general systems theory is that by determining what systems have in common, it becomes possible to develop a general theory of behaviour, or a unified science, which enables one to examine our biosphere as a whole and determine the total effect on it of any local change. This is necessary if science is to serve the true interests of mankind.

In this chapter, I shall make use of general systems theory to determine what are the principles governing growth in systems. I shall attempt to show that growth like all other aspects of systems, is bound by rigorous laws from which there is no escape—and that these laws must apply equally well to the growth of complex systems, such as human societies and business enterprises, as to that of the much simpler systems studied by chemists and biologists.

A System as a Negentropy Machine

The second law of thermodynamics states that our world is running down or moving towards disorder or ‘entropy’. In spite of this tendency, order, or negentropy (negative entropy), has been increasing over the last few thousand million years, during which time complex and highly ordered systems have developed, which we call living things. It is convenient to regard a system as an organization specifically designed to increase order, or negentropy. A system receives an input of low-order resources and transforms them into a high-order output. During this transformation waste is generated. However, so long as the reduction of order of that amount of input that has been transformed into waste is less than the increase in order of that amount of input that has been transformed into output, then the system’s order, or negentropy, will have increased. Let us consider the conditions in which this process can occur.

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Vertical Structure

One of the basic conditions of order is that the parts of a system should be closely linked together. In every different type of system, a different set of bonds assures this linkage. Thus the bonds holding together an atom are very different from those holding together a cell or a human family. However, their function is the same, and they have limited extendibility. This means that they cannot stretch to include things that are too distant from each other. This sets a limit to the size of a system and when this limit is reached, it can only grow by associating with others to form a new type of system held together by a new set of bonds. When this occurs, a new ‘level of organization’ is said to have been attained. It is at this point that atoms join to form a molecule, that molecules join to form a cell and that cells join to form a biological organism. There is every reason to suppose that the same principle applies to more complex systems such as human societies. Individuals can be joined together to form a family and families can be linked together to form a small community. However, it is as impossible to create a society out of a whole lot of individuals, who are not organized into families and communities, as it is to form a biological organism out of atoms that are not organized into molecules and cells, i.e. a system must display its correct structure.

Cancer is an example of the growth of tissue which no longer displays its correct structure. A modern city is an example of the same principle at the level of a society. Demographic and economic growth tends to destroy the essential structure of a society, by tending towards ever-increasing urbanization and the development of ever-larger social and economic units. The fact that, with growing economic units, people tend to live ever further from their work also means that the bonds linking them with their neighbours become minimal—housing estate can never make sound and stable communities.

As we advance to more complex systems, the bonds become more sophisticated and take longer to develop. Those holding together a family are an obvious example, a fortiori those that hold together a community. Economic growth invariably means increased mobility. People are no longer treated as members of a community or of a specific culture, but simply as units of labour that can be shifted around in accordance with the demands of industry. This prevents people from living together long enough for the necessary bonds to develop. The social disorder and its various manifestations measured in terms of crime, delinquency, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental disease, etc, resulting from the erosion of these bonds must set a limit to the desirability and feasibility of growth.

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Horizontal Structures

A system must also have an optimum horizontal structure, i.e. a correct ratio must be maintained between the differentiated parts of a biological organism as between the different skills required in a business enterprise. Assuming that all the parts of the system can be quantified, we can then formulate the essential principle of all systems, which we can refer to as the law of optimum value. There must be an optimum value for every part of the system, which is determined by that of the other parts. To allow one of these values to increase without reference to the others, is to destroy the essential structure of the system, and bring about its breakdown. So if we regard the United Kingdom as a system, there is an optimum population at any given moment. There is also an optimum number of houses, an optimum number of cars, an optimum standard of living, an optimum differential between the wages paid to different people; there is an optimum longevity and even an optimum amount of social deviation. It must follow that there is no conceivable variable whose value can be increased or decreased indefinitely without bringing about the breakdown of the system. Economic growth is no exception to this rule. It cannot possibly be regarded as desirable per se but only in accordance with its effect on the other variables in terms of which we describe our social and ecological system.

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Selection: How the Structure is Maintained

The growth of each part of a system, in other words, must satisfy the requirements of the system as a whole. This is ensured by the fact that all the parts of a system are closely connected by feedback loops and that it is the system as a whole that must trigger off the sub-system’s behavioural responses. In fact the environment can be regarded as selecting the required response from among all those which the system is capable of providing. Thus within a biological organism, a cell comes into being with a full complement of hereditary material rendering it capable of performing any function within the organism. Slowly, however, it will become specialized in fulfilling a specific function as part of the liver or the intestine, for instance. It is in response to the requirements of its environment that it has developed to fulfil a very small range of the functions it was initially capable of. Its development, in fact, can be regarded as being selected by the environment from among all those it could originally perform. The behaviour of populations obeys the same principle. The environment selects those genetic features of the population that are adaptive to it, to the exclusion of those that are not. In fact, natural selection rather than being a unique principle, is a specialized instance of a very general one. In a polymorphous ant colony the same is also true. Only two types of egg are produced: male and female. The female is capable of giving rise to different types of ants and the actual distribution of those types is determined by environmental selection. In a human society it is clear how in ideal conditions environmental requirements will determine the number of people who should be trained in the different trades and professions.

Environmental selection is clearly essential in a system whose correct horizontal structure is to be respected. It is only in this way that its output remains differentiated so as to correspond qualitatively and quantitatively to the requirements of the larger system of which it is part. When growth develops too quickly, however, the parts are no longer selected by the environment. They no longer develop to fulfil specific environmental requirements. They are therefore no longer differentiated. Growth proceeds by multiplication rather than by differentiation, and the system’s essential horizontal structure must break down.

An example is to be found in the field of education. If selection 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 methodically creating unintegrated parts that must of necessity rebel against a system in which they have no place.

As economic growth proceeds, so the educative process, i.e. the process whereby members of our society are differentiated culturally to fulfil specific functions within it, is becoming ever more chaotic. Information is transmitted less by the family and the small community, and more by the state, and by whoever directs communications media. In this way, it becomes less designed to enable people to fulfil their essential differentiated functions as members of their family and of their small community.

Education, too, is foisted on people in a totally indiscriminate way with no regard for their intellectual capacity, nor for the sort of society which they will inhabit. For instance, people living in agricultural or pastoral tribal societies are being provided with an education designed to enable them to fulfil functions within an economy totally alien to their own, and one which, simply on the basis of the approaching world shortage of raw materials, they cannot conceivably aspire to achieve. The basic mechanism of environmental selection is breaking down more and more and the ever-growing chaos associated with the uncontrolled proliferation of culturally undifferentiated people must set a further limit to economic growth.

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The Destruction of Cultural Constraints

Order can be defined as the influence of the whole over the parts. It is also defined as limitation of choice, for the greater the influence of the whole over the parts, the greater must be the constraints imposed on them to ensure that they behave in a way that will further the interests of the whole.

Every system owes its existence to the operation of a specific set of constraints. As it increases order so as to increase its ability to face a given challenge, there is an increase in the constraints applied, and hence a reduction in the range of choices open to the parts of the system. As the system develops and achieves new levels of organization, e.g. as molecules join together to form cells, or as families join together to form small communities, and small communities to form larger ones, new constraints are imposed. Each system possesses an organization of information to which I shall refer as a ‘cybernism’ which constitutes a model of the environment and at the same time provides the system with a goal-structure and its corresponding constraints. A culture, i.e. that set of beliefs cherished by an ordered society, constitutes its ‘cybernism’, in terms of which it interprets environmental data and mediates responses to them. We can best understand a culture as a control-mechanism that applies the constraints ensuring that each member of the society behaves as a differentiated part of it. Once these constraints are no longer operative, the society will disintegrate. One of the implications of this principle which we might not be too happy to accept is that permissiveness can only be regarded as the inevitable sign of social disintegration. Permissiveness appears to be a natural concomitant of social and economic growth. It is the result of the breakdown of those ethical codes associated with the culture of small, relatively isolated communities. Permissiveness is inextricably linked with the other symptoms of social disorder.

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Conservation of the Environment

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 to fulfil specific differentiated functions within it.

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 people as having been developed (phylogenetically and culturally) 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 the appropriate information, and also with the correct environment, or rather, one whose characteristics are maintained within the required parameters.

When these conditions obtain, people will behave in that way which favours the survival or increased homeostasis of the system they belong to. However, if the latter does not provide the optimum environment, or if the information is not appropriate, then they will behave in a way which will tend to lead to the system’s disintegration.

It is for this reason that a stable society requires little or no government, while the more unstable it becomes, the greater the need for autocracy in all its forms.

Unfortunately, what constitutes a satisfactory environment for human beings has never been properly determined. 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 for which his environment must also cater. 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. These, however, are the inevitable concomitants of economic growth. It must be true that 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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The environment selects the response that it requires. This selection process will establish an equilibrium situation between the sub-system and the system. However, this equilibrium can be established with varying degrees of homeostasis. The mechanism that ensures that the response satisfies the requirements of the sub-system as well as the system by tending towards their maximum homeostasis, is referred to as a control mechanism. It is basically the same in all systems. It involves detecting data from the system, transducting it into the correct informational medium made use of by the sub-system’s cybernism (brain, gene-pool, etc) and interpreting them within the model of the system that this cybernism constitutes. The corresponding response must be the only one reconcilable with the particular interpretation of the situation. This mechanism of self-regulation must be a feature of all stable systems. It is the only way to ensure that a system’s response to its environment, i.e. to the larger system of which it is a part, corresponds to the requirements of both the former and the latter—requirements which it learns to satisfy ever better as its control-mechanism becomes more perfected. It is in fact the only way to ensure that a system conserves its environment.

The relationship between the individuals making up a human family and the family itself provide an excellent illustration of how this mechanism of self-regulation achieves the requisite stability of the systems involved. A woman satisfies her basic biological and psychological requirements best by fulfilling her functions as a wife and a mother within her family unit. A man satisfies his basic requirements best by fulfilling his functions as a husband and a father. In other words, behaviour that satisfies the requirements of the sub-systems is also that required to ensure the stability of the system—in this case the family. The system is thus totally self-regulating.

There are many ways in which the family can break down as we have already seen. When this occurs, its members automatically seek substitute satisfactions. The husband may take a mistress for instance. This may provide him with satisfaction, but it will not contribute towards the stability of his family unit. The self-regulating mechanism will have been impaired. He may also take to drink and to drugs as substitute satisfactions. These, however, will tend to reduce his capacity for fulfilling his essential functions within the family unit, and the self-regulatory mechanisms will be further impaired. It is only when these mechanisms have broken down and the family ceases to be capable of self-regulation that outside forces or ‘asystemic’ controls are required to look after its members.

In such a situation, only help from the community can permit the family, or what is left of it, to survive at all, for it has ceased to be self-regulating.

This help, though it may appear to alleviate the suffering of the members of the disintegrating family, will in fact favour its further disintegration by reducing the need for responsible behaviour on the part of the father. This must be true of all asystemic or external controls, including those introduced by modern technology. By destroying natural self-regulating mechanisms, they must further contribute to the system’s disintegration, thereby increasing the need for further asystemic controls.

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A system, as we have seen, has an optimum structure, no surplus capacity and the parts are all differentiated. It is an integral whole, and the destruction of any of its parts can lead to total breakdown.

This is a point which has rarely been taken into account at a cultural level. Colonialist powers have constantly interfered in the most irresponsible way with the cultures of the societies they controlled. Missionaries and colonial administrators have tampered with the delicately adjusted cultural systems of highly stable and ecologically sound societies which they regarded as ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarous’ and in most instances brought about their breakdown. The consequences for the inhabitants of these societies has been disastrous. They usually become rootless members of a depressed proletariat in the shanty-towns we are thereby methodically creating. The consequences for the ecosystem as a whole have been equally disastrous. By reducing order as well as cultural variety or complexity, we have seriously reduced the stability or homeostasis of the world’s human population.

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Multi-ethnic societies

It is not surprising that systems which are sufficiently differentiated, such as biological organisms and societies, will tend to develop mechanisms that 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. Economic growth is leading to increased mobility. Industrial countries tend to develop labour shortages and to import labour from elsewhere. In this way quite large ethnic minorities are being built up in many countries. In addition, economic development is tending towards the development of ever-larger political units, which often embrace ethnic groups with little in common with each other. All this is creating a very unstable situation, one which can only lead to civil wars and to the massacre of minorities singled out as scapegoats when inevitable economic and social crises occur.

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A system cannot be regarded as stable unless there is a guarantee that the resources on which it depends will always be available. The only way it can ensure this is to live off the interest and not the capital of available resources. In the highly stable societies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this was the case, as in the example of the Plains Indians. They lived off the vast herds of buffalo and pronghorns without causing any reduction in the herds’ numbers. Their consumption of non-renewable resources, such as metals, was minimal and timber provided them with all the fuel they required. To satisfy this essential requirement, it is clear that populations must be kept low, as must their standard of living measured in terms of their consumption of non-renewable resources. Once we start living off our capital, it is a matter of time before we exhaust it and our economic system grinds to a halt. The greater the economic growth, and our corresponding dependence on these resources, the more dramatic this eventual collapse must be-this is made possible by a philosophy that teaches that man is part of nature rather than above it. Primitive people do not regard the possession of a soul, for instance, as a prerogative of man distinguishing him from all other creatures. All have a soul, and often the primitive hunter will pray to that of the animal he is about to kill, explaining the necessity for the crime he will commit. Seldom, too, will he kill more than he strictly requires. Indeed, it is said in Southern Africa that the bees do not sting the bushman because they known he will take only the amount of honey he requires, never more.

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Disposal of Waste

A system can only remain stable if the larger system of which it is but a differentiated part is capable of absorbing its waste products at the rate at winch they are being produced. If it grows too quickly and becomes too big, then it will produce more than the larger system is capable of absorbing. It will then be steadily reducing the order of the larger system by replacing its highly differentiated parts with waste or random parts. By destroying the environment in this way, a system is simply spelling its own doom, as it cannot survive in an environment made up of random parts, i.e. displaying total entropy. Needless to say, our society is moving in just this direction. Much of our pollution control equipment, rather than provide a means of getting rid of waste, serves merely to shift it, and it cannot be long before the global problem of waste disposal presents an insuperable barrier to further economic growth.

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Toxic substances can be generated in any system, mainly but not entirely in the form of waste products. Let us not forget that a system is developed phylogenetically (and culturally in the case of society) as an adaptive response to a specific environment. If the latter is changed sufficiently radically, i.e. if those qualitative parameters within which a system is designed to function are no longer respected, then it can no longer survive. Industrialization is bringing about a radical transformation of our environment at an ever-increasing rate. It is but a question of time before the accumulation of insecticides, detergents, radioactive wastes and carbon-dioxide and heat from the burning of fossil fuels so transforms our world that it ceases to provide a suitable environment for complex forms of life.

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If there is a tendency for systems to become more and more complex, it is because complexity renders them more stable. Another way of looking at complexity is in terms of variety, assuming that the variants do not occur at random, but together constitute an integrated system—though in the case of a population or gene-pool, the degree of integration is not very high. The greater the variety, the greater the system’s ability to deal with improbable changes. Serious disruption of its basic structure also becomes less likely.

A reduction in variety, or a simplification of a system, will thus lead to a reduction in stability. It is worth noting that the destruction of the numerous cultures of primitive people throughout the world, and the absorption of their cultures, has produced a radical and dangerous simplification at the cultural level of organization—reducing our stability and rendering our species vulnerable to changes or accidents that would normally affect only a small section of it. In agriculture, monoculture is a drastic simplification of plant life. The use of antibiotics and insecticides causes drastic simplifications, in that it involves replacing complex controls that normally keep insects in check by crude and indiscriminate killers.

Technological processes, when used to replace natural ones, are further simplifications. In all these cases, stability is being reduced and vulnerability increased. We are forced to accept the unpleasant fact that practically all man’s efforts today are tending towards the simplification of the total ecosystem and leading to our ever-greater vulnerability to environmental changes. As this drastic simplification of our biosphere proceeds, so there must be a corresponding probability of the occurrence of plagues and epidemics of all sorts. This sets a further limit to economic growth, for a time must eventually come when they become ecologically and socially intolerable.

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Systemic Adaptation

To understand what is wrong with asystemic control, one must understand that during the normal process of feedback development, each individual response is selected not to satisfy a single environmental requirement but a whole set of environmental requirements; to maintain, in fact, the balanced structure of the larger system, of which the system concerned is but a differentiated part. Vis-à-vis each individual requirement, the response must therefore be a compromise. For instance, nature does not aim at breeding strains of wheat with maximum yields, as we do. A high yield is only one of the system’s countless requirements. As a result, the strains of wheat devised by nature are adaptive, and those designed by us are not. Whereas self-regulating systems tend towards increased stability, ours, on the contrary, tends towards increased instability, because every time we ‘solve’ one problem, we are, by the same token, creating others. Take the following example.

Due to a faulty diet, people in Britain have developed a new pattern of diseases (see Robert Waller, Chapter 9). Among these is tooth decay. This has got so bad in Britain that there are now some 17 million people with no teeth at all. The correct remedy is clearly to return to a healthier diet. This, however, would mean closing down a large number of food factories and returning to a sounder, non-industrial agriculture. It would mean putting a lot of people out of their jobs, cutting down profits, increasing the price of food, reducing the GNP and the standard of living. Nevertheless it is clearly what should be done. However, since we are not willing to do it, we must find some gimmick for getting rid of some of the more obvious symptoms of the diseases we have created. This gimmick is fluoridation of drinking water. In this way, tooth decay can be reduced. However, this does not prevent the other side-effects of a faulty diet, such as diabetes, heart and kidney disease. In fact all that has happened is that our diet has been rendered that much more tolerable, which means that we are less likely than ever to do anything about changing it. This is true of most technological devices. By helping to render more tolerable the symptoms of the pathological situation we have brought about, modern technology serves only to perpetuate it. The technological devices developed to control pollution are no exception to this rule. If we succeed in developing filters that prevent all air pollution from the exhaust of motor-cars, we will simply have eradicated one of the many symptoms of the pathological situation created by the preposterous proliferation of these machines. By rendering them that much more tolerable we would then be better capable of supporting the noise they make, the destruction of our towns and countryside with the roads required to accommodate them, and the highly undesirable level of economic centralization that they effect. Technology is introducing positive feedback into the increasingly unstable system that our world is becoming, thereby rendering it even more unstable.

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Asystemic Regulation

Asystemic controls have the further disadvantage of rendering the functioning of our environment dependant on human efforts and ingenuity. A so-called controlled environment, the technologist’s dream, is one in which all the self-regulating mechanisms of our biosphere have been replaced by the externally regulated asystemic mechanisms of our technosphere. In such conditions, we would have to depend for our drinking water on desalination plants and sewage works, for our food supply on factory farms and processing factories and for the very air we breathe on vast plants to filter noxious gases out of the atmosphere. Have our technocrats ever bothered to think of the almost unbelievable vulnerability of such a society? An industrial dispute, an act of sabotage, a technical failure, a shortage of some key resource would deprive us of the basic necessities of life. The recent sewage strike revealed this vulnerability of a society depending too heavily on technology for its survival. Clearly there must be a limit to the extent to which external controls can be allowed to replace self-regulating ones, and to which the technosphere can be allowed to replace the biosphere.

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By using general systems theory, it is possible to indicate a large number of limits to the desirability and feasibility of growth in all systems. Such limits must apply equally well to growth in technologically based human social systems.

To suppose that technology can permit permanent growth is to refuse to face basic scientific facts. It can indeed enable growth to proceed temporarily beyond these limits, but only at the cost of increasing the instability of the social and ecological systems of which we are part, and with that instability, the likelihood and the severity of the cataclysm that must eventually restore a stable situation.

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VON BERTALANFFY, L. 1962. General systems theory: a critical review. In General Systems, VII.

BONNER, J. T. 1955. Cells and Societies. Oxford: OUP.

CRAIK, Kenneth. 1952. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge: CUP.

HARLOW, H. F. and KUENNE, M. 1962. Social deprivation in monkeys. In Scientific American, November.

HEARN, Lafcadio. 1904. Japan: an attempt at interpretation. New York: Macmillan.

LINTON, Ralph. 1965. The Study of Man. London: Peter Owen.

MAIR, Lucy. 1962. Primitive Government. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

MURDOCK, G. p. 1965. Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

OPLER, M. 1959. Culture and Mental Health. New York: Macmillan.

WADDINGTON, C. H. 1957. The Strategy of the Genes. London: George Allen & Unwin.

WALLACE, A. F. c 1963. Culture and Personality. New York: Random House.

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