October 23, 2017

The behavioural basis of culturalism – a general systems approach

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Originally published in Peace and the Sciences by the International Institute for Peace, Vienna 1974, this important essay was published again with minor revisions by the Wadebridge Ecological Centre as “The Epistemological and Behavioural Basis of Culturalism”. The version presented here combines the contents of both versions, with each of the Principles numbered for convenience.

Editor’s note: Goldsmith studied Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University, a subject intended to provide a broad understanding of the workings of society. It was in response to these ideas that Goldsmith sought a more satisfactory answer to the age-old problem of ‘the well ordered society’.

This took him away from the conventional thinking of Oxford academia into the realms of cybernetics, general systems theory, ecology, and anthropology. The resulting alternative worldview was initially published in The Ecologist between 1970 and 1973, in a series of articles under the title “Towards a Unified Science”.

Later, in 1974, he brought these diverse strands together into a comprehensive summary: “The Behavioural Basis of Culturalism” (1974), reproduced below.

Later revisions would appear as The Stable Society (Wadebridge Ecological Centre, 1978), and finally, in greatly expanded form, as The Way: an ecological worldview (Rider Books, 1992).

It is important to understand that Goldsmith’s whole way of thinking about environmental and societal issues stemmed directly from the logical implications of his general theory of behaviour – a theory that had already formed clearly in his mind before the first issue of The Ecologist appeared in July 1970.


Politics is the study of the control of social systems. This cannot be understood in vacuo as is attempted today, but only as part of the study of the control of natural systems in general. This in turn is only possible in the light of a General Theory of Behaviour. Such a theory however, cannot be developed by using modern scientific methods which consist in accumulating data on the basis of laboratory experiments, in accordance with the Empiricist Theory of Knowledge, and which does not provide a method for organising this data into a model of the world we live in.

This essay is an attempt to establish the basic principles of a general theory of behaviour and at the same time a more satisfactory scientific methodology – that which underlies the detection, transduction and organisation of information in the natural world for the purposes of mediating adaptive behaviour. The term ‘culturalism’ is used to refer to the Philosophy of Social Control that emerges from this study.

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Reactions of both politicians and scientists to the publication of such documents as the Limits to Growth and the Blueprint for Survival have been very alarming. The theme of these documents is simple and painfully obvious. Limitless growth cannot be sustained in a world of finite resources and with a limited capacity to absorb waste. This means that we must develop a society that is not geared to ever increasing growth, which is thereby less dependent on resources, and which generates less waste.

It does not matter whether industrial society can be maintained for one, ten, fifty, a hundred or two hundred years. The fact is that it is moving in the wrong direction at an exponential rate, and the sooner the direction is reversed, the easier will be the transition. That all our scientists should not recognise this immediately and accept its implications shows that there is something very wrong with present-day science.

This is also borne out by the failure of the scientific establishment to predict the more significant events of the last few decades, such as the development of resistance to pesticides and antibiotics, the present energy crisis, the reduction in fishing catches, and of world food production in general, growing chaos and crime in our cities, etc., in fact, all the really important trends of today.

Take Science and Nature, the most prestigious scientific journals. How much space does one find devoted to such problems? Very little indeed. Our scientists are mainly concerned with triviata, and when they do look at important questions, they do so hesitantly, almost apologetically, intimating, in fact, that they fall outside the range of orthodox science which provides no methodology for understanding them, let alone predicting their outcome.

One of the main defects of science is that it tends to regard observation and experimentation as the only scientific way of obtaining knowledge. This notion has been taken so seriously that scientists have forgotten how to make use of theoretical material, so much so that they find themselves constantly carrying out experiments, at great costs both in time and money, to demonstrate things which are deducible from basic principles, and at the same time advocating policies that for theoretical reasons are not practicable.

One does not need any experiments to show that one cannot build a perpetual motion machine since such a device would defy the second law of thermodynamics. Still less is it regarded sensible to advocate their large-scale manufacture. Neither does one need experiments, even if relevant ones could be devised, to show that chemical pesticides cannot, in the long run, eliminate pests. To do so would mean violating at least three basic principles – that of self-regulation, that of cybernismic complexity and the niche principle (these are defined further on).

In the same way it can be shown that industrialisation is not the panacea to all man’s problems, as it is made out to be by its partisans.

In fact, if anyone took the trouble to look at the basic principles involved, it would be clear that it must create problems faster than it can solve them, that it does not really solve any problems at all, but merely masks their less tolerable symptoms.
Industrialisation, we must realise, is not something that is taking place on its own. It is something that is happening to the biosphere and to the societies, families and individuals that are an integral part of it.

It is, in fact, the substitution of the world of human artefacts – the technosphere – for the processes of nature – the biosphere. The extent of this substitution is reflected in the gross national product (GNP) which is a non-selective summation of those human activities that happen to involve cash transactions, and this in turn can be roughly, but conveniently, gauged by the society’s consumption of energy. [1]

The further ‘industrialisation’ has proceeded, the greater has been the impact of man’s activities on the natural systems that make up the biosphere. The SCEP report [2] established the notion of ‘ecological demand’, a convenient way of formulating this impact on ecosystems. Since the biosphere is organised hierarchically, the impact of industrial society is felt at all levels of organisation. One could thus introduce the associated notions of ‘social demand’ and ‘organismic demand’ corresponding to the impact of our activities on social and organic systems.

As the substitution proceeds, so systemic disruption at all levels (organic, social and ecological) increases. In fact it can be shown that basic problems such as poverty, unemployment, disease, malnutrition, homelessness, war, etc., are but the symptoms of the disruption caused by this substitution; and the technological solution we apply to them rather than eliminate them, by involving further economic growth, can only increase their incidence.

If this appears paradoxical it is because we have wrongly defined these ills in precisely that way which appears to make them amenable to technological solution, i.e. to the only kind of solution our society has to offer.

Consider poverty. We tend to regard it simply as material deprivation, which implies that we can combat it by the simple expedient of manufacturing material goods on a sufficient scale. Poverty, however, is much more than this or there would be no poverty in America. It is deprivation of lots of other things as well – biological and social deprivation for instance.

Ignorance we tend to regard as deprivation of that sort of knowledge obtained in capital-intensive educational establishments. We totally disregard the cultural wisdom which, in a traditional society, is transmitted from one generation to the next without the aid of institutions of any kind, and which far better achieves the real goal of education – that of teaching young people to fulfil their functions as members of their families and communities – a goal we have completely lost sight of and one to which our institutions contribute precious little. [3]

In the same way, we regard health as something that is automatically improved by increasing expenditure on doctors, dentists, hospitals and drugs, all of which are largely irrelevant to the basic problem involved – biological maladjustment to an environment we were simply not designed for – and which cannot be treated save by radically altering our life-style, which must mean, however unacceptable it may appear at first sight, abandoning the principle goals of our industrial society. [4]

The whole value system of industrial society is based on our firm belief that science, technology and industry are creating a materialistic paradise from which these human problems will be banished. This value system is not contested by most scientists today. On the contrary, it provides the assumptions of most of the disciplines we teach in our universities; sociology and economics, for instance, also medicine and education. [5]

Since we start off from false assumptions, and since science provides no methodology for re-examining them, there appears to be no solution other than to develop such a methodology. This would establish what in fact could be deduced from the ‘principle of convergence’, [6] that behaviour at all levels of organisation has a great deal in common and that it is possible to examine it as a single phenomenon rather than a lot of separate ones, as is habitual today.

What is important to realise is that it is only in terms of a unified behavioural science that it is possible to understand what is happening to the world today and to work out an integrated plan for the reversal of trends which, it is increasingly clear, can only lead to global catastrophe.

I shall attempt in this article to lay down what would be some of the basic principles of such a science and of the theory of knowledge justifying its methodology. In order to do this I have had to coin a few neologisms, and formulate a number of fundamental behavioural principles which can be shown to be violated by activities essential to the maintenance of an industrial society.

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1. The Principle of Control

Behavioural responses are not random. [7] They display order. This implies that they are controlled. There is only one way to control behaviour and that is by means of a control mechanism which detects data relevant to the systems behaviour pattern, transduces it into the appropriate informational medium and interprets it in the light of a model of the system’s relationship with its environment. This interpretation of the situation gives rise to the behavioural response most likely to ensure the system’s adaptation to it, which in turn gives rise to a new environmental situation which is again detected, transduced, and interpreted in such a way as to induce, if necessary, the corrective response, i.e. it is monitored.

In this way each response is ever more precise and a set of responses can be arranged to form a ‘damped’ series, i.e. one in which oscillations representing disequilibria and their corrections are progressively reduced. This is the basic model of control which the relatively new discipline of cybernetics has established as being applicable to all behavioural systems – regardless of their level of organisation.

In this respect, science can only be regarded as a type of control – that required by a society which is no longer functioning in its natural environment, whose behaviour is no longer guided by a hierarchical organisation or genetic and cultural instructions and whose associated genetic and cultural model no longer represents its relationship with its environment.

In such a situation a subjective or instinctive approach must be counterproductive. Hence the necessity for a more objective model (see 17. The Postulation of a Model Principle), which is what science should provide, and an associated set of instructions to guide public and other policies (see 9. The Principle of Self-Regulation).

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2. The Teleonomic Principle

Science consists in organising data or putting ‘cybernismic’ order into the environment. Things that appear unrelated and haphazard are arranged in such a way as to appear orderly. The environment is four-dimensional or, more precisely, it can best be represented by a four-dimensional model. Thus it is not three-dimensional things into which order must be put, but four-dimensional processes. To put order into the latter involves knowing in what direction they are moving. If one cannot do this, they remain unrelated and haphazard, i.e. disorderly.

All behavioural processes must therefore be taken as being ‘directive’ a term coined by Russell in 1938. [8]

This must also be true of the cultural behaviour patterns, developed by a traditional society. As Murdock writes (see Murdock, Social Structure) “Culture is adaptive or functional, sub-serving the basic needs of its carrier and altering through time by a sort of mass trial and error in a process which is truly evolutionary, i.e. characterised by orderly adaptive change.”

At the same time, it is not currently realised that these concepts are nothing more than anthropocentric abstractions, units of our thought processes and of our language, but not of the world they represent. There are no such things as dogs that do not eat and drink and reproduce, except as photographs, pictures, concepts and words, nor are there such processes as eating, drinking, breathing and reproducing taken apart from the organisms involved.

To deny directivity is to deny that ‘cybernismic’ order can be put into dynamic processes, and hence that they can be subjected to scientific examination and, since all the constituents of the world display different degrees of dynamism, that science itself is possible.

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3. The Unity of Behaviour Principle

The basic cybernetic model of behaviour applies not only to day-to-day behaviour mediated by the brain and nervous system (neurogeny), which is best regarded as but a specific instance of behaviour. The term should be used in a wider context to include phylogeny or evolution and ontogeny: or the development of a fertilised egg into an adult. The former is mediated by the gene pool, the second by the information in the fertilised egg. [9]

As we shall see, all these types of behaviour are functionally very similar and can, in fact, be described in terms of the same basic principles.

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4. The Law of Economy

Behaviour takes the line of least resistance, or of least effort. It is probable that the origin of life can be explained on this principle alone, i.e. matter organised itself the way it did because it was the easiest course for it to take. [10] A system in certain conditions may be taking the line of least resistance by behaving in such a way as to modify itself or its environment in order to give rise to a situation in which efforts will be minimised over a period. This means making efforts in the short-term over and above those required for short-term survival but which will give rise to conditions favouring stability and hence long-term survival.

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5. The Principle of a System

The thing which is actually behaving, i.e. the unit of behaviour, regardless of its level or organisation is best referred to as a system. The term is used differently by engineers. From a behavioural point of view, the engineer’s system is an incomplete one. A biological organism must be added to it to make it a complete unit of behaviour or a behavioural system.

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6. The Ecosystem Principle

What is the correct unit of study? Clearly one cannot study a man eating a sandwich without taking into account both the properties of the man and those of the sandwich. Similarly, one cannot regard a man apart from the environmental conditions to which his evolutionary development is but a long-term adaptive response.

The minimum unit of behavioural analysis must clearly be the system plus its environment, which together must be regarded as constituting a larger system best referred to as the supra-system, which will also be examinable in its relationship with a still larger system – its own supra-system. Even though the supra-system is the minimum unit of analysis, it is by no means ideal since all systems are, to a certain extent, open and will be affected by external influences. An ecosystem is less open than a biological one or a society. It is for this reason that it is the most satisfactory unit of study. The biosphere, of course, is the ideal unit since it is less open than other ecosystems and embraces them all.

Of course, one cannot understand the environment by itself any more than one can the system responding to it. Chemists should, in fact, be studying molecules together with their environment, biologists cells and organisms together with their respective environments, sociologists societies together with their environment. All should regard themselves as ecologists who happen to be studying behaviour at different levels of organisation. There is, in fact, no such thing as environmental science.

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7. The Principle of Equilibrium

Systems tend towards equilibrium, i.e. to a position in which free energy is minimised. This is the only course systems can take which is reconcilable with the law of economy. This is also true of random or uncontrolled behaviour. Self-controlled behaviour, however, tends towards a four-dimensional equilibrium, a trajectory or course rather than a fixed point in space-time; what Waddington calls a ‘creode’ (from the two Greek words meaning a ‘way’ and ‘it is necessary’). [11] A distinction, however, can be made between two different categories of such courses or creodes (see 8. The Stability Principle).

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8. The Stability Principle

The first one tends towards maintaining or increasing stability which can be defined as a course or trajectory on which discontinuities, i.e. disequilibria and their corrections, are reduced to a minimum, and which thereby ensures survival taken in its broadest sense.

Human societies until recently satisfied this requirement. Their culturally determined goal was the maintenance of traditional norms, which were upheld by public opinion, the council of elders and the ancestral spirits.

Stability is another word for continuity. It does not mean immobility as an immobile system would not be stable since it would not be capable of adapting to a changing environment. The importance of this principle is that it provides an objective criterion for judging behavioural strategies, including those exploited to control human societies. These need no longer be judged subjectively or arbitrarily but scientifically, in accordance with what can be the only objective criterion, the extent to which they contribute towards stability.

The second makes for equilibrium involving reduced stability. This is the behaviour of a system no longer in full control, and adapting to a pathological situation by means of short-term expedients. I shall refer to the former as homeotelic behaviour, the latter as heterotelic. Practically all the actions taken by our society today (except perhaps those forced on us by the present energy crisis) fall into the latter category.

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9. The Principle of Self-regulation

Stable systems must be self-regulating. They are maintained on their course by a control mechanism which in all systems, regardless of their level of organisation, functions on the same principle. (Data are detected, interpreted and cybernised to constitute a model of the relationship of the system to its environment.) In a social system this is usually referred to as a worldview or Weltanschauung. The responses are mediated in terms of it, otherwise they are random from the point of view of the supra-system and the system is thereby out of control.

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