October 23, 2017

A model of behaviour (long version)

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A paper originally presented to the International Congress of Cybernetics and Systems, 30 August 1972, on behalf of the Unified Science Institute, 73 Kew Green, Richmond, Surrey. Published in The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 12, December 1972.

It outlines Goldsmith’s general theory (or model) of behaviour, further examples of which can be found under Related Articles on the right.

A shorter version of this article can be found here.

Note: click on the figures to enlarge them.

The object of this paper is to provide the basis of a model permitting the prediction of change in behavioural systems, and in particular human social systems, in the process of disintegration,

I shall make several assumptions:

  • The first is a methodological one: a model is postulated, rather than induced from randomly accumulated data in accordance with empiricist theory. Its acceptability does not reside in the empirical verifiability of its postulates which is not only often difficult to achieve, but is also inconclusive as observations are themselves models postulated on the basis of the observer’s general model or world-view. Acceptability will be taken as residing in the precision of the interpretations and predictions that the model gives rise to. (Appendix 1).
  • The second assumption is that behavioural processes at all levels of organisations are sufficiently similar to be represented by the same basic model (see Appendix 2).
  • The third is that behavioural processes are directive. (See Appendix 3).


The law of economy appears to be the basic law of behaviour. Things take the line of least resistance and move thereby to positions where free energy is reduced to a minimum i.e. equilibrium. Since positions of unstable equilibrium are, by their very nature, unlikely to be maintained for long without external or asystemic intervention, changes will be towards stable equilibrium or stability.

We can regard this teleonomic behaviour as passive in pre-life forms and increasingly active as life develops.

Stability is normally regarded as the ability of a system to return to its point of departure after a disturbance. A behavioural system as opposed to a man-made incomplete system cannot return to its exact point of departure, but to that which involves the minimum change compatible with the maintenance of a stable relationship with a changing environment and. hence with the internal stability of the corresponding supra-system (For this reason, C. H. Waddington suggests the use of the term ‘homeorhesos’ [from the Greek: rhesus, to flow] rather than homeostasis to describe the negative feedback behaviour of behavioural systems as opposed to that of incomplete man-made systems. The term ‘system’ in this paper will be used to refer to the former.)

Systems can be more or less stable. The more stable, the smaller will be the disequilibria occurring between them and their respective environments, and the corresponding corrections. A system whose stability is increasing is referred to as ‘damped'; one which is out of control as ‘runaway’.

The behaviour pattern of a system can be represented by a series of oscillations corresponding to disequilibria and their corrections. Thus in a stable system oscillations are small and in an unstable one large. A damped system is one in which they are diminishing, while in a runaway system they are increasing.

Fig. 1. Stability

At the moment the particularities of social behaviour and of policies to influence it, are judged purely in terms of their ability to achieve specific targets which are deemed desirable per se in terms of the society’s social model or weltanschaung. Attempts to question the desirability of achieving these targets are regarded as unscientific, unobjective and falling within the category of value judgements. Once we accept that stability is the goal of behaviour, then we have at our disposal a precise criterion, an objective measuring rod for judging the desirability of behavioural trends regardless of the level of organisation at which they occur, and of their degree of generality.

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A system is defined is unit of behaviour, and is composed of a control mechanism plus that part of the environment that it controls.

The control mechanism is fundamentally the same at all levels of organisation. Relevant data are detected, transduced into the appropriate informational medium, and organised, or interpreted, in the light of the system’s model, not of its environment but of its relationship with its environment. The responses mediated are those which appear the most adaptive in the light of the model. This adaptiveness must depend on the quality of the model. Relevant to this are the number of elements, their degree of organisation, and the time-lag between detection and the mediation of the appropriate response.

The role of the model in the determination of responses is more evident in the case of behaviour at a low level of organisation, for instance during protein synthesis; but it is equally important in a human society.

Fig. 2. A self-regulating system

The latter’s behaviour pattern can, in fact, be regarded as determined by its model, world-view or ‘weltanschaung’, interacting with its environment both internal and external. As will be shown later, institutionalised external controls, except superficially and in the short-term, are ineffective in counteracting behavioural tendencies associated with a given model or world-view.

Our society has developed a very singular world-view, according to which man is above the rest of nature rather than part of it and is thereby exempt from the laws applying to other living things. He possesses something called ‘reason’, and so long as he is provided with the necessary knowledge he will behave in a ‘rational’ way, which is interpreted as meaning that he will cease having too many children to prevent over-population, he will regard all men as his brothers – thereby, so it is believed, eliminating all human and social problems.

The material problems which are supposed to have afflicted man throughout his tenancy of his planet will also be solved by means of science, technology and industry which will enable him to eliminate such things as drudgery, poverty, ill-health, even death. Needless to say, this materialistic variant of paradise is quite unachievable. To do so would involve violating the basic laws of thermodynamics as well as many of those of biological, social and ecological organisation.

It is this model that is giving rise to our equally singular social behaviour pattern which is geared to the systematic substitution of man-made and man-controlled artefacts for the self-regulating processes of nature, i.e. to the methodical substitution of the ‘technosphere’ for the ‘biosphere’ – a process referred to as progress, but, needless to say, one that can only lead to the breakdown of society and the disruption of its life support systems.

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Environmental Parameters

Evolution is a feedback process between a system and its environment. Seen slightly differently, the system evolves to fulfil a specific function within a larger system. The rate and extent of possible changes in the latter, as in all systems, must be limited by a number of different factors. For instance, in order to maintain its basic structure, the total rate of change must be limited by that of its slowest changing sub-system.

Hence environmental changes are only tolerable within certain limits. I shall use the term ‘environmental parameters’ to refer to the minimum and maximum values of the variables, in terms of which the supra-system is described, to which the system is capable of adaptive responses. Disequilibria caused by changes in which these values are exceeded are referred to as asystemic

Behavioural processes proceed from the general to the particular by differentiation (see Appendix 1). As the system differentiates, as a unicell, for instance, evolves into a complex metazoa, as or a foetus develops into an adult, so it becomes capable of dealing with ever more serious environmental challenges.

This means that these values will increase. One can draw a graph to illustrate this:

Fig. 3. Environmental parameters

In Figure 3, seriousness of environmental challenges is illustrated along the vertical axis, time along the horizontal axis; the curve shows the development of the ability to cope with environmental challenges with time, and the two dotted lines indicate the parameters, or limits within which systemic changes can occur. It is to be noted that the curve does not rise in linear fashion, but as a result of a series of jumps; this is because, during phylogeny, different critical points or levels of organisation are reached. When this happens, new behavioural principles enter into operation, permitting greater behavioural possibilities.


During ontogeny there are critical moments, such as birth when a child is suddenly removed from the highly ordered environment of the mother’s womb and subjected to a considerably less ordered environment: that of a family unit. Puberty marks another important environmental change, as at this point in a stable society the child enters into the still less ordered environment of the community as a whole. It is significant that in most stable societies these critical moments in a child’s life are marked with festivities often involving some traumatic experience (circumcision, for instance), which has a similar effect to shock treatment in helping destroy a now obsolete behaviour pattern and introducing those conditions most favouring the rapid inculcation of a new one.

In Figure 3, the periods lying between these critical points have been separated and labelled. The labels used, paleo-, meso-, and neo-, are purely tentative and the number of divisions arbitrary. It is possible to distinguish two different types of disequilibria: those in which the maximum and those in which the minimum values have been exceeded. The former situation can be referred to as deprivation, and the latter as saturation. Again the terms are tentative.

An example of the first situation would be a child subjected to insufficient motherly attention, i.e. being brought up in a family environment with insufficient order; an example of the latter situation would be a child suffering from excessive motherly attention. One can expect pathological manifestations caused by these two different types of disequilibria to be very different.

In addition one can distinguish between disequilibria occurring at the various stages of development. The earlier these occur, the more serious one must expect them to be, as by effecting the generalities of a behaviour pattern they must colour all the particularities in terms of which the former are differentiated. It is for this reason that children subjected to an unsatisfactory family environment in early youth will tend to be ’emotionally unstable’. They will be more likely to display pathological behavioural tendencies such as delinquency, drug addiction, etc., and will be very difficult indeed to educate – or, more precisely, socialise, whatever might be their apparent intellectual potential

It is therefore one of the conditions of stability that a system be able to develop from the very start in the appropriate environmental conditions. Responses to asystemic environmental changes will not only themselves be asystemic but, if occurring in the early part of development, will prevent the system from being able to respond systemically to any changes at all

It is suggested that this might provide a means for classifying disequilibria, and then corrections, systemic and asystemic. This is particularly necessary in a field such as psychology where the classifications used: psychoses, neuroses, etc., are non-functional, and mainly refer to symptoms. It should also prove useful in classifying social disequilibria.

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A system can develop in two ways; firstly, it can increase its capacity to cope with environmental challenges and modify the environment in such a way that such challenges become both less severe and less likely to occur.

To a large extent it is by doing the former that it succeeds in achieving the latter. To increase its capacity to deal with environmental challenges, it must build up its model so as to improve its ability to interpret and predict environmental changes. At the same time it must increase its control over environment both in space and in time. This means expanding by destroying and assimilating systems otherwise organised. As a system does this, so, by the same token, it increases its capacity for dealing with environmental challenges and hence for further expansion. This process cannot go on indefinitely, and one must expect a hierarchy of negative feedback loops to be operative. In a social system some of these are likely to be of a cultural nature.

In the final instance, the law of economy provides the final such negative feedback: if we assume that responses occur in answer to a challenge present, predicted or imaginary, then expansion must ultimately reduce such challenges to a point where they are no longer sufficient to trigger off further expansion.

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Clearly, in the first stages of development when few predictions can be made regarding environmental change, the most adaptive organisation must be one of disorder or entropy. When the number of elements is maximal and order is minimal, the range of possible reactions to unpredictable environmental changes is maximised.

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As the environment builds up, and with it one’ s capacity for prediction, so more effective responses can be mediated towards different possible challenges. In such conditions a corresponding number of somewhat more complex reactions must be made possible – Variety can be said to be replacing Entropy. For reasons of economy, there must be a limit to the number of such challenges to which a system can respond adaptively. The higher the probability of the challenge that can be predicted, the more the system must be capable of reacting adaptively to it. Therefore, the greater a system’s variety, the higher the improbability of the challenge to which it can adapt. What is taken for redundancy (animal populations, neuron populations, etc.) in a stable system is, in fact, variety.

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Normally, variety and complexity are used interchangeably. I prefer to distinguish between them. When it is possible to predict the occurrence of environmental challenges in a particular spatio-temporal pattern, the system gives rise to a correspondingly complex response. In this way it becomes specialised in dealing with a specific environmental situation – one that can be predicted as being highly probable. This gives rise to a damped system so long as unforeseen challenges can be prevented from occurring.

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In communication theory, it is assumed that the recipient is interested in a message if it conveys sufficient information, i.e. if its improbability is sufficiently high. In a behavioural context this is not necessarily so, as a signal must also be important, i.e. relevant to the recipient’s behaviour pattern or general to it. The more general it is, the greater must be that proportion of the system affected by it. That organisation favouring the detection of such signals and the mediation of the correct responses must display a high level of centralisation.

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Compromise between the satisfaction of these requirements

Centralisation means reducing the variety of possible responses that can be mediated by sub-systems at a lower echelon of control. As a system becomes more complex so also is its variety reduced, since it is committing itself to a specific environment, thereby reducing the possible range of environmental changes to which it can react adaptively. Also, as a system becomes more complex, and hence more specialised, so is it likely to become less centralised, so that responses can be mediated as much as possible by the increasingly specialised sub-system, more intimately in touch with their respective equally specialised environmental situations.

It must follow that the response mediated by a system, and the organisation it will display, must be a compromise, that which in the light of its model can be predicted as likely to give rise to the most adaptive behaviour.

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Disruption of the System

A system breaks down when the self-regulatory mechanism essential for ensuring adaptation ceases to be operative. In such conditions, there is no means of maintaining the level of variety, complexity and centralisation that would enable it to meet environmental challenges. The system, no longer under control, becomes progressively less stable until it collapses.

What is likely to cause disruption of this sort? Geophysical changes can bring about serious upheavals. They can lead to ecological invasions, by alien sub-systems. Since these were not developed to fulfil specific functions within the system, it is likely that they would not have developed the capacity for ritualising their behaviour, thereby limiting its impact on the new environment. Also, it is likely that the latter would not provide the necessary controls for keeping their population in check, enabling them to proliferate and destroy the system.

Therefore, it is not surprising to find systems at all levels of organisation equipped with rejection mechanisms to exclude elements alien to it. Whether one likes it or not, such mechanisms are operative at the level of a human society, so long as it remains capable of self-regulation and hence of adaptation.

When such mechanisms break down, the introduction of alien sub-systems in any quantity could lead to increase in randomness or in a reduction in order. This can be counteracted by incorporating these new sub-systems into the system’s basic structure, which can be done at different levels of organisation. Immigrants can be assimilated at the level of the individual, assuming that their cultural pattern can first be broken down, or foreign groups can be incorporated in a cultural symbiotic relationship (as has occurred with the spread of Hindu civilisation). However, this can only occur in specific cultural conditions.

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Surplus Energy

We who live in a society that equates progress with increasing energy consumption should consider that there is an optimum amount of energy required for operation of any system. Plants only exploit a minute fraction of available solar energy, not because they are inefficient, but because, if they were to photosynthesize more, the nutrients in the soil would be exhausted and the environment would cease to be capable of supporting them.

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