October 23, 2017


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A Glossary of specialised terms and concepts used on this website. To get here you can also highlight any word or phrase on a page and select the appropriate option from the popup menu.

A far more extensive Glossary can be found in the Special Edition of The Way (2014).


ANTHROPOGENIC CLIMAX. An ecosystem that is altered in some way due to human interference. An artificially engineered ecosystem. A term coined by Arthur Tansley.

ASSOCIATION (ecological). An ecological community. The variety of organisms belonging to an ecosystem.

ASYSTEMIC. See heterotely.

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BEHAVIOUR. Used in phrases such as General Theory of Behaviour to refer to the activities of living things in general (i.e. any living process).

BIOSPHERE. The sphere of influence of living things—the entire world of living things taken together with its geological substrate and atmospheric environment. The general concept was first proposed in the modern era by Hutton and also Lamarck. It was later termed biosphere by Suess, and the concept was further elaborated by Vernadsky. Similar to Lamont Cole’s ecosphere or James Lovelock’s Gaia. Note that some narrow disciplines, and Lovelock himself, tend to use the term biosphere in the much more limited sense of meaning the earth’s biomass alone.

BIOSPHERIC PROCESS (singular). Evolution, where the unit of evolution is considered to be the biosphere as a whole—organisms, populations and ecosystems being but its differentiated parts.

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CHREOD. The developmental path along which an organ or tissue needs to proceed in order to achieve its appropriate endstate. A term coined by Waddington, along with epigenetic landscape which he used to refer to the total constellation of chreods along which an organism needs to develop. By extension, the path or Way of all developing natural systems, including human behaviour, cultural forms, ecosystems, and so on.

CHTHONIC RELIGION (“k’thonick” or “thonick”). The religion of the earth or biosphere. Chthonic religion could also be referred to as the worldview of ecology or the Way. It is still the popular and indeed the effective religion of tribal and peasant societies that have largely remained outside the orbit of the modern world or technosphere. (Chthonos was the Greek god of the earth.)

CLIMAX (ecological). An ecosystem that has reached maturity. The endstate of the process of ecological succession and the most stable state under the existing biospheric conditions.

COMMUNITY (ecological). An ecological association. The variety of organisms that form an ecosystem.

COMPLEXITY. The intricate, differentiated organisation of a living system, as distinguished from the haphazard details of a mechanically arranged or random system. The greater the complexity of a system, the greater its ability to resist and hence remain immune from predictable insults.

COSMOS. The subjectively held view of the biosphere or universe as seen by vernacular people. From the Greek, meaning order and form as opposed to chaos.

CYBERNETICS. The study of self-regulating systems.

* CYBERNISM. The internalised information that regulates and coordinates the behaviour and development of any living system. All organised information integrated into a living system that serves to maintain its stability and fulfil its developmental goals is considered here as forming a cybernism. The living biosphere thus embodies a vast and singular organisation of immensely complex and dynamically integrated information—structural, behavioural, and cybernismic.

Cybernismic information should be distinguished from the kind of information represented by the resulting physical structure and habitual behaviour of a living system. Cybernismic information is that specifically involved in the coordination of this development and behaviour. It provides an updated model of the living system’s internal and external environment together with a dynamic set of instructions, allowing it to interpret and strategically plan responses to changing conditions in order to maintain its stability and fulfil its goals. Goldsmith thus considers a genome, a gene pool, the mind of living things, the religio-cultural pattern of a vernacular society, and the very diffuse information which coordinates ecosystem regulation, as all falling into this category.

The more complex a cybernism the more complex the range of predictable (as opposed to random) conditions it is capable of negotiating successfully, and so maintain its overall stability. The more diverse a cybernism the greater the variety of unpredictable (i.e. random) conditions it is capable of negotiating. This is in addition to the complexity and diversity which is embodied in the physical structure and habitual behaviour of a living system.

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DARWINISM. Darwin put forward two associated theses. The first, originally referred to as “transformism”, tells us that living things have slowly evolved from very simple organisms to more and more complex ones. Darwin also proposed a mechanism for explaining how evolution has occurred. Darwin was impressed by the great store of variations displayed by living things. He took these to be of a purely random nature. He was also struck by the competitiveness of living things, as a result of which he saw them as subjected to “natural selection”. Those which displayed those variations which enabled them to be the victors in the struggle for survival, he described as “fit”. They would procreate and transmit their characteristics to their progeny so that surviving living things became increasingly “fit”. This means that evolution, rather than occurring as a result of the efforts of living things—as suggested by Lamarck—was seen instead as stage-managed by the environment, and living things, rather than being seen as dynamic and creative, were instead seen as passive and robotic.

DEVELOPMENT. Within a living system, a succession of organised changes which proceed towards an endgoal or climax. This must be distinguished from the kind of development characterised by “progress” which involves random or heterotelic change, having no definite endgoal, and imposed by external agents such as the state, church, or corporate institution.

DIFFERENTIATION. The development of more specific or divergent features from more general or common ones, as demonstrated by the cells of a developing embryo for example. An increase in the organised complexity and diversity emerging within a larger, integrated unit or whole. The concept of the differentiation of a whole may be distinguished from that of “division” within a “void” (see atom).

DISCLIMAX. A malformation or reversal of the development of an ecosystem.

DIVERSITY. The number and variety of differing things organised into a living system, and with which it insures itself against unpredictable insults and injuries and other discontinuities. The greater the diversity of members, the greater the range and variety of unpredictable insults the association may recover from. Diversity is sometimes referred to by the misnomer “redundancy”.

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ECOSPHERE. Biosphere. Lamont Cole’s term.

ECOSYSTEM. An association or community of organisms together with its geological substrate and atmospheric environment. A term developed by A.R. Clapham and Sir Arthur Tansley.

* EGOTELY. Behaviour directed solely towards self-interest, in contrast with “* oikiotely” – behaviour directed towards the benefit of the family – and “* ethnotely” – behaviour directed towards the benefit of the tribe or nation. The former is selfish or sociopathic behaviour, the latter are forms of mutualism. The terms are used to indicate the degree of social integration or disintegration typically found within a society or subgroup. Egotelic adj.

EMPIRICISM. The notion that knowledge can or should be based upon observations alone, without regard to any theoretical premises or interpretation, i.e. without prior knowledge or prior notions.

ENCULTURATION. See socialisation.

EPIGENESIS. The term widely adopted to distinguish the modern notion of embryological development (by differentiation) from the earlier notion of “preformation”.

EPIGENETICS. Developmental information stored above and beyond the genome. “Epigenetic inheritance” involves the inheritance of biological traits, the origin of which, and mode of transmission, lies outside the genetic code.

EPIGENETIC LANDSCAPE. Those factors outside the genome (such as the cytoplasm) which influence the course of embryological development after conception.

EPISTEMOLOGY. A theory or study of the nature of knowledge.

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FEEDBACK. Any activity which in turn affects itself. “Negative feedback” reduces the activity; “positive feedback” reinforces it. The self-limiting process of negative feedback is fundamental to the maintenance and stability of all living processes.

FOUR-DIMENSIONAL. See spatio-temporal.

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GAIA. James Lovelock’s term for the biosphere adopted at the suggestion of the novelist William Golding. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the earth. Lovelock’s Gaia thesis sees the earth as a single, unified, self-regulating entity adapting its environment in order to maintain its own homeostasis or stability in the face of solar, geological and other externally determined changes.

* GAIAN HIERARCHY. See Hierarchy of the biosphere.

* GENERAL THEORY OF BEHAVIOUR (or model of behaviour). Goldsmith’s “systems theory” approach to understanding society and the living world postulates that the biosphere as a whole—embodying various sub-units (ecosystems, populations, societies, individuals, organs, etc.)—is best considered in terms of a “behavioural system” composed of various sub-systems of behaviour, all of which have certain underlying processes and structures in common (i.e. they collectively act according to a set of general laws or principles). This in turn allows predictions to be made about the behaviour and development of living systems at all levels of organisation, including about the kinds of conditions in which those systems will remain stable, and those in which they will likely destabilise and break down. From this understanding (or model) improved strategies may be realised for restoring stability after a disturbance. Goldsmith first published his general theory of behaviour under the title of “Towards a Unified Science”, later as “The Behavioural Basis of Culturalism” and “The Stable Society”, and finally as “The Way: An Ecological Worldview”.

* GREAT MISINTERPRETATION, the. Using the problems caused by industrial “development” as a rationale for pursuing further industrial development to try to solve them, thereby only exacerbating the original problems. Goldsmith argues that the only kind of problems development can solve successfully are technological ones. The biological, social, and psychological problems caused by development—through its disruption of living processes—do not have a technological solution, only a life-based or ecological one (the “Great Reinterpretation”). This requires a move away from industrial development (the “Great Takeover”), and a return to the Way (the “Great Transformation”). The “great” appellation indicating a processes of general behaviour.

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* HETERARCHY. From the Greek “hetero”, different, and “archos”, to rule. The term is used here to mean the control of the parts of a system by an agent that is external to it, just as people are controlled by corporations and state institutions, as opposed to the families, communities and societies of which they are the innate and homeotelic constituents.

* HETEROTELY (“hetter-otter-lee”). From the Greek “hetero”, different, and “telos”, goal. Asystemic behaviour, i.e. abnormal or misdirected behaviour which, though it may, partly at least, satisfy the requirements of the individual, does not satisfy those of the larger systems of which it is part, i.e. of the hierarchy of the biosphere, and which thereby reduces its stability and integrity. Heterotelic (“hetter-oh-tellick”) adj.

HIERARCHY. In the sciences the term is generally used to refer to information arranged into classes and ordered with respect to their level, scope, precedence, and so on (e.g. taxonomy). In the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, the term is often used quite specifically to refer to a system of top–down, autocratic social ranking. Much confusion arises from this. Here the term is used closer to the former meaning, and may be substituted, in many instances, with the term holarchy.

* HIERARCHY OF THE BIOSPHERE. The total differentiated and self-organised structure of the biosphere. See holarchy.

* HIERARCHICAL MUTUALISM. The mutual relationship between a natural system and the larger natural system of which it is an integral part. Both must contribute to the maintenance and integrity of the other in order to maintain their own stability. A necessary condition for the maintenance of the wider hierarchy of the biosphere. Hierarchical mutualism is but another way of stating the principle that both homeotely and homearchy are prerequisites of homeostasis.

HOLARCHY. The differentiated structure of a self-organising system or life form. The larger elements of a holarchy being formed from nested organisations of smaller, modular elements or holons.

The more general (or common) features of the holarchy contribute to the maintenance and integrity of the more particular (or divergent) features, and vice verse, thus ensuring their mutual stability or, if this is not possible, with priority given to the maintenance of the more general and thus more critical features.

A holarchy exists in time as well as space, forming a total dynamic life-cycle, consisting of longer term processes composed of sub-units of shorter term processes.

The term was originally coined by Arthur Koestler.

HOLISM. The tendency in nature to form integrated wholes (organisms, bodies, entities, systems) from the self-organisation and differentiation of constituent parts. From this, the notion that natural systems are not determined by their component parts alone (reductionism) but must also be determined by the influence of the larger four-dimensional systems of which they form a part. A term coined by Jan Smuts.

HOLON. A sub-unit of a holarchy, being itself both a whole composed of further sub-units and, simultaneously, a sub-unit of a larger whole. A term coined by Arthur Koestler, which distinguishes a holistic entity (i.e. one integrated as a part of a larger continuum) from an atomistic entity (i.e. one isolated from all others in a vacuum).

* HOMEARCHY. From the Greek “homeo”, same, and “archos”, to rule. Used here to refer to the regulation of natural systems by the holarchy of larger systems of which they are an integral part. For instance, the regulation of people (much of which is likely to be internalised and thus subconscious) by the natural units to which they belong, such as families, communities, and ecosystems.

Whereas homeotely is the maintenance of the whole by the parts, homearchy is the coordination of the parts by the whole. Thus homearchy may be understood as holistic causation (also referred to as “downward causation”) as opposed to reductionistic causation—the whole coordinating the stability, end-goals, and thus predictability of its constituent parts.

HOMEORHESIS. Homeostasis applied to a developing system—one seeking to maintain itself along its chreods or epigenetic landscape or, in the case of a human or human social system, along the Way, and to correct diversions from it caused by internal or external challenges. A term coined by Waddington, from the Greek “homeo”, same and “rhesis”, flow. The term has also been adopted by ecologists to refer to the way in which natural systems maintain their overall stability through adaptation—rather than stasis—within a certain “tolerance range”.

HOMEOSTASIS. The ability of a system to return to its previous state after a disturbance, or in the case of a living system, the reduction of discontinuities to a minimum in the face of internal or external challenges. It is essential to Goldsmith’s thesis that a living system can only properly maintain its homeostasis by maintaining that of the hierarchy (or holarchy) of larger systems of which it is part. In other words, both homeotely and homearchy are preconditions for homeostasis. The term was coined by the physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s from the Greek “homeo”, same and “stasis”, standing.

* HOMEOTELY (“hommy-otter-lee”). From the Greek “homeo”, same and “telos”, goal. Systemic behaviour, i.e. that which serves to maintain the critical order of the whole, more precisely of the total living continuum or hierarchy of the biosphere. Such behaviour can be cooperative in that it serves at the same time the immediate interests of the constituent parts—hierarchical mutualism. It can also be competitive, serving the critical interests of the whole, but to the detriment of some of the less well differentiated and less adaptive parts that may fall victim to such competition.

Whereas homearchy is the coordination of the parts by the whole, homeotely is the maintenance of the whole by the parts. Homeotelic (“hommy-oh-tellick”) adj.

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INFORMATION. Goldsmith emphasised the fundamental difference between information found in the world of living things (biospheric information), and the kind of information conceived of by engineers and mainstream science for the development of communications technology, rendering mainstream information theory a misleading model when applied to the living world.

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MECHANISTIC. Reduced to the operation of discrete and independent parts, or atoms, interacting blindly with one another, having no intrinsic connection or common purpose.

MECHANOMORPHISM (AKA “mechanism”). The notion that living things and other natural phenomena have the form or qualities of a machine, i.e. blind, inert, composed of isolated or atomised parts, etc.

MODERNISM. The underlying worldview shared by most scientists and other people of influence in our modern industrial society, as contrasted with that held by most traditional societies outside the orbit of the modern world. The worldview common to traditional or vernacular peoples is referred to here as the Way which reflects the values of the biosphere, in contrast to modernism which can be identified with the “anti-Way” and which reflects the values of the technosphere.

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NEO-DARWINISM. A later version of Darwinism developed in particular by August Weissmann in Germany and William Bateson in Britain, towards the end of the 19th century. It differed from Darwinism in that it took on board Mendel’s genetic theories, with which Darwin was not acquainted. This enabled Darwin’s followers to answer a particularly embarrassing objection to his theory—that put forward by Fleeming Jenkin—which had reduced the credibility of Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism was in many respects a hardening of Darwinism. For instance, whereas Darwin saw selection from random variations as just one of the mechanisms of evolution, they insisted it was the “only” one. Neo-Darwinism slowly went out of favour in the 1920s and 1930s, until it was again revived in a slightly different form.

* NEUROGENY. A term used by Goldsmith to refer to the kind of neurological development resulting from everyday learning. Goldsmith considers this continuing development of the nervous system as being an integral and extended part of ontogeny.

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ONTOGENY (not to be confused with ontology). The origin and development of an individual organism, or more specifically of a fertilised egg into an adult form. The term is used here to include morphogenesis, as well as the individual’s socialisation during childhood and their continuing enculturation throughout adult­hood, encompassing behavioural development throughout the whole course of life. Ontogeny is often contrasted with phylogeny. Goldsmith takes ontogeny to be an essential part of phylogeny.

ONTOLOGY (not to be confused with ontogeny). A theory or study of the essential nature of things, the nature of being.

ORGANICISM. The thesis that living things are above all living organisations, or natural systems, which by their very nature must behave differently from inanimate things or machines. The great theoretical biologists of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Needham, Waddington, von Bertalanffy, Weiss, etc., adhered to the organicist thesis. It is an alternative to both mechanomorphism and vitalism.

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PARADIGM. Used here to refer to a theory or model developed by like-minded scholars to explain a particular set of phenomena within their field of study, and which faithfully reflects their worldview. According to Kuhn, a “paradigm shift” occurs as a result of largely unconscious factors precipitating a psychological crisis resulting in what amounts to a conversion of faith.

PHYLOGENY. The evolutionary development of species. Goldsmith argues that evolution can only be understood properly if one takes the biosphere as a whole, rather than an individual species, let alone individual organisms, as the unit of evolution. For this reason, evolution may be referred to as the biospheric process.

PHYLOGENETIC MALADJUSTMENT. An organism attempting to negotiate envir­onmental conditions which its evolutionary history has not equipped it for, resulting in maladaptation—an example might be malnourishment caused by a diet lacking the vital nutrients found in its ancestors’ diet. Such maladjustments may be physical, physiological, social, and psychological. A term proposed by Stephen Boyden.

PIONEER ECOSYSTEM. The embryonic stage of a developing ecosystem prior to achieving maturation or climax.


POSITIVISM. See scientism.

PROGRESS. The term has become synonymous with economic development, and thus with industrial society or the “developed world”. One of the basic assumptions of this kind of progress is the belief in the benefit of continual, overriding change. It thus represents the antithesis of stability and hence of traditional society. Another assumption is the belief in the benefit of continual growth, and thus the lack of a climax, or stability—GNP (Gross National Product) being but a measure of the extent to which our lifestyle and environment have diverged from those to which we have been adapted by our evolution.

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REDUCTIONISM. The notion that all phenomena may be solely explained or reduced to the aggregate action of their constituent parts, without reference to the way in which those parts are organised together to form a whole. Analytical science.

RELIGION. Religio-cultural pattern. The pattern of dominant beliefs, customs and values which regulates general behaviour within a society. Some confusion has arisen over this term due to it being commonly used to refer to theistic beliefs in particular—a use which ignores non-theistic forms of animism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, for example. The term is used here in an anthropological sense.

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SCIENTISM. Science held up as a faith. Positivism. The proponents of scientific positivism, are adamant in rejecting the value of human subjectivity in contributing to legitimate knowledge.

SERE. A unit of succession. The particular series of communities an ecosystem exhibits as it moves through succession towards climax.

SOCIOBIOLOGY. This is seen as a field of study, though it is in reality a school of thought or even more so, a movement among theoretical biologists. It sees society as having a primarily biological basis. However, it is a biology that is fundamentally mechanistic and reductionist and which faithfully reflects the paradigm of science in its most basic form. Closely related to evolutionary psychology.

SPATIO-TEMPORAL. Relating to both space and time, e.g. space-time continuum. Used here with regard to the “field” concept (developed in physics) as applied to living systems by such biologists as Gurwitsch, Weiss, Waddington, and others. Four-dimensional.

A purely spatial perspective only takes into account static structure, whereas a spatio-temporal perspective takes into account the whole dynamic process of development. Things are thus considered as having a history and a context, rather than as having simply appeared fully-formed out of nowhere.

STABILITY. Continuity. This must not be mistaken for stasis. Stability in the natural world is dynamic. A stable system is one whose behaviour is marked by the smallest possible discontinuities. Such a system will, by the same token, seek to preserve the more general features of its critical order by adapting its more particular features. Sustainable.

SUCCESSION (ecological). The sequential process of development of a pioneer ecosystem.

SYNTHETIC THEORY OF EVOLUTION. Biologists tended to lose interest in neo-Darwinism in the 1920s and 1930s. It was revived by Julian Huxley, Dobzhansky, Simpson, Mayr and others in the early 1940s. This still later version of Darwinism took into account population genetics, which had been developed in the meantime, and also sought to express the theory in more quantitative terms, making it correspondingly more respectable in scientific circles. This meant defining the “fit”—until then a vague term—as those who best succeeded in proliferating their genes.

SYSTEM (natural). Natural systems must be distinguished from the sort of systems that engineers manufacture, which are only superficially similar. Natural systems include cells, organisms, non-human animal societies, human vernacular societies, ecosystems, and indeed the biosphere itself. The generalities of the structure and function of all these natural systems are taken to be the same, which justifies the use of the term, defined by Paul Weiss as a complex unit in space and in time, whose sub units cooperate to preserve its integrity and its structure and its behaviour and tend to restore them after a non-destructive disturbance.

SYSTEMIC. See homeotely.

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TECHNOSPHERE. The surrogate world of human industrial artefacts, as contrasted with the biosphere, the world of living things or the natural world. The artificial growth and development of industrial society or the technosphere is achieved directly at the expense of the natural growth and development of the biosphere.

The term arose in the 1960s and was later employed by Max Nicholson, who contrasted “. . . the ancient biosphere or realm of all living things”, with “the new impersonal ‘technosphere’ of flows of energy through man-made structures, devices and economic or social channels.”

TELEOLOGY. Aristotle’s “final cause” as distinguished from “antecedent cause” (causality). A goal, aim, end, function, purpose or directive. “Downward causation”. See homearchy.

TELEONOMY. Used instead of teleology by adherents of positivism“The conception of ‘teleology’ has been associated with that of a final aim of life, implying metaphysical or religious beliefs. To avoid this, recent authors have used the word ‘teleonomy’ to describe the directional character of living activities . . . But words of this sort confuse many people and one is enough, let us keep to ‘teleology’.” (J.Z. Young, Programs of Brain, iii, 16, 1978 (quoted in OED)).

TEMPORAL. Relating to time. See spatio-temporal.


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VERNACULAR SOCIETY. Synonymous here with traditional society, or, the misnomer, “primitive society”. From the Latin “vernare”, to sprout, hence something that springs naturally out of a local culture—indigenous; grass roots; native; home-spun. The term is usually applied to a social group’s local dialect or architecture. Ivan Illich extended the use of the term to refer to all features of a society’s culture that have not been imposed on it by the state, the church, the corporate institution or other external agent.

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WAY, the. A term found in use around the world to refer to the natural order of things or cosmological law—the way in which natural systems behave and develop when not interfered with by external (heterotelic) agents. Those things which follow “the Way” are said to be endowed with “vital force”, “virtue”, holiness, sacredness (“tabu”), and so on.

WORLDVIEW. Belief system. The body of fundamental assumptions that form the basis of how an individual or social group interprets and thereby perceives their world—and thus ultimately how they interact with it. “Weltanschauung” (German). “Cosmovisión” (Spanish). “Metaphysical epistemology” (Jacques Monod).

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