Toward a General Theory of Systems

One Man’s Window on the Universe

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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Copyright 1987, 1996 by Win Wenger, Ph.D., president, Project Renaissance. This monograph may, however, be freely reproduced (in whole, including this copyright notice, but not in part) up to a total of 100 copies, for teaching purposes or as gifts.

Table of Contents


This is the systems-view of one man, a man who is not formally qualified in systems fields and who is not even a mathematician. So far as systems theory and the related disciplines are concerned, this writer must be regarded as an amateur, and presumptuous to be writing in this field. No one is required to read this paper — for those who have the patience and curiosity nonetheless to do so, we ask that the propositions herein be judged on their OWn merits and not as anything authoritative or respectable prior to having withstood such judgment.

This is one man’s view of the general theory of systems. This view relates to several other representations in the field but is far simpler. With William of Occam, this writer believes that — other things equal “simple is beautiful” and, more to the point, simple is useful. Certainly, as we shall see, simplicity renders this thesis intellectually convenient.

There is little question that this view of the General Theory of Systems is simpler than other representations. Only time, test and argument can determine its other merits.

This writer first began teaching himself elements of cybernetics and systems theory in 1961, By 1962 he had arrived at early versions of some of the present set of propositions.

His first publications representing elements of this model were in his monograph on the theory of civilization dynamics1 and in his doctoral dissertation2 in education. Since then, this writer has had his hands absolutely full with other matters, but he has found himself unable to leave this topic alone for very long. Finally, he felt he simply had to go ahead and write this simple monograph, as much to further define his own perceptions as to encourage the kinds of test and argument which may determine the merits of the model.

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A Case For Use of SOME Form of the General Theory of Systems

A General Theory of Systems — which, in turn, could come pretty close to being part of the basis for a general theory of everything!

— As an educator, this writer simply could not leave this topic alone even during long intervals when he was the only one among his immediate colleagues with any interest in it. Why does this writer believe the general theory of systems is so significant and useful?

Everything in our experience is a system and, conforming to the regularities which describe systems behavior, is rendered comprehendable by an understanding of the nature and behavior of systems.

—The study of how things work together. A system is the interaction between two or more things. There are only so many classifications of ways to be “a system.” Everything in our experience is a system — everything in our experience is one or a combination of those few ways to be “a system.”

Everything in our experience is comprised of such systems, each of which is one or a combination of those few ways to be systems.

Everything in our experience is a member of one or more larger such systems, each of which is one or a combination of those few ways to be systems.

This systems view describes everything, whether things in the “real world” and universe we live in (and of which, by reinforcement of correspondences, our senses provide us a partial mapping), or for each of the windows through which we attempt to view and map part of that reality — physics, biology, psychology, history, economics, game theory, philosophy, literature, art, music, business management, methodology in training or teaching, poetry, engineering…..

Most or all of the different fields of study addressed in whichever educational curriculum, and most or all of the areas of involvement in each vocation, career, avocation, and in personal living, are thus structured around this same nature and behavior of systems, according to the same conveniently few ‘laws” or regularities which characterize the behavior of systems.

Systems theory is thus an especially convenient way through which to address and understand much of the above.

An adequate understanding of systems theory, then, means a useful basis for understanding and coping with any one particular field of study, any particular career, any particular situation.

General systems theory moreover provides a learning and perception which in its entirety provides a complete “learning transfer” from one discipline to another, from one study to another, from one situation into any other situation, so that what one learns in any particular area adds to his or her understanding about any other particular area.

This contrasts markedly with most contemporary forms of specialized learning, wherein too often one learns to “go upstairs,” then as a separate act learns to “ascend metal risers,” then as a separate act learns to “climb wooden steps,” then as a separate act learns to “make his/her way up a staircase” and so on — for, without exaggeration, that redundancy of forms under different descriptions is, this writer believes, most of what is taught today in the different curricula. One process, one structure, but a hundred different descriptions each learned separately as if these were indeed a hundred different processes and structures!

If one has an adequate perception of systems theory, and if indeed virtually everything is an example of systems theory’s workings, then systems theory is indeed convenient analytically, intellectually, and pedagogically, among other things.

In the lifetime of this writer, people in our changing world have come to experience the necessity of changing professions, of shifting from one career field to another, at least once and likely several times during their career. Without a convenient frame in which to translate what they’ve learned and experienced from one field usefully into the next, they are placed at a very unnecessary disadvantage.

We therefore suggest a study of the general theory of systems as a basis for beginning the comprehension and perception or study of any particular course, and as one basis for pursuing personal self understanding.

In the lifetime of this writer, information and knowledge are said to have “exploded.” It may be at least as fair to say that information and knowledge have mostly splintered instead. In the very teeth of the tradition of “Occam’s Razor,” which showed scientific and mathematical understandings, at least, to be getting simpler and more elegant, today’s specialist menagerie is decidedly unintelligible and inelegant. The very fields which, for a while, most strongly displayed the tendency toward elegant simplicity, cannot today be viewed in all their concatenation without the disquieting conviction that something is very wrong. 

It is easy to see why this happens, especially in a world whose educational systems fail to integrate current findings about education, much less about the advancing fields of inquiry. Persons coming through such systems to specialize in any particular career in a field of empirically unfolding inquiry, must perforce make an accounting for things as best they can. If their basis of understanding is not much broader than the tradition and special vocabulary of their own specialty, then their accountings in turn must be narrow and therefore complex, intelligible only from within the specialty. Without an adequate provision for conserving and re-rendering this jumble of particulars into a larger and simpler whole, “knowledge” does not so much explode as disintegrate.

Either some form of general systems theory, or its equivalent in intellectual, perceptual and aesthetic convenience, therefore, should be made an integral part of the core of every curriculum.

With such a convenience in their own core specialization or career area becomes not a near-traumatic starting from scratch but, instead, little more than an exercise in the comparison of parallel traditions and some vocabulary-building!

Within any particular specialized line of inquiry, further, a grasp of general systems theory (or of its equivalent in intellectual and perceptual convenience) should greatly assist the development of discovery and understanding — certainly, to the extent that such theory does indeed give a useful understanding of the dynamics and relationships encountered in each particularized specialty.

Researchers so equipped will have both a formal and an intuitive assist toward understanding their own discoveries and for their accounting. Researchers so equipped will moreover benefit with both a formal and an intuitive anticipation of “the lay of the land” within their topic, and are likeliest to find further relevant discoveries.

Until adequate test and argument have determined the merits of the writer’s particular model for a general theory of systems as follows below, we do not propose this model to be the integrative perspective which should be inserted into the core of every curriculum and into the basis of every field of study. We do offer it here as a possible candidate for this role, sometime after such a validation. Meanwhile we urge that general systems theory in some validated form be made an integral center of every curriculum and every field of study, especially in the inquiry fields.

The new model following below is simpler, yet definite enough to appear to be useful.

If it should also prove to be valid, then eventually it may be appropriate to consider it for such a role.

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Part 1: Theory

Review of Thermodynamic Precepts and of the Foundations of Entropy Theory, Cybernetics, Information Theory and General Systems Theory.

The essential link from the fundamentals of physical law to the fundamentals of the nature of systems, we believe to be the Laws of Thermodynamics, which may be loosely summed up in terms of the tendency of concentrations of energy to disperse, to “run downhill toward random disorder.” A demonstration of thermodynamics at work is to take a glass of hot water and a glass of cold water, pour them together into a bucket. When we pour the bucket of water back into the two glasses, we have a pretty definite tendency to end up with two glasses of luke-warm water. The concentrations of hot and cold molecules of water are gone and water temperature has been randomized. 

With Norbert Wiener3, we recognize that all structure and all information are forms of energy and therefore are subject to the physical laws which “govern,” or describe, energy behavior in our universe. Of special interest to us among these laws are the very basic ones, the Laws of Thermodynamics. With information and structure, as with a relation of hot and cold water, all information and all structure show a decided tendency to become disorderly and randomized. With information this tendency expresses as the tendency for “error to creep into the message.” The “message” toward becoming tends garbled nonsense. With structure this tendency expresses breakdown; even the most elegant structures in time crumbling toward randomized rubble. These tendencies are no less universal than the laws of thermodynamics as such, of which they are expressions.

Energy can only “run downhill,” according to Wiener. Ripples and splashes of energy may splat toward little islands of temporary higher order and reduced entropy (reduced randomness, as Wiener saw it, just as ice jams on a river may sometimes pile up into remarkable structures before again disordering – but only at cost of still more energy from elsewhere having to run downhill toward randomness. It is unlikely for structures to become more orderly or for information or messages to become more true. This, oddly enough, Wiener offered not only in the context of but in the very teeth of scientific progress. That progress has defined in terms of the “message” presented us by the structure of our universe becoming read more and more truly.

(Wiener’s pessimism over the universe’s one-way slide toward ruin, also flew in the very teeth of that particular splash or ripple of reversed entropy which evolved Wiener — and us — from basic protozoan and molecular forms. That even the simplest forms of life leading toward our own outrageously high order are themselves of so complex an order that we have yet to be able to create them ourselves from simpler forms — and that there are so many diverse forms of high-order life complexity — should have told Wiener that he was overlooking something in his thesis.)

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What Wiener Overlooked

Basis of the Proposed New Model

Wiener was correct in seeing as universal a tendency for information or messages to become randomized, garbled and “noisy;” for structures to disintegrate toward ruin and chaos. Examples with which he chose to illustrate this, however, are revealing of something else.

The classical Thermodynamicist Maxwell, as Wiener was fond of pointing out, dwelt on the tendency of the energies of hot and cold molecules — whether of water, air or whatever else — to dissipate toward a luke-warm average. Individual molecules might still be “hot” or “cold” but of no great significance or concentration once dispersed. unless some imaginary “demon” were to sit at some gateway passing the “hot” molecules in one direction and “cold” molecules in the other direction. One may, indeed, sort out a bucket of mixed black and red marbles into two piles, one black and one red, thus representing higher order, Wiener acknowledged, but only at cost of energy expended by that demon, meaning greater disorder somewhere else as other energy concentrations get used up as energy order on the whole can only run downhill, Maxwell’s Demon became Wiener’s way of showing that no “local islands” of temporarily reduced entropy or increased order could be significant on the whole, or be of any lasting consequence.

Ah — but the true-to-life Maxwell’s “Demon” exists, and has been discovered and identified. The name of this “demon?” — The Laws of Thermodynamics!

—For, you see, unless disintegration and disordering occur everywhere at once, instantly or at least without regard to just what it is that is being disintegrated or disordered, you have: selection.

Selection is the “demon” which acts to concentrate energy, reduce entropy, increase order. It acts as universally as — and is the uneven tendency of things to break down, become noisy, or cry a despairing “bleep” in the night!

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The Model

Let’s get down to cases. Otherwise, it might be difficult to discuss or comprehend a universe which, contrary to the usual view, is not “running downhill toward a lukewarm ‘heat death” on the whole. We instead may be looking at a universe which is in, or moving toward, a dynamic equilibrium between order and disorder. Ours may be a universe always with some sort of high-order structure. Even if it is changing, a high order structure may always be a permanent factor of our universe, some sort of permanent meaning and significance.

The most useful case to get down to is the extreme denouement of Wiener’s eventual wholly disordered universe: chaos unrelieved, uninformed by any structure or meaning whatever. So suppose you do have chaos – a universe-wide chaos or even mainly an extensive chaos?—

Things, events, factors, by the very nature of chaos, interact (I.e., are “systems”).

By the very nature of chaos or randomness, particular interactions last for varying lengths of time: if every interaction lasted precisely as long as, and only so long as, 0.2 milliseconds, for example, that would be an extraordinarily improbable, very high order arrangement of energy, and not chaos. Therefore some interactions, some systems, last for a while even in “pure chaos,” while others more quickly yield their elements back into the soup.

Despite the overall randomness posited, some factors would tend to become characteristically associated with those systems which somehow manage to last for a while. Different characteristics would tend to be found with those systems whose existence is only fleeting. Those characteristics found most often with the more lasting systems, we define as the various strategies for resisting, for at least a while, the general tendency to break down and return one’s elements to the soup.

Given a chaos large enough — such as a sloppy planet, or a universe — and given some fair passage of time, some of the strategies hit upon are bound to be relatively more successful, relatively sophisticated. — As, indeed, we ourselves in fact exhibit and the whole ascending order of life including Mr. Wiener. The better the strategy, the more likely it will emerge and be selected in favor of — not only despite but because of the universal disintegrative tendencies cited by Wiener as expression of the universal Laws of Thermodynamics.

The strategies which have thus evolved on Earth, apparently will have evolved in much the same general directions elsewhere in our universe. Happily, all of these strategies, for resisting dissolution, may be sorted usefully into a small number of classifications, such as in this arrangement:

  1. Running away;
  2. Rigidity;
  3. Redundancy;
  4. Reproduction;
  5. Reduction;
  6. Redirection;
  7. Negative Feedback — dynamic stability; goal-homing;
  8. Selection process.

1. Running away we might characterize as not being there when the axe falls; ducking.

2. Rigidity must be effective up to a point or we would not find so many examples of it in nature, such as hard-shelled molluscs and turtles. However, Maginot Lines have disadvantages as well as advantages. Where does firmness leave off and brittleness begin?

3. Redundancy — one of the reasons for having two eyes, two ears, two hands, two legs, so many more brain cells than we use, back-up modules and lines of communication. If one goes the other is still there in use.

4. Reproduction — the first key breakthrough in the emergence from chaos see below. One way for ‘X’ to duck the axe of entropy is to create a lot of other ‘X’s’ running around. If some ‘X’ or even several ‘X’s’ return their elements to the soup, some ‘X’ still survives to continue the game. Reproduction might also be subsumed under Redundancy, above, but as a special case is a lot more fun.

5. Reduction — keep a lower profile, a simpler system in which not so many things can go wrong. (See also Cope’s Law of Survival of the Relatively Unspecialized, below.)

6. Redirection — divert the attack onto someone/something else. We find a great deal of this strategy manifested in our social systems.

7. Negative feedback — clearly the most successful strategy, since homeostasis whether simple or complex is a characteristic of every longer-lasting system, living, social, or mechanical. Every disturbance of equilibrium is automatically offset and cancelled, else that system either disintegrates or changes into another system defined by other equilibria. Every system without such a strategy fairly soon yields its elements back to the soup.

8. Selection — the only possible match for # 7 as a successful strategy, and on several levels. On one level you have the ability of a system to select a few elements from a larger array for its sustenance and growth. On another level you have the selection of systems in favor of those systems with superior strategies, superior organization.

There are at least three very important things we can say about these strategies

  1. Virtually all elements, all situations, all processes around us today and in us are integral members of complexly goal-homing, self-sustaining, homeostatic, self-replicating systems. Most other systems, lacking such effective strategies, have been variously swept away.
  2. Evolution among these self-sustaining systems is a selection which acts ultimately to heighten order by disordering those systems which are less effectively homeostatic.
  3. Virtually every meaningful structure, “message” or order became such through selection (and carries with it much information about that process of selection) a topic for another paper and some promising further research).

Thus, we can expect any reasonably respectable chaos to clot itself up toward some kind of order. That emerging order will feature systems characterized by one or several of these strategies. The continued supply of such systems depends upon a continued supply of elements for such systems, which in turn ultimately depends upon a “soup” enriched by the elements of failed systems. It is the very thermodynamic, universal entropic tendency of things to disintegrate, which enriches the soup, which nourishes the emergence of fresh systems.

Entropy, as a selection among systems, not only replenishes the soup but drives the emergence of a more and more sophisticated order, increasingly effective at expressing forms far removed from the random and rudimentary. Of special interest to us is the result of sometimes wider-ranging entropy in the form of changing environments, selecting in favor of systems whose homeostasis can express through wider ranges of more, and more complex behavior — tending toward “intelligence” as discussed below.

That is how we got here (maybe, or maybe we were made, but William of Occam suggests we start with the bottom line first before assuming any extra intervention). That is why we are headed in the direction we are heading. Looking ahead in this direction, we see that the only systems which persist in existence for an appreciable while are those which manifest one or several of these strategies, thus resisting entropic return of their elements to the soup — and in varying proportions according to the effectiveness of those strategies.

If chaos perforce gives rise to order through such selection; if the systems emergent in which an order perforce are selected in terms of their strategies for resisting dissolution as apparently has to be the case, then virtually every system around us and within us and among us, virtually every situation which we can encounter or study or even conceive of, is understandable in terms of one or combinations of these few discrete strategies.

These few discrete strategies give us a classification system and analytic system in the style of the periodic table of the elements, or like the bio-evolutionary classification of phyla, only much simpler. This systems survival strategies basis of analysis appears to be a very useful sorting mechanism through which to analyze any situation we might encounter, within or around us. This indeed is the proposed model, whatever further things may be said below, and is the basis of this one man’s rather unusual view of a general theory of systems. 

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Summary of The Basic Model

All structure and all information are forms of energy and thus subject to the universal laws of thermodynamics which govern energy. Those laws describe a universal tendency toward dispersion, toward randomized disorder. Yet because selection reduces entropy and builds order, and because entropy acts unevenly by definition, at any given time and at any existing level of order/disorder including, at the extreme, total chaos, this universal tendency toward disintegration acts to select in favor of systems characterized by any or several typical strategies. The strongest apparent of these several strategies for resisting breakdown, since virtually every surviving system manifests it, is negative feedback or homeostasis. Over time, the tendency toward breakdown itself drives the emergence of highly superior forms of order. The same law which tears order down, drives the emergence of high order. Though order suffers from tendencies toward chaos, chaos is forced to give rise to order, both by the same thermodynamic laws.

Cosmology: so long as unevennesses of energy distribution in the universe — including matter — are not too widely dispersed to interact substantially, we will always have a high degree of structure, order, meaningfulness in the universe.

Any totally disorderly, chaotic situation has to clot itself up toward some form and degree of order. In any extensive situation, ranged between the extremes of total disorder and total order, thermodynamic tendencies toward disintegration must exert a selection process, a pressure driving the universe toward more sophisticated forms of order.

The universe and any extensive sector of the universe are necessarily driven unevenly by entropy and thus by entropic selection. Arising therein will be systems exhibiting these same general strategies, in varying proportions, for resisting dissolution. Those varying proportions in turn afford a further unevenness through which selection operates even more strongly to further sophisticate order.

Thus, the universe itself is seen as being in more than just Wiener’s one-way transition between order and disorder toward ultimate disorder. Our universe appears to be in a two-way transition, equilibrating toward some point where the general tendency of things to disintegrate is in balance with the sophisticating tendency of that disintegration pressure’s selecting in favor of superior forms of order.

Unless “perfect order” (certainly a condition we don’t have to overly concern ourselves about around here!) could be shown to be somehow exempt from the Laws of Thermodynamics, there is no condition of the universe which this new model does not describe. At every point of the possible range extending from complete chaos to complete order, the universe is constrained to move toward this dynamic order/disorder equilibrium. The Laws of Thermodynamics are indeed universal — and therefore also the drive toward more and more sophisticated order!

Whatever its progression from “Big Bang” and primordial “ylem” toward dispersed emptiness: short of that ultimate emptiness the universe is existing — thermodynamically, at least — in a “steady state.” This is a “moving equilibrium” and not a “static equilibrium”4 in that it is forced in the direction of ever more sophisticated order — but equilibrium it has to be and not Wiener’s one-way ticket to dissolution. If true, this conclusion has many far-reaching implications at all levels of human concern.

True, most authorities on the matter today appear to find satisfaction in the view that our universe was born from a big bang, so that any sort of “steady-state” theory is in disfavor. However, if it is true that — at least in this thermodynamic, order/disorder sense — the universe is in a steady state of sorts, the whole matter might bear reopening to examination, especially as regards the question of the matter-energy relationship which is now believed to be, with rare exception, a one-way street of stellar furnace converting matter to energy but no return traffic to speak of.5

The emergence of reproduction as a strategy is a crucial threshold in the clotting of chaos toward order. This threshold is significant because systems which hit upon reproduction as a means of keeping some such systems going despite the pressure to return to the soup, become a lot more numerous than are the systems which merely form spontaneously from the soup with whatever other strategies characteristic in their makeup. Once reproduction is hit upon, things move a lot faster toward higher order because there are thereafter a lot more various systems for entropy to be selecting among.

Reproduction is an important threshold also in bringing the universe (or sectors thereof) a lot closer to that further threshold of some interest to us, the emergence of life.

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Living Systems

Various self-reproducing molecules and molecular systems of a non-living nature have been identified throughout most of this century’s attempts to create life from non-living matter in test tubes. It appears to be that further strategy we’ve identified, complexly goal-homing behavior or homeostasis, which is the biologists present working criterion of whether or not something capable of reproducing itself is also “alive.”

Being “alive” does not exempt systems from this thermodynamic selection process, although it lends further advantage in resisting that tendency toward dissolution. Being alive forces this thermodynamic selection process to become more complex and intense. Complexly goal-homing systems, in abundance because self-reproducing to boot, affect one another (forming new levels of meta-system!) and become part of one another’s environments (forming ecologies), making each other’s task of survival far more complex and demanding.

However different the particulars, evolution elsewhere is pretty bound to follow the general direction of evolution on Earth, because similar material is being moulded by the same Thermodynamic Laws around the same essential strategies for resisting disintegration and avoiding immediate return to the soup.

Complex goal-homing behavior — homeostasis — is so successful a strategy that it tends to cut off progress, especially after there is enough life around to comprise an ecology. Among meta-systems of living organisms, “goal-homing around” speciated norms or “ecological niches” becomes so powerful and pervasive a way to resist returning to the soup that it is lucky for us indeed that we are on a planet of catastrophes.

Life’s using up the organic broth of our earliest oceans may have been the earliest such planetary catastrophe. This stirred up the by-then-immobilized ecological relationships and gave also a comparative advantage to (1 ) such organisms as could consume other organisms (animals); and (2) such organisms as could create their own food from inorganics plus the energy of sunlight (photosynthesizing plants).

These latter, of course, created a second planetary catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions by eventually polluting Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen. Again, so many ecological relationships were disrupted that whatever survived the catastrophe could, for a while, wander freely from the old speciated norms into new forms.

Three other tremendous planetary catastrophes of similarly enormous proportions have been found in the geologic record, apparently impacts upon the Earth by major asteroids. (The most recent of these fender-benders, only 67 million years ago, is now believed to have been what cleared away the dominant lifeforms, the dinosaurs and, indeed, 60-80% of all species altogether. By the time the ecological pieces came down again into new relationships, seed plants, birds and mammals had the upper hand.) Man may be creating the next planetary catastrophe.

Biological evolution, then, the working of these same system mic and thermodynamic factors in the context of living systems, was forced to proceed in terms not of steady evolvement but of “punctuated equilibria” because complex goal-homing behavior or complex homeostasis happens to be such a devastatingly effective strategy for combating thermodynamic slippage. Those systems — organic and ecology metasystems — which hit upon that strategy, tend to settle into structures and relationships virtually unchangeable until something drastic enough happens to break up the ecological “niche” relationships and allow chromosomes to wander much more freely away from species norms.

(Human experience, too, is largely one of “punctuated equilibria” for the same structure of reasons — which is why human populations had to become so large and affairs so completely out of anyone’s control as now, before social evolution could become more or less continuously ongoing. Even with the tidal shift continuously moving all around us, we still see “punctuated equilibrium” dynamics engendered all around us, large and small, at home, on the job, in the neighborhood, and in the affairs of nations and of global civilization itself — and in our own personal lives, according to those who pursue the study known as “catastrophe theory.”)

The only known system-survival strategy in the same range of strength as complex homeostasis is the same Maxwellian “demon” that got us here in the first place — selection — only written at yet another level, as we will see after discussing “‘intelligence.”

“Their voice is not heard, nor are there words, yet (their declaration) is heard to the ends of the Earth.”

Exposed cliff faces are eloquent encyclopedias written full of the geologic records (provided you have the code with which to decode it). The spectra of a star, the microstructures of a leaf – we have not said much here about information theory, which is at least as important a basis of discussion as our present structural discussion concerning systems. Shaped by the same entropic laws, all information is a form of energy.

Let us simply note here that all present-day structures or systems got here through means of a selection process. All present-day structures or systems are written “messages describing much about those selection processes which formed them. We believe that inquiries based on this principle and perspective could well be remarkably useful in their yield of further information. Let us also simply note that in terms of information theory, there exists a large consonance with systems theory through which our subsequent statements concerning “intelligence,” following below, bear more recognizably on conventional definitions of “intelligence.”

This whole comment on information theory is actually a very long parenthesis which closely relates to our present discussion as to why it is that a long period of intermittent catastrophes and stabilities is forced to give rise not only to higher forms of order but to “intelligence.”

Even short of the major planetary catastrophes, a great many lesser disasters have happened, as recorded in the form of massive extinctions in the geologic record. Even the sudden extinction of 10-20% of the current species is a phenomenally devastating event breaking open many of the outstanding ecological niches — even if much smaller than the extinctions of 80-90% of all species (and of 99% of currently living organisms) which characterized the major events.

After each such event comes a sifting out of new relationships, defining new ecological niches into which some chromosomes drift from the prior, now undefended, species norms. After that a gradual further sorting out allows minor evolutionary adjustments for a while, until things become absolutely unmoving or until some new disruptions come along.

The long periods of stability are required to build populations to levels where a fine-tuning of “fitness” is mutually enforced for a while — a form of “quality control.” The catastrophes are required to break open the norms and restart evolution on a major scale.

Well worth noting here, as first observed by the Alexander Cope6 is the lay of survival of the relatively unspecialized.” Within an unchanging environment, high and competing populations force a fine tuning toward the best possible use of available resources. Many of these species gain dominance through the advantages to be found from concentrating structure and behavior upon one particular detail of the environment, thereby becoming specialized. Specialized species can then do their one thing really well and not have to defend the other boundaries of their niche so expensively. These specialized species enjoy, while stability lasts, some comparative advantage over organisms and species which, less specialized, are forced to defend all the boundaries of their respective niches.

Silkworms have gotten so good at living on mulberry leaves, and have been free of the pressure to defend other niche boundaries for so long, that only mulberry leaves can keep silkworms alive. The advantages of such specialization are very real — so also is the hazard that, by changing the environment even slightly, nature can pull the rug out from under you. Extinction or unavailability of mulberry leaves would mean the extinction of silkworms. Similar dynamics now pertain, rather visibly, to career specializations of American workers and professionals in our time.

Only those organisms and species who could, well enough to survive, cope with both the earlier and the new conditions, in fact survive.

During stable conditions, the specialized eventually tend to crowd out all but the most competent of the unspecialized. During changing conditions and especially when one of the great or little whacks comes down to lop off some of the branches of life, the relatively unspecialized predominate among the survivors.

Given the frequency of change and world catastrophe these last few score million years, small wonder it is that there is an increasing incidence of one survival characteristic which biologists define as (homeostatic) goals, coping with a wider range of circumstances, to utilize a wider range of internal and external resources in pursuit of such goals.

Given the density of terrestrial life, the complexity of its relationships, and the intensity of Earth-wide changes and disasters over the past 67 million years, the emergence of intelligence and of high intelligence on Planet Earth was well-nigh inevitable.

Whenever you have a life-bearing world able to support high densities of life, and enough instability in that world to keep throwing back the advantage to Cope’s unspecialized species, the emergence, there too, of high intelligence will be nigh inevitable.

There, as here, a price, a tuition, has been paid for this intelligence, a cost which is simply awful, a pain and suffering and unfairness and horror and incidence of dying hopelessness which seem unbearable to contemplate. That tuition has been paid already. (—But what are we doing with that remarkable gift of intelligence for which so much tuition has already long since been paid?)

The selection pressure continues.

The same thermodynamic laws continue to drive.

Within stable structures, “intelligence” seems less of a survival advantage than other features of narrower scope. Among even the “intelligent,” specializations and, indeed, even the narrowest sub-specializations of field have seemed until lately to be advantageous. The latter already have been increasingly controverted this past decade or so. Regarding the former, we have all been permitted to retire from the occupation and defense of all the boundaries of our ecological niche, at many levels, save the one feature we may happen to concern ourselves with. We can only hope that we can survive our comeuppance in this, which is coming due.

Evolution has thrown a lot of babies out with the bathwater, most of whom probably deserved much better treatment.

Happily, with the tuition we’ve already paid, we may have already come across another one of those truly fundamental thresholds, like reproduction and like life itself. We now have the intelligence available to be able to select from among our responses, instead of we ourselves being selected among, as to who shall live or die and pass along genetic patterns. We have a wide range of available choices (and a yet wider range of available perceptions bearing upon those choices) among which to select what works now, what will work in the near future, what will work for the long haul — without having to have 99% of ourselves brutally and agonizingly killed off before things can move forward.

IF we choose what works.

—Or events will choose, as they always have done before.

The choices we now have before us are constrained by the same laws of thermodynamics which wrote our ascent to blood and plasm. To understand these laws and their workings better, and thus the general theory of systems better, may help us make our choices better. For:

Whatever faces us — in our own personal lives or as part of a workforce, profession, or even a public — in everything facing us, as well as in ourselves and around us in every respect, all is comprised of:

Systems (and metasystems) which follow in varying combinations these few strategies for resisting being returned immediately back to the soup — these few types of systems and system-combination:

  1. Running away or ducking;
  2. Rigidity;
  3. Redundancy;
  4. Reproduction;
  5. Reduction — low-profile simplification;
  6. Redirection (of the attacking force);
  7. Negative feedback or homeostasis — the most successful and most highly evolved strategy, structure and behavior;
  8. Selection process.

All these systems, in intricate detail, have made their adaptations to features of their respective environments and are complexly homeostatic within those environments. Some of those adaptations are highly specialized and thus dependent; some may relate to short-term, short-range considerations; some may relate to long-range long-term considerations.

-And here we are in this matrix and meta-matrix of intertwined systems and meta meta-systems facing, in the very nature of the selection pressures which formed us, some entropic spasm. The function of that spasm, if not otherwise dealt with, will be to clear away restraining structures and re-open the floodgates of further evolution.

At the very least, understanding this nature of systems and thus some intelligible aspects of the nature of everything, can inform our choices before events inform us. Better that our choices be “weeded” than that we ourselves again be “weeded,” but “weeding-out” there definitely will be.

Everything is one or a combination of several of these strategy-defined types of system;

Everything is meaningful and understandable in terms of the behavior of these types of system;

A meaningful understanding of these types of system can be more than intellectually convenient or even exciting. It may mean absolute survival.

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Part 2: Applications

Society and Civilization: Some Dynamics of Complexly Homeostatic Systems7

Let us express the same thermodynamic model in societal and historical terms as we just expressed in molecular physical terms and see where it leads….?

Let us begin with assuming chaos or, at least, a very low degree of order. Let’s begin with two or more people encountering each other by chance in an otherwise virtually empty wilderness…..

By encountering one another they are at least interacting and thus comprise a system, however briefly. They may continue interacting, or they may simply pass on and resume their respective wanderings toward other chance encounters elsewhere.

If this is a very extensive wilderness and there are, over time, a fair number of human individuals who encounter one another here and there in it, we may expect a variety of outcomes. Many or most of those outcomes could be very short-lived encounters whose participants wander on toward other destinations. Some of those outcomes may be expected to last somewhat longer, as their participants stop to exchange gazes, or gossip, or insults, or compliments, / or weather predictions, or stock market tips, or strokes, or blows, or territorial barks, or sex, or pecking-order relationships, or trade beads.

As in other forms of systems organization, the most effective “strategy” for any system of (social) interaction to continue is virtually too effective. We speak, of course, of goal-homing negative feedback which self-stabilizes around a norm, and which automatically offsets to cancel out any disturbance to its continuing equilibrium.

As we saw above, complex homeostasis is far and away the most effective of the available strategies (except possibly for “selection” per se) through which a system can resist having to yield its elements back to the soup. Complex homeostasis is so pervasive a characteristic of physical systems that we have begun to expect its dominant operation even in such long-lasting physical. systems, such as atomic nuclei in the realm of particle physics, or more evidently in astrophysics and celestial mechanics as in the example of the maintenance of orbiting rings around each of the gas giant planets, where systems behavior has not yet been defined or discussed.

The same entropic selection process which washes away any physical system which has a deficient strategy for sustaining itself, also by definition works in human societal terms. Any human social group which has not washed away long since is predominantly characterized by complexly homeostatic, goal-homing, equilibrium or status defending behavior, before anything else can be described about it……

That means that the most characteristic response of any human social grouping, because in fact it has indeed not, been washed away long since, is to defend and seek to return to its norms. We don’t see this as the dominant characteristic for the same reason that a fish doesn’t notice the water around him. This complexly homeostatic behavior is so pervasive that it does not usefully serve as a basis in our perceptions for discriminating one group from another: as a constant among every group in our experience, it becomes invisible to us. Complexly and reflexively homeostatic behavior remains, however visible or invisible to us, the single most reliable prediction we can make about the responses of any human group.

—Because any group in which this trait does not predominate, soon ceases to be an identifiable group and yields its members over to other groups and other arrangements. The only groups which survive around us are dominated by this homeostatic reflex.

The human organism has literally millions of homeostatic mechanisms and response systems inter-articulated within it. These not only provide balancing behavior for such matters as crude thirst and hunger, but all the millions of biochemical self-regulators and millions of electrical self-regulator circuits which make up the physical human being. 99.9999+% of these goal-homing automatically self equilibrating responses are unconscious and reflexive.

It would appear also that a majority – perhaps a similarly very great majority – of the equilibrium-defending responses of any human social group are likewise unconscious and reflexive. If so —

— This then has to predict a picture where people have one set of conscious intentions for achievement, improvement, and “doing good things,” even while their own actions, as expressions of the unconscious reflexive norm-defenses of their group or groups, defeat those intentions.

To the extent that this unconscious norm-defending reflex of the group is permitted to defeat the conscious progressive intentions of the group’s own members, we are perforce left only with a “punctuated equilibrium” pattern of social evolution and thus face a continuing series of human catastrophes.

We humans potentially have our own evolution in our own hands, so that it is our choices which can be weeded amongst instead of ourselves. To the extent that we can indeed inform ourselves and make those choices, we can avoid the catastrophes. A succession of brutal, awful, miserable and agonizing catastrophes has been the human and historical norm, from which we’ve been enjoying a brief partial vacation. (The public’s voracious appetite for vicarious and fictional disaster stories may in part express the same utility as any other mental rehearsal for anticipated developments, just as the gladiatorial circus provided appropriate mental rehearsal for the masses for forthcoming developments in ancient Rome.) We will definitely and quite soon revert to that norm or even (in this nuclear age) overshoot it, unless we discover how to transcend that all-too-effective homeostatic strategy of any groups and institutions with our higher and conscious intentions for improvement and self-evolution.

Understanding the pervasiveness and unconscious reflex nature of this norm-defending behavior of all our groups and institutions, seems to be an important early step, therefore, in averting catastrophe.

This thesis is not an academic one only, and does not exist in an experiential vacuum. For example: many economists are familiar with the theoretical validity of Henry Hazlett’s “broken window fallacy”8, yet war and other destructive catastrophes have historically been associated with surges of economic and technical progress. The economic resurgence of America’s defeated enemies Germany and Japan, after the almost unimaginable cataclysms of Wortd War II, appears to defy Hazlett’s observation which clearly therefore does not represent all factors affecting such situations. Indeed, the devastated Japanese have for the past few years truly been dominating the American and world markets — and the more recently destroyed South Korea is now overtaking Japan! How could such things be?

Hazlett is correct insofar as he goes, but he overlooks the effects of the overpowering tendency of all systems to pursue complex homeostasis and to fall toward stasis. Destroying value to generate economic activity in order to create value, is indeed a fallacy and is only redistributing wealth instead of creating it. In Hazlett’s example, a rock through the baker’s plate glass window does, indeed, create new business for the glazier who in turn buys his wife a fur coat, the furrier in turn buying other things and so on – but the baker has correspondingly less to spend and the effects are, at best, offsetting and, more often, divert resources from the production of truly new wealth. Hazlett’s analysis appears impeccable, yet we have this strange phenomenon of the most destroyed societies soon becoming the most prosperous and productive ones.

The only apparent explanation for the contradiction in fact of Hazlett’s thesis in theory is that systems generally exhibit complex homeostasis and drift toward a stasis which is far short of their potential for actualizing value. In at least some instances, historically, socially and economically just as in biological evolution, it took a destruction sufficient in scope to break such a stasis before further values could actualize. (Likewise, if we could find other ways to identify and move beyond such stasis, it could well be less expensive than breaking Hazlett’s plate glass windows in every context.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) 55-year cycle of economic ups and downs, mostly apparent in countries such as the United States where the destructions of war have not prevailed, sees more and more decline of economic growth and then a major collapse. of the economy to the point where many or most of its institutions fail — followed by a new major era of vigorous economic expansion.

A comprehensive look at the patterns of history, on the whole demonstrates a recurring pattern of some sort of disruption followed by a wave of progress which gradually stagnates, until another disruption (Toynbee’s “challenge-and-response” pattern but in a slightly different light!) leads either to another wave of progress or to a major failure. Long periods of stagnation have characterized the histories of many civilizations, despite the clearly contrary intentions of many of their leaders and main participants, before they finally went down to ultimate ruin. Over and over again, history presents a pattern of disastrous disruptions followed by some progress followed by things settling down toward stagnation until another disruption occurs.

A parallel statement of the same thesis, for both civilizations and for the theory of organizations generally, is found in George Land’s work9. In Grow or Die he cites the tendency of any human social system to display an “S”-curve of growth, once it has gotten its act together enough to be an identifiably effective system. Its growth during its initial, germinative, phase is usually slow or almost “horizontal;” as its act comes together the growth becomes rapid and almost “vertical;” after a while it reaches a mature state in which growth ceases and dissolution is pending. That organization can either partially dismantle itself to invest in new arrangements which will be the basis of new phases of growth, or it can continue in the same old pattern until it collapses into disaster.

Our experience of each other and of ourselves as well, is that we develop a way of doing things and don’t want to change it until we are forced to. Unfortunately, this forcing process, individually or collectively, can get more than a little expensive.

The field of education is peopled largely by people who, we believe, truly want their students to learn and grow and succeed. Yet we have the strange phenomenon of absolutely dismal methods of teaching and learning prevailing in most of our classrooms, while on the outside of classrooms, mostly unnoticed and unused, pile up literally thousands of far superior methods.10 Despite occasional exceptions, there does not appear to this writer to be any concerted conspiracy to maintain matters thus. There is a far more than adequate explanation in terms of the unconscious, reflexive norm-defending homeostatic responses of our social institution of education, already to the point where our educational institutions are now. an outstanding candidate for the punctuation of their equilibrium.

People generally have failed to grasp society’s persistent failure to reform despite expressed will to do so, and often have attributed it to some nefarious plot of “the Establishment.” Perhaps the most respectable form of this conspiracy theory was voiced by the late R. Buckminster Fuller in his descriptions of “the great world pirates.” A form of conspiracy theory popular in the “Third World” countries today, as they face a similar frustration of intended self improvement, is the myth that the developed countries are trying to keep third-world countries poor in order to enjoy the services of a cheap labor service this in the very teeth of the visible urgent need of the developed countries for prosperous new markets to sell their products in. Indeed there may well be a few individual conspiracies by privileged persons and by one or two firms. Despite, however, the frequent frustration of reform efforts in third-world regions, there just does not appear to be any truly general conspiracy. Just people, many of whom are high-minded and humanitarian, expressing in their own actions the unconscious, reflexive norm-defending homeostatic responses of the societal systems) of which they are members, despite conscious intentions very much to the contrary.

This writer sees no conscious general conspiracy. What he does see is the inevitability of some major punctuations to our respective equilibria, in keeping with the main patterns of both human history and biologic/geologic pre-history, if we do not take hold of this phenomenon and take conscious charge of the course of our lives. Either our choices will be selected among, or we will be selected among. — And in this nuclear age, truly it is possible that absolutely no one will survive the next major winnowing.

How may we take hold of this phenomenon? How may we take charge of the course of our own lives, so that our choices will be winnowed and not ourselves?

It is worth noting in this regard the above distinction between “static equilibria” and “dynamic” or “moving equilibria.” It is also illuminating to note the quote of possibly America’s leading scholar in the theory of history, the late Carroll Quigley. Quigley observed that the hallmark of a civilization which is in its “decline and fall” is when its institutions of service become institutions of self-service.11 The service an institution is intended to provide can be the goal/norm which is defended by the million-and-one unconscious reflexes of homeostasis. Until now, though, it has usually been the convenience of the institution itself, as a static social group, at the center of that homeostatic set of responses. Clearly, where the service goals of an institution are not well-engineered, over time the static equilibrium defined by the human in-group characteristics of that institution as a social grouping will take over. Understanding the mechanics of this process may be the key.

Another look at education in America might be instructive in this regard. Nowhere in American society, where the prevailing belief is that “you get what you pay for,” is anyone paid to teach. People are paid only to babysit and to do bureaucratic things having little to do with the learning and growth of their students. Indeed, no one is paid more if Junior learns better. Indeed: if Junior learns worse, more money and power are allocated within the system to remedy his situation!

Under such a condition, it is clear that whatever the short-term goals of people in an educational institution, the long-term goals will be shaped by what they are paid for despite whatever are their conscious intentions. There may, however, be a way to get beyond the tendency of human institutions and social groups to jell down to static equilibria as the main basis for their homeostasis. That way is to carefully engineer the ongoing incentives within that system, material or otherwise, around the intended dynamic goals. Incentives are a way to control the feedback on actions: controlling the feedback on actions is what systems are all about. Appropriately change incentives in a group and you change the goals of its homeostatic reflexes.

Clearly, we are going to continue to experience multiple complex, largely unconscious, largely reflexive, goal-homing homeostatic behaviors by our groups and institutions for so long as we have groups and institutions. Any social system without such a response system very soon ceases to exist. —But in order to take charge of our own evolution, to avoid catastrophes, and to escape the awful cycle of punctuated equilibria, we have to deliberately create dynamic goals and engineer incentives or other response dynamics around them, or else always lapse back into static equilibria which in turn will suffer punctuation.

American business prides itself on being results oriented, and would be first to tell us that our economic advantage as a nation has stemmed from the dynamic equilibria caused by conditions of private enterprise. Yet in today’s business world, how many people are paid according to what they provide or produce, and how many are paid to hold their positions? Is it any wonder that we have seen the emergence in the business world of static social equilibria and the overtaking of the American economy by recently destroyed societies?

To pay for results, improves at least the chances of obtaining the desired results. Design our results to be dynamic equilibria, “moving goals,” and at least we have a fighting chance of self-evolving, of having our choices winnowed instead of ourselves.

Note that this is not a fully adequate answer to the problem, because complex homeostasis as such is so pervasive and successful a strategy for systems to keep themselves going. Complex homeostasis is almost too successful a strategy. No matter how dynamic our goals and careful our engineering of the incentives used to steer behavior towards their attainment, we still have, and always will have, social static homeostasis phenomena to cope with. Indeed we should, for social static homeostasis helps us keep on going, in the short run. It is in the long run that, if our dynamic goals are not supported strongly enough to lead us onward in desired directions, our short-term help turns into our slayer. The question is not one of abolishing or replacing social norming behavior, but of engineering response supports around dynamic goals so strongly as to keep us from bogging down in our old clutter of ways.

Most of us are familiar with the old example of the Commissioner of Roads, elected and paid an important salary and level of power, to cope with the terrible problem of traffic congestion in town. The worse that problem, and the more dramatic the activities of the Commissioner can be seen as a battle against that problem, the more pay and prestige goes with that office. How’s your rush hour doing these days? It is undoubtedly heretical to suggest this, but the clear solution would be to basé a large chunk of the Commissioner’s pay on the degree of measured progress in actually solving the traffic problem. You can think that one over while sitting in your long, long, long parking lot.

Likewise, what if a substantial part of the pay of educators – administrative staff as well as faculty – depended on how well their students gain across a broad spectrum of measures of proficiency and human growth? —Not a narrow range of specified skills as in the New York State Regents’ system, which has produced a spectacular array of abuses peculiar to an otherwise highly civilized state, but a broad range of measures – the whole range of the gains we want our children to make while they are in our schools! (With cheap, plentiful computers, administering and scoring many or most of the instruments of evaluation involved would not be very difficult.) Note that this is not “merit pay” in the usual sense, because that quantity is simply more of the bureaucratic norming behavior and has little if anything to do with the actual gains by students. If a substantial part of pay actually rested with how well students gained, is there any question that a multitude of behaviors in our schools would change? —That we would have an entirely different set of norming responses, conscious and unconscious, intentional and reflexive both?

There may be a stronger answer than incentives around carefully defined goals, and once more of us have come to understand the static social equilibrium phenomenon, that answer may emerge. For now, however, it seems to be the only way in sight to build and sustain the pursuit of intentional goals for the long haul; otherwise everything falls back into stasis until the next catastrophe.

Yes, we do have the opportunity to take charge of our own evolution and escape the dreadful cycle of punctuated equilibria. Neither human history nor bioevolutionary prehistory have ever indicated that the task would be an easy one. We may not, in fact, succeed: 99+% of all the species which have ever lived on Earth are, in fact, extinct. We may be fast running out of time, or indeed have already run out of time, in which to make and winnow our choices before we ourselves become winnowed. —But do we have any reasonable choice but to attempt the one apparent avenue toward our own survival?

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Part 3: A Problem Behind the Problem

Or: Is “Step One” Really “Step One?”

Suppose we somehow did solve one of the great and terrible problems of our world, one nearly everyone wishes could be solved?

Suppose, for example, we somehow managed to peacefully abolish involuntary human poverty across all the Earth by, say, year 1999?

The next generation would end up re creating such poverty.

Why would the next generation re-create such poverty despite and after all the heroics? This inter-generational problem turns out to be part of a much larger, more serious problem about which this chapter is written.

Contrary to popular thesis, the physical sciences’ outstripping the human sciences is not the cause of our present world-wide dilemma nor of our immediate peril, as discussed below.

True, we have been willing to pull the weeds of error much more in the physical than in human-related realms of inquiry. But both the physical and the human science inquiry areas have received equivalent if not equal attention in our time – and in previous generations human-related inquiry has often received considerably more attention.

Instead of an imbalance in inputs into these two sectors of inquiry, what has happened to imbalance and emperil us is a radical difference in what is retained in each sector and what is let go to be forgotten.

What has happened is similar to, though more complex than, what happened with the collapse of Rome and the onset of the European Dark Ages. Then, virtually all lore but one was lost – that of military combat and weaponry. Right on through the darkest nights of that long bleak winter of the mind, sophistication of weapons and battlefield continued without any pause whatever.

The point is that this phenomenon of selective loss did not disappear, but only abated and became more complex as we climbed painfully out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance, into the Age of Exploration, into the Age of Science, into the Age of Colonial Empires, the Industrial Revolution, Global Wars, and modern times. Human inquiry falls behind, not for lack of equivalent investment of genius and resources, but because of intergenerational failure of transmission of its accumulated human lore

  1. At any given time, human inquiry and human endeavor spread out in diverse directions, more or less equivalently;
  2. What gets passed on to the next generation – or at least what gets accepted and thus conserved by that next generation, mostly is whatever will give immediate short-term advantage to the individual. Much or most of the rest is essentially lost.

What gives immediate personal advantage these days is a bit more complex than it was in the Dark Ages, so we conserve material technology and science, law, techniques of large scale enterprise, the technology of management and business – and we let lapse most of the rest, however hard-won some of the rest may be.

The biasing factor is not what we elect to explore and make enterprise from, but in what young “insiders” are willing to accept from the previous generation of advantage. This imbalance of inputs, cumulatively destabilizes.

That means that any human society or nation or civilization will lose control of itself, and will self-destruct within a handful of generations. If, as in much of the “Third World,” civilization is so severely stunted this dynamic cannot fully express, humanity is condemned to live on the margins of disaster, at the edges of chronic suffering and recurrent catastrophe.

Alas, it understates the case to repeat the old observation that “those who are unwilling to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” For indeed, individually and as a whole, each generation which fails to be cognizant of the hard-won and painful lessons learned by its predecessors, dooms itself to cycle through many of these again plus some new ones, if not to self-destruct entirely.

—And at each turn of this intergenerational cycle of lapses, we have at hand more and more of what it takes to boss the other guy, each other, and to do ourselves and each other in. Sooner or later, we do.

This function can be expressed in fairly clean mathematical relationship:

$ P = \frac{(N – H ) }{ E} ± V $

… where:

  • P = pain, poverty, catastrophe;
  • N = Narrow, short-term advantage technology conveyed to the next generation;
  • H = Humanistic arts and sciences, wisdom, history conveyed to the next generation;
  • E = Education – how much and how effective;
  • V = Varying circumstances.

“V” is respectably required because at any given time we are dealing with a trend relationship among probabilities, in a real world of complexly varying circumstances. To cite Alfred Kuhn’s example12, if we drop a single feather from the top of the Empire State Building we would have a very difficult time trying to predict where it would land. If we drop a ton of feathers from the top of the Empire State Building, we can predict fairly reliably the distribution of its landing. The value “V” grows smaller in proportion, however, as the numbers of participants increase as they have in our time to include so much of the world population. That means, in turn, that to the extent that good luck may have kept us from coming croppers, ours probably has about run out.

Except for nostalgic entertainment, the humanities have disappeared from contemporary consciousness, among graduating students at least, to a degree probably not matched since the Romans grew too weary and beleaguered to pass along or take up much of anything but a sword and how to wield it, on their way through the exits. 99% of Americans today appear totally ignorant of history, and virtually none of the things that “every schoolboy knows” in McCauley’s time does any schoolchild know today.

Not only have collective history, wisdom and insight been largely wiped from Western life. Geographic mobility, family instability, and preoccupation with media entertainment instead of family- and friend-communications have wiped out as well the history, culture and insight of most individual families to boot.

The disproportion between transmission of narrow- and short-term advantage lore and that of other and broader forms of lore, had already doomed our world to near-perpetual suffering and intermittent catastrophe. What we have done to ourselves these past few decades in this respect, as in so many other respects, brings us right to the verge of extinction.

It is increasingly clear that no one on Earth will long survive a nuclear war-that much has become respectably established. Yet, who today has the historical depth or the multilayered human awarenesses to recognize, check and redirect public policies when they run out of control in directions whose only possible outcome, next year or the year after, is such a war?

Our forefathers were not wise enough to avoid World War II – but they learned, in agony and death how they learned! And we have forgotten. Their fathers were not wise enough to avoid World War I – but how they learned! ….. and at least some of their agony became lesson even if too much of that lesson was forgotten by their children by the time the next opportunity rolled around!

At the level of individual and family, the saying used to be, “Shirtsleeve (meaning ‘blue collar’) to shirtsleeve in three generations!” In human society generally, shall we say “‘Ruins to ruins in (how many?) _____ generations?”

The answer is not in suppressing or neglecting physical sciences and technologies. The narrowest or crassest of these pursuits will then simply run further ahead of the rest of the pack, just as in the Dark Ages. Indeed, we need a sharp advance in some technologies to help us pull the chestnuts out of the world fire. Rather, we must find a way to improve distillation and transmission, from one generation to the next, of hard-won lessons and insights from other contexts as well. In the above formula, we can recover viable stability to the extent that we improve “H” and/or “E” – humanistic arts and sciences, wisdom and history conveyed, or the effectiveness of education generally.

Yes, it is an old and trite theme that each generation shrugs off or does not take seriously the sacrifices of the previous generation or the lessons learned therein. That has to be the fault of the method of transmission, however, since each generation shapes the next. Thus, our attention has to orient more toward the “E” function, as defined in the above equation. Until and unless we can transform “E,”

If, by some miracle, involuntary human poverty in the world were eliminated now, the next generation would throw that achievement away.

— Unless a truly effective teaching system is evolved which allows people to equilibrate far higher above the margin-lines of disaster and poverty than we do now.

What we have, actually, is an equilibrium systems analysis on the one hand and an educational question on the other.

The human race cannot afford to abolish world poverty even if it could do so, until it builds such a superior teaching system that subsequent generations won’t shrug away and lose the gains of the past. Until such a system is created and in place, then virtually every major gain made at whatever cost in any one generation is going to be thrown away by following generations.

— Except for: specific technologies and methods which convey immediate narrow advantage and which, without social context to accompany them, will run out of control exactly as has already happened this century.

One problem is that it’s already such a platitude that “education” is vital to preserving and shaping our future, that it is difficult to take discussion of such matters seriously. Another problem is that the nature of effective education has been thoroughly disguised and concealed from view by institutionalization and the stakes of power, and the effects of most educational practice are pathologically counter to virtually every educative value and purpose ever expressed, leaving the topic of “education” in confusion.

If some breakthrough can be achieved in high-level disciplines of education, we should entertain at least two distinct questions: (1) what forms) can that breakthrough take inside of (socio homeostatic self-stabilizing) institutions, and how can this be achieved? (2) What forms) can that breakthrough take and how can it be achieved, from outside of our institutions?

To meet the present emergency situation adequately, in either case “E” will have to be a very high-level integration – a physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, aesthetic, neurological, spiritual oither-qualities’ synthesis, and a synthesis that works. Probably none of us today have experienced the equivalent, so that it is indeed a very uphill challenge to create such a system from our own deep levels of imperfection.

No matter how daunting the challenge: “P” function of peril imbalance daily, making the problem more and more daunting. With survival itself the stake, we have to be equal to the challenge, whether we can be or not. We must now, and many of us, be designing and creating a way of educating which, despite our own crippling lacks and shortcomings and blindnesses and absence of a suitable model, will perform far better than any of us have dared dream.

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A Few Other Areas of Application

If we look at today’s menagerie of particle physics through the eyes of this book’s model of the general theory of systems, we are immediately presented with some interesting anomalies. Not least of these anomalies is the complete abolition of elegance — “elegance” in the sense of Occam’s Razor. Some grand simplification has to be in the offing, if the earlier history of physics and natural sciences is any guide.

Aside from elegance and aesthetic considerations, other anomalies include the surprising behavior of particles as waves, or waves as particles, demonstrating a “quantum bundle” phenomenon which is actually neither particle or wave but something else as yet to be fully defined or understood. We have all deferred to the specialists in the field because only the insiders could be expected to understand such complex phenomena, which phenomena grow apparently more complex almost every hour as these experts struggle to make further accountings for observations in the field of particle physics. One is forced to wonder if the field itself is what is so complex, or is it just the explanations of successive generations of imperfectly educated particle physicists as they struggle to attain understanding.

Even before this consideration, however, another question is bound to capture the attention of any thinking general systems theorist: If a photon (or other “particle,” for that matter) is truly a “wave,” what supports the configuration of that wave across light-years of variously stressed space? Why doesn’t the photon dissipate and lose its wave characteristics?

— For that matter, what sustains those ongoing processes which we regard and treat as “electrons,” whether in their continuing orbit(?) in association with atomic nuclei, or in transit from one atom to another? What sustains other such “particles” or “waves?”

To a systems theorist: if these and other subatomic phenomena are anything but discrete particles, something maintains their configuration. If these are “waves” or any kind of process other than discrete particles, they are systems sustained by some form of goal-homing, negative, feedback(s)! What, then, are they systems of, and what are the forces which maintain them in equilibrium?

Do the laws of thermodynamics, including the whole range of entropy phenomena we’ve discussed earlier in this book, not pertain at subatomic levels? (That may be possible since nearly all of our experience, from which we’ve described those thermodynamic laws, is gathered at macro-atomic levels. Such a discontinuity, however, seems unlikely in this universe of ours.) If these energy laws still do apply at subatomic levels, then all these subatomic phenomena are systems comprised of other, as yet undetermined, phenomena and are sustained in equilibrium by negative feedback forces as yet nowhere discussed in the theoretical literature! This is, indeed, a very different picture than the one we’ve been given to see in particle physics, and one wonders what might be accomplished by sub-atomic investigations from a systems point of view.

Back at macro-atomic levels of physics, we share our Solar System with a very curious phenomenon which we’ve always considered as things (since their discovery by Galileo, at least). We have regarded the rings, of Saturn and of the other gas giants, as objects, instead of as systems. Clearly these have to be equilibrated, goal-homing systems, else they would long since have dissipated or evaporated into the void and been long gone. Our astronomers have begun to appreciate the role of small “shepherd” moons in maintaining the alignment and definition of specific rings, but their descriptions thus far appear to be far short of a full systems-based understanding of ring phenomena.

There is much more of intensely immediate human and personal interest also, in this unlikely topic of the rings around the gas giant planets of our system. In early 1984 and again in November 1985, this writer wrote letters to Nature on this topic, from which the following essay is drawn. Neither of these letters was published, apparently because either the prediction seemed too unlikely or because this writer is not among the qualified in-group of physical scientists, though the second letter drew a brief personal reply from the editor. In both those letters, he predicted the high degree of complex ring and moon phenomena which indeed was encountered later by the Voyager fly-by late in January, 1986, which validation lends support to the thesis following—

Some Unexpected Equilibrating Factors — The Light Cast by Saturn’s Rings on Human Prospects Here on Earth13

The more diffuse a primary center of gravity is, the greater the number and variety of objects orbiting it, at least within the range of planetary masses represented by the major bodies of our solar system. The less dense a primary, the more moons, ring phenomena, etc. will be orbiting around it.

We may describe this relationship also in this way:

$ \frac {N}{M} = \frac {(f)} {D} $, where:

N = the number of objects in orbit;
M = the mass of orbiting material;
(f) = some function, and
D = the density of the primary body.

Computing the exact value of function (f) will require time and research, but one way to get an approximation of that value is through successful fly-bys of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto equivalent of the recent fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn which (together with the recent discoveries of the rings of Uranus and Neptune) would clarify this relationship. (Again, note that two years after this letter the Voyager fly-by of Uranus did in fact transpire and demonstrate a tremendously complex orbital situation, supporting this writer’s prediction. Enough data may now exist to obtain a statement of (f) within a reasonable range of possible values.)

Some of the mechanics behind this relationship are apparent from the way we use irregularities in the motion of artificial Earth satellites to compute differences in place-to-place crustal density of the Earth.

One test of this hypothesis is whether, on close inspection, Uranus will prove to have nearly as complex a satellite and ring structure as Saturn. Given the above hypothesis, Uranus will have such a complex system, because its density is so very Low, with only Saturn’s density being lower. (This was the test we proposed in early 1984, which the January ’86 fly-by appears in fact to have accomplished, supporting the hypothesis.)

If Uranus does not have so complex a satellite and ring structure, an alternative hypothesis will be supported instead, which replaces “D” with “D x Q” (Density times Quantity of mass of primary) in the above equation. However, the first hypothesis above tends already to be supported by the existence of meteor swarms and swarms associated with comets, despite the scattering effect wrought upon disparate particulate bodies by frequent passage near one or more major planets.

In either instance and especially in the instance of our first hypothesis being the supported one, the universe must be far thicker with planets than anyone has yet argued, since most stars are even less dense than Saturn. If this is correct, then we have many other serious implications to think about. [Can anyone reading this, initiate the studies which will develop a value for (f), so that we can have a realistic idea of the number of planets likely per average star?]

One other possible approach to determining (f) is through studying the dynamics of planetary ring process, as the dynamics of systems. Such rings, however long we’ve thought of Saturn’s rings as objects, are not objects but processes, sustained systems. Evaporation, and scattering caused by the disparity of gravitational, electrical, magnetic, solar wind and other forces, must cause a significant rate of attrition, which means the rings in order to be sustained also have to be “fed.” Ascertaining the dynamics of this systemic process, by creating a clearer picture of orbital dynamics than now exists, might thereby then provide another way of computing (f).

The topic appears well worthy of further investigation, not only for intrinsic interest and for scientific value but for further reasons of human inquiry concern as described below.

(The first hypothesis — that the amount and complexity of moons and rings orbiting a primary are in an inverse relationship to the density of that primary — was the one supported in the 1986 fly-by of Uranus, which planet displays orbital phenomena virtually as complex and extensive as those around Saturn. We went on to state in the 1984 letter that if that first hypothesis were correct….)

If this principle is correct, then Uranus will prove to have a greater number of satellites than Jupiter, along with a fairly complex ring system. (1986 note: indeed it does.) Neptune may or may not — on the outer edges of our solar system, a lot of the looser stuff may have been swept away by outside forces, during the mother-nebula proto-star cluster stages of our development, or by later near-misses by passing stars. (-Or by the perihelion, every 26 million Years, of the recently hypothesized orbiting “brown dwarf” stellar companion of our sun.)

For decades our researchers have been mapping the density of portions of the Earth’s crust according to perturbations in the orbits of our artificial satellites. When primary bodies are much less dense than Earth, as are Saturn and Uranus, variations in local surface density and thus such perturbations would tend to be greater in proportion. Molecules escaping from the primary’s extensive atmosphere, and infall of matter from space, not only have a much wider “window” within which to become trapped in orbit, but for near-passing objects there is much greater chance of (these proportionately larger) perturbations converting near-misses into full orbits.

A fuller understanding of these mechanics can, we believe, be obtained by investigating equilibrated system mic processes rather than as objects simply left over from earlier formative events. Any original ring material must long since have been dispersed; what we are seeing are ongoing, goal-homing fresh material, whatever the specific mechanics of those systems may ultimately prove to be.

More material and more phenomena will be found around planets or equivalent primary bodies which are substantially less dense. If that is true, then certain further considerations are both apparent and disturbing…..

Not only in their formation but throughout most of their careers, nearly all stars are of far greater diffuseness, far less density, than even is the planet Saturn. Should this principle hold true, not only for planets but through the mass range of such primaries as stars, then virtually every single star (and many or most doubles and multiples) should have planetary systems at least comparable to ours, often richer.

Correspondingly, the number and incidence of life-possible and life-bearing planets should be immensely higher than previously speculated.

Also correspondingly higher must be the number and incidence of intelligent species, and of civilizations comparable to our own. If so,

Then where are they?

One possible answer might be that we on Earth are relatively slow. Most high technical civilizations may find the window of opportunity for radio-wave communications is a very narrow one. Most civilizations which devise radio may then plunge immediately ahead into (to us futuristic) technologies. Those civilizations leave far behind such use of radio waves as an obscure, antiquated laboratory phenomenon, much as we have left behind the art of chipping arrowheads from flint rocks.

Another possible answer might be that we on Earth are precocious and early. The three great mass extinctions may have brought us ahead. Those three extinctions were at the end of the Cambrian, at the onset of the Permian, and only 67 million years ago at the end of the Cretacious (where between 80 and 90 percent of all terrestrial species were extinguished and the next few millennia of deposits were almost lifeless, almost empty of fossils). By clearing away the stabilized niches of the ongoing ecosystem, those great mass extinctions certainly did jar life out of stagnant patterns, and greatly accelerated evolution here on Earth.

However, the causes hypothesized for these planetary catastrophes do not seem likely to be unique to the Earth. Such episodes seem very likely to be common throughout the universe and, in many instances, to have occurred much more frequently than every 200 million years as on Earth. By this reasoning, therefore we should be surrounded, even pressed on all sides, by teeming civilizations resulting from such catastrophe speeded evolutionary histories.

Then, indeed, where are they? Moreover, to see our Earth as either far ahead or far behind the rate of development on other planets, while possible, by definition is quite against the odds.

Then, indeed, where are all these other civilizations?

A far grimmer and more likely probability is that virtually all such civilizations self-destruct too quickly for such interstellar communication to have much chance to develop. There may well be general dynamic reasons for such prevalent self-destruction to be common to all advanced or technical civilizations.

If such a case, some such reasons for automatic self-destruction, can be made, then our own immediate prospects and what we are required to do if we are to survive, must be a far more serious matter than previously realized.

In our Earth’s historical and contemporary record, nearly every identified civilization (27 in Arnold J. Toynbee’s model14, more in other models and less in others) has self-destructed. Possibly only the Mycenaeans are an exception. The Mycenaeans appear to have been interrupted by the eruption of Thera in the Aegean Sea, so theirs and our own thus far, appear to be the only ones not to have destroyed themselves of all the civilizations here on Earth. (A marginal case can be argued as regards also several of the pre-Columbian civilizations.) The barbarians were not what destroyed Rome, China, India, Egypt and all the rest: rather, the barbarians were sucked into meat grinders by the concentrated wealth which had been built up over centuries of order and civilized productivity, which wealth was then left poorly defended or undefended while things were breaking up. Rome destroyed the barbarian peoples, in this meat grinder, trapping them in this manner, more than the barbarians destroyed the physical remnants of Rome.

Thus, on Earth at least, self-destruction accompanies and appears to have been built into the system dynamics of at least most of that species we call “civilization.” In our universe with its one set of physical laws to govern evolution and the emergence of intelligence and civilization, there is therefore introduced at least an all-too-likely possibility that this same self-destruction dynamic is built in to other civilizations emerging elsewhere and not just in the particular instance of our Earth.

In this and in every aspect of our systems model, we see complex homeostasis as an almost too successful strategy for systems resisting the general thermodynamic tendency to return their elements to the soup. With an overall situation (such as a living ecology, or a large-scale society of intelligent beings, enough change accumulates in potential, at least, to build toward major evolution but is restrained from expression by the stasis resulting from that too successful strategy. The usual outcome, a catastrophic rupture overriding the defenses of the homeostatic systems caught in that situation, is analogous to strain accumulating along a geologic fault until released in a disastrous earthquake. Can such a pattern, of social earthquake or “socioquake,” be so universal as to have emptied our universe of its brightest and best civilizations?

The matter goes further than this. Virtually every geology text mentions that the Earth undergoes a mountain-building cycle every two hundred million years (as it happens, each time our solar system is on this side of the galactic core). Any astronomy text written this past 40 years, which refers to our place in the galactic scheme of things, mentions that our solar system revolves around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy every 200 million years. Coincidence? Quite possibly no coincidence: there is a possible causal connection and it weighs heavily on this same topic under discussion. (Periodicities are automatically suspect to a systems thinker, and he immediately has some idea where to look for the feedbacks or other factors creating the regularity of ups and downs.)

Our planet’s level of tectonic activity may be sensitive to even slight changes in Earth’s interior temperature, especially in the sub-crustal and/or upper mantle regions. Any increase in such temperatures takes a very long time to work its way out because the thermal conductivity of rock is so slow. Most of the Earth’s heat is believed to come from residual radioactivity which, however slight in the instance of particular samples, in the aggregate accumulates heat because stone conducts heat poorly. Volcanoes and tectonic activity release the excess heat to restore Earth’s interior heat balance. Magnetic flux generates electrical currents in Earth’s interior, which then become heat. An increase in such magnetic flux therefore increases the heat in Earth’s interior and, therefore to at least some degree, vulcanism and tectonic activity. And,

Any spiral galaxy is a magnetic phenomenon more than anything else. The main body of our galaxy, the spiral arms, are actually the galaxy’s magnetic poles. The sheer magnetic force of the core of the galaxy thrusts out immense quantities of material. These streams of dust, gas and eventual stars and planets trail back as the whole effect rotates, to become the spiral arms. All spiral galaxies have spiral arms precisely because their cores have strong magnetic poles.

Whenever we are on this side of the galactic core, coincidentally or not, Earth goes through the high side of its mountain-building cycle — which may indeed be caused by increased magnetic flux. Such flux could be induced directly from interacting with galactic magnetic fields in the local portions of our interstellar neighborhood, and/or indirectly through galactic-level lines of force slightly destabilizing our sun.

(The remarkably volcanic moon lo is thought to be made so by an accumulation of heat from tidal friction in its close orbit around Jupiter, though its much smaller size than Earth means that it can dissipate its excess heat much more rapidly than can Earth. One wonders how much of Io’s interior heat may also result from flux from Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field?)

The two-hundred-million year cyclic coincidence of Earth’s mountain building cycle and her orbit around the core of the Milky Way Galaxy, and many other such considerations, should become very intriguing to any general system theorist when inspecting any suspicious periodic cycle. No other suggested dynamic mechanism to account for the seeming coincidence has yet been widely accepted. Most repetitive cycles reflect goal-homing systems behavior. A look at such cycles through the window of general systems theory can bring into focus possible explanations which otherwise could remain obscure.

(Even if some explanations turn out to be in error, as may well be the case, their emergence and that determination will structure perception in their field and bring a correct theory much closer of attainment. Thus we have restated our original argument, that a grasp of general systems theory and a systems oriented view are useful.)

This consideration, of Earth’s possibly coincident 200 million year cycles, becomes germane to the above issues when we note the EMP (electromagnetic pulse) effects of nuclear explosions. Possibly, the effects of even a full-scale nuclear war might be so slight on the Earth’s interior temperature and consequent level of tectonic activity as to be insignificant — or we may already have been laying up immense and continuing grief for ourselves even with the nuclear tests already conducted and continuing as of this writing. As if nuclear winters weren’t enough: it may be that the magnetic flux caused by a nuclear war, by heating the interior and/or sub-crust, would so destabilize the crust that within a decade almost every point on the Earth’s surface would have gone under the ocean several or more times.

We don’t know. The data either does not exist or has been concealed by national security considerations. No data is available on how sensitive the Earth’s tectonics are to temperature increase by magnetic flux. No data is available on how much such effect is cumulatively transmitted by nuclear explosive EMP into the relevant depths of the mantle. All of this writer’s own inquiries on the matter have thus far been turned aside. One aim of this letter (now this book) is to stimulate inquiry on the part of those who are placed and equipped to pursue it. If the possibility is a real one — if nuclear explosive EMPs cumulatively destabilize Earth’s crustal behavior through heating Earth’s interior by magnetic induction, our public has a definite “need to know” about it. Such information has to be brought into the computations and risk takings of our political leaders and military strategists.

A parallel consideration appears in the dynamics of civilization in its very anatomy, so to speak. Within the agreed historical record, every civilization discovers economies to scale. It then overshoots economies to scale by falling in love with bigness and with attempts to order its affairs on an ever grander scale. Such civilizations develop long and increasingly specialized, increasingly vulnerable lines of supply, and cause more and more to become more and more dependent upon those hypertrophied arrangements. When those arrangements falter (and such faltering seems [thermodynamically] unavoidable sooner or later even were those arrangements not so heavily burdened!), whatever depended upon those arrangements goes under. If this happens suddenly and on a large scale, effects avalanche, sweeping under not only the dependent, but other elements as well, of the collapsing civilization.

In this light it appears to be worth noting that the higher and more technically developed a civilization becomes, which then goes through such a self-destruct cycle, the more powerful and plentiful will be its means of destruction and self-destruction. Consequently, the more profound will be its destruction and the less evidence will survive of its ever having existed.

There may or may not have been a literal Atlantis, but the electrical apparatus our archaeologists keep digging up all over the ancient Middle East; the evidence of pre- or early historical world-wide trade systems, the medieval copies of earlier maps of an ice-free Antarctica (which has been buried under the polar ice cap for 10,000 years!) these things begin to make a grim kind of sense after all…..

The further we’ve climbed in the accumulation of nuclear weapons, the further we’ve gone toward a circumstance in which a final “socioquake” would leave virtually no evidence of a civilization, or even of an intelligent species, ever having existed on Earth. If previous civilizations, here on Earth or elsewhere, reached equivalent levels and if each, in turn, succumbed to the static dynamics which result in such “socioquakes,” we have an all too plausible accounting for both our seemingly empty Galaxy and the various archeological anomalies turned up over the years which did not fit the standard idea of the long, gradual ascent of man from a primitive species through successively higher civilizations crowned by our own high state.

If civilizations do indeed self-destruct as many investigators currently believe; and if it is true that the more technically advanced a civilization is which then goes through that self-destruct cycle, the more profound will be its destruction and the less evidence it leaves behind of its ever having existed. Further, what little evidence may remain could literally be washed away if tectonic instabilities are induced when a high civilization gains and then loses control of forces comparable to our present nuclear technology. It indeed would not be too surprising to learn that high technical civilizations, hitherto mythical or even wholly unsuspected by our historians and pre-historians, have existed in our past — perhaps many such.

(The high iridium content of the clays immediately following the Cretaceous in deposition, when all dinosaurs except Avia suddenly fell into extinction, do argue a natural, asteroidal or cometary, source for that planetary catastrophe. Some of the many planetary catastrophes and lesser extinctions of the past few million years seem odd, however. These include the onset of the last ice age, so suddenly as to leave frozen in Siberia those wooly mammoths with tropical vegetation in their stomachs. Such an apparent suddenness is uneasily reminiscent of the descriptions of a portending nuclear winter. That catastrophe at least, of whatever source, was apparently not associated with deposition of iridium to signify extraterrestrial cause. It seems we must entertain at least the possibility of other, artifactual, causes of that world-wide catastrophe in light of the above discussion.)

Of course in our own instance, nuclear war rather than a general breakdown of arrangements, appears to be the most immediate threat, but—

  1. Our arrangements and institutions have shown and do show signs of severe and increasing strain;
  2. We have made much or most in our society highly dependent upon complex, highly elaborate and specialized arrangements and lines of-supply;
  3. An increase in trouble or in problem matic aspects of national and world situations, which might be expected as such strains develop further, could well destabilize world relationships and increase hazards of possible nuclear warfare on whatever scale;
  4. Should everything everywhere suddenly start to fall to pieces as is characteristic of the collapse phases of civilizations generally, it is difficult to imagine that no one anywhere in all that chaotic destruction and urgent confusion would resort to pushing the nuclear button.

The prospect of immediate nuclear self-destruction in our particular instance is only one, unusually frightening, example of a more general dynamic of civilizations hypertrophying their structures, forcing specializations and attendant dependencies to the extreme, and then self-destructing.

This dynamic, in turn, is only part of a still more general “socio-quake” dynamic wherein the multiply complex systems comprising society pursue the too successful strategy of homeostasis into a condition of stasis. Strain accumulates from a succession of changes neither accommodated nor successfully fully suppressed, until the entire structure rips. The energy of the “quake” is a function of how locked the stasis is and for how long it has been locked.

If similar dynamics are inherent in the nature of civilizations built by sentient species everywhere else — especially technological civilizations — and a case can be made for such a proposition — then the sad dearth of observed interstellar communications, despite an unexpectedly high frequency of solar systems and life bearing planets, can be all too well understood.

Matters may be extremely serious for us, but they need not be inevitable despite the apparent odds. Most of our readers haven’t killed anyone lately — in other words, we have experienced at least a modicum of moral evolution from ruder times. Western global civilization, moreover, has broken fresh ground in some unique directions, meaning that it can do at least some things differently and may have the potential of departing from this grim “socioquake” model.

For example, Western Civilization is the first (of those in the agreed historical record, at least) to have abolished chattel slavery, certainly in that “eternal institution’s” most overt forms. Western, global civilization is the first on agreed historical record to have amassed so much data about human dynamics and about the human condition (and about system dynamics as such) — entailing hope that we might be able to discover and forestall the basic reasons why civilizations self-destruct. Such a discovery would open a new cycle in which (Earth-derived) civilizations need no longer destroy themselves, and can go on advancing to higher states.

Ours is the first civilization on agreed historical record to reach at least a little into space — entailing the possibility that if we can just keep our fingers off the button for just a few more shaky decades, we can lift a viable portion of our human safely into space out of the one fragile basket Earth. If we can survive that long: even if we didn’t solve the “socioquake” flaw of civilization as such, some of us could go on living. The precious information in our genes and in our libraries could continue, beyond the range of the “quake.” From there or, even better by our having solved the flaw, most of our apparent limits would be abolished.

Having come thus far, it seems that if we blow up the world again this time, we will really fry it, destroying not just the historical memory of our civilization but any species presently capable of such memory. Our own responsibility, then, is greater than that of hypothetical previous high-tech civilizations. As we’ve seen, each such possible high civilization is likely to have, in its turn, abused its high-level responsibilities and blown itself out of existence, for reasons apparent around us today — reasons likely also to be besetting civilizations elsewhere in our universe.

Note that whether or not any such hypothetical, high tech civilizations did exist before history, in the agreed historical record an unacceptably high proportion of all our civilizations did destroy themselves. Nearly every such civilization, before our own, committed suicide, whether through the hypertrophied arrangements model proposed here or by whatever dynamics. Whether the many miles of fused glass in the Libyan desert, suspiciously like the site of an ancient thermonuclear fireball, represent something other than a most unusual solar flare, there clearly are dynamics within the nature of civilizations which tend strongly toward self-destruction. Studies of various such dynamics make it seem quite likely that similar dynamics would pertain in civilizations emergent elsewhere in the universe.

The phenomena revealed by the recent fly-bys of Saturn’s rings, and confirmed by the January, 1986 fly-by of Uranus, make it likely that such emergent civilizations exist, or existed, in far greater numbers and incidence than any contemporary astrophysicists have hitherto indicated. The very problem we now starkly face on this planet has already slaughtered, not just a few dozen civilizations here but likely thousands or even millions of high civilizations throughout our Milky Way Galaxy, a tragedy of incredible proportions. The scale of this apparent tragedy, and of the threat to our own existence, appears to be far worse than has hitherto been admitted to serious discussion. And yet—

If we can come properly to grips with civilization dynamics — a topic which is not even in the awareness of more than perhaps one person in ten thousand at present — our upward possibilities are as great as, or even greater than, our daunting downward ones.

If this model is correct, it seems extremely unlikely that we shall muddle through without coming to grips with the issue, and without building a concerted effort to improve the outcome of our present crisis.

We have suggested in this book the intellectual convenience of a general theory of systems and of a systems perspective on the world. We then proposed a particular model for consideration as one of several theories of general systems behavior. We then used aspects of this model as a viewing instrument through which to examine various aspects of our lives and world. Not surprisingly, new perspectives emerged, and further new perspectives are expected to emerge. Some of these perspectives bear great hope, while others present us a very stark prospect. We propose that this is a case which justifies further investigations, and that some of the topics for investigation are urgent. We request reply from every interested reader, in hopes of linking interests and improving the chances of seeing begun some of these further investigations.

We also believe that our first argument, that a general theory of systems and a general systems perspective is intellectually convenient and conducive to useful new perceptions, has been supported by the other matters discussed in this book. Indeed, every topic and issue may yield fresh and useful perceptions when examined from a general systems perspective. Thus we suggest that the reader acquire at least some model or theory of general systems, and use that to examine matters around him or her. We also suggest that inclusion of at least some form of general systems model or theory in the center of every educational curriculum, seems well warranted.

Over and above such a case, however, several of the issues examined in this book from a systems perspective appear to possess for us a singular urgency of address, including possibly even the reader starting his own inquiries, and/or bringing one or several of these matters to the attention of others. Some, perhaps all, of the issues raised in this book may be controversial and certainly in no instance may be regarded as any final truth. Rather than offering final answers, we urge the beginnings of inquiry. In any event, this writer welcomes hearing from the reader.

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Description of Several Further Resources

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: George Braziller Press, 1968. A good formal introduction and fairly comprehensive text.

Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962. Also Toward A Theory of Instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belnap, Press,1966. A highly respected case for organizing curricula in “spirals,” presenting a core of structural principles of understanding common to all fields of knowledge, revisiting each principle in more formal content at each rung up the educational ladder. Bruner also had important things to say about addressing “the conceptual vocabulary of the learner” — if systems theorists could do that, general systems theory could begin to fulfill its early educational promise. It was in this book that Bruner stated, arguably but with support, that “any idea can be taught in intellectually respectable form to any learner at any age or stage of development, provided you present it in his conceptual vocabulary.”

G.W. Ford and Lawrence Pugno (eds.), The Structure of Knowledge and the Curriculum. Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1964. Pre-systems formulations of organizing principles underlying social studies, natural sciences, and other select curriculum areas.

Alfred Kuhn, The Study of Society: A Unified Approach. Homewood, IL: Irwin-Dorsey, 1964. Unfortunately out of print, this was indeed a most admirable and comprehensive effort to integrate all the contents of the social and behavioral sciences around a structure of cybernetic principles.

— Kuhn, The Logic of Social Systems: A Unified, Deductive, System-Based Approach to Social Science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1976. Smoother than Study, still fairly comprehensive and a major piece of work in itself.

George T.L. Land, Grow or Die. New York: Random House, 1973. Land argues a “stages of growth” model, for both biological organisms and for human social behavior, on grounds of systems theory — in this regard, his case resembles that of the present writer’s theory however different the contents.

Irvin Laszlo, A Systems View of the World. New York: George Braziller Press, 1968. A series of essays on social and world topics reflecting a systems-theory style of perceiving and thinking. A good gentle introduction.

Matthew Melko, The Nature of Civilizations. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969. Even without systems theory as such, the cyclic and structural factors compared from theory to theory by this delightfully impish sociologist ring bells for anyone steeped in systems theory.

James G. Miller, Living Systems, a series of monographs published in Behavioral Science through the 1970s, and a major intellectual achievement. Miller’s work could well define most of the entire curriculum for biological, social and behavioral sciences. These articles have since (1977) been assembled into a single volume published by McGraw-Hill.

Ilya Prigogene, Order Out of Chaos. NY: Bantam, 1984. Nobel Laureate quality work and so accorded. The first widely respected therm entropic-based correction of Norbert Wiener’s one-way street to chaos, and a truly fundamental work.

Carroll J. Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1961. One of the more perceptively systematic theories of social evolution, although pre-systems theory.

Nicholas Rashevsky, Looking At History Through Mathematics. Cambridge, Mass: M.IT. Press, 1968. A remarkable perspective on use of structural principles and parameters to assess human social evolution.

Oliver L. Reiser, The Integration of Human Knowledge. Boston: Porter-Sargent Publisher, 1958. An early attempt at synthesis, an eloquent plea for attempting such a synthesis for the sake of a meaningful and effective education.

G.G. Simpson, “Evolutionary Determinism and the Fossil Record.” Scientific Monthly, LXXI (1950), 262-267. An early attempt to organize fossil findings into a series of descriptive biological principles, some of which in retrospect can strikingly be argued in terms of the various forms of system as strategies for entropy avoidance, as suggested in the present monograph.

Pitirim A. Sorokin, Cultural and Social Dynamics, abridged by the author. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1957. Original 4-volume work was published by American Book Company 1937-41. Perhaps the first significant effort to quantify factors as part of an analysis of social and cultural evolution in historic perspective. The analysis was effective: Sorokin correctly predicted much of the course of events over the decades following publication. His language was less effective, a hangover from the age of deterministic writers a la Spenglar and Marx. His three sectored wheel of societies — sensate, intuitive and rational — with creative and degenerate phases of each sector, and the events concomitant with each, though Sorokin as most writers in civilization theory was pre-systems, constitute a marvelous systems description which plunks into place in systems theory with hardly a speck of dust dislodged.

— Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age. New York: Dutton Everyman, 1941. An easier distillation of Cultural And Social Dynamics, still very prophetic for events since; still clearly a remarkably obvious example of systems theory in action in social evolution viewed by a pre-systems person.

Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, especially Volume XII, Reconsiderations. London: Oxford University Press, 1948. Not only must any history theorist address Toynbee’s model at some point, but the data assembled so comprehensively by one of the world’s great scholars falls unmistakably into patterns accountable mainly by systems theory — even though Toynbee was, by his own account to this writer, wholly unconscious of systems theory.

Warren W. Wagar, The City of Man. Baltimore: Pelican, 1967. A good overview comparison of some of the major theories of why civilizations rise and fall and evolve the way they do, though less structurally minded and less immediately systems obvious than Melko’s overview.

Win Wenger, Ph.D. Can We Save Ourselves? Civilizations and Other Living Systems. Gaithersburg, MD: Inquiry Library, Psychegenics Press, 1987 (pending). Most of the dynamic which causes most civilizations to commit suicide, after review of other major theories and comparisons, the writer finds to be an expression of the “socioquake” systems model expressed in this present monograph.

— Wenger, On Raising Human Intelligence: An Interdisciplinary Study of Whether Human Intelligence Can Be Increased. Federalsburg, MD: MCM Press, 1972 (passim). The third chapter was given over to integrating a variety of findings about human development, brain and mind, into a systems model which, in turn, became a general theory of development and a general theory of therapy.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1961. The starting point for many of us into the field of the general theory of systems. Wiener took the classical laws of thermodynamics and extended them to all domains of energy — all order is energy, all structure is energy, all information is energy, and thus subject to those entropic laws. In this present monograph we argue that he saw only one side of the equation, but it was a crucially important side.

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  1. Wenger, Win. Civilizations and Other Living Systems, presented to the 1971 session of the Society for Comparative Study of Civilizations, AAAS. Federalsburg, MD: MCM Press, 1972.
  2. Wenger, Win. On Raising Human Intelligence: An Interdisciplinary Study on the Question of Whether Human Intelligence Can Be Increased. Federalsburg, MD: MCM Press, 1972, passim.
  3. Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics and Society: The Human Use of Human Beings. New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1961 edition.
  4. “Static” equilibrium-remaining at a fixed point despite changes, such as a marble resting in the bottom of a teacup despite jostling, because gravity rolls it back down whichever side of the cup, or the temperature of a thermostat-controlled room remaining within a narrow range of variation despite a much wider range of temperature variations outside the room. A “moving” equilibrium continues in a given direction or toward a goal, remaining in a given lane on a highway despite twists and turns, for example.

  5. One of the minor exceptions, as presented by astrophysicist Stephen William Hawking, is that of paired-particle formation in the vicinity of black holes. In some instances one member of the pair is trapped back into the black hole while the other manages to become a new particle of matter in our universe. This phenomenon seems more important, though, as a means by which holes slowly “evaporate;” without such a garbage disposal system, any kind of steady-state or even long-lasting universe would find everyone tripping over an awful clutter of such black holes. This half-pair particle radiation is too slight a source of new matter to balance a steady-state universe, but it does remove one of the major difficulties: the likelihood of drowning in blank holes, if a steady state theory finds favor on other grounds.
  6. Cited in G.G. Simpson, “Evolutionary Determinism and the Fossil Record.” Scientific Monthly, LXXI (1950), 262-267. Later cited extensively from this reference in the classical book by Weston La Barre, The Human Animal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954.
  7. Addressed in greater detail in Win Wenger, Ph.D. – Can We Save Ourselves? Civilization and Other Living Systems. Gaithersburg, MD: Inquiry Library, Psychegenics Press, 1987 (pending).
  8. Henry Hazlett: Economics in One Lesson. New York: Harper & Bros., 1946. One other argument, though, might be addressed in his proposition. As the original Adam Smith noted, the main function of an economic system is to serve as a directory, steering people toward more productive functions. If an economy, whether local, national or global, is not functioning very well as such a directory, then “broken window”-type episodes may “clarify the directions given” to some producers and resources, at least, and in that sense increase wealth by increasing productivity. That argument, however, is fully compatible with the main argument we have stated above. That argument indicates why an economy may lose much of its effectiveness as a directory, surrendering direction to stasis.
  9. George T.L. Land, Grow or Die. NY: Random House, 1973.
  10. The Society for Accelerative Learning and Teaching (SALT), the principal professional membership society in American education which is directed toward the pursuit of better methods of teaching and learning, has established a project to prepare and publish a comprehensive encyclopedia detailing and reviewing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of better methods of teaching and learning. The Compendium of Enhanced Learning Techniques – CELT – is meant to become a universally available, readily useful resource. (Publication pending.)
  11. Carroll J. Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1961. An expanding society moves from ad hoc operations to institutions as its way to get things done. Then its institutions take on self-serving purposes unger mane to the goals which called them into being, which cumulatively detract from, burden, and render vulnerable the society served by those institutions.
  12. Alfred Kuhn, The Study of Society: A Unified Approach. Homewood, Illinois, Irwin-Dorsey, 1964.
  13. Adapted from a 1984 letter by the writer to Nature, and published in 1985 by Psychegenics Press as a monograph under the title, “The Light Cast By Saturn’s Rings on Human Prospects Here On Earth.” Note that this paper was the first publication anywhere which predicted the findings of the January, 1986 fly-by by Voyager of the planet Uranus, thus representing some independent support of this essay’s main theoretical physics thesis. That thesis does not follow strictly from our model of the general nature of systems, but is much easier to perceive from that perspective, and probably would not have been perceived without that perspective.
  14. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, especially Volume XI, Reconsiderations. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

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