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What systems thinking reveals: from biology to political economy

By Karl North | February 9, 2013

The way we do science today suffers greatly from the dominance of the reductionist paradigm. A general pattern has emerged where technologies based on purely reductive science work for a while as expected, then start to produce unexpected and often unwanted results, outcomes that at least from a reductionist perspective are a surprise and are therefore labeled “counterintuitive”. There exists other ways of doing science that pose problems broadly enough to account for likely ripple effects and nonlinear change. So why do we keep doing applied science in ways that often create more problems than they solve?

One hypothesis, which I explored in Reductionist Science and the Rise of Capitalism pointed out how congenial technologies that work mainly in the short term are to an economic system that mainly rewards short term results. Moreover, a scientific method that contemplates the systemic context of the problems it poses can be too revealing of the way our dominant social system works, because often it traces the root causes of problems to the nature of the system itself. Such revelations are not pleasing to oligarchies interested in sustaining their plutocracies.

The other major reason I think people keep applying reductive research to problems despite its poor track record is the feeling of security the predictive power of the reductive method confers on its practitioners. However, this power is short-lived because it derives from reducing real world complexity to a small number of variables and keeping inquiry compartmentalized in disciplinary silos. Here I will explore some of the ways reductionism and systems thinking compete in the struggle to understand the causes of human behavior.

The needless conflict between the social and biological sciences over the causes of human behavior, and indeed the nature of human nature, typify the shortcomings of the reductionist paradigm. Evolutionary biologists often focus on adaptation to an environment as if the latter were fixed or independent of the organism in question even though they know it is bad biology. They do it because although it oversimplifies, the world is otherwise too complex for their reductive methods to handle.

As biologist R. C. Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix[1], environments are surroundings, and are devoid of meaning when not related to what they encircle. As systems ecology has shown, the evolution of organisms and environments is more realistically described as constantly constructing one another; thus the adaptation works both ways. However, this complicates explanations of genetic fitness immensely; it becomes a moving target as organisms constantly alter environments in ways that provide a better fit to the current genetic state of the organism. Because Lewontin is a dialectician (Marxist for systems thinker), he intuitively sees organism and environment as caught up in the causal feedback structure that best describes their evolving (dialectical) relationship in the real world. He says that “environments are constantly changing so that adaptation to yesterday’s environment does not improve the chance of survival tomorrow” (the Red Queen Hypothesis). Moreover as a Marxist he automatically defines the environment of the human species as including social and cultural features that are continually evolving and impacting its biological evolution and social behavior, which complicates understanding even more.

On the other hand, social scientists as well oversimplify reality to stay within the security of their discipline. They often operate under the unstated (or sometimes explicit) assumption that human nature is a blank slate on which culture is written. Of course this too is bad biology, as they usually admit these days when called on it. But consideration of the genetic results of biological evolution as causes of human behavior is not their bag, and complicates their work.

The implications of all the above for how scientists should study our species are huge at every scale of inquiry. Because environments are as much constructed as adapted to, species do not just invade niches, they partially construct them. As part of human environment, cultural evolution itself has a feedback structure whereby a set of beliefs and values encourages human behavior patterns that, in turn strengthen that cultural environment in a feedback spiral that reinforces the behavior until, if it spreads widely enough, a hegemonic culture is falsely claimed to be indicative of ‘human nature’. Such claims have become a common refrain in the culture of capitalism as it developed and spread widely in recent centuries. People trained mainly in the bio-physical sciences tend to be taken in by such claims because they spend little time contemplating the great variation in human cultures, especially those less affected (infected?) by the culture of capitalism.

Support groups rely on cultural feedback structures, reinforcing new behaviors by immersion in a social environment where everyone is a practitioner of those behaviors. This works at different scales. Thus it becomes easier to cooperate at every institutional level in a culture that supports cooperative beliefs and values. In the same way a competitive culture encourages competitive behavior patterns in a reinforcing feedback cycle. Fitness thus means different things in contrasting cultures. In fact, it is not clear that it even affects biological evolution of the species unless the culturally created environment is stable for hundreds of thousands of years.

Because the fate of complex systems can depend on initial conditions, sometimes the direction of cultural evolution over a long epoch depends on what kind of cultural seed is planted and nurtured. As Richard Levins[2] (another dialectical biologist and colleague of Lewontin at Harvard) reports from many years of experience working with Cuban agricultural scientists, when policy making is not done under a constant cloud of corporate control and a culture that values private interest over common good, conflict over agricultural policy decisions takes place, but it tends to reflect genuine differences of scientific opinion, not who is bought by what powerful private interest or who is pursuing what personal agenda.

Cultural positive[3] feedback loops that operate over enough time can have powerful, cumulative negative effects. An example is the culture of poverty. As described here, it does not imply a failure of will or genetic inferiority on the part of the poor, but rather a set of beliefs and values accumulated and reinforced over generations of poverty experienced by a minority who exist within an environment of relative prosperity. Constant lack of opportunity relative to the rest of society slowly kills self confidence and leads to lower expectations. Beliefs and values like these become stronger as they are passed from one generation to the next and are eventually widely shared within the community of the impoverished. Taken out of poverty, a community may take more than one generation to evolve a different culture. Such is the nature of cultural inertia.

Of relevance here, and adding further complication, are discoveries in epigenetics, which studies information which children inherit other than through DNA. For example,

Studies on rats have shown that babies who receive less care and affection from their mothers face a life of poorer health and higher stress. Not only that, but so do their children, their children’s children, down to at least the 5th generation, contradicting the classical Darwinian model of genes as the be all and end all.

A new scientific story of evolution may therefore have great implications for our social organization. Epigenetics doesn’t deny genetics, but accepts that the environment can feed back in a way which transcends genetic determinism. It explains why deciphering the human genome did not prove to be the Rosetta Stone which unlocks all the secrets of human health. It turns out that identical genes manifest themselves quite differently as a result of their context. Moreover, the idea that genes make up the entirety of inherited information which is passed down between successive generations turns out to be a wild oversimplification.[4]

In sum, given the complexity of interaction between genes and environment that science, especially systems methods, has revealed in recent times, it appears that the debate over the relative influence of nature vs. nurture in the explanation of human behavior is far from over.

[1] Lewontin, R. C. 2002. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment. Harvard University Press

[2] Levins, Richard. 2008. Talking About Trees: Science, Ecology and Agriculture in Cuba. LeftWord Books. New Delhi. Levins and Lewontin co-authored The Dialectical Biologist, a work that is relevant to the subject of this paper.

[3] In systems science ‘positive’ feedback does not necessarily mean ‘good’; it simply means ‘reinforcing’.

[4]The Emerging Field of Epigenetics

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