Thoughts and ideas from an essay on Cybernetics and nature. Currently, I am working on framing the beginning of the book to touch on how connected we are to nature and how nature is connected. First, systems came to mind, then cybernetics. Now here I am, looking through JSTOR for research that deals with these connections. My response is below.
A single organism is not a cybernetic system as Engelberg and Boyarsky maintained. The cells and organs act together for a common goal, mediated by a common information network. However, the goal of an organism is not merely to coordinate the activities of its cells and organs, but to preserve (proximally) and perpetuate (ultimately) itself. This goal makes sense only in the context of the environment. The organism and its subsystems are only an adaptation to the environment. Since information must flow between the environment and the organism, the organism is not closed to information, and hence it is not a true cybernetic system. The organism is but a part of a truly cybernetic organism environment system, an ecosystem.
The central argument of Engelberg and Boyarsky is that ecosystems are a collection of cybernetic systems, but not an ensemble of such systems and, therefore, cybernetic themselves. Cybernetic systems have three essential properties (Wiener 1948; Ashby 1956):
- First, they are open to energy and, often, matter, but are closed to information and control.
- Second, information consists of facts that are communicated and received, but the facts take on meaning only in a certain context.
- Thus, third, the basic building block of a cybernetic system is a feedback loop that regulates the transformation of matter or energy because the regulator has access to information concerning the state of the system.
A bacterial population whose density in a chemostat is regulated by a turbidometer is cybernetic only between the time someone sets the turbidometer and the time that someone decides the supply vessel must be replenished. Organisms, industrial organizations, and human societies are not cybernetic, but they form components of ecosystems that are cybernetic. We are not embarrassed to acknowledge that ecologists have not yet mapped the global information network for a single natural ecosystem. However, we know of no cell, single organism, industrial plant, or human society for which such a map has been completed. Cancer, bankruptcy, and uncontrollable social disorder are all manifestations of the incomplete understanding of information networks within systems that Engelberg and Boyarsky unaccountably characterized as cybernetic.
We are understandably anthropomorphic when we think of information.
We use the analogies of nerve impulses and hormone flows because we can relate to them. Information, however, can be transmitted through quite simple physical relationships. For example, when you remove the crankshaft from an engine, it fails to function as a cybernetic system. The rest of the engine gathers information from the crankshaft, or the lack of a crankshaft, quite noncognitively. An example was given by Engelberg and Boyarsky of a boy and a steam engine. The boy carries the information which coordinates the parts of the engine. Today we have engines that have no boys. The mechanical replacement in fact requires less energy than the boy, yet it performs the same task. That mechanism has no neural network, yet it conveys (the same) information. The information arises out of the ordered relations between the parts.
What is the psychological affect of having less parts?
Margalef (1961, 1968) has been an articulate advocate of the cybernetic nature of ecosystems. He points out that it is the present state of the system which sets limits or patterns for future states, and hence the present state is in fact a bearer of information. A fundamental idea in system theory is that it is only the present state of the system which conveys information, and for this reason the system state is a summary of the entire history of the system (Forrester 1961, 1968).
Engelberg and Boyarsky characterized industrial organizations, economic systems, and automated industrial plants as cybernetic, but classified ecosystems and the biopshere as noncybernetic. They went beyond that in proposing that ecosystems can be made cybernetic only with the imposition of human organization. This is a serious flaw of perception and logic that is potentially devastating to human beings, indeed all life, if it were ever to become a common belief. Ecosystems and the biosphere are much more clearly cybernetic than any human organization. Ecosystems are relational systems with many feedback loops that are living history of the previous state of the ecosystem by virtue of their self-propagation and evolution over eons of time. They are testimony not only to the existence of controlled organization, but to a degree of organization humans are presently incapable of designing.
Ecologists yet perceive the goals and feedback loops dimly, but perhaps more clearly than many business managers, economists, and engineers. Ampere coined the word, cybernetics, from kubernetes, Greek for governor or steersman, derived in turn from kuberman, to guide, steer, or govern. Wiener concentrated on information flows because such flows are essential to maintaining or modifying system course. We make no claim that ecologists yet understand either the network of information flows in ecosystems or the course that such flows, shaped by evolution, impose on those ecosystems. However, we can think of no ecosystem that has self-destructed, while the pages of daily newspapers as well as history books are strewn with examples of industrial organizations, economic systems, and industrial processes that are failing and have failed to function according to their explicit or implicit designs. No, ecosystems are not organisms or computers, but they are more clearly cybernetic than any human-designed system; rather like the automated steam engine, they surely do not require the boy to operate properly.