Integrating Life Science Systems

A Learning Application of General Systems Theory

A framework on which to hang a lot of knowledge...

Around mid twentieth century a General Systems Theory (GST)[1] was postulated as a means of unifying all of science, from astronomy and physics through biology to psychology and on to the social sciences including sociology, cultural anthropology, and more. Mathematical formulas and patterns in one area were seen as applicable in others. Literal analogies were sought for and treasured. A focus on the interfaces of various disciplines was promoted, as each interface, it was thought, merited study in its own right.[2] An extensive source book entitled, Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist, edited by Walter Buckley with numerous notable contributors,[3] came out in 1968. Many isolated and frustrated social scientists, psychologists, physiologists and pseudo-philosophical engineers quickly leaped aboard the GST bandwagon, bringing with them a hodgepodge of subjects including cybernetics, communication and information theories, concepts of open and closed systems, and the second law of thermodynamics!


Now psychiatrists in their everyday work routinely bridge medicine, psychology and sociology, so some of them, too, naturally found GST quite appealing. Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, ensconced happily in their own closed and airtight system, were mostly resistant to the idea. Regardless, GST slipped quietly away from 'mental health' over the intervening years and died an unnoticed death. So?

The framework of GST initially appealed to me. I recognized in it the same systematic approach that I once rigged up in medical school to help integrate such diverse topics as histology, anatomy and physiology with pathology, clinical chemistry and the various specialties—from minute or basic to large and practical. My ‘system’ was a visual skeleton upon which I could hang a decent answer to almost any examination question. The method proved useful in postgraduate work also. How better to tie psychology together with medicine and the social sciences? Even though contrived, it was a real memory saver. When recall fails it affords a sign post to stir recognition. It has been a memory jogger in later clinical work and  teaching too. The diagram on the left lays the idea out, mostly in terms of a marital and family focus (a current interest). Ho-hum, so what? Well…

Students of life sciences are often confused by the all but overwhelming welter of new hypotheses and old theories available to them. They hardly know which is truly relevant to their own area and which is best to discard. Overarching ideas are foreign territory. That is a good enough  reason to write this little article. I hope a student somewhere will find it helpful.

GST as a bona fide unifying theory for all of science was certainly stretching it. That much I too saw. But, some of the subjects that gained a spurious connection with it were altogether another matter. Before looking more closely at them let us examine some of the differences between the hard physical sciences (as exemplified by Queen Chemistry and King Physics) and their softer ‘brethren’ (Vassal Psychology, etc.)…

Science can be separated into categories according to object or subject of study. Thus, basic matter is to the physical scientist as living cells and organisms are to the biologist. Energy is relevant to both. With the sociologist it is aggregations of people and institutions. In psychology a primary clear-cut subject is sometimes hard to define. Is it behavior? Perception? Learning? Cognition? Or simply the mind?


Another partially distinguishing feature between the major branches of science is primary methodology and tools used. For example, chemistry focuses its attention on small workable components in laboratory experiments—experimental reductionism—and subjects the factual results to mathematical analysis and the creation of heuristic hypotheses. The same happens in physics. All branches of science attempt to generalize in terms of verifiable theories. If only this were true! Most of the less certain sciences have tried to emulate those ‘basic’ to them. Sociology, as a case in point, once tried to phrase its theories in terms of evolution and ecology (from biology) and development (from psychology). It now, however, seems secure enough to utilize its own principles and methods, including mathematics (legitimately applied statistics). But other ‘soft’ sciences haven’t been so fortunate.


To recapitulate, the hallmarks of hard science are, first, strict cause and effect determinism expressed by tightly woven and perfectly predictive differential equations. The amazingly successful technical end-results of physics and chemistry (from the steam engine to rocket flight) elevated their methods and dictums to a position that all other purported sciences had to emulate or borrow from in order to seem valid. Atoms and molecules are definitely not purposive, so life scientists felt obligated to explain living organisms in confining deterministic terms. Determinism limits? “We’ll investigate immediate causes, but wont try for any ‘first’ cause.” [4] Any suggestion of, heaven forbid, ‘becoming’ or teleology is tantamount to favoring theology or a degenerate mysticism. Second, to the ‘true’ scientist matter in space-time theoretically flows both ways, as in reversible chemical reactions, but biologists know that time for living organisms can only proceed forward from birth to death. In biology the facts pointed to self-organized structure at the microscopic level and purposive behavior at the level of an integrated whole organism. This apparent toying with time and no-no teleology[5] was a troublesome crack in the tidy reductionist continuum from hard physical science to biology. Only recently, as we shall see, was it smoothed over by the cracking of the genetic code. Third, the physical scientists have firmly established that in closed systems all structures, from rocks to plastics, eventually reach equilibrium in a diffuse mush of chaos. But we all know that living creatures, at least for a while—for a life-time—defy this rule too, for from the very outset they become progressively intricately organized and complex. Every embryologist attests to this fact.

So, self-organization and purposive behavior are two qualities of living matter that appear to run in contradiction to the basic precepts of physics and chemistry. Nevertheless, for a long time, softer scientists tried to live up to the standards of their royal superiors. Physiologists worshipped reductionism (still do). Some, like Pavlov (working on cerebral reflexes), Claude Bernard (homeostasis), and Walter Cannon (flight-fight mechanisms) were successful. Those who looked at the picture of a whole animal in its natural habitat[6] or at the interfaces of several interacting living systems, ethologists and ecologists respectively, for many years were hardly accorded scientific status. Academic psychologists, conforming minutely in all possible ways, tried to explain complex behavior in both reductionist and deterministic stimulus-response (SR) experiments with rats. Even Freud, seeking scientific legitimacy,[7] borrowed a metaphor from nineteenth century physics in the principle of conservation of energy. I.e., packets of cathexis bouncing unconsciously around ids and superegos—what utter nonsense! Both behaviorism and psychoanalysis are now passé.

Biology, in contradistinction to psychology, has long enjoyed the grudging respect of hard physical science. This goes back as far as the first rationalization of anatomy by Vesalius in 1534 (the same year an aged and dying Copernicus published his Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). This respect further stems from Harvey’s demonstration of the physiology of circulation in 1615. In fact these two biological landmarks elucidating structure and function actually antedate the acceptance of physical science itself, for Copernicus’ ideas were not taken seriously, let alone applied, for another hundred years, until Galileo confirmed them. And we all know what happened to him—he was forced to recant. But that was the doing of the church, not men of reason. Anyway, along with many practical achievements in medicine,[8] the discovery of the structure of DNA and the breaking of the genetic code more than anything else has given biology validity in modern scientific circles. Despite, such  as Pasteur and Flemming, it never really had it to the same extent before. The breaking of the code truly supports evolutionary theory. And it demonstrates that purpose (the question 'why' as well as 'what' and 'how') can be supported scientifically. That is, growth into a complex autonomous being, is attained through the sequential unraveling of pre-coded information.[9]

Thus, biology, which corresponds to level 2 in my first systematic diagram above, can now truly lead a life free of the strictures laid down by the hard physical sciences.[10] Certainly, its subsystems obey the laws of physics and chemistry, but its independent thrust as a life science is maintained by the realities of evolution and genetics. There are counterpart sciences for psychology and sociology.

Taking psychology first: The purposive growth of the embryo can be extrapolated nicely to purposive action of the entire organism, in two related ways. Here is how:

1. Through memory and servomechanisms.[11] Every system of the body is threaded with feedback and control: all the chemical and endocrine systems and all of the voluntary striated muscular systems. Thus, the science of cybernetics (steersman in Greek) comes to the fore. Time is interposed between each cognitive impulse to action and its goal. Whether this is reaching for a pencil without over-shooting the mark or walking to the corner store for a loaf of bread, increasingly fine corrections are interposed between the original thought and its completion in action. In simply reaching for an object little cognitive input is needed; the corrections are virtually automatic. As the sequence of action is stretched out, more thought based on emotion, learning and memory is required. This is goal-directed or purposive behavior—teleology if you will. It is one of the major differences between a living being and an inert chunk of stone. It is a major difference between the life science of psychology and physical science.

2. Purposive behavior is also achieved through a life-long fight against entropy[12] in order to preserve information stored in the brain. Now that statement requires some explanation! The stored information, called memory, is derived from learning. This brings in the brain. (We’ll set the mind aside for now.) The brain is the repository of memories and experiences. While it consumes much energy, taking up to 25% of the circulating blood to supply its oxygen and glucose needs, its actual end-function is not based on the law of conservation of energy. It is based upon one of the concepts spuriously transposed into Von Bertalanffy’s GST: Information Theory. And, I might add, Learning Theory. Whereas the heart pumps blood and works on the basis of mechanics, the brain processes and stores information and enables its retrieval. It creates informational organization. In so doing, it works against the concept of the second law of thermodynamics. That law, as you’ll recall, says that everything that is structured and organized, and this includes information, must ultimately dissolve into homogeneous mush. That only happens in biology when brain cells die—or the whole organism dies. It happens in psychology when…? In physics the degree of chaotic mush is called entropy, which is the measure of disorganized chaos. Now, when you think of it, not only the body is built and holds up against the drift towards chaotic entropy, but the brain protects its store of information against entropic drift into meaningless gibberish. In so doing it enables the accumulation of learning and purposive behavior with a uniquely human view to the future. We can pick up a pencil, walk to the store, plan a baby, build bridges, or fly to the moon. Organized and with a purpose (or not, if we wish or are so inclined).

                Psychology is to the mind as physiology is to the brain. But it is an extremely untidy subject. Maybe it is that way because of residues of the old mind-brain dualism. In its search for roots psychology has propounded personality theory (and tests), the concept of intelligence (and doubtful tests), gestalt theory, motivation, behaviorism (which actually denied the mind to please reductionist hard science), learning theory (which really should be the basic science of all teachers), and most recently cognitive science. When I periodically set about to organize my psychology books it is almost chaos—almost as bad as psychiatry. Obviously, I cannot remedy psychology’s and psychiatry’s quandaries here. Yet. So I’ll leave both of these unfortunate disciplines and move on to the science that is the cement of all social systems—at level 3 (of the first diagram).

By the way, here is something to ponder: M≈ƒ(B) (where M is mind and B is brain).[13]

Lucid speech enables advanced communication between civilized humans, more than just grunts or shrugs. Communication is the key word. It is the matrix of social systems. Just as cybernetic control and information storage are the basic principles of what goes on inside the head of just one whole living being, communication is the science of what goes on between two or more. It encompasses aspects of cybernetics, information, symbols and meaning, thought and emotion, logic and illogic, grammar, and more.

Human Communication Theory is an essential study.

Its basic premises, or grammar, or (testable?) hypotheses, as organized and drawn up by me, may seem deceptively simple. But don’t let that fool you. Their proper understanding requires more than a cursory glance. A diagram depicting a simple one-way communication system precedes the premises. It is helpful in following each one as it is laid out, but is crucial to the understanding of the second premise which succinctly states,Message sent is not necessarily message received…


1.  Communication is …ever-present,

1.1 One cannot NOT communicate.

Even silence, between two people who know each other, represents a message. E.g., if you don’t write me for a long time it means, 1. Our relationship is so good and durable it can survive anything, 2. You are in some way upset (angry, scared) with me and your silence is deliberate, 3. You are totally indifferent to me and no longer care. In all instances my isolated interpretation has a strong chance of being incorrect. And everything we say or do or don't do is communicated.

2.   Communication, always involving ‘frangible’ information, is inevitably flawed,

2.1 Information traverses numerous channels and way-stations between source and destination.

2.2 Thus, message sent is not necessarily message received.

3.   Communication …is multidimensional,

3.1 It is at two levels: characterized by simultaneous content and relational messages.

The content message is the main message, usually verbal (or written). The relational message is in the overall context or “How I see you seeing me.” That is, it conveys command, submission, query, or equality, etc. Being at a more abstract level, it is termed a metamessage, or message about the message.

3.2 It is comprised of two distinct message modes: 1. digital (speech) and 2. analog signals.

The analog component is nonverbal (better than this negative attribute is the word kinesic): facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, posture, and “leakage” of autonomic NS effects such as sweaty palms, dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat, etc. In living organisms analog signals usually correlate with the relational message. Emotion is the primary ingredient conveyed by analog signals.

4.   Communication is cybernetically patterned, Hence, errors can be corrected.

4.1 It is nonlinear, i.e., circular—with feedback and control.

Circularity supplements simple linear SR notions. Your response to me is feedback—reinforcement and another stimulus—to me. A continuous cycle results. But we often wear blinders: Usually I see the good, but not the bad I do to you; and you see the good, but not the bad you do to me. I.e., each of us tends to focus on the bad done to his own self rather than the good received. A Blinder Syndrome: think about that!

4.2 It has a context that is either symmetrical or complementary, at any one time, with a safety switch function termed parametric.

Relationships that are primarily symmetrical are based on tit for tat equal exchanges. They tend to be competitive and when control is lost spiral up into love or down into violence (each known as arunaway). Complementary relationships are mutually interdependent, often authoritarian/dependent. When control is lost they grind down into a rigid fixity. Normal, functional relationships have the capacity, as needed, to switch back and forth between symmetry and complementarity (parametric switches). When a relationship is defined in opposite terms by one or both of its participants it is known as metacomplementary and has extremely dysfunctional potential.

4.3 It has punctuation that over time becomes spurious in practical reality.

There is a starting point in a sequence of exchanges. What an obvious statement! But what I may claim as my starting point you may also see as yours—hence mutual claims of plagiarism or accusations of irresponsibility. E.g., in a dysfunctional marriage: A husband insists, “I hide behind my newspaper because you nag.” The wife retorts, “I nag because you withdraw into the paper.” Each claims his/her behavior is the end point to the other’s starting point. Period. Their punctuation of the same cycle of events is irreconcilably different. And the argument can go on forever. Such is known mathematically as an infinitely oscillating series. As time goes on, who started what becomes irrelevant—the argument becomes self sustaining. Ultimately, the only important issue is to somehow interrupt the vicious cycle, not to determine who started it or who is right or wrong.[14]


 This brief taste of pragmatic communication, as the science forming the bridge between psychology and all social systems and between all subsequent social institutions, is usually enough to whet the appetite of curiosity to search for further information. Ruesch, Bateson, Haley, and Jackson are the big names in Pragmatic Human Communication. Returning to the first diagram, we can add a fourth level—of manmade artifacts. Verbal communication enables us to get to level 3. Two additional things jack us up to 4: writing or symbolic notation and the rigor and discipline of applied science. (Maybe law and religion also.) At this level the making of ships, cars, planes, buildings, and the creation of all kinds of art is possible. But they all are semi-permanent and eventually succumb to the degradation of entropy. E.g., the kayak I built as a youngster is long gone. Remnants of Ancient Rome remain after 2000 years, but will go too. Potentially-almost-permanent is the documentation, especially electronic, of literature, music and science, which can be copied over and over again to preserve it against the certain decay of entropy. For instance, Shakespearean originals are exceedingly rare, but the essential works will probably remain ‘alive’ as long as there are still interested people, printing presses and electronic media such as the Internet. But that says nothing of the final end point, the reverse of the big bang. or a deadly silent expansion. The big crunch, if that's the route, will take it all away! (In the newer notion of an infinitely inflationary universe everything slows down and freezes forever.) I wander; but grant me a senior moment.

Summing up: A systematic approach—for anyone—is more practical that any “systems theory.” In physical science space-time flows both ways, there is an unprotected drift towards chaos and events are determined. The preferred method, except in astronomy, is reductionist. While the hard sciences of physics and chemistry are basic to physiology, the biological life sciences are truly bedded in the cell theory, evolution and genetics. Therefore, embryological organization is possible and the second law of thermodynamics, the inevitable drift into chaos, is temporarily defied by any living organism. An ‘immunity’ to degradation and the retention of form may last for only a few days in some species to over a century in others. A true understanding of psychology implies a familiarity with information theory and servomechanisms which lend further purpose or goals to life. Psychologists need not be slaves to reductionist notions and simple, closed, black box cause-effect determinism. They should feel comfortable dealing with a whole, aware person who has a past, a present, and a future, not simply some parts in a slice of time. Life flows forward in its own time vector in both biology and psychology. Once organization occurs time cannot shift into reverse; only information feedback can overcome faulty memories. Maslow knew that and developed a psychology that oriented into the future. Overall, it is fair to say, brain structure stems from biology up, function (mind) from society down. Finally, at the social level all depends on speech, writing, preservation of data (information) and—communication.

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