chapter one


© Andy Turnbull, 2005


Four thousand years ago the people of Mesopotamia built the temples we call Ziggurats. Three thousand years ago the pre-Inca inhabitants of Peru built the temple we call Sacsahuaman and people in Lebanon built Baalbek. Egyptians, Toltec, Aztec and Maya built various types of pyramids and the people of Cambodia built the temple complex we call Angkor Wat.

We see the remains of huge buildings as evidence that the people who built them were 'civilized.' In his classic work Prehistoric Men Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago wrote that among the native peoples of the Americas only the "Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of the Yucatan and Guatemala, and the Incas of the Andes were civilized."[1]

The Inca drugged some of their own children and left them on mountain-tops as gifts to the gods. The Maya weighted some of their daughters with gold and threw them into wells. The Aztec slaughtered captives and slaves by the thousands.

The five (later six) nations of the Iroquois Confederacy developed a system of government that served as a model for both the United States of America and the United Nations but, because they did not build giant palaces and temples, we do not consider them 'civilized.'[2]

The cultures we see as great civilizations were all supported by slaves, who were brutally repressed, and dominated by kings and priests who were more cruel to their own citizens than a "savage" would be to his enemy. In general, the people we think were "civilized" were more savage than any of the people we call savages.

In ancient Assyria babies were thrown into fires to please the god Moloch. In Carthage, priests of Baal beat drums during religious services to drown out the cries of the women whose children were being sacrificed. Romans drenched slaves and captives with oil and set them on fire as human torches to illuminate events in the Coliseum. As late as the 17th century most of the personal entourages of the emperors of China were buried with them.

Our modern world is not much better. In the 1940's Nazi Germans planned to kill every Jew in Europe. They did not succeed, but they did kill about six million of them.

In the 1970's Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army killed at least one million Cambodians, many of them by torture. In the mid 1990's Hutu tribesmen slaughtered tens of thousands of Tutsi tribesmen in Rwanda. In the late 90's Serbian soldiers killed an uncounted number of civilians in Bosnia and Kosovo. As I write this thousands of people are being slaughtered in various parts of Africa, the Israeli government sends tanks and armored bulldozers into unarmed villages and hundreds of millions of people admire and respect 'suicide bombers' and others who kill and maim women and children. The American government of George W. Bush officially endorsed torture (the fact, if not the word) as part of national policy.

We treat other humans badly and we seem to be indifferent even to our own welfare. We know that smoking is a serious health problem but millions of us still smoke and, long after the danger of smoking was recognized, tobacco companies added nicotine to cigarettes to make them more addictive. Even now, men and women who have children of their own plan and use advertising to attract teen-agers who are not yet addicted. Indirectly, they encourage their own children to smoke.

We know that our use of automobiles strangles cities, creates health problems and contributes to climate change that could cause a global famine, but the governments we elect to protect our interests enforce laws which discourage and even ban the sale of smaller and more efficient cars.[3]

Some governments pass laws that will actually harm their citizens. In the summer of 1998 the Government of Canada changed a law to permit the use of manganese methylcyclopentadienyl tricarbonyl as an additive in gasoline. MMT, as it's usually called, is illegal in some American states because it is known to cause damage to human nervous systems. It was illegal in Canada until the American manufacturer threatened to sue the Canadian government, and Canadian law was changed to allow it.[4]

The families of the politicians that approved the change, and of the oil company executives that sued for it, are among the people whose nervous systems will be damaged.

We know that gambling is addictive but state and provincial governments across North America license gambling casinos and manage or sponsor lotteries. If the politicians and bureaucrats are not harmed themselves, the gambling they license and manage harms some people and may destroy their own families.[5]

Are we mad, or is there some other factor at work?

There is. Much of what we see as human activity is directed by the metaphysical entity that I call 'The System.'

We all speak of 'The System' and some see it as a conspiracy of billionaires who rule the world from a secret enclave in Rome or Geneva. Books have been written about 'The Illuminati,' 'The Bilderberg,' 'The Elders of Zion,' 'The Trilateral Commission,' 'The Club of Rome' and other 'conspiracies.'

Some of these groups really do exist and their members wield considerable influence, but I'm talking about something quite different. 'The System' I write of is a metaphysical entity that exists and can be studied, but has no physical presence. We might compare it to the system that controls a colony of ants or termites or a hive of bees. In the human world we can think of a system as a set of rules -- such as the laws of a country or the regulations of an army, for example -- but it would also include the unwritten rules that we call traditions. Around us we see many different types of systems but many of the distinctions we see on the surface exist only on the surface.

Systems have been around for a long time and I suggest that what we think of as 'human history' is actually the history of systems. They produced the 'civilization' that we are so proud of and they control it. Some aspects of The System have robbed most of us of our basic human nature and now they threaten the very future of humanity as we know it.


This book is about systems, metasystems and the super-metasystem that I call 'The System' but it's also about humanity and here we have to reconsider two myths that most of us accept without question. The first of these is that the 'basic nature' of mankind is aggressive and competitive.

For thousands of years priests and rulers have told us that men are inherently evil, stained by 'original sin' and unable to live in groups unless we are controlled by threat of force.

One of the first to 'prove' this as a 'scientific fact' was Raymond Dart, an Australian anatomist who taught at Johannesburg Medical School in South Africa. In 1924 he realized that a fossil skull found in an African cave came from an ancestor of man.

Dart called his find 'Australopithecus Africanus' and, in the same cave, he found bones of other animals including some baboon skulls that looked as though they had been bashed with a club. From this he concluded that Australopithecus had lived in the cave and that he had been a hunter and a cannibal.

Some scholars now suspect that Australopithecus and the other animals that left their bones in the cave had been killed by a leopard but Dart's view, published in 1953, impressed writer and dramatist Robert Ardrey. In 1961 he popularized Dart's ideas and expanded on them in a best-selling book that described early man as a 'killer ape.'[6]

The accusation stuck and some scholars looked for proof that self-centered people have an advantage over people who cooperate. A classroom game called Prisoner's Dilemma helped perpetuate the myth of the self-centered human for years, but the same game eventually disproved it.

The scenario of the game assumes that two criminals who have collaborated in several crimes are arrested and questioned separately. The police have enough evidence to convict them of a minor offense, but not enough to convict them of a major offense of which they are also guilty.

Each knows that if both keep silent, both will be convicted of the minor offense and both will sentenced to a short term in jail.

They also know that if one will confess to and testify about the major offense, he will go free and the other will get a long term in jail.

If both defect, both will get a medium term in jail.

In the game each player chooses an option for each round. If both choose to keep the faith they get three points each and if both defect they get only one point each.

If one player defects and the other does not, the defector gets five points and the 'sucker' who keeps the faith gets one.[7]

The assumption was that a good policy in the game is a good policy in life and that 'survival of the fittest' has given us instincts that naturally incline us toward the best policy.

A player who defects will always win against a player who does not and, in classroom sessions, most players looked for ways to fool their opponents into keeping faith while they defected as often as possible.

But Robert Axelrod, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, realized that short games could not tell the whole story. He argued that life takes more than a few hours to work out and he invited game theorists to write their strategy for Prisoners' Dilemma into a computer program. Axelrod would then run the different games against each other in a tournament in which each game would consist of 200 moves -- far more than students have time for.

Fourteen people submitted games and the tournament totalled 120,000 moves or 240,000 separate choices.

The winner was a program called Tit for Tat, written by professor Anatol Rapoport of the University of Toronto. In the first round of each game Tit for Tat cooperates with the other program and, in each succeeding round, it makes the same choice its opponent made for the previous move. It cooperates with any program that cooperates and defects on any program that defects.

Tit for Tat did not win a single game but it won the tournament on points because, even though it lost every game, it averaged a higher score than any other program.

In his analysis of the results Axelrod wrote of 'nice' programs that cooperate when they can and 'nasty' programs that try to win by defecting.

Eight of the 14 entrants in the tournament were 'nice' programs and those eight took the first eight places. They won because they gained more points playing with each other than they lost against the nasty programs. The nasty programs won individual games but they lost the tournament because they lost more points when they played against each other than they won when they played against nice programs.

The results were so surprising that when Axelrod published them he announced a new tournament. This time every one of the 62 entrants knew Tit for Tat's strategy and that it was the one to beat.

It was no contest. Tit for Tat cleaned up and later simulations showed that it would have won five of six possible variations of the tournament. In the sixth, it would have come second.

In later analysis Axelrod found a couple of variations of entries that would have won that particular tournament but they were all 'nice' programs and most of them would lose to Tit for Tat in most possible tournaments.

Animals win the evolutionary race by breeding more than others. In an 'evolutionary' version of the tournament, in which each program would be rewarded by having one extra copy of itself entered in competition for each point it earned, Tit for Tat would have crowded most other programs out.

Further analysis of the tournament results indicate that a small group of nice guys who move into an area dominated by nasty guys will prosper, but a small group of nasty guys who move into an area dominated by nice guys will not.

It would take a book to analyze all the implications of Axelrod's tournament and Axelrod has written it[8] but we can sum it up in a very few words, which I describe as 'Rapoport's law.' The evidence is that, over the long run, nice guys finish first.[9]

The tournament proved that it's good policy to be nice and the 'evolutionary' variation of scoring suggests that nice people will eventually dominate any area they occupy.[10] That implies that we must be descended from nice people and from that it follows that our own inherent nature must be nice.

And in 2002 we got evidence that people are actually 'hard wired' to be nice. In two separate experiments at Emory University in Atlanta subjects played Prisoners Dilemma while connected to a machine called a functional magnetic resonance imaging device, or fMRI. The machine scans the brain for activity and the research was intended to spot physical signs of the resentment players felt when their partners defaulted on them.

But it didn't quite work out that way. Instead it turned out that there were more signs of activity in the players' brains when they cooperated, and the signs indicated pleasure. In plain words, players who cooperated got physical pleasure out of cooperating with each other.[11]

But if that's so then what about all the conflict, greed and betrayal we see around us? Where does that come from?

We like to think that we are free agents and that we set our own standards, but that's not so. Nearly 150 years ago the English philosopher John Stuart Mill noted, in the preface to On Liberty, that "society can and does exercise its own mandates." Later in the same paragraph he says that "it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression."[12]

The 'society' that Mill spoke of is the entity that I call The System. This is a gigantic single system which is, in fact, an amalgam of innumerable smaller systems.


The simplest type of human organization is a family dominated by an 'alpha male.' In more complex societies the members of a family follow the alpha male of the family and he, in turn, follows the alpha male of the group.

This is what I call a 'charismatic leader' type of organization and it works pretty well. In historic times Alexander the Great's armies didn't know where they were going but they followed Alexander to conquer countries they had never heard of before.

If a charismatic leader dies a new leader will arise but, unless he can dominate his followers, the group may continue to follow the course set by the former leader. The old purpose may be more important than the new leader and, in that case, the group will morph into a system.[13]

In a system the group itself, and perhaps its purpose, are more important than the leader. The followers of a charismatic leader serve the leader but people in a system serve a chosen or assigned purpose and the leader can lead only in the direction of that purpose. The Pope is head of the Roman Catholic church but he could not make Catholics worship the devil. The President of France can't crown himself king and the president of the East Idaho Ladies Sewing Circle can't make the ladies turn from sewing to arc welding. These organizations have their path already set and the function of the leader is to lead them on that path.

If a system works well the members will value it and they may begin to consider the welfare of the system to be one of their priorities. As time passes and circumstances change the original purpose of the group may become secondary and the survival of the system more important.

If the system lasts long enough the original objective may be lost or altered but, as long as the survival of the system is a priority, the system will survive.

More than 25 years ago a group of truckers in the village of Notre Dame du Nord, Quebec, organized a drag race of loaded trucks to raise money to help build a new arena. The arena was completed long ago but the 'Rodeo du Camion' is now an annual event that raises millions of dollars for civic projects in and around the village.

The group that ran the original event has evolved into a system that continues to stage the races because people like them, because they provide full or part-time jobs for dozens of villagers and because they raise millions of dollars for the community. When the original purpose was accomplished, the system found a new purpose.

We might question whether a commercial corporation can outgrow its function because that function is, ultimately, to make money, but there is no question that it can evolve. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corp, generally known as '3M,' was formed in 1902 to mine abrasives to make grinding wheels. The first mine was a failure but 3M went on to sell more than $15 billion a year worth of products we all see or use every day. Probably its best-known products are "Scotch Tape" and "Post-it Notes," neither of which have much to do with abrasives, and the company's official history says that products created within the past four years account for about 30% of all the company's sales.

At this point both mining and manufacturing are incidental to the entity we call 3M. The business of the corporation is to survive and grow, and any single commercial activity is secondary.

Both the Rodeo du Camion and 3M have evolved to become entities in their own right. Both still perform useful functions, but both are more than the functions they perform.

If and when the survival of the system becomes the primary objective of the members, the system may become an independent entity. In this form it looks very much like other systems but where some systems serve the humans who manage them, others manage the humans who serve them.

During World War II economist John Kenneth Galbraith headed a US federal office that set prices for many commodities traded in the United States. The final decision was his but he knew that no single man knew enough to make such decisions alone and that the best he could do was to accept the advice of the bureaucrats who served under him. In his words:

"Decisions on prices - to fix, raise, rearrange or, very rarely, to lower them - came to my office after an extensive exercise in group decision-making in which lawyers, economists, accountants, men knowledgeable of the product and the industry and specialists in public righteousness had all participated. Alone one was nearly helpless to alter such decisions; hours or days of investigation would be required and, in the meantime, a dozen other decisions would have been made. Given what is commonly called an 'adequate staff' one could have exercised control. But an adequate staff would be one that largely duplicated the decision-making groups with adverse effects on the good nature and sense of responsibility of the latter and even more time required for decision. To have responsibility for all of the prices in the United States was awesome; to discover how slight was one's power in the face of group decision-making was sobering."[14]

Galbraith was the head of his office, but the office itself made the decisions. If he had the 'adequate staff' that he mentions it would still have been the staff rather than Galbraith himself that made the decisions. With or without an 'adequate staff' the titular head of a system is the servant of the system, not its master.

He may not even be a key player. Galbraith says the director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II was US Army General Leslie R. Groves. As the general in charge of a huge project Groves had an impressive office and travelled by limousine. Physicist Enrico Fermi, who played a key role in the development of the bomb, rode to work on a bicycle.

If Groves had quit or died he could have been replaced the next day by any one of thousands of other men. Whoever it was, the replacement would also have travelled by limousine and demanded all the perquisites that General Groves had enjoyed.

If Fermi had left, the project would have ground to a halt. Groves might have kept his job and his limousine and his office but, without Fermi, he could have accomplished nothing.[15]

The man who runs a large organization may be an exceptional person but, management consultant Peter Drucker says, almost anyone could serve as the head of a well-organized system. In Concept of the Corporation he wrote:

"No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.... No institution has solved the problem of leadership, no matter how good its formal constitution, until it gives the leader a sense of duty, of the importance of his trust and a sense of the mutual loyalty between him and his associates; for these enable the average human being -- and occasionally someone well below average -- to function effectively in a position of trust and leadership."[16]

For a sobering view of the nature of leaders and leadership, consider the results of an experiment by physiologist Erich von Holst of the German government's Max Planck Institute, as described by zoologist and philosopher Konrad Lorenz.[17]

Fish that swim in schools prefer to swim near the center of the school, where they are safe from predators. Schools of fish don't often travel far or fast because fish on the edge of the school keep trying to move toward the center.

Some fish leave the school to chase after food but they return immediately after they catch it. If there is a lot of food in one direction the school will move that way because as some fish return to the school others leave it to obtain the food, but there is no concerted movement.

In his experiment von Holst removed the forebrain -- which controls the schooling instinct that pulls fish to the center of a school -- from a common minnow.

That minnow became the undisputed leader of the school. It would swim toward food or anything else that interested it and some fish would always follow. Because the 'leader' minnow lacked a forebrain it never felt the need to turn back to the center of the school and, because it never turned back, others always followed it.[18]

The function of a leader is simply to provide direction and in many situations any direction, right or wrong, is better than no direction. For some systems the ideal leader may be the kind of person that Russians used to call an 'aparatchnik.' This is a party member or other insider who may have no technical competence or leadership ability at all, but who has friends and knows the rules, and who works both to his advantage.

A typical aparatchnik will take great care to see that all rules and procedures are followed to the letter. He may be a dead loss as a manager but still a good leader because, with rules to follow, he will have no doubts. A brilliant scientist would probably not be a good leader because he would continually question even his own decisions.

Some systems need no leader at all. In 1986 computer programmer Craig Reynolds wrote a program to control the behavior of virtual birds, which he called "boids." He found that if his boids were given only three rules they would behave very much like a real flock of birds, or a school of fish.

Aside from the obvious -- that it must avoid colliding with fixed objects in its virtual environment -- each boid controlled by Reynolds' program is required to travel in the same general direction as other boids and to try to stay near the center of the flock but avoid crowding other boids.

Each boid 'knows' where all the other boids are, but reacts only to the boids in its immediate neighborhood.

Reynolds' three rules can control a flock of thousands of boids or other virtual animals and the behavior they produce is very similar to the behavior of real animals. A modified version of this program controlled the behavior of swarms of animated bats and flocks of animated penguins in the 1992 movie Batman Returns and has been used in other films and some demonstrations.[19]

Boids obey only rules but many naturalists assume that a flock of real birds probably has a leader. That may be, but the qualities required of a leader are not quite what we might expect.


Whether they seem to have a leader or not some systems -- like the price control office that Galbraith wrote about -- control themselves, and we might say that they are alive. A system is not a form of life that we recognize but it may have most of the attributes of life. If its survival and growth is important to its members a system will appear to struggle to survive and grow as though it were alive. It's a metaphysical entity and we might think of it as a form of meta-life -- a symbiote that co-exists with men and other beings and that controls them for the benefit of both parties.[20]

The level of control varies. The Rodeo du Camion is run mostly by volunteers and the demands it can make on members are limited. Working for 3M is a career for tens of thousands of people and the corporation can move many of those people around the country to suit its needs. The systems we call armies and churches, and terrorist groups like AlQaeda and Hamas, can send men to their death.

Systems have no intelligence and can not have intentions as we understand them; but if their managers are competent they will consider the needs of the system ahead of any human concerns. If they have any qualms The System pays well enough -- in money or in other coin -- to allay them.

When we consider a system as a life form its original purpose is not relevant. It may have been formed to support a prophet or to help the needy or to govern a town or to manufacture refrigerators but when it develops into a system, the original end becomes secondary. The primary purpose of a system is to survive and grow.

While it might seem strange to compare -- for example -- a charity formed to protect orphans to a pirate crew that attacks and robs ships, the comparison is valid because we are talking about the form, rather than the function.

A man may work as a butcher, baker or candlestick maker but, whatever his occupation, he is still a man. In the same way a system may perform this or that function without affecting the fact that it is a system.

Some systems perform many functions, sometimes through ownership or control of other systems. National governments own and operate railways, airlines and other commercial corporations. Churches own farms, businesses and commercial real estate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds and maintains dams and waterways around the United States. In China the People's Liberation Army operates hotels and other commercial businesses.

The important question about a system is whether it has or has not reached the point at which the welfare of the system is its primary objective. If so then any other function, purpose or standard can and will be adjusted to promote the survival and growth of the system.

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