chapter two


© Andy Turnbull, 2005


The System organizes humans, but the most sophisticated systems in the world organize less intelligent animals. A colony of ants or termites or a hive of bees is controlled by a system so all-encompassing that many biologists think of such colonies as a single entity.[1]

That idea is not as fanciful as it sounds. From the outside a termites' nest or 'termitary' looks like a pile of dirt but in fact it is a very complex structure. The part above ground may be 20 or 30 feet high and 10 or 15 feet in diameter and the termitary often goes as far down into the ground as it rises above it. It has an underground water supply and an elaborate ventilation system. According to entomologist E. O. Wilson the nests of Macrotermes natalensis maintain the temperature of their internal fungus gardens within one degree of 30C and the carbon dioxide concentrations about 2.6 per-cent, with very slight variation.[2]

The outer shell of a termitary is made of grains of sand cemented together by a material the termites secrete and the interior is a cardboard-like structure made of their excretions. The structure is waterproof while the colony lives -- which could be more than 50 years -- but it will start to crumble less than a year after it is abandoned. South African naturalist Eugene Marais compared the individual termites in a colony to blood cells, and the termitary itself to the exoskeleton of an insect.[3]

We can see a single ant or termite as a separate entity but some composite life forms are so completely integrated that we can't see the individuals that make them up.

The development of the entity that biologists call a 'slime mold' begins when spores settle on soil, leaf litter or rotting wood and develop into independent amoebae.

For a while they creep through films of water and engulf bacteria like other amoebae but then the random population of amoebae forms itself into sausage-shaped multi-cell organisms called pseudoplasmodiums which can be up to two millimeters long -- enormous for a congregation of amoebae. Each pseudoplasmodium has a distinct front and rear and it moves slowly toward heat and/or light.

The pseudoplasmodium stage lasts up to two weeks, after which the slime mold transforms itself into a plant shape, with a base and stem supporting a top which will produce spores which will develop into new slime molds.

The amoebae develop as individuals but the life form that we call a slime mold is a single entity. Because only the amoebae that form the top of the plant-shape produce spores, most of the individuals in the colony give up their hope of reproducing when they join the colony.[4]

Even stranger than slime molds are about 300 different types of entities called siphonophorans, which look something like jellyfish. The best-known variety is the 'Portuguese Man-of-war.'

Siphonophorans look like single animals but each one is in fact a colony of animals, each of which can take different forms. The individual animals are called 'zooids' and the composite animal is called a 'hydrozoan.'

In a typical siphonophoran some zooids form the bulbous top, others form the tentacles and still others function as organs. Each is still an individual animal with its own nervous system but the systems are inter-connected. In one variety of siphononophore called Muggiaea, components called cormidiums form virtually independent colonies which can break away from the whole and live on their own.[5]

Again, most of the individual zooids that form the colony will never reproduce. They have given up their future for the future of the colony.

The life forms we call lichen are symbiotic combinations of algae and fungi. The algae produce complex hydrocarbons and vitamins which the fungi absorb and the fungi draw water out of the atmosphere and provide shade that the algae need. The algae and the fungi reproduce within the lichen but the lichen itself can't reproduce. Instead, it spreads when bits fall off and continue to grow on their own.[6]

Most of the plants in your garden are probably composite life forms, according to Allen Herre of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He `finds that the leaves of most plants harbor fungi which, apparently, protect the plants from disease.[7]

We can see the physical components of composite life forms but it takes a metaphysical component -- a system -- to tie them together. We can't see the system but we believe that, for example, the insects in a colony are controlled by instincts and we can't see the instincts either. We assume that they are there and I have no doubt that they are, but we can't see them and we know that no single set of instincts could control thousands of insects. Each insect in the colony must have its own instincts but, somehow, they all work together.

They do it because somewhere, working with the instincts, is a system.

The systems of composite life forms must be much more sophisticated than any human system -- as they should be, with tens of millions of years of evolution behind them -- but they are essentially similar.

In its simplest form we can think of any system as a set of rules -- like the rules that make 'boids' flock.

Some of these rules are probably 'hard wired' into the genes of social insects and flocking birds and schooling fish, but others may be learned and some may even be rationalized. We don't know which and, while we generally accept the simplest assumption, we must always remember that it is only an assumption.


We're not surprised that rules can control amoebae, insects, fish and birds, but human beings are intelligent and we make our own decisions, don't we? That's the second of the two myths that I mentioned in the preview.

We are rational and we can make our own decisions, but we don't think about everything we do. We can't, because life and the world are too complex for conscious thought.

As I write this my reason is concentrated on the argument and the operation of my computer. At the same time my autonomic nervous system handles the much more complex tasks of maintaining my heartbeat, breathing, body temperature and other functions. It does these jobs with no help from my conscious mind and, in fact, my conscious mind does not know how to maintain these functions. The signals that control them come from my brain, but my brain gets them from a set of rules.

When I walk down the street learned responses control my balance and the mechanics of walking and maintain automatic collision avoidance systems to keep me from bumping into lamp-posts and other pedestrians, even though I may not consciously see them as obstacles. I learned to walk and I know how to avoid obstacles but I don't have to maintain conscious control very often. My brain can do that by following a set of rules.

Other automatic systems are alert for the sound of brakes, squealing tires, running feet and other audible or visual cues that could signal a threat to my safety. I am vaguely aware of motor traffic, road crossings and other potential hazards but I don't really think about them. If an emergency does occur, my automatic systems will usually respond to it before my conscious mind knows what is happening.

In unfamiliar territory I may think about my route but on my home ground I may choose a destination when I set out and not think about it until I arrive. Sometimes my automatic navigation system may take me to the wrong destination as when I plan to go to the whigglepoo shop, which I seldom visit, and find myself walking past the shop to a familiar library.

We can even drive cars on automatic control. A few years ago a Canadian court found that a man had driven his car several miles across town and murdered his in-laws while he was asleep.[8]

If we actually thought about everything we did it would take us all day just to choose a salad for lunch. Instead we form preferences and we usually ignore other possibilities.

Our preferences are based partly on experience and partly on information we accept from others. I know from experience that I like a Caesar salad but if you recommend a Waldorf and if I trust you, I might try it.

Most of us rely on rehearsed or prescribed behavior in most situations. In our social intercourse we know what 'is' and what 'is not' done, in our personal lives we have 'habits' and, if we work for a system, there are appropriate 'procedures' to follow for most situations.

Further, we can sometimes prepare for physical activity with mental rehearsal. Some golfers believe they can improve their game by imagining a perfect swing and many gymnasts, competition divers, dancers and others try to imagine every detail of a perfect performance before they begin.

Most of these athletes perform specific routines under controlled conditions and their moves are always in the same order but even in situations where we have to remain flexible, programmed and rehearsed behavior can help us perform better. Many moves in fencing and other martial arts are learned and practiced as specific sequences but, most times, an athlete entering competition has no idea which moves he will use in which order. Instead he will watch his opponent and, as the fight develops, he will decide that this or that sequence might be successful and he will try it. His opponent, on the other hand, may have planned to lure him into trying just that and, even after he starts one sequence, a combatant must be ready to change to a completely different one at very short notice. Again, the different sequence has probably been pre-planned and rehearsed. Chess is a game for "thinkers" but the best players have studied games of the past and memorized strategies and sequences which are often named for great players. Again, they may change to a different sequence at short notice but most of their games are still based on learned sequences.

We may or may not think about our habits and procedures when we adopt them but, in most cases, we will not think when we use them. In fact many of us go through much of our daily life without actually thinking about what we are doing.

We know that in some fast-food restaurants and other businesses employees are guided by rules and 'procedures' that tell them how to do their jobs, how to deal with customers and even what to say. We have all met corporate or civil functionaries who can not or will not think beyond the rules of their jobs and most of us have, in our own lives, acted from habit in a situation in which our habitual response was not optimal. Most of us also have habits and points of view left over from childhood which we know are not useful, but which are very hard to shake.

We are rational and we can think things through but in many situations we rely on habit or instinct. Because we live in groups we are also influenced by what other people think and do and when one person ignores convention, the rest of the group will not approve.[9]


We don't think of ourselves as herd animals but we do live in groups and most of us will follow a herd.

Small boys, (including myself, more than half century ago) sometimes play the game of standing on a busy street and staring at the roof of a house or the upper branches of a tree or some other totally uninteresting target. The object of the game is to make other people stop and look at nothing.

In the early 1950's psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated the human urge to conform with a famous series of experiments in which about three quarters of the subjects chose to agree with a group rather than to trust their own judgment.

Each run of Asch's experiments involved one subject and six to eight others who pretended to be subjects but were in fact confederates of the experimenter. The experiment was described as a 'test of perception" and the group was shown two cards. One of the two had a single line drawn on it, the other had three lines. One of the three was the same length as the line in the single card, one was slightly, but still noticeably, different and the third was very different.

Confederates and subject were asked, in turn, to decide which of the three lines was the same length as the sample. In the first couple of runs the confederates gave the right answer but in later runs they began to give wrong answers. The subject of the experiment was always one of the last two or three to be asked and, after a couple of runs, about two thirds of the subjects agreed with the confederates, even on obviously incorrect answers.

Different runs of the experiment showed that if one of the confederates gave the right answer first the subject was more likely to give the right answer.[10]

Other experiments since have confirmed Asch's interpretation and psychologist Irving Janis saw this tendency to agree as the cause of bad decisions by groups, including some that shook the world. He argued that the phenomenon that he called 'groupthink' played a major factor in Britain's attempt to appease Hitler before World War II, in the American failure to prepare for an attack on Pearl Harbor, in the invasion of North Korea that led to the Chinese entry into the Korean War, in the Vietnam war, the American-backed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.[11]

Janis died in 1990 but others have cited groupthink as a factor in the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. We might also consider it a factor in the Russian Communist Party's decision to destroy the peasants of the Ukraine by taking their seed grain -- thus causing the famine of 1933 in which 7.5 million died -- the Nazi's attempt to kill all the Jews in Europe and the Israeli war against Palestinians. We blame Stalin for the Ukraine famine and Hitler for the persecution of the Jews but a national leader does not act alone.

Groupthink may also be a factor in the American decision to invade and occupy Iraq, and in the fact that many Americans accepted the decision and still support a war that most of the world sees as unjustified aggression, and which appears likely to lead to decades of war and terrorism.

These decisions were all the product of homogeneous and cohesive groups that were under considerable pressure. Under some conditions, Janis argued, such groups may begin to consider themselves infallible, they will ignore the advice of experts and they will tend toward extreme decisions.


Sometimes we just obey orders. We saw how far this can go in World War II, when people of several nations collaborated with Nazis in the killing of literally millions of Jews. The war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg did not accept the pleas of defendants that they had just 'obeyed orders' but a series of experiments by Stanley Milgram at Yale University from 1960 to 1963, and reports from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq suggest that, under the same conditions, most of us would have obeyed the same orders.

Milgram's experiments have been replicated at several other universities.[12] In some variations of the original experiment, subjects who thought they were helping to study the effect of punishment on learning were ordered by a man we will call the 'authority figure' to inflict increasingly severe electric shocks on a man who was strapped into a chair and unable to move. The man in the chair pretended to be another subject, but was actually an actor.

In fact no shocks were inflicted but, as their supposed intensity was increased, the actor pretended to experience severe pain and he begged the subject to stop. At the same time the authority figure insisted that the subject continue to increase the intensity and administer more shocks. In the basic experiment two thirds of the subjects, including both men and women with various levels of education, obeyed the authority figure.

In some variations of the experiment the actor, pretending to be a person chosen at random, met the subject before the experiment. In conversation he told the subject he had heart trouble and that he lived in fear of a heart attack.

Later, while strapped to the chair, he complained that the shocks were affecting his heart but in most tests the subjects obeyed orders to continue. In one series of tests some subjects continued to inflict severe shocks even after the actor pretended to have passed out.

They did it because they were told to, by a man who wore a white coat and carried a clip-board. The coat and the clip-board identified him as an 'authority' -- a representative of The System -- and therefore someone to be obeyed. As Milgram and others have observed, the potential for obedience is inherent in all human beings.

And, most of the time, most of us are obedient to The System.


The potential for obedience must have evolved with us and, in fact, The System itself must be a product of evolution. Some people argue that random chance could never produce anything as complex as The System but random chance could not have produced individual ants or termites or the zooids that make up a siphonophoran either. Evolution is not random; it's guided by a mechanism some biologists call 'Muller's Ratchet,' named for the American geneticist and Nobel Laureate Hermann Joseph Muller who demonstrated that X-rays can mutate genes and that the mutations can be inherited.

But only some mutations will be passed on. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould illustrated natural selection with the analogy commonly referred to as the 'drunkard's walk.'[13]

Imagine a narrow road with a high wall on one side and a deep ditch on the other. Now imagine a drunk, reeling down this road on a dark night. He may bump into the wall several times but, sooner or later, he will wind up in the ditch.

When he staggers into the wall he will bounce off, but when he falls into the ditch he will stay there. As life forms evolve they will mutate in countless ways but only the mutations that give their bearers an advantage will be passed on. Once these mutations are established in a species they will persist, because any member of the species that does not have them has a relative disadvantage.

That's the way evolution works, and it can work much faster than many people suppose. English biologist Richard Dawkins provides a convincing example.

We have all heard the claim that a million monkeys playing with a million typewriters for a million years would write all the works of Shakespeare.

In fact it is not true. The probability of writing a specific 28-character sentence by typing 28 characters in random order is one chance in 27 to the power of 28, which works out to about one in 10,000 million million million million times. That's the kind of number we can calculate and write down, but most of us can not comprehend.[14]

Raw chance would take almost infinite time to evolve anything, but chance combined with Muller's Ratchet can work quickly. Dawkins chose one 28-character sentence from Hamlet and wrote a program that would make his computer type a random sequence of 28 characters and compare it with the original phrase. Any letters that were correct were kept and other letters were replaced in random order.

The sentence Dawkins chose was "methinks it is like a weasel," but any other 28-character sentence would have done as well.

In the first trial the computer 'evolved' the phrase "methinks it is like i weasel" -- not exact, but close -- in 40 generations. A second try 'evolved' the complete phrase in 64 generations and a third try took 41 generations.[15]

In evolution the changes are random but the selection is not and selection by Muller's Ratchet can make significant changes in a species of plant or animal within a few generations.

The changes that give one life form an advantage over another are more complex than the change of one letter in a 28-letter sentence, of course, but the numbers are bigger all round.

In nature the numbers are so enormous that when it produces a real advantage, an evolutionary change can spread surprisingly quickly.

How many mice are there in the world today? I won't try to guess, but the total must be in the hundreds of billions. In a population that big there must be a lot of mutations and if one mouse develops a mutation that gives it an advantage, that mutation can spread at a mind-boggling rate.

The common house mouse begins to breed at the age of about 10 weeks. Gestation takes about 3 weeks and one female mouse can produce a litter of eight to twelve young every five weeks for the rest of her life. In the first year of her life the female mouse will produce an average of 10 young every five weeks for 42 weeks -- a total of about 80 first-generation descendants.

About 40 of those will be female and, because they and their descendants will also breed, by the end of one year our first mouse will have a total of 4,880 descendants (80 in the first generation, 1,050 in the second 2,500 in the third and 1,250 in the fourth) and she herself will be almost ready to produce another litter. In the next year each of the 2,440 female descendants will produce another 4,880 descendants -- a total of 11,907,200 -- and in the third year the family will number in the tens of billions.[16] This assumes that they all survive, of course, but our first mouse is of interest because she has a survival advantage over other mice. With anything resembling a normal death rate the numbers will be much smaller, but the potential is still staggering.[17]

But while evolution can work quickly when it has to, changes are made only when they are necessary.

Most of the time, evolution is actually a stabilizing force. Because children tend to average the differences between their parents the evolutionary drift is usually toward the average and most of the individuals in any one group of plants, animals or people are more or less similar to each other.

That effect is reinforced by the fact that most of us find 'average' people more attractive than people who are not average. We tend to think that exceptionally attractive men and women are outstanding but the fact is that they are more average than most. We can show this with a popular psychology demonstration in which pictures of faces are laid over each other and averaged on a computer. As more faces are added, the resulting image becomes more attractive. Sir Francis Galton first demonstrated this more than a hundred years ago, by combining photographs, and modern psychologists use a computer program to create a composite image.[18]

he official face of 'Betty Crocker,' adopted by General Mills in 1996, is actually a composite of 75 American women representing all ages and racial groups in the country. The company believes, apparently with good reason, that most of us find her attractive.[19]

Because we find the average most attractive, most of the young born to any species will be average. In a human marriage, for example, an average man and an average woman will have children who will tend to average the characteristics of the parents.

Because of the averaging effect an organism that works well may remain unchanged for a very long time. Fossil ants from 100 million years ago look very much like modern ants, and those fossil ants are descended from wasps that looked very much like modern wasps.[20]


When evolutionary change does occur it is driven by one of two processes. One is what biologists call a 'bottleneck.'

Every generation includes some mutations and when the living is easy, many of the mutated varieties of plants and animals may do well.

But when drought or a new predator or some other factor creates a 'bottleneck,' only plants or animals that can adapt to the new conditions survive.

We've seen this occur in historic times. Until the middle of the 19th century the English Peppered Moth, Biston betularia, was uniformly peppered light gray. Dark-pigmented variants were first reported in 1848 in Manchester and, shortly afterward, in other industrial regions where the vegetation was blackened by soot and other pollutants.

By the middle of the 20th century the dark varieties had almost completely replaced the lightly pigmented forms in many polluted areas while, in unpolluted regions, light gray moths continued to be the most common.

The shift from light to dark moths was the result of selection by birds. On lichen-covered tree trunks light-gray moths are hard to see but dark ones are easy for insect-eating birds to find. When the trees are darkened by pollution, the darker moths survive and breed.[21]

Within the past 50 years we have seen the 'evolution' of mosquitoes that can survive DDT and of germs that can survive penicillin.

We might think that all mosquitoes and germs have changed, but that's not quite correct. In fact DDT killed most mosquitoes and penicillin killed most germs, but some of each had enough natural resistance to survive and most modern mosquitoes and germs are descended from the survivors.

The second engine of change is the 'settler effect' which occurs when groups of individuals are isolated from one another. It works slowly, but it can accentuate the effect of a bottleneck.

Suppose we move a herd of giraffes from Africa to Australia, where they will be isolated from all other giraffes. This group is about the same as other giraffes when we move them but while it is isolated, it will change.

Both groups will mutate but the mutations will be different and, as long as the two populations are isolated, mutations that occur within Australia will stay in Australia and mutations that occur in Africa will stay in Africa.

Some mutations may be more viable in Australia than they would be in Africa and vice versa. Through the combination of the bottleneck and the settler effect giraffes in Australia will evolve to be quite different from giraffes in Africa, even though they are descended from the same ancestors.

It was because of the combination of bottlenecks and the settler effect that Charles Darwin found different varieties of birds and animals on different islands in the Galapagos. Birds can travel between the islands but they don't do it often and the populations are effectively isolated. As mutations develop the ones that help birds find food are passed on, but only on the island where they developed. By the time Darwin arrived a single species, the Galapagos Finch, had evolved into a half-dozen quite different but still closely related variants. The most obvious differences are in the beaks, which are adapted to eat different types of food. There are no woodpeckers on the islands but two varieties of Galapagos finch use cactus thorns as tools to dig grubs out of holes in trees.[22]

Those birds are an example of another general principle, that life forms will evolve to make use of any food source or life-style available. That's why we find the same general types of animals in tropical Africa, Asia and South America. The animals are different but they are similar, because they fill similar niches in the ecosystem.

Cut off from the rest of the world before the evolution of modern mammals, Australia evolved a 'marsupial wolf' and a carnivorous kangaroo to fill the appropriate niches.

Selective breeding is a special type of bottleneck, with selection by men rather than by nature. In about 10,000 years since our ancestors began to settle in villages we have seen the evolution of dozens of new breeds of cows, pigs, horses, sheep, cats and dogs and have developed dozens of new farm crops.

The selective breeding of farm animals is managed by men but it's a natural process. In one example from nature, antelope have been breeding faster cheetahs and cheetahs have been breeding faster antelope for millennia.

Either a bottleneck or the settler effect can bring about change and, once change has begun, the phenomenon we call 'positive feedback' can trigger a cascade of changes.

Stable systems are controlled by 'negative feedback,' in which the increase of an effect triggers a reduction in the cause. The most familiar example is the thermostat that controls the heating system in a modern house. It turns the heat on when the house is too cool and turns it off when the house gets too warm, keeping the temperature within a pre-set range.

'Positive feedback' is the reverse -- as though the thermostat were to turn the heat on when the house gets too warm and turn it off if the house cools down. We hear an example of positive feedback in auditoriums when a microphone picks up the hiss of the speakers and amplifies it to produce an ear-splitting screech. Any system controlled by positive feedback will be unstable.

In evolution, positive feedback can produce rapid and radical change. The evolution of weapons, for example, is driven by positive feedback because if one army develops a new weapon other armies must improve on it or develop new weapons of their own. In the case of weapons this process is not good for humanity but many of the artifacts and mechanisms we develop as weapons later become tools. Positive feedback in weapons development spurred a cascade of change that took us from clubs to computers in less than 20,000 years. That's a long time to us, but the blink of an eye compared to the 100 million years that ants and termites have had to develop their systems.


We tend to associate evolution with plants and animals but the concept applies in many fields. It developed out of a study of prehistoric tools.

Early scholars didn't recognize the earliest stone tools as tools but some Danish peat bogs preserved prehistoric stone axes complete with wooden handles and leather bindings. They were obviously tools and, in the early 19th century, the Danish Museum of Antiquities was established to collect them.

In 1816 Christian Thomsen was appointed director of the museum and he began to sort what was at that point a completely disorganized collection of prehistoric junk. In those days museums had no way to tell the age of prehistoric goods and, in his efforts to organize the artifacts, Thomsen sorted them according to the materials they were made of -- stone, bronze and iron.

As he sorted he realized that some were older than others and in 1836 he published his suggestion that human history could be divided into three 'ages' -- the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. Many archaeologists consider this paper to be the beginning of modern archaeology.[23]

Ancient tools evolved and tools and artifacts still evolve. My computer is evolved from the huge, expensive and clumsy Eniac and Univac machines of the 1940's, which in turn are evolved from the 'Difference Engine' invented by Charles Babbage in the 1830's and the Jacquard loom, developed in 1804, which was itself evolved from a loom built by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1745.

My car is evolved from the three-wheeled horseless carriage that Karl Benz built in 1885, which had roots in the chariots of the Hittite Empire. A modern jetliner is evolved from the airplane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the gliders that Otto Lilienthal built in the 1890's and the kites that have been popular in China since prehistoric times.

The evolution of tools and machines is not exactly like the evolution of plants and animals but it is analogous. Both are examples of change that is guided by selection at each stage. The difference is that both the changes and the selection among man-made artifacts are guided by human choice. Plants and animals are produced by nature and the changes and the choices are made by nature. Whether the selection is by man or by nature the process is the same and, in either case, positive feedback from a single change may begin a cascade.


The evolution of a social system is also different from the evolution of plants and animals but the same general rules apply. The difference is that plants and animals have predictable lifetimes and they can't change within them. Instead, they produce new generations at regular intervals and each new generation is slightly different from the one before.

Social systems are potentially immortal and may have no generations, but all can change at any time. They are far more flexible than plants or animals because they can add change on change, or reverse an earlier change.

A nation, for example, can change from monarchy to republic and back again, but most of the changes that biological systems make are irreversible.

Further, a human system can change because it wants to. A wolf might look at a mountain lion and wish it had the cat's claws, but it can never grow those claws. An army can look at another army and wish it had the same weapons, and it can get those weapons.

And among human systems no development need be wasted. It's not likely that the extinct dodo bird was immune to cancer but if it was and if we could have discovered a cure for cancer by studying the dodo, it's too late now.

Modern generals still learn from Napoleon and Caesar and when one system dies, others can adopt parts of it. After World War II dozens of Nazi scientists moved to the United States and Russia to continue their work for new masters. When the system we called Nazi Germany died, the systems we call Russia and the United States took the parts they wanted.

But if the mechanism of change is different, the selection process is the same. Systems that make viable changes live and grow and systems that make the wrong changes -- or that fail to change when change is required -- don't. When we see the destruction of an ant colony we think of the death of the insects, but it is also the death of one copy of a social system.

We have no records of the failure of any of the systems that control ant colonies but we can assume that some of them probably failed. We have records of the failure of many human systems and of the survival of some even after the physical break-up of the communities in which they developed.

The religion and much of the culture of the Jewish people survived the destruction of the original Jewish state and the dispersal of its people throughout most of the Roman world.

Systems can survive the people who develop them and, if a system dies, parts of it may live on in another system.

We think the 'classical cultures' of Greece and Rome are history but Greek and Roman ideas, architecture and customs are found in parts of the world the ancient Greeks and Romans never heard of.


But if systems evolve they still need an origin and that leads us to question how they started in the first place. We can assume that people organized some human systems but ants and termites did not plan theirs and neither did bees, siphonophorans or slime molds. Somehow, these systems must have organized themselves.

Scientists have been studying self-organizing systems for more than 20 years now. Mostly they do it with computers and that's a problem for me because I can accept their assertions but I can't understand them well enough to try to explain them to you.[24]

But there are other ways to explain self-organizing systems. In general, systems self-organize because some things fit together or are pulled together by natural forces.

The simplest example of a natural system is a ball dropped into a bowl. It's no surprise that gravity always pulls the ball to the bottom of the bowl.

For a more complex example, consider a bowl full of crushed gravel in which each stone has a random shape with angular projections and indentations. If I shake the bowl they will all move around but as one piece jams against another the two will move together. If I shake the bowl long enough many of the stones will lock together, under pressure from the others, to form a nearly-solid mass.

I don't know which stones will lock into which and in fact it probably could happen in any one of a hundred ways but, one way or another, I know it will probably happen.

That's sort of what happens when crystals form, except that the stones will form a random mass and the structure of a crystal is regular and symmetrical. Still, any one material may form several different types of crystals.

Carbon, for example, can form into the lattice we call a diamond, or a flat crystal of graphite, the spherical form we call a Buckminster fullerene (or 'bucky ball') or into a nanotube -- the basis of carbon fiber. Snowflakes are assemblies of crystals that come in virtually infinite variety but they are generally symmetrical. When they are not, it is because of damage as, or after, it is formed.

One popular illustration of self organization uses a flat disk with a funnel suspended over it and sand trickling through the funnel.

The sand will form a cone which will grow until its bottom covers the disk, but the size of the disk and the angle of the sides of the cone are hard limits. Now if we keep trickling sand the cone will grow until it becomes unstable, then a slide will reduce it to the optimal size.

The slides will occur according to a pattern discovered by geologists Beno Gutenberg and Charles Richter in 1956. They counted the frequency of weak and strong earthquakes and found that there is a fixed relationship between them. The same relationship also predicts the size of the slides in a pile of sand, the relative strength of hurricanes and tornadoes and even the severity of stock market crashes! Some scientists have a problem with the stock market crashes and I can't offer any explanation, but people who claim to understand such things say the numbers work out.[25]

When we look at Craig Reynolds' 'boids' program we can see how the flocking behavior of birds must have developed. As we said earlier each boid must obey only three rules -- it must avoid colliding with fixed objects in its virtual environment, it must travel in the same general direction as other boids and it must try to stay near the center of the flock but avoid crowding other boids.

Given these rules, flocking behavior will develop because birds that do not follow the rules are less likely to survive. Birds that leave the flock and fly on their own are easy prey for predators, and so are birds that fly at the edges of the flock. Birds that do not avoid other birds will collide, and be injured or killed.

Birds know nothing of Reynolds' rules but some will have a natural propensity to behave one way, and some to behave another. Birds whose natural propensity is to behave as Reynolds rules demand form flocks and birds that do not, do not.[26]

In the natural world some systems organize themselves by what biologists call 'co-evolution.' An insect called the fig wasp lays its eggs only in one type of fig, and some types of figs are pollinated only by fig wasps. If there were no wasps the figs could not reproduce and without figs, the wasps could not reproduce.

Which came first, the wasp or the fig? If the wasp can't breed without the fig and the fig can't propagate without the wasp, they must have evolved from wasps that could lay eggs in other plants and figs that could be pollinated by other insects. The two evolved together and so must have dozens of other co-dependent species.

Yucca plants are pollinated only by yucca moths, which hatch from eggs laid only in yucca plants.

Co-evolution developed the behavior of the wrasse fish that live around coral reefs and pick the teeth of predators that eat other fish but not wrasse. On some reefs stenopus hispidus shrimp clean the teeth of fish and alpheus shrimp of the Red Sea share burrows with goby fish, which warn them of danger.

In Africa, spur-winged plovers and thickknee birds clean the teeth of crocodiles that could kill them with a random snap -- but don't. Oxpecker birds ride on the back of water buffalo and eat the ticks and other pests that bother them and, in tropical forests around the world, some varieties of ants live in trees and protect them from browsing animals. Some trees in turn protect ants with thorns and others provide a sweet sap that ants eat.

One variety of blind snake has a skin so tough that it can usually survive being caught and carried by a screech owl. Some blind snakes that are carried to owls' nests escape, to live in the nest and prey on insect pests that would otherwise bother the owls. It is not likely that snakes volunteer to be carried to owls' nests but, once there, they serve a useful function.

In Arabia a thorny-tailed lizard often shares a burrow with a black scorpion. The lizard eats insects and the scorpion could kill the lizard but when they live together the lizard eats predators that might attack the scorpion and the scorpion protects the burrow -- and therefore the lizard -- from foxes and men that hunt lizards.

Two varieties of African birds called honey guides live on beeswax and bee larvae, but they are unable to break into a beehive themselves. Instead they guide humans or African honey badgers, to the hives. After the humans or the badgers break into the hives and take the honey, the birds feast on the wax and the larvae.

Dolphins in coastal waters around the world often drive schools of fish against a shoreline where the schools break up, making individual fish easier to catch. In several parts of the world, dolphins cooperate with human fishermen for the benefit of both.

In 1856 English biologist J.K.E. Fairholme described how Australian Aboriginals near the present city of Brisbane would wade offshore and beat the water with their spears to signal dolphins which would then herd schools of fish up to them. The fishermen would spear some fish and the dolphins would catch others that tried to break away. On the coast of Mauritania the same system developed, with the difference that fishermen there used clubs.

Near the city of Laguna in southern Brazil modern fishermen stand waist deep in the water and wait until one or more dolphins herd a school of mullet fish to them. When a dolphin breaks the surface and slaps the water with its chin, the fisherman throws a net to cover the surface between the fisherman and the dolphin. As the net is thrown the dolphin sinks to the bottom, to catch fish that try to escape from under it.

Biologists who studied the interaction saw one mother dolphin teach her 4-month-old calf the technique. Six times the mother and calf herded fish up to a fisherman then, on a seventh run, the calf did it alone while the mother watched.

Farther south, on the Rio Grande de Sul, groups of fishermen line up their boats near the edge of the river and wait for dolphins to herd fish to them. At both locations fishermen catch more fish when the dolphins help them.[27]


The relationships between figs and wasps, wrasse and predator fish, spur-winged plovers and crocodiles, thorny-tailed lizards and black scorpions and dolphins and fishermen were not planned by anyone and they have no formal structure. They behave like systems but, because they have no formal organization, I call them 'metasystems.' Metasystems also arise within human societies and, even though they may have no recognized leaders and no formal structure, they may be more stable than any formal system.

The best-known human metasystem is the military-industrial complex. The military and manufacturers of arms are not supposed to share common management but both benefit from a threat of war and/or an arms race. Because they have a common interest they generally work in the same direction; even in situations where there is no overt cooperation.[28]

The members of a metasystem may compete with or even oppose each other but, because of their common interests, they cooperate in some ways. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith reports that Henry Kissinger "once told me that you could understand the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States only if you realized that the proponents of military expenditures in both countries had united against the civilians of both countries."[29]

This does not suggest that our leaders plot against us or that the military of two hostile countries would cooperate in a plot against their own people. That would be treason, of course, but we're not talking treason here because metasystems can and will organize themselves without the volition of the people (or animals) that comprise them. If one military-industrial complex develops a new weapon, a competing military-industrial complex must respond.

Our membership in some metasystems is temporary. When I ride an elevator I share with the other passengers an interest in the quality or lack of music, in the freshness of the air and in the hope that the mechanism will not break down -- but only for a few minutes. When I leave the elevator the metasystem continues, because the occupants are still concerned about the state of the elevator, but I am no longer a member of it. Our membership in other metasystems, such as gender and racial groups, may be for life.

But how did it all start? We can only guess at that but, if we apply Occam's Razor, our guesses can be reasonably dependable.

Metasystems evolve because two or more entities can live better together than separately. Among flocking birds and schooling fish the entities are similar and perform similar functions, but many systems involve a division of labor.[30]

Among ants, termites and bees the entities are essentially similar, but perform different functions. In most (but not all) such communities one queen breeds, one male fertilizes the queen, some females are specialized as workers and, often, some females are specialized as soldiers. They perform different functions but they are all recognizably members of the same species.

Siphonophorans, slime molds and some other systems are groups of similar entities; but a lichen includes both algae and fungi and some systems of ants include aphids that the ants protect and that they 'milk' for honeydew. Other systems of ants include a tree that they live in and protect, and the system of termites includes the termitary. It also includes a fascinating collection of protozoans and, if we look closely, we find that a single termite is also a 'composite animal.'

Termites eat wood, straw and other cellulose-rich food but they can't digest cellulose. The enzymes that do it for many Australian termites are produced in a protozoan called Mixotricha paradoxa which swims around in the termites' gut. It's a very active little critter and it can move quite quickly, but not by its own power.

Many protozoans swim by waving hairlike projections called flagellae which act like oars, but Mixotricha paradoxa doesn't have enough flagellae to do the job. Fortunately, lots of the type of bacteria that biologists call spirochetes attach themselves to the surface of Mixotricha paradoxa and wave like flagellae to move it around.

The other surprise is that Mixotricha paradoxa probably can't digest cellulose either. Fortunately, it plays host to at least two symbiotic bacteria that do the job for it.[31]

It's the bacteria in the Mixotricha paradoxa that enable it to produce the enzyme that digests the cellulose that the termite eats, and thus enables the termite to build the termitary.

An individual termite is a system with internal systems that have internal systems and, at the same time, it is itself part of a larger system. We could also say that individual human beings are systems because we also need bacteria to digest the food we eat, but the human systems we will consider in this book all start with complete humans. Most of them are groups of humans, but some human-based systems and metasystems include animals or machines.[32]

A cavalry regiment could not exist without horses and an air force could not exist without airplanes. Some military units exist without either horses or airplanes, of course, but an infantry regiment is very different from either an air force command or a cavalry regiment.

The horses make the difference between a regiment of cavalry and a regiment of infantry and this difference may be very real. A troop of cavalry might have more in common with, and possibly more respect for, a fox hunt or a team of polo players than with and for a company of infantry. Some troops of cavalry may include men who are also members of a fox hunt, or of a polo team, but we can be certain that no troop of cavalry includes infantrymen.

Some human systems also include places. A city council, for example, could not exist without its city.

Whether human or not, systems are natural phenomena. The organization of an ant hill is produced by the behavior of the ants, but that does not make it less natural. Without the algae that make it up there would be no slime mold, but the mold itself is natural. A siphonophoran is the product of the zooids that make it up, but it is natural and so is any system or system organized by people.

The members of human systems are of the same species, but they perform different functions. We began to specialize some time in pre-history, when women gathered food and men hunted for it. This may have been a physiological adaptation, because an advanced state of pregnancy is more of a disadvantage to a hunter than to a gatherer.

The next level of specialization for humans probably came with the development of full-time craftsmen. We don't know when this happened but we have evidence that it probably happened very early and, again, specialization may have given some groups an advantage.

Over the years humans have developed a variety of systems, including some that have been planned in advance rather than allowed to evolve. Planning allows much faster development than evolution but we have to question whether it can match evolution for quality. Certainly, we know that human planning has never produced anything as complex or as efficient as even a relatively simple life form.


Human systems are organized by people, but a metasystem evolves when one or more individuals or systems have a common interest. Once formed a metasystem may evolve and grow, but is it really alive? We might argue that for years but according to author Ellen Thro, European computer programmers working on artificial life have agreed that when a program becomes autonomous it is alive. Because it forms itself and has no human managers a metasystem is autonomous and therefore, by the standards of artificial life, alive.[33]

And whether a system is really alive or not, if we think of it as a form of life we remind ourselves that it has its own needs, intentions and ambitions which are distinct from those of the humans who think they control it.

If a system does not actually have 'needs, intentions and ambitions' as we understand them, the concept is still useful. It makes no difference to a fly whether a Venus flytrap flower intends to trap it or not. Either way, the fly is trapped.

Neither the flower nor The System need intentions. They do what they do because they are what they are. For both, the driving force is the need to survive and grow.

If The System were an animal we could pretend that it 'wants' to grow, but even then we would be fooling ourselves.

Evolution does not care what plants, animals or things 'want.' Changes occur, for one reason or another, and the ones that work are passed on.[34]

Over time any system can grow or shrink but, like any other form of life, it 'wants' to grow. A human system can grow by gaining control of more money, power or people. Most of the humans involved in them would like to see the commercial systems we call corporations make profits but the systems themselves want only to grow.

Once established, most human systems will grow because the humans who manage them always seem to be able to justify some new need for a product or service or administration. As our needs change we also find that some products, services and administrations become redundant but, in most cases, they will not be discontinued because the systems that supply them will find some way to maintain the appearance of need, if not the need itself.

If that sounds unreasonable remember that we speak of effects, not causes. Some systems will grow and some will fail but in the end it is only the ones that grow that we concern ourselves with. They are the evolutionary successes and the others are failures.

A successful system will even defend itself. Faced with the same stimulus some systems will respond this way and some that, and some will survive and some will not. The survivors are those whose response to a threat amounts to an effective defense.

At times one human system may cooperate with another but, whether cooperative or not, human systems tend to be competitive. This may be partly because they are potentially cannibalistic. The fastest way for one system to grow is by absorbing other systems and we have seen this occur throughout history.

In years gone by empires grew by conquering nations and other empires and, in the past hundred years, we have seen many of the commercial systems we call corporations grow to enormous size by taking over other corporations.

In the modern world nations do not take over other nations completely but they do conquer them and set up puppet governments, integrating the conquered nation into the conquering system if not the conquering nation. In World War II Nazi Germany set up the Petain government in France and the Quisling government in Norway. After the breakup of the USSR Russia retained Chechnya, despite armed rebellion and, as this is written, the puppet government of Iraq is still supported by American and British troops.

In most cases the citizens of puppet states are not happy but, for any system, human considerations are of no more interest than the interests of cattle or other animals are to a farmer. The System is not opposed to humans any more than humans are opposed to cattle but, when the interests of systems and of people clash, systems will support the interests of systems and the servants of a system will support the system they serve.

Even systems that supposedly exist to serve people will look after their own interests first and the interests of people later. On Oct. 26/01 Dr. Bernadine Healy, president of the American Red Cross, announced her resignation after reporters learned that the association planned to divert more than $200 million in donations to its own use. Americans had donated more than $530 million specifically to help victims of the Sept 11 disaster but the Red Cross planned to use $109 million from the fund to improve its telecommunications, accounting and management, $50 million for its blood reserves program, $26 million for "community outreach," $29 million for "indirect or administrative costs" and $11 million for "international assistance."[35] After the resignation of Dr. Healy the Red Cross promised that all donations intended for victims of the Sept 11 disaster would be passed on to them, but the decision was taken under extreme public pressure.

A new leader might change the nature and behavior of a system, but that is not likely. Over time the nature of a system develops like the nature of any other living thing, in response to internal and external pressures. Within limits the leader can steer a system as the captain steers a sailing ship but, like the captain of a sailing ship, the leader of a system can sail only in directions that the wind and currents allow.

Like the captain of a sailing ship the leader of a system can beat against the wind but that takes time and, unlike a sailing ship, a system may be autonomous. In many cases a system will choose the individual who leads it and, most times, it will choose a leader who is committed to the course the system is already following. Some systems will resist or get rid of a leader who tries to change it. As we noted earlier, the Pope could not make Catholics worship the devil.

We might try to decide whether a system uses people or whether the people it uses are part of The System but for now, at least, I'm going to bow out of that one. If physicists can say that light is a wave motion that sometimes shows the characteristics of particles, or a shower of particles that seem to travel in waves, we can certainly fudge a bit on the exact nature and composition of a system. My personal feeling is that some people are part of The System and others are used by it.

Most of our human systems and metasystems began in pre-history and we have no record of how they started but we do know something about how early man lived and we can develop some plausible scenarios. We can't be sure that any one of them is valid but, considering that the systems we call civilizations seem to have developed independently in several different locations, it's quite likely that several different scenarios are valid. The one that follows is based mostly on what might have happened in the middle east and around the Mediterranean -- the area that European scholars used to consider the 'cradle of civilization' and that, as we will see, was also the cradle of other developments.

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