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Maladaptation in social systems
Roy A. Rappaport
Chicago (Illinois, Estados Unidos), 1977.

La maladaptación en los sistemas sociales

I shall be concerned in this essay with maladaptation and its evolution. The notion of maladaptation is, of course, contingent upon the concept of adaptation, a concept central to much biological and anthropological thought. Like most central concepts, that of adaptation is not entirely clear, and perhaps it should not be. In remaining vague it itself remains adaptive. Be that as it may, usage and understanding varies, and before approaching maladaptation it is necessary for me to make understanding of adaptation explicit, even at risk of rehearsing some elementary matters.

I take the term adaptation to refer to the processes by which living systems maintain homeostasis in the face of both short term environmental fluctuations and, by transforming their own structures, through long-term nonreversing changes in the composition and structure of their environments as well. I take living systems to include (1) organisms, (2) single species assemblages such as populations, troops, tribes and states, and (3) the multispecies associations of ecosystemic communities. Systemic homeostasis may be given specific, if not always precise meaning if it is conceived as a set of ranges of viability on a corresponding set of variables abstracted from what, for independently established empirical or theoretical reasons, are taken to be conditions vital to the survival of the system. This is to say that any process, physiological, behavioural, cultural or genetic which tends to keep the states of crucial variables (e.g. body temperature, population size, protein intake, energy flux) within ranges of viability or tends to return them to such ranges should they depart from them may be taken, other things being equal, to be adaptive. Later it will be necessary to consider difficulties in the association of adaptiveness with particular variables, but this preliminary formulation may stand for the present, because it underlines certain features of adaptive process and structure. These are:

First, adaptation is basically cybernetic. In response to signal of system endangering change in the state of a component or an aspect of the environment, actions tending to ameliorate those changes are initiated. Corrective actions may eliminate the stressor, take compensatory adjustments or even involve changes --genetic, constitutional, structural-- in the system's organisation. Adaptation in this view includes both the self-regulatory processes through which living systems maintain themselves in fluctuating environment and self-organising processes by which they transform themselves in response to directional environmental changes. These two classes of processes have generally been distinguished in anthropology and have formed the foci of two distinct modes of analysis: functionlal on the one hand, and evolutionary on the other. But the distinction has surely been overdrawn. In a changing universe, after all, the maintenance of organisation is likely to demand its continual modification. The conecting generalisation is what Hocket & Ascher (1964) called Romer's Rule after the zoologist who first enunciated it in a discussion of the emergence of the amphibia. The lobe-finned fish, Romer (1933) argued, did not come onto dry land to take advantage of the terrestrial habitat. Rather, relatively minor modification of their fins and other subsystems made them better able to migrate from one drying up stream or ponds to another still containing water during the intermittent periods of desiccation presumed to have characterised the Devonian era. Such changes, this is to say, made it possible for these creatures to maintain their general aquatic organisation during a period of marked environmental change. In slightly different terms, self-organising or evolutionary changes in component of systems are functions of the self-regulatory process of the more inclusive systems of which they are parts. Thus, structural or evolutionary changes such as fin to leg, although on some grounds they may be distinguished from functional changes or systemic adjustments are not separated from them in the larger more inclusive scheme of adaptive process. Together thet form orderes series of responses to perturbations.

Several comments are in order before discussing adaptive response sequences. First, it is worth making explicit because there seems to be considerable confusion surrounding this matter, that the view of adaptation proposed here suggests that there is no contradiction between the maintenance of homeostasis and evolutionary change. Indeed, the most salient question to ask concerning any structural change is «What does this change maintain unchanged?» Second, insofar as adaptive processes are cybernetic they are possessed of a characteristic structure because cybernetic systems have a characteristic structure, namely that of the closed causal loop. In a cybernetic system a deviation from a reference value itself initiates the process which attempts to correct it. Third, while adaptive processes may have cybernetic characteristics all that is cybernetic is not adaptive in the sense outlined in the firsts paragraphs of this essay. In the most general terms cybernetic systems attempt to maintain the truth value of propositions about themselves in the face of perturbations tending to falsify them (Bateson, 1972a). In systems dominated by humans at least, the propositions so maintained (and the physical states represented by such propositions) may not correspond to, or may even contradict, homeostasis biologically or even socially defined.

Adaptive response sequences have certain important properties that can be noted only briefly here (Bateson, 1963; Slobodkin, 1968). The responses most quickly mobilised are likely to be energetically expensive, but they have the advantage of being easily reversible should the stress cease, and they can hold the line, so to speak, until relieved by slower acting, less energetically expensive, less easily reversible changes should the stress not cease. Thus responses to high altitudes start with panting and racing of the heart, which are inmediately, and continue through a series of circulatory and other changes, to, after a year or so, irreversible changes in lung capacity and in the size of the heart's right ventricle (Bateson, 1963; Frisancho, 1975; Hurtado, 1964; Leake, 1964; Slobodkin, 1968). The ultimate change in such sequences would be genetic, although this seems not to have been necessary in high altitude adaptation. Similarly, the initial response of a town to very heavy traffic loads during peak periods may be transitory redeployment of police. But if this response is inadequate or itself causes an intolerable strain a series of less reversible actions may be initiated, the ultimate perhaps being the construction of a highway by-pass, a change which is virtually irreversible.

It is of note that the earlier responses deprive the system of immediate behavioural flexibility while they continue --the organism when it first move to 15,000 feet can do little except aerate itself; the police force while it is taking care of peak traffic is not free to attend to emergencies. But while they continue, the estructure of the system remains unchanged; thus they conserve the long run flexibility of the system. In contrast, while the later responses do alleviate the strain of the earlier, they are likely to reduce long-range flexibility. There is in such series a continual and graduated trade-off of adaptive flexibility for adapted efficiency. To the extent that the perturbations to which the system will be subjected in the future are unpredictable it is good evolutionary strategy to give up as little long-range flexibility as possible, and evolutionary wisdom seems to be intrinsic to the graduated structure of adaptive response sequences, at least in biological systems. Social systems, on the other hand can make mistakes of which biological systems may be incapable.

A second general point, related to the first, is that adaptive processes are not only cybernetic, sequential and graduated. The adaptive structure of any living system is not merely a collection of more or less distinct feedback loops. Special adaptions must be related to each other in structural ways and general adaptations, human or otherwise, biological or cultural, must take the form of enormously complex sets of interlocking correcting loops, roughly and generally hierarchically arranged and including not only mechanism regulating material variables, but regulators regulating relations between regulators and so on (Kalmus, 1966; Miller, 1965a, 1965b; Pattee, 1973; Powers, Clarke & McFarland, 1960; Rappaport, 1969, 1971a, 1971b; Simon, 1969). Adaptive structures are structured sets of processes, and regulatory hierarchies, whether or not they are embodied in particular organs or institutions are found in all biological and social systems. However, it is important to issue a caveat here: to say that regulatory structure is hierarchical is not to say that it is centralised, nor does it imply social stratification. For instance, among some egalitarian societies, components of regulatory hierarchies are embedded in ritual cycles; in others in segmentary kinship organisation (Brookfield & Brown, 1963; Meggit, 1965, 1972; Ortiz, 1970; Rappaport, 1968; Sahlins, 1961).

Another aspect of the hierarchical organisation of adaptation is the relationship of parts to wholes. This was implied in Romer's discussion of the emergence of the amphibia. Modifications in certain of the special purpose subsystems of the lobe-finned fish made it possible to maintain unchanged the general systemic characteristics of those organisms. Now whole living systems -organisms and assemblages of organisms-- are what Pask (1968) has called «general purpose systems», for they do not have special goals or outputs. Their only purpose or goal is that most general of purposes or goals (or if you prefer, non-purposes or non-goals): survival. They are, as Slobodkin (1968) has put it, «players of the existential game», one in which there are no pay-offs external to the game because the player can't leave the table, one in which, threfore, the only reward for successful play is to be allowed to continue playing. But they are made up of subsystems which do have special goals or outputs valuable, presumably, to the larger systems of which they are parts. The increasing differentiation, in the course of evolution, of special purpose subsystems in organisms, societies and ecosystems has been called «progressive segregation» (Hall & Fagen, 1956; Von Bertalanffy, 1969), and it is often accompanied in organisms and social systems, but not ecosystems, by increasing centralisation of regulatory operation, or «progressive centralisation». In organisms we note the elaboration central nervous systems, in societies the development of administrative structures. This contrast between the development of ecological and other systems may rest upon their contrasting bases for order maintenance. The basis of orderliness in ecosystems seems to shift in the course of succession from a reliance upon resilience of individual organisms not to central regulation, but to a reliance upon the increasingly redundancy of matter and energy pathways resulting from increasing species diversity. These contrasting bases of order maintenance, in turn, reflect the differences in the degrees of coherence that these different classes of systems require and can tolerate. By coherence I refer to the extent to which a change in one system component affects changes in others; in a fully coherent system any change results in immediate and proportional changes in all components (Hall & Fagen, 1956). As no living system can be totaly incoherent neither could it be totally coherent, for in a fully coherent system disruptions anywhere would immediately spread anywhere. Whereas anthropologists traditionally have been concerned with the ways in which the various components of socio-cultural systems are bound together --the jargon is integrated-- they have generally ignored the ways in which the parts and processes of such systems are buffered from each other and each other's disruptions.

Organisms are, and in their nature must be, more coherent than social systems, and social systems are more coherent than ecosystems. As a rule of thumb, the more inclusive the system, and the greater the degree of relative autonomy inhering in its subsystems, the less coherent it must be. The less inclusive the system the more its internal orderliness and the efectiveness of its activities depends upon the fine coordination of its parts. An organism requires and can tolerate closer coordination of the activities of its parts than societies and societies more, at least from time to time, than ecosystems. Coordination depend upon centralisation, hence progressive centralisation in organisms and societies, but not in ecosystems. Whereas the adaptive structures of all living systems have certain fundamental features in common they also differ in certain ways, probably related most importantly to differences in their coherence and in the relative autonomy of their subsystems.

I shall now make explicit what I think may be some of the salient features of orderly adaptive structure in social systems as a preliminary to noting the ways in which they may be disrupted. For the sake of brevity and clarity the suggestions that follow will be expressed more simply and certainly than they should be. Empirical research and further conceptualisation is badly needed; what follows is to be taken to be suggestive. I shall be concerned mainly with the hierarchical organisation of adaptive structure, and shall follow the convention of referring to more inclusive systems and regulation as higher order, less inclusive as lower order. Certain of the features of orderly adaptive structures have already been implied, and some seem to be logically necessary, but it is well to make them explicit.

  1. Lowest order regulators are concerned with the regulation of specific material or behavioural variables. The regulation of, say, a garden is concerned with a complex of material variables --soil moisture, weed density, insect infestation-- that are likely to fluctuate or change in value very quickly and that require more or less constant attention. Lower order regulators --like factory foremen or gardeners-- operate more or less continuously, reacting very quickly to slight changes in conditions. The directives of low order regulators are, typically, highly specific commands relating to immediate states of affairs. In sum, low order regulation is concerned with specific operations in special purpose subsystems. However, such operations are typically guided by goals or considerations established from above, either by directive or by such mechanisms as demand in market economics.
  2. As a rule, the responses of lower order regulators in social systems are more easily reversible than those of higher order. (They may differ in this regard from biological systems in which early response --such as easily reversible panting upon first entering high altitude-- may mobilise much of the resources of the system as a whole, and which may radically affect the behaviour of the system as a whole. This possible difference between biological and social systems is, perhaps, related to their differences in coherence, and in the ability of social systems to develop rather easily special purpose subsystems, like the Red Cross and the fire department, specifically for dealing with emergencies.) Moreover, being closer to possibly perturbing changes in the states of variables, and being in a position to take highly specific actions, or to issue highly specific commands very quickly, lower order regulators are likely to respond more delicately to perturbations than are regulators of higher order.
  3. Higher order regulators are, as a rule, not so much concerned with the correction of minor deviations in the states of particular variables as they are with regulating the relations among lower order regulators and relations among the outputs, requirements, or special purposes of the several subsystems subordinate to them. They often operate in terms of highly aggregated variables (such as monetary values), and they become directly concerned with affairs usually managed by lower order regulators only when the lower order regulators experience difficulty. Several comments should be made here.

    First, it is clear that higher order regulators do not know nor do they need to know, everything known by the lower order regulators subordinate to them. In fact it is perhaps better that they don't, for economy of information processing capacity is an important aspect of regulatory hierarchies. Too much detailed information concerning the states of low order variables could overload the capacities of higher order regulators.

    Second, in technologically simple and relatively undifferentiated societies in which a domestic mode of production prevails (Sahlins, 1967), high order regulation is likely to be simpler and operate less continuously than that of low order. For instance, in the horticultural societies of New Guinea the regulation of gardening is typically located in individual households and is continuous. The regulation of the dispersion of the population over land so that they can garden, a matter concerning relations among households, is embedded in the segmentary organisation of more inclusive groups and in some cases in ritual cycles (Rappaport, 1968), and operates only occasionally.

    Third, whereas higher order regulators do issue specific commands, other sorts of directives are also likely to emanate from them. There are, first, rules, which differ from commands in that they are not situation-specific. They specify what is to be done or not to be done under specified categories of circumstances. This is to say that they are less specific, or more general, than commands. Yet higher order regulation enunciates yet more general directives, which may be called policy statements or principles, like «All men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness». It is presumably to define the vague terms of such principles, and to fulfill them, that rules are encoded, and it is in conformity to rules that commands are issued. In sum, from highest order regulation, associated with the general purpose system as a whole, to lowest, associated with the operation of special purpose subsystems, there is a progress from regulatory sentences which are high in generality and vagueness to sentences high in specific and concreteness.

    Fourth, although obvious it is nevertheless worth making explicit that this account implies that the hierarchical relations outlined here included authority relations. Higher order regulators are higher authorities. It is important to note that higher order authorities need not be discrete, living individuals. Highest authority may be vested in documents such as constitutions, in the convention of ritual cycles, in immemorial tradition or in supernaturals.

  4. In proceedeing from lower to higher order the degree to which regulatory operation is directly determined by environmental or other material factors seem to disminish. That is, high order regulation may be more arbitrary or more affected by conventional considerations than that of lower order. For instance, the ways in which a particular inventory of crops may me grown in a particular region may be rather narrowly determined by soil conditions and climate. The ways in which the harvest is distributed, a function of a higher order system, an economic system, of which the agricultural system is only a part, are probably not as narrowly determined. There are likely to be, therefore, more ways to distribute the crop than to grow it. The relations of production, this is to say, are likely to be more arbitrary than the means of production.
  5. Possibly correlated with the increasing arbitrariness of higher order regulation is an increase in the value laden terms surrounding higher order regulation. For example, the discourse concerning both Soviet and American wheat farming is highly concrete. It concerns seed, soil, water, tractors, fuel and autoparts. The fundamental agricultural assumptions of a Soviet wheat farmer would probably be acceptable to his American counterpart. Differences of opinion would be, for the most part, slight and technical. But when economics are discussed phrases like «free enterprise» and «from each what he can give, to each what he needs» begin to appear. The difference between what are connoted by these phrases is not technical but ideological: both are taken by those subscribing to them to be highly moral, and yet higher order regulation is bolstered by such notions as honour, freedom, rightneousness and patriotism. At the highest levels of regulation divinity is likely to be invoked. This was patent in such archaic states as Egypt in which the Pharaon was the living Horus, but remains even in modern societies in which there is an ostensible separation of church and state: United States takes itself to be «One nation under God». To summarise, the higher order the regulator the more it is associated with values and the more support it receives from sanctification, or even from association with the ultimately sacred: God Himself. This may be correlated with, or even a function of, the increasing arbitrariness, or at least increasingly conventional nature, of higher and higher order regulation, and it also seems to correlate with the hierarchical ordering of authority relations.
  6. The general structure of adaptive processes outlined here implies that there are included in the repertories of higher order regulators rules and procedures for modifying or changing the goals of lower order regulators, or even replacing both them and the special purpose subsystems over which they preside with others. This is to say that adaptive structures may transform themselves in more or less orderly ways in response to changes in environmental or historical circumstances. As noted earlier, the maintenance of general purpose systems may require their more or less continual modification in response to non-reversing environmental changes, as well as in response to reversible environmental fluctuations.
  7. Throughout this account certain temporal relations between levels have been noted in passing or merely implied. These temporal relations may themselves imply qualities other than temporal, and it would be well to make them explicit and remark upon them here.

    First, it was suggested that the response times of low order regulators are faster than those of higher order. It may be suggested that their rapidity is correlated with their reversibility, and also with their position in what Simon (1969) calls nearly decomposable systems. A qualification is, however, necessary here. In the fact of strong perturbation from outside the system --for instance, in response to imminent attack-- higher order regulators may respond more quickly than those of lower order. Complex systems may include mechanisms for calibrating the level of responses to the strength and pervasiveness of perturbations.

    Second, that a typical relationship of longevity prevails between systems and their subsystems or components was also implied by the observation that included among programs of higher order regulators are programs for changing or even replacing lower order regulators or subsystems. This suggests that as a rule general purpose systems are more enduring than their subsystems or components. It is well to make clear that I refer here to particular living systems located in time and space and not to principles of organisation. For instance, clans are longer lived than any of the conjugal families of which they are composed, tribes endure through the extintion and replacement of their clans. However, the conjugal familiy as a mode of organisation, it is safe to say, was operative before clanship appeared and it survives in societies, organised as states, from which clanship has disappeared.

    Third, there also seem to be differences in the temporal qualities of the sentences concerned with regulation at different levels. The sentences typical of low order regulation --commands-- are situation specific and thus emphemeral. Rules, which are typical of middle range regulation, are more or less enduring, and the principles, characteristic of highest order regulation, may be conceived to reflect timeless aspects of nature. Indeed, higher order regulation is likely to be associated with propositions concerning Gods conceived to be outside of time altogether. We move from the quick to the eternal. These relations of duration seem to correspond to the continuum from the specific, concrete, pragmatic and materially determined to the conventionally determined, value-laden, general, vague and sacred.

  8. Although it has already been noted it is well to reiterate here that terms like higher and low order, systems and subsystems and hierarchy should not be taken to indicate that adaptive structure in human societies is necessarily incorporated in discrete bureaucracies, well-defined administrative structures or special purpose subsystems to which are assigned special personnel. Regulatory hierarchies are sets of responses to perturbation ordered along axes of specifity, concreteness, reversibility, authority, time, sanctity and perhaps other dimensions as well. While in some societies administrative structures are clearly defined, in others, notably the small, technologically simple and relatively undifferentiated societies that form the subject matter of traditional anthropological studies, adaptive structure is intrinsic to segmentary organisation, exchange relations, ritual cycles and other aspects of the general social organisation. The emergence of well-defined administrative structures with special offices and officers is an aspect of progressive centralisation, a process that seems to be characteristic of evolution generally. In the evolution of human societies a high degree of centralisation is found only in some state organised societies.

    However, it should not be assumed that even in modern state societies adaptive structure is completely embedded in administration structure. Individuals, private firms and voluntary organisations, grass root movements and revivalistic cults may also participate in the cybernetics of social and ecological correction, and are, thus, also to be included in any account of adaptive structure. There is a dialectic, so to speak, between formal organisation and spontaneous adaptive responses, the latter modifying the former and even, perhaps, redefining systemic boundaries from time to time. Indeed it is at least as correct to say that adaptive processes define, discriminate or stablish living systems and their limits as it is to say that they inhere in living systems. We should not be bemused by the apparently immutable boundaries of the living systems most easily observed, namely organisms, or the enduring frontiers of some societies, into taking systems to be things when they are better regarded as dynamic processes organising matter, energy and information.

The adaptive structures of living systems of different classes (ecosystems, societies, organisms) surely differ in important aspects, possibly related to differences in the coherence they require and can tolerate. There are also, surely, important differeces to be discerned among the adaptive structures of members of the same class, such as different human societies. I have suggested, however, that orderly adaptive structure has certain universal characteristics, and that we may expect to find important structural similarities underlying apparently great differences. Orderly adaptive structure, I have argued, is both cybernetic and hierarchical, and I have made some suggestions --they are no more than that-- concerning features or dimensiones that may be organised hierarchically. These suggestions may be of some use in guiding investigations leading to more refined formulations. For now they may serve as the basis for further suggestions concerning the nature of maladaptation.

If adaptive processes are those which tend to maintain homeostasis in crucial variables in the fact of perturbation, maladaptations are factors internal to systems interfering with their homeostatic responses. They reduce the survival chances of a system not, in the first instance, by subjecting the system to stress, but by impeding the effectiveness of its responses to stress. Maladaptations are not to be confused with stressors, or perturbing factors, although they themselves can produce stress. This view of maladaptation, it may be noted, is similar to the concept of disease (dis-ease) proposed by Young & Rowley (1967).

If the maintenance of homeostasis depends upon hierarchically ordered sequences of cybernetic responses, it should be possible to describe maladaptation structurally. That is, maladaptation may be conceived as anomalies in the hierarchical and cybernetic features we have taken to be characteristic of orderly adaptive structure. If the feedback of information to regulators concerning the states of systemic variables and the effects of their operations upon those variables is faulty, trouble is likely to ensue. The simplest forms of maladaptation are such cybernetic difficulties as impedence to the detection of deviation of variables from crucial ranges, breaks in feedback loops, or even excessive delay of information transmissions concerning variable states to system regulators, loss or distortion of information in transit and the failure of regulators to understand the signals they are receiving. These and other difficulties to which we shall attend are exacerbated by scale. For instance, the more nodes through which it must pass, the more subject is information to distortion or loss. Other things equal, the higher the administrator the less accurate and adecuate his information is likely to be, and the more diverse the subsystems he is regulating the more likely he is to misunderstand the signals upon which he must act. Loss, distortion and misundertanding of information are likely to result in erroneous or inappropiate regulatory responses.

We note here what may seem an inconsistency in argument but is rather, I think, a problem in the real world. It was suggested earlier that high order regulators do not need to know, indeed, cannot afford to know all that the lower order regulators subordinate to them know. Now it is claimed that distortion, or even simple loss of information, can lead high order regulator into error. Complex living systems, especially human social systems, are faced with the problem, perhaps never fully resolved, of balancing comprehensiveness of information against information processing efficiency. Intrinsic to the reduction of information required by limited information processing facilities is the danger of faulty, distorting or self-serving editing. There is perhaps no way for such a danger to be avoided completely, but it can perhaps be minimised by maximising the autonomy of low order regulators, thus reducing the amount of information that must be processed by those of higher order.

Much more remains to be said about cybernetic problems per se, but they are relatively well-known and in interest of brevity we may turn now to hierarchical anomalies. Their likelihood too is increased with scale, and some of them are closely related to the cybernetic disorders we have been discussing. For instance, the deeper the regulatory hierarchy the more likely are time aberrations. Excessive time lag between the onset of a perturbation and response to it may sometimes be a problem, but so may the opposite --too rapid a response by a high order regulator. Excessively fast response by high order regulators may destroy those of lower order by continuously overriding them. The destruction of the lower order regulator may then throw an additional burden upon that which overrode it, with error and possibly breakdown resulting. The likelihood of excessively rapid high order response --let us call it «premature override»-- is increased, of course, by high speed communication, which may put information concerning perturbations into the hands of higher authorities as quickly as it informs the lower.

Over-response is related to, and may even be entailed by, premature over-ride. The responses of higher order regulators are not likely to be as delicate or as reversible as those of lower order, and if they are initiated too quickly they may be more massive than may be required. Since they may not be easily reversible they commit the system's future more than necessary. That is to say they reduce its evolutionary flexibility. Over-response, it may be suggested is impossible, or at least highly unlikely, in biological systems, far in strictly biological processes the sequencing of adaptive responses to perturbation is ordered not by conscious purpose but by non-conscious somatic and genetic organisation. Over-response may be a product of intelligence, particularly human intelligence with its great powers of foresight and imagination. It becomes more serious of course, as that intelligence comes to control ever more powerful means for effecting its ends.

We are led here to several more general interrelated trends that seem to be common aspects of the increased scale of social systems. First there is what may be called over-segregation, the extreme differentiation of special purpose subsystems. Oversegregation may be expressed geographically, with serious ecological consequences. Increasingly large areas become increasingly specialised. Whole regions are turned into wheat fields, whole countries into sugar plantations. But with increasing regional specialisation there is decreasing ecological stability, for monocrop fields, particularly those planted in high yield varieties, are among the most delicate ecosystems ever to have appeared on the face of the earth. Part of this decrease in ecological stability is an aspect of the reduction of self-sufficiency, for modern monocrop agriculture depends upon fuel, machinery, pesticides and herbicides that usually travel through far flung and complicated networks, and distant disruptions in such networks, as well as local problems, can disrupt local activities. With loss of local self-sufficiency there is also loss of local regulatory autonomy, and the homeostatic capacity lost from the local system is not adequately replaced by increasingly remote centralised regulators responding to increasingly aggregated and simplified variables (like the dollar values of crops) through operations increasingly subject to simple cybernetic impedences and time aberrations. Moreover the regulatory responses of these distant regulators are often to factors extraneous to some of the local systems they affect. For instance the effect of market response to increased vanilla production in Madagascar may be decreased cash in Tahiti. We recognise here a consequence of over-segregation and over-centralisation that has elsewhere been called hyper-coherence or hyper-integration (Flannery, 1972; Rappaport, 1969). The coherence of the world system increases to dangerous level as the self-sufficiency of local systems is reduced and their autonomy destroyed. Disruptions ocurring anywhere may now spread everywhere. A local war in Middle East leads to increased starvation in India, for India relies upon Japanes fertiliser, which requires Middle Eastern oil for its manufacture. As Geoffrey Vickers (1968) has put it, «the trouble is not that we are not one world, but that we are».

Over-segregation and over-centralisation taken together are complementary aspects of a more general structural anomaly that I have mentioned elsewhere (Rappaport, 1971b), and which may be called the «hierarchical maldistribution of organisation». Organisation is notoriously difficult to define; I take the term to refer complexity and the means for maintaining order within it, and have been suggesting that organisation at more inclusive level seems to be increasing at the expense of organisation al local levels. Increasing organisation at the world level is based upon decreasingly organised local, regional, and even national social and ecological systems. It elaborate itself indefinitely at the expense of its local infraestructures, and it may be suggested that the ability of the world system to withstand perturbation would be increased by returning to its local subsystems some of the autonomy and diversity that they have lost, as China may be doing. This is not to advocate fracturing the world system into smaller, autonomous self-sufficient systems, as undesirable as a programme as it would be impossible to achieve. It is to suggest that redistribution of organisation among the levels of the world system, with somewhat greater autonomy and self-sufficiency vested in localities, regions and even nations that presently is the case, would server well the world system as a whole.

There is another general class of maladaptations, combining with those discussed so far in complex evolutionary sequences. The basic form has elsewhere been called usurpation, escalation and overspecification (Flannery, 1972; Rappaport, 1969, 1972b). I speak here of special purpose subsystems coming to dominate the larger general of which they are parts. When particular individuals become identified with special pupose systems they tend to identify the special purposes of those sub-systems with their own general purposes, i.e. with their own survival, and attempt to promote those purposes to positions of predominance in the larger systems of which they are parts. As they become increasingly powerful they are increasingly able to succeed. The logical end if for a subsystem, or cluster of subsystens, such as a group of firms, finantial institutions and a military establishment, to come to dominate a society. This eventually is nicely summed up in the deathless phrase «what is good for General Motors is good for America». But no matter how public spirited or benign General Motors might be, what is good for it cannot in the log run be good for America. General purpose systems have --or should have-- as their goals nothing more specific than survival. For a general purpose system, like the United States, to commit itself to what may be good for one of its subsystems is for it to overspecify or narrow the range of the conditions under which it can survive, that is, it is for it to sacrifice evolutionary flexibility.

We may note that this trend may lead to aberrations of sanctification. It is of importance in this regard that ultimate sacred propositions --propositions about gods and the like-- are typically without material terms. As such they themselves specify no particular social arrangements or institutions. Being without material or social specificity they are well suited to be associated with the general good of general purpose systems, i.e. the non-specific goal of survival, for they can sanctify changing social arrangements while they themselves, remaining inviolate and unchanged, provide continuity through change.

The typically misterious nature of ultimate sacred propositions is also of importance. The association of mysterious propositions concerning ultimate reality with the immediate reality of contemporary institutions and events is a matter of interpretation. That which is a matter of interpretation allows or even demands reinterpretation, but reinterpretation does not challenge ultimate sacred propositions themselves. It merely challenge previous interpretations of them. Thus, if any proposition is to be taken to be unquestionable, it is important that no one understands it. It is of interest that the very qualities of such propositions that lead positivists to take them to be without sense or even to be nonsense --that they are devoid of logical necessity or empirical references-- are those that make them adaptively valid.

Sanctification, however, can become maladaptive through the process we are calling usurpation. As the specific material goals of lower order systems usurp the places of those of higher order systems they may lay claim to their sanctity. To use a crude example, if the United States is «One nation under God», and if, as Coolidge said, «the business of America is business», then business becomes highly sanctified. What is highly sanctified is resistant to change, and thus to oversanctify the specific and material is to reduced evolutionary flexibility. It is of interest that the theologian Paul Tillich (1957) used the term idolatry to refer to the «absolutising of the relative» and the «relativising of the absolute». What he took to be a form of evil we may take to be a form of maladaptation.

Another trend seems to be related to the elevation of the goals of lower order systems to positions of predominance in higher order systems. As industrial subsystems become increasingly large and powerful the quality and utility of their products are likely to deteriorate, for the subsystem's contribution to the society becomes less its product and more its mere operation, which provides wages to some, profits to others, and a market for yet others. Arms, which are both expensive and immediately obsolete, and aumobiles into which obsolescence is built are ideal products, nor is there anything wrong with products that serve no useful purpose whatsoever. The product tends to become as by-, or even waste product of what might be called the «industrial metabolism» which is, ultimately, simply the operation of machines. (To use a bald analogy, products come to be related to the firms producing them as faeces are related to the organisms excreting them, and consumers are transformed in coprophages.) Neither conpetition nor an independently established demand serves to regulate or limit industrial metabolism effectively because large industries are usually not very competitive and they can exercise considerable control over the demand to which they are supposed to be subject (Galbraith, 1967).

With the escalation of low order goals to positions of predominance in higher order systems it becomes increasingly possible for ancient and complex systems, particularly ecological systems, to be disrupted by even smaller groups with ever more narrowly defined interests. But the ultimate consequence of the promotion of the low order goals of industrialised subsystems to predominant positions in societies is not merely that the short-run interest of a few powerful men or institutions come to prevail, but that the interests of machines that even powerful men serve are ultimately dominant. Needless to say, the interests of machines and organisms do not coincide. They do not have the same needs for pure air or water, and being blind and deaf, machines have not need at all for quiet, or for landscapes that refresh the eye. And whereas organisms have need of uncounted numbers of subtle compounds, the needs of machines are few, simple and voracious. It is in accordance with the logic of a world dominated by the gargantuan and simple appetites of machines to tear the tops of complex systems like the states of West Virginia and Colorado to extract a few simple substances like coal and oil.

We have been led beyond structural anomaly to substantive problems, and we may return here to a question raised but not answered earlier. What are the variables to be maintained in homeostasis if a living system is to be adaptive? Some, after all, may be maintained at the expense of others. When highest order regulation is directed toward economic goals it may impede the maintenance of biological variables --organic, demographic and ecosystemic-- within their ranges of viability. We may ask, even if cybernetics of the system seem to be in good order, whether this may be properly regarded as adaptive.

If the goal of general purpose systems is simply survival the question of what is ultimately to be maintained in homeostasis is reduced to the question of what the term survival minimally implies. Here we may be reminded that the term adaptation is basically a biological term, and that the systems with which we are concerned have living components. This is to say that survival, although difficult to specify has, minimally, a biological meaning, and that the adaptiveness of aspects of culture may ultimately be assessed in terms if their effects upon biological components of the system in which they occur. This is further to say, as we noted earlier when distinguishing adaptive processes from cybernetic processes in general, that what is called cultural adaptation, the processes through which social structures or institutions maintain themselves in the face of perturbation, may contradict or defeat the general or biological adaptation of which culture in its emergence must have been a part. But, since survival is nothing if not biological, evolutionary changes perpetuating economic or political institutions at the expense of the biological well being of man, societies and ecosystems may be considered maladaptive. This assertion is not arbitrary for it reflects the way contingency is estructured. There are no particular institutions with which a society could not dispense but obviously, if man perished culture would cease to exist.

There are problems, however. For one thing, given the counter-intuitive nature of complex systems it is difficult or impossible to assess the long-run effects of any aspect of culture on particular biological variables. For a second, it does not seem possible to specify any particular feature of biological structure or function that will always contribute to survival chances (Slobodkin & Rappaport, 1974). Although particular variables are, and must be, maintained within ranges of viability at particular times, these ranges, and even the systemic components of which they are states, may be changed by evolution. Thus, adaptiveness is not to be identified with particular variables, even biological variables, but with the maintenance of a general homeostasis in living systems, systems with biological components.

The notion of a general homeostasis is not fully operational but neither is it mystical. One of the implications of the argument presented here is that it is intrinsic to adaptive structure, to a certain ordering of processes and the systemic components in which they may occur, with respect to time, reversibility, specificity, sanctity and contingency. If such an order is maintained, general homeostasis, it is suggested, prevails. This is a claim that the formal or structural characteristics of adaptive processes have substantive implications. The primacy of biological considerations is implicit in the structure, for the escalation of non-biological variables to positions of predominance violates adaptive order with respect to specificity, contingency and possibly sanctity as well.

In light of possible contradictions between cultural and biological adaptation it seems reasonable to search for the factors impelling maladaptive trends among those that have been taken to be advances in cultural evolution. In the world of events cause is seldom simple. The discussion that follows, which implicates increases in energy capture, money and the division of labour does not pursuit to represent a general theory. It is intended to do no more than suggest, briefly and tentatively, a few of the many factors that could be adduced.

Some suggestions have already been made about energy capture in this regard. It is important to remember, however, that energy capture has sometimes been taken to be the metric of cultural evolution. A quarter of a century ago Leslie White, following Oswald (1907), proclaimed what he called The Basic Law of Cultural Evolution as follows:

Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting energy to work is increased.
White, 1949:368-369

There can be no denying the first clause of this formulation.[1] Large technologically developed states appearing late in history surely do harness more energy per capita per day per year than do the small primitive societies which appeared earlier. One recent estimate would place daily energy consumption in contemporary United States at 230,000 kilocalories, and in hunting and gathering societies as 2,000-3,000 (Cook, 1971).

Contemporary United States has a population of 200,000,000 people, the bushmen bands seldom include more than a score or two of people, and increases in energy capture have made possible much larger and more sedentary social systems. But some, if not all, of the maladaptive trends I have suggested here are related to increased scale. Moreover, high energy technology itself free those operating in local ecosystems from the limits imposed upon them by the need to derive energy from the contemporary biological processes of those systems. Gasoline, pipelines, bulldozers, high voltage electrical transmission permit virtually unlimited amounts of energy to be focused upon very small systems, and the ecological disruption of those systems can be tolerated --at least for a time-- because of the increased specialisation of the other local systems. I have argued, however, that in the long run the increasing specialisation of larger and larger regions --itself made possible by a technology that provides means for moving even bulky commodities long distances enexpensively, and for transmitting information long distances instantaneously-- is unstable.

The increasing specialisation of increasingly large geographical regions is simply one aspect of increasing internal differentation of social systems. Progressive segregation and progressive centralisation were, of course, encouraged by the emergence of plant and animal cultivation 10,000 or so years ago, for plant and animal cultivation provided significant opportunities for full division of labour. By 4,000 B.C., if not earlier, subsistence, craft, religious and administrative specialisation was well developed. But the emergence of high energy technology based upon fossil fuels has accelerated and exaggerated this trend and the maladaptations associated with it. These include not only over-segregation and over-centralisation with their concommitants of ecological instability and hypercoherence. High energy technology is differentially distributed among the subsystems of societies and it permits or encourages the promotion of the special purposes of the more powerful to positions of dominance in systems of higher order than their degree of specialisation warrants.

High energy technology is, of course, not alone in impelling maladaptive trends. All-purpose money has also played a role. In addition to its obvious contribution to the concentration of real wealth and regulatory prerogative, it flows through virtually all barriers increasing the coherence of the world system enormously. Its ability to penetrate whatever barriers may have protected previously autonomous systems against outside disruption rests upon its most pecualiar and interesting property: it annihilates distinctions. It tends to dissolve the differences between all things by providing a simple metric against which virtually all things can be assessed, and in terms of which decisions concerning them can be made. But the world upon which this metric is imposed is not as simple as this metric. Living systems --plants, animals, societies, ecosystems-- are very diverse and each requires a great variety of particular materials to remain healthy. Monetisation, however, forces the great ranges of unique and distinct materials and processes that together sustain or even constitute life into an arbitrary and specious equivalence and decisions informed by these terms are likely to simplify, that is, to degrade and to disrupt, the ecological systems in which they are effective. Needless to say the application of large amounts of mindless energy under the guidance of the simplified or even simple-minded and often selfish considerations that all-purpose money makes virtually omnipotent and, when suited with a capitalist ideology, even sacred, is in its nature stupid, brutal, and almost bound to be destructive.

With increases in the amounts of energy harnessed, with increases in the internal differentiation of social systems, with the monetisation of larger and larger portions of life, the disparity between the direction of cultural change and the goal of biological survival has rarely become greater. We are led to ask wether civilisation, the elaborate stage of culture with which are associated money and banking, high energy technology, and social stratification and specialisation, is not maladaptive. It is, after all, in civilised societies that we can observe most clearly over-segregation, over-centralisation, over-sanctification, hypercoherence, the domination of higher by lower order systems, and the destruction of ecosystems. Civilisation has emerged only recently --in the past six thousand or so years-- and it may yet prove to be an unsuccessful experiment.

If civilisation is an inevitable outcome of culture it may be asked if culture itself is in the long run adaptive. To the extent that cultural conventions are arbitrary, men may devise aberrant regulatory structures, and to the extent that their activities are freed from limitation by the capacities of the ecosystems in which they occur to provide the energy they require, they may maintain their aberrant regulatory structures in the face of mounting difficulties for protracted periods of time. This does not seem possible for other creatures whose activity is dependent upon energy derived from the contemporary biological processes of the systems in which it occurs, and whose adaptive structures are much more narrowly specified by their biological characteristics. Nor could others with less powerful intellects develop ideologies that not only mask from themselves the maladaptiveness of their institutions but sanctify those aspects of them that are most maladpative. Although the adaptive structures of other creatures may sometimes prove inadequate to cope with some environmental changes it is perhaps only in cultural populations that maladaptations can develop, for conscious logic and foresight may have to be brought into play to violate the logic of adaptive structure. And it is hard to imagine how the truth value of adaptively false propositions could be maintained in the absence of some abstract notion of truth.

We are led to a yet more radical question. If civilisation with its maladaptive regulatory hierarchies and misguiding ideologies is an inevitable outcome of culture, and culture in turn an inevitable outcome of the human level and type of intelligence, and if human intelligence is capable of violating adaptive logic, we may ask if human intelligence is in the long run adaptive, or if it is merely an evolutionary anomaly bound finally to be destroyed by its own contradictions or the contradiction of its cultural products. Gregory Bateson (1972b) has recently addressed this problem. He argues that purposefulness is the salient characteristic of human reason, a plausible suggestion, for purposefulness, subsuming both foresight and concentration, must have been strongly selected for during man's two or three million years on earth (and even earlier among man's pre-human forbears and other animals). But, located in the conscious minds of individuals and serving in the first instance their separate survivals, purposefulness must incline toward self-interest or even selfishness. (Indeed the philosopher Bergson (1935) in recognising this problem took religion to be society's defense against the «dissolving power» of human mind.)

That some human purposes are selfish cannot be gainsaid. But Bateson suggests that the problem of purposefulness is more profound. Purposefulness, he argues, has a linear structure. A man at point A with goal D takes actions B and C, and with the achievement of D considers the process to be completed. Thus, the structure of purposeful action is linear --A -> B -> C -> D. But the world is not constructed in linear fashion. We have already discussed the circular structure of cybernetic, that is, self correcting systems and it is well known that ecosystems are roughly circular in plan, with materials being cycled and recycled through the soil, the air, and organisms of many species. Moreover, the circularity of both cybernetic and ecosystemic structure blurs the distinction between cause and effect, or rather suggests to us that simple linear notions of casuality, which lead us to think of actors, objects upon which they act and the transformation of such objects, are inadequate, for purposeful behaviour seldom affects only a single object, here designated so, but usually many others objects as well, often in complex and ramifying ways. Among those being affected in unforeseen and possibly unpleasant ways may be the actor himself.

It may be suggested, however, that linear, purposeful thought is adequate to the needs of simple hunters and gatherers, and not very destructive to the ecological systems in which they live, because both the scope and power of their activities are limited. It is when linear thought comes to guide the operations of an increasingly powerful technology over domains of ever increasing scope that disruption may become inevitable.

Bateson argues that the problem is not only to make men aware of the ramifying and circular structure of the universe, but to make the imperatives of this structure more compelling that their own linearly defined goals. He believes that this requires that more of their minds than their conscious reason be engaged. It is also necessary, he believes, to engage their primary processes, their emotions. He suggests that such engagement is achieved through art and religion. I would agree with this, and elsewhere I have written about the role of the sacred and numinous in adaptive structure (Rappaport, 1969, 1971a, 1974, 1975). But to argue that more than reason is to be engaged in the restoration of adaptiveness to a system which seems beset by maladaptation is not to argue that the banishment of reason or its replacement by either mysticism or commitment. That our reason causes us difficulties does not mean that it should, or could possibly, be excluded from the solution of the difficulties to which it itself has contributed. Conscious reason has entered into evolutionary processes for better or worse. It cannot be ignored and should, obviously, be put to the task of ameliorating adaptive difficulties. An apparent paradox may be that attempts to solve problems of adaptation are likely to cause further problems, perhaps because problem solving is in its nature linear. Moreover, the systems in which men participate are so complex that we cannot now, and probably never shall be, able to analyse them in sufficient detail to predict with precision the outcome of many of our own actions within them. We must, therefore, investigate the possiblities for developing theories of action which, although based upon incomplete knowledge, will permit us to participate in systems without destroying them and ourselves along with them. This task is not hopeless. To say that the complexity of living systems is so great as to confound predictions is not to say that we cannot aprehend the salient characteristics of their structures. It is, I think, the task of anthropologists, among others, to analyse the structures of social systems in terms of their adaptive characteristics, to develop theories of what the structures of healthy adaptive systems may be like, and also to develop theories of maladaptation and its amelioration. Some crude suggestions have been made here, but the necessary empirical and theoretical work has hardly begun.


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[1]: The second clause of White's Law seems to be in error, for high energy technology, as suggested in «The flow of energy in an agricultural society» (Rappaport, 1971b), seems to decrease efficiency. First, high energy technology descreases the thermodynamic efficiency of human subsistence activities. Hannon has recently estimated the slash and burn horticulture of the Maring of New Guinea, in which the only sources of energy are the gardeners themselves, to be forty times as efficient as «modern food delivery systems» (Hannon, 1973). Whereas he estimates that the Maring produce ten units of food energy for every unit of energy input (my own estimate is closer to 20:1, Rappaport, 1968), he claims, following Herendeen (1973), that in modern agriculture and food processing 45 unit of fossil fuel are used to deliver 10 units to the supermarket. Heichel (1973) has observed that in the more efficient modern systems such as maize cultivation, the return of food energy for energy input approaches to 5:1, but in the less efficient systems like rice, sugar beet and peanut cultivation, it sometimes is less than 1:1, and he further notes that in a «surprising number of modern cropping systems a 10 to 50 fold increase in cultural energy has only doubled or tripled the digerible energy yield compared with the more primitive systems using substantially less technology».

A more general index of the decreasing thermodynamic efficiency of contemporary industrial societies is implicit in the first part of White's Law itself. If a figure already cited is correct, South African bushmen and Australian aborigines are able to support a person on 1/75 to 1/100 of what it takes to support an American. That is, from the standpoint of the ratio of energy flux per unit of standing biomass, hunters and gatherers are 75 to 100 times more efficient than we are. Or, to put it a little differently, modern societies, on a per capita basis, are entropising the world up to 100 times faster than are primitive hunting societies. We note ¿¿in passing?? an inconsistency between the two criteria of White's Law.

Edición del 30-9-2008
Revisión: Carlos Jiménez Romera
Mariano Vázquez Espí

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