Cells and Systems

“Cyte” Means Cell, and as used on this website is of course meant to pun on “site” and “sight.” I’ve chosen cells (of all kinds) as a dominant metaphor for this website for a number of reasons, but perhaps mainly because I find it a good way to think about systems of all kinds, including individuals, groups, government, language, and the arts, among other subjects.

Systems Theory. A psychiatrist friend of mine once gave me an article on “General Systems Theory.” The gist seemed to be that any so-called entity can be viewed as a system persisting in accordance with certain principles that enable it to perpetuate its own existence and identity yet regularly exchange material with its environment. The following discussion reflects what I’ve worked out in relation to this idea without any further research on the existing body of theory known as “General Systems Theory”, so I won’t use that term again, but will just refer to “systems theory,” meaning the ideas expressed below relating to systems.

How Do We Identify or Define a Thing, Entity, or Category of Entities? Such definitions are always arbitrary to some extent. A person can be defined as an entity; so can a nation. There’s the thing called “snow”, or if you’re an Eskimo, there may be as many as 49 distinguishable snow-things (see http://www.urbanlegends.com/language/eskimo_words_for_snow_derby.html ). (B.t.w., we should be concerned about the currently ongoing extinctions of whole languages because of the resulting depletion of available conceptual diversity--an important topic in itself.)

But going beyond semantics, even things whose delineation seems less arbitrary are less distinctly bounded than we commonly realize. First, any thing or entity is constantly changing and interacting, however slowly, with its environment. A rock seems like a stable object, easy to identify; but is it the same rock an eon later, after it’s been packed against other rock so long and exchanged so many molecules with the other rock around it that it can no longer be cleanly chipped apart? We’re never exactly who we thought we were, for at each instant, we’ve already moved on from whatever could be known about us a moment ago.

Various disciplines come up with ways to draw distinctions to define discrete entities or categories, because they find these distinctions useful. A carpenter distinguishes among different tools and kinds of wood; a physicist may deal with the universe in terms of galaxies, or sub-atomic particles. The distinctions we make enable us to define and identify something as an object or phenomenon having a discrete yet continuous existence through space and time. Such definitions are artificial, however, in that they are based on whatever bits of data can be lumped together roughly but usefully for the particular purpose at hand, rather than on any boundaries inherent in nature. Our definitions are artifacts of our own goal-directed physical or mental activity; they can and do change when our purposes change.

Any “entity,” whether a nation, a person, an amoeba, or a rock, can be viewed as a system, an agglomeration of processes. Continuous and inevitable change in the boundaries and nature of any defined entity occurs both as a result of processes within the entity and as a result of interaction with the environment outside the entity. We should realize, however, that there can be no definitive distinction between those processes we think of as internal to an defined entity and those that involve interaction with the outside, since all such processes ultimately connect to or affect one another at some point, directly or indirectly. An entity is just a subset out of a universe of systems in which everything is connected to everything else. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) “Inside” and “outside” are meaningful only relative to one another, as different points on a continuum. The considerations set out above appear even more obvious with entities that change or interact more easily or quickly than rocks, such as living beings. Even the concept of one's own self as an entity separate from one's surroundings is an acquired one and is malleable.

This view of things is consistent with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics, which states that it is impossible to simultaneously measure both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. The principle is sometimes described as explaining that the actions of the observer in taking the measurements necessarily disturb the particle being observed, but while that description as a statement may itself be true, it does not accurately characterize the Uncertainty Principle; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle as of July 9, 2005. Rather, even with perfect instruments and technique, the uncertainty is said to inhere in the nature of things. The principal is also said to apply to any system that cannot be fully characterized by one unique "position" and one unique momentum (including its direction); see id.

I’ve found seeing entities as agglomerations of systems located within larger systems to be extremely useful in thinking about many areas of life. E.g., I think languages, cultures, religions, bodies of "knowledge," and artworks (among other things) can also be usefully viewed as systems.

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell--
Burthen Ding-dong
Hark! now I hear them,--Ding-dong, bell."

--Act I, scene ii, The Tempest, Shakespeare,
Moby ed., available as of this writing at
http://the-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/tempest/tempest.1.2.html ,
with minor emendations by me.

In The Tempest, the lead character, Prospero, uses his magic to put other characters through certain tribulations that result in a transformation of their vision of themselves and their world—a “see-change.” He shakes them up and opens them up to new feelings and ideas. It is these changes in how they see that midwive changes in their conduct. The systems within themselves and of which they are part have been forever altered.

In using ideas about systems to think about the world, I’ve found it useful to revisit certain information about living biological systems. The following information was obtained from a website maintained by the University of California at Berkeley (please visit http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu for the complete, original information; see also http://regentsprep.org/Regents/biology/units/organization/life.cfm ). The anatomy and physiology of plants and animals show the complementary nature of structure and function. Living things have structures that carry out functions that make survival within their environment possible, including respiration, taking in nourishment, digestion, circulation, waste disposal, and immunity. All living things are composed of structural and functional units called cells, the fundamental unit of life. Cells carry on the functions needed to sustain life, including the processing of food, growth, and cell reproduction. Disease is a breakdown in a structure or function of an organism. Some diseases are the result of intrinsic failures of the system; others are the result of damage caused from outside the organism such as infection by other organisms. The nucleus is the repository for genetic information in biological cells. Cells divide in order to reproduce, creating daughter cells with identical sets of chromosomes. The chromosomes contain DNA, which is the genetic blueprint for the organism’s structure. Reproduction is a necessary life function for the survival of species though not of individuals.

It seems to me that most if not all of the foregoing observations have analogues in other kinds of entity-systems.

Perhaps the key characteristics of a living system can be summed up as having to do with the regulation and processing of material passing in and out of the system so as to maintain itself as a recognizable identity or form. The article from my friend on general systems theory pointed out that boundary and identity maintenance are key functions of any living system. The boundaries or skin of any living system should be neither too yielding or permeable, on the one hand, nor too rigid or impenetrable, on the other hand. If the boundaries are too rigid or impenetrable, interaction between the entity and its environment will be overly restricted and the entity will likely starve, explode, stagnate, or be unable to respond or adapt as necessary to changing external conditions or events. An individual or group can be destroyed through failing to take in new information or resources quickly enough. On the other hand, if the boundaries are too soft or permeable, the entity may be too vulnerable to deformation by outside pressures or to attack, or to being depleted, or otherwise destabilized or overwhelmed to the point that it either disintegrates or is changed beyond recognition.

This model is also consistent with other theories to the effect that entities need contact with the environment around them, but that it can also be a problem if there’s unmoderated “boundary-crossing.” E.g., isolation is hard on most people’s emotional health; while on the other hand, in response to someone who bullies or is unduly intrusive, it’s usually best to stand up to her or him and maintain firm boundaries.

Similarly, we are both attracted to that which is foreign, or "other," and afraid of it, sometimes to the point of xenophobia. We probably evolved both propensities, though at odds with one another, because having both is more helpful to survival than having either alone.

My theory also suggests there may be optimal velocities or rates at which various functions might be performed, i.e., rates of change that balance the need for growth and the need for stability, given the exigencies of the environment in which the system exists. For a system to be healthy in the sense of surviving in identifiable form, it seems a balance is needed between softness and hardness, openness and closedness, and between rapid and slow rates of change.

For example, if a language becomes too closed and fixed, it can cease to evolve, become less relevant, and stagnate. On the other hand, if it's too open, with new usages being adopted before most of the population using the language have time to learn them, or without regard for whether the new usages enhance or degrade the power of the language, then its usual main purpose--clear communication--can be undermined.

The systems model also highlights the importance of various factors affecting the merit of a given system of government. For example, among the things that make the U.S. system of government great are that it tolerates great diversity and permits a great deal of interaction among individuals within and with those outside its borders (in the free flow and exchange of information and in distributed decision-making, among other respects), while still assuring considerable stability through “checks and balances” and other structures or safeguards that take into account the inherent tendencies (predictable processes) within various constituencies.

It also seems likely that aspects of systems theory could shed light with respect to the appropriate size or scale in which various functions might best be performed. For example, when we decide to provide for decision-making or funding with respect to any function to be handled nationally or at a state or local level, be it education, environmental regulation, stock market regulation, reproductive rights, or whatever, the decision should not be based blindly on mantras relating to states’ rights or federalism but upon intelligible reasons having to do with where such functions might naturally be better performed.

This model is also consistent with experience in suggesting that it can be very difficult to “help” an individual or group to achieve what the helper considers a higher level of development before such individual or group is “ready.” Obviously, the factors that affect such efforts are very complex, but it would seem that an attempt to force a system to make a great developmental leap would have to involve (1) destroying and replacing significant portions of the system’s existing structures and functions or (2) forcing the system to ingest and incorporate large amounts of new material. Either would likely destabilize the system, with the risk that the organism might resist or be traumatized or destroyed. (A recent example might be the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. purportedly proposed to bring democracy to Iraq. The first thing done was not only to remove Saddam Hussein but to eliminate most of the systems for maintaining public order. This was like decapitating an individual and expecting either that the body would quickly sprout a new head or that one could slap on a replacement as easily as a new hat.)

A question that has recurred to me in the course of writing various portions of these essays is, what is the relationship between process and structure? Is it meaningful to distinguish between processes that result in structures and structures that generate processes? Each seems to determine the other, posing the chicken-and-egg problem that neither can be said to come before or be more fundamental than the other. Or are process and structure two sides of the same thing--perhaps we’re more likely to identify as “structure” those aspects of a system that change relatively slowly, while we’re more likely to identify as “process” those aspects of a system that change relatively quickly? (I once noted an idea for a work to be called, “The Speed of Burning.” The concept was that everything is burning, and that what primarily distinguishes different kinds of things is their different burn rates. To be related to the urban legend about people spontaneously combusting. Creation being some kind of reverse burn?)

Attempts to Repress or Wall Off. Another appealing aspect of this theory is how it illustrates the results of attempts to cut off communication or amputate or repress portions of a system deemed troublesome or undesirable. If you try to cut off circulation to your foot, the foot is without blood and nourishment, and you are cut off from sensory information from the foot and from the use of the foot. At some point, the foot sickens and dies. At best, you lose the foot; at worst, it may take you with it.

Similar phenomena occur in the psychic lives of individuals and groups in the forms of repression, denial, and disregard. Generally, when an individual or group attempts to systematically cut off a portion of itself from expression or other contact, sooner or later the attempt fails, and meanwhile the whole has suffered at least some harm from the repression--often more than would have resulted if a way had been found to allow the expression or contact to take place. The repressed feelings or ideas don’t disappear. Rather, they may accumulate until the internal pressure so great that they “explode” in an inappropriate outburst, or they may “leak out” by being diverted toward different and usually less appropriate objects than the one that originally incited them, or by being vented in disguised forms, such as inappropriate behavior or mangled expressions that have unintended effects. Such repression may also have effects such as that: (1) the isolated portion is deprived of the possibly beneficial effects of interaction with the other portions of the system, and any hope of growth or development for the isolated portion is foreclosed; and (2) the rest of the system is left to cope without any of the assistance or information that might otherwise be available from the isolated part. Moreover, the rest of system may no longer even know what the isolated portion is up to.

Of course, there are times when completely cutting off interaction with part of a system is the least of evils. If your foot is gangrenous, amputation may be absolutely necessary to save your life. But because of all the detrimental effects of complete ex-communication, there are relatively few instances when total or near-total ex-communication or annihilation is truly the best option. (See the discussion regarding the death penalty in the essay on this website entitled, "Governmental and Economic Systems.")

I would argue that these considerations should make us reluctant to wall off or destroy portions of the universe of systems of which we all are part, that even if we determine such measures to be absolutely necessary, we should carefully weigh the destructive consequences--the losses on all sides of information, resources, and growth--against the hoped-for benefits, and that we should make sure that any such measures taken are no more drastic than truly needed. It may take more work in the short term to create ways to safely permit interaction, but that effort often pays off in the long run.

(If you feel you already grasp of the perils of repression within individuals and groups, you might want to skip to the heading, "Value of Diversity," below.)

Repression or Denial Within Individuals. Individuals attempting repression of internal parts of themselves don’t usually recognize the full extent of what they lose by it; or if they do, they nonetheless believe the danger threatened by the repressed part warrants the repression. With some effort and imagination, however, it is often possible to find a way for the repressed part to be expressed safely, such as verbally, to a therapist. And psychologists tell us that through such expression, the person may come to better understand the true causes of her or his disturbing feelings or ideas, find better ways of dealing with them, not only becoming less prone to inappropriate outbursts or poorly-directed or -masked behavior or expressions but also becoming better-integrated internally and in relation to the person’s environment.

A recent New York Times article discussed the view of a minority of psychologists that people who repress with respect to traumatic experiences fare better both in the short- and long-term than people who don’t repress. See “Repress Yourself,” February 23, 2003. I think there are some important distinctions that should be considered in connection with such a view.

First, and most importantly, repression or denial doesn’t occur just in response to trauma. Some individuals or groups engage in a great deal of denial or disregard simply through misguided self-interest or neglect, because of concerns regarding cost or convenience or guilty feelings that may not be warranted or helpful. For example, we’ve used affirmative action for a while to try to remedy the effects of racial discrimination. Now that bandage has begun to chafe, but some of us fear that to really solve the problem might be very expensive or difficult, so we prefer to pretend either that significant discrimination no longer exists or that the problem is insoluble. We’d rather blind ourselves, that is, than admit we’re not willing to do what it takes. But by kidding ourselves about the facts, we close ourselves off from any discussion of alternative solutions and any cost-benefit or other analysis about them.

It seems pretty clear that when the purpose of denial is not to protect us from being overwhelmed by traumatic experiences, but rather to protect us from inconvenience, expense, or our own guilty feelings, then denial cannot be helpful and may likely be harmful to some degree. We can’t solve all problems; but we’re usually better off at least acknowledging their existence and analyzing their causes and alternative solutions in an open way.

When denial is used in response to actual trauma, the analysis is more complicated. I believe it’s quite possible in the course of talk therapy for a therapist to inadvertently encourage the patient to elaborate and expand a trauma or troubling incident beyond what the patient actually experienced, even unconsciously. Memories are incomplete and malleable constructs. I experience a troubling event; my senses take in only so much of it; my cognitive faculties make only so much of it; I have certain conscious and unconscious emotional reactions both at the time and perhaps later; some but not all of all this is actually retained in various places in my brain. Subsequently, even without any intent to distort my experience, I may elaborate on it, either consciously or unconsciously, in my efforts to integrate and make sense of the information. These elaborations may or may not be accurate relative to the facts of what actually happened, and they may or may not be of such a nature as to be helpful to me in the short- or long-run. Nonetheless, whatever I’ve retained or fabricated about the experience may include genuine emotions or useful information. If I’m encouraged to spend more time re-living my pain than I otherwise would, or to re-construct my memories in such a way as to feel the experience to have been more painful than it “really” was, that would certainly seem to be harmful.

On the other hand, I believe that at least sometimes, “talk therapy” can be truly helpful in two ways. One way is in simply retrieving factual information that had been repressed or disregarded because one felt powerless to act on it, it was too upsetting, or other reasons. Once retrieved, the information might be useful in understanding one’s own role in the past, perhaps recognizing the ways one's own reactions played into unfolding events and at the same time realizing that one has felt excessively culpable given the small degree of control one may really have had, avoiding unnecessary repetition of the same reactions in the future, and in validating one’s past and present feelings.

This raises a distinction that may not have been addressed in the research mentioned in the NYT article: whether or not the traumatic event is of a nature that the patient can avoid it in the future. In other words, if the traumatic event is a brush with death, well, in some ways we can reduce our risk of premature death, and attaining a full understanding of how the brush with death came about could be useful both in helping us to avoid repeating it and also in gaining some sense of control over it. On the other hand, we’re all going to die sooner or later, and if the brush with death was of such a nature that the patient is warranted in concluding that she or he cannot get any real control over the risk and could die at any moment, then it may be less likely that dwelling on the traumatic event will be helpful.

For at least some of us, however, there’s another benefit of talk therapy or similar efforts that might be worthwhile even in that extreme case; that is, catharsis. A lengthy and illuminating cathartic process that I went through helped to diminish what once seemed to me to be a bottomless ocean of grief. And although the prospect of my own death feels sufficiently far off that I’d just as soon not think about it too much right now, I grieve it at every funeral I go to (along with, of course, the death of the deceased), I know the prospect of my own death has motivated much of my work on this website, and once my death appears more imminent, I hope I’ll have time to vent a lot more about it, because I believe that going through that emotional process will also make me more aware of facts and priorities that I’ll want to express or act on before I die.

Also, I believe some people are subject to greater extremes of emotional reaction and intensity than others. I am not sure how this affects whether or not repression might be harmful, but it seems it could be a factor.

Repression Within Groups. The same patterns can be observed in larger entities such as nations or other groups. Attempts to repress, eliminate, banish, or isolate individuals or groups have similar effects. (E.g., see discussion of the death penalty in the essay on this site entitled, "Miscellaneous Other Systemic Issues.")

Consider the reactions of New York City and Washington, D.C. residents to 9-11, the anthrax mailings, and the D.C. sniper. Understandably, they--perhaps particularly people working in government and the media, since they were the targets of the anthrax mailings--seem more traumatized by those events than the rest of the country. I have the general impression that some are also more willing to acquiesce in what I consider to be extreme, unwarranted and unhelpful reactions to the perceived terrorist threat (I put the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq into this category).

It seems to me we have three basic options. We can go into denial about the danger, and risk doing too little. We can recognize the dangers only too well, but fail to recognize the effects on us of our own emotions, specifically, that our emotions are causing us to overreact or to react inappropriately--by, e.g., fearing everything different from ourselves, or ceding too much power to police authorities without requiring them to focus its use appropriately--and to do ourselves more harm than good. Or we can try to recognize both the dangers and our emotional reactions, to face the fact that as mortals, we are subject to a degree of vulnerability and helplessness that can never be fully remedied, to take what reasonable actions we can without overreacting, and for the rest, to try to understand that we must live with a certain level of irreducible fear and horror--but that that needn't destroy all our joys. This may be difficult and at times even impossible to do; but I think it’s extremely worthwhile for us at least to make the conscious effort. (The decision by the U.S. to invade Iraq certainly appears to me to have been irrational.)

Personally, I think we need to hear more from psychologists about the emotional disorders of societies at large.

Value of Diversity. Systems seem to benefit from diversity, if not so extreme as to overwhelm the system. By this I mean some level of diversity both within the organism, in terms of its capabilities, as well as in the system’s environment. For example, I understand children’s exposure to various pathogens is believed to help them to develop robust immune systems.

Similarly, a species as a whole benefits from some level of genetic diversity within itself. I once read of a study purporting to show that twins separated at birth tend to share liberal or conservative political persuasions. It would make sense for diversity in such tendencies to be perpetuated genetically, since populations that include both people who tend to be “open” to change (progressives) and people who tend to resist it (conservatives) probably survive better than populations in which just one of those two attitudes is expressed.

Even traits that you might think could safely be presumed defective sometimes prove to have unforeseen benefits. Sickle-cell anemia results from a genetic mutation and causes chronic anemia and severe infections, usually beginning in early childhood. However, while people who inherit the sickle-cell gene from both parents are more likely to die before reproducing, people who inherit the gene on just one side have some sickle cells and some normal cells and so are less affected by the disease, plus they have an advantage over people who don't have any sickle-cells at all, in that the sickle cells are much less vulnerable to attack by the malaria virus. Accordingly, in parts of the world where epidemics of malaria tend to recur, higher rates of the sickle-cell gene persist. (See the National Center for Biotechnology Information website at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/disease/sickle.html for confirmation of some of the foregoing.) The gene may not be good for the individual that carries it on both sides, but the persistence of the gene in at least a portion of the population is good for the survival of the population.

I have a suspicion that similar processes might account for the persistence of individuals prone to depression, anxiety, or paranoia. Even though it may be true that individuals' own personal welfare is usually better served by optimism, it's quite possible that depressives or paranoiacs, anticipating and preparing for the worst, might survive better under adverse conditions and might also serve as "canaries in the mine shaft" for their communities. Indeed, I believe it's pretty well conceded among many psychotherapists that many depressives have a more realistic view of the world than their more optimistic brethren.

Diversity in sources of information seems equally important to the welfare of social organizations; for more on this subject, see the essay on this site entitled, "What Can We Know?"

Consistency with Other Philosophies. Various philosophies also seem consistent with my systems point of view. Energy and information are like water in the sense in which that image is used in the ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching. You can dam it up, but you must then engage in continual maintenance and repairs to the dam; and despite such efforts and expense, your success will never be more than partial. The water continues to flow, and sooner or later, most of it either overflows the dam or escapes through evaporation.

Similarly, to summarize very roughly, Lao Tzu recommends in the Tao Teh King that we observe nature and try to work with it rather than against it.

A concept from Buddhism and Hinduism that's consistent with the systems point of view is that of "dharma." There are many varieties and nuances of this concept, but as I understand, dharma basically has to do with the essential natures or natural tendencies of things, and Buddhists and Hindus believe it's generally preferable for many reasons to try to live in such a way as to work with these natural tendencies rather than against them; for my purposes, perhaps the best synonym for dharma might be "efficiency."

Similarly, in Plato's Republic, justice is defined as that state or condition in which each part of society performs that function for which it is by its own nature best suited. For further application of this principle, see the essay on this website entitled, "Governmental and Economic Systems."

I believe in the future we will further develop our understanding of the general principals applicable to systems, including among other things such factors as the balances between diversity and homogeneity, scale (i.e., the trade-offs or balances between large- and small-scale systems), velocity (slow vs. fast rates of change), operational structures or procedures that enhance flexibility while maintaining stability and productivity, and the processes of self- and other-identification.

Founding Principles; Natural Life-Spans. The axioms or principles on which a nation or other system is founded, its constitution, are like its DNA; they constitute the blue-print for the structures that will shape the processes necessary for the nation's or other system's survival and welfare. We can infer that such a blue-print might provide for versions of the functions mentioned above for living cells: ingestion, digestion, circulation, excretion, and immunity.

Plato proposed that if the founding principles of a republic are chosen carefully, it is more likely to thrive as long as possible. Nonetheless, in a passage in the eighth book of Plato’s Republic, Plato

  “refers to a mysterious geometric or 'fatal' number in order to explain why it is that even perfectly constituted republics—those that do not contain within themselves the seeds of their own decay and ruin—decline nevertheless after the passage of many years into the first of four degenerate forms ending in a tyranny: into a contentious timarchy governed by the passionate pursuit of honor and 'a fierce secret longing' for money instead of justice and the good.”

(description from Nuptial Arithmetic: Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on the Fatal Number in Book VIII of Plato's Republic, by Michael J.B. Allen, Berkeley : University of California Press, 1994, at http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6j49p0qv ). It seems that, no matter how successful any system or entity is, none is immortal; all systems have a natural life-span.

J. Richard Gott III, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, has argued that the length of time that an individual, species, or event is likely to continue or endure can be predicted by a formula based on the Copernican principle that, absent contrary evidence, any given time and place in the universe should be assumed not to be exceptional. According to Gott’s theory, a prediction can be made as to how much longer a person, species or event will survive in the future if you know how long it’s already existed and you know how long similar types of things have survived in the past. The vast majority of species known to have come into existence on Earth have already expired. Based on what’s known about the periods of time that other mammalian species have survived, Gott’s formula indicates there’s a 95% chance that the human species, which has existed for 200,000 years, will probably die out sometime between 5100 and 7.8 million years from now. See The New Yorker, July 12, 1999.

If you find that thought disturbing, please see the other essays on this site, especially What Can We Know?, What Do We Mean by Meaning?, Good and Bad, and The Meaning of Life.

(Proceed to the next Essay, The Arts and Literature, or . . .