IntroductionGeneral Systems Theory (GST) has been called "the skeleton of science." That's pretty apt, because GST illuminates the scaffolding upon which the universe is built.
In its simplest formulation, GST states that everything is a system. Once you realize that, you begin to see behaviors and characteristics that are common to everything in the universe. These simple concepts ease the process of understanding anything -- from the simplest physical structure to the most complex conceptual construct.
GST was developed by Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy starting in the 1930s, culminating with the 1969 publication of his "General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications." In his lifetime, Von Bertalanffy was probably better known for his mathematical model of an organism's growth, but GST was what he considered his legacy.
At the time, GST was hailed as a major scientific framework, considered one of the best unifying theories since Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection (with which of course it is 100% consistent). Anthropologist Margaret Mead was among system theory's proponents, applying its concepts to the development and disintegration of societies and civilizations. In fact, over the past 50 years systems theory concepts have become core elements of many specialized disciplines – most notably the psychic and social sciences, where systems theory is applied across a range of pathologies.
But General Systems Theory is the meta version of systems theory, "zooming out" to encompass the entire universe and everything in it. So really, when you're talking about something that seeks to be the unifying theory of everything... well, the fact that you've probably never heard of GST says it's fallen short of its ambitions.
My awareness can be traced to a philosophy course I took in 1978 with one of GST's adherents, T. Downing Bowler, Ph.D., at the now-defunct Bradford College. It was an 8 AM class so my recall of the details was never that great, and I only got a C. But I always remembered the concepts as being pretty cool to my 18-year-old self. A few years ago I tracked down a copy Dr. Bowler's 1981 book, "General Systems Thinking: Its Scope and Applicability," the draft of which had been the source of our (mimeographed) course content.
I found it as interesting as I remembered, and after reading the book I discovered that GST is just, well, a damn handy thing to have in your life toolkit. If you're puzzling through a problem, running it through the GST engine will almost always make things clearer. Having lived with this for a while, I felt compelled to share it.
I tried to boil this document down to as few words possible; in fact, my small contribution to the discipline may be in the application of the "80/20 rule." If you understand the 20% represented in the following core concepts, I believe that you'll get 80% of GST's practical benefit. Of course, if you find it interesting, you can go as deep as you like in the literature, discovering many concepts I will intentionally omit here.
We'll first discuss the core GST concepts, (mostly) without the use of examples; in writing this I discovered that you really have to "load the whole thing into memory" before you can start effectively using it. After outlining the framework, we'll go ahead and explore a few examples to illustrate how GST applies to our universe of disparate things. Then you're equipped to start using it on your own stuff.
What is GST?GST works by flipping a simple mental switch. Instead of focusing on the vast and wonderful variety of the universe, GST restricts its focus to a few mechanical elements that are common to everything. Then there's no longer an infinite number of differences, but a small set of simple concepts, which are realized by our world in an infinite number of ways.
Consider that the default unit of our world is a "thing." The human mind has evolved to organize our perceptions around things, and for good reason: our ability to distinguish one entity from another is what enables us to understand and interact with our world. Thus we evaluate our entire existence through the infinite differences that distinguish our universe of things from each other.
GST is also based on things. But von Bertalanffy's insight was that there's a system to even being a thing. And that part is 100% consistent, no matter how many differences may otherwise exist between specific things. GST works by exploiting the fact that systems reliably behave as systems will.
Carving away the complexities can be wonderfully clarifying. GST is very good at resolving differences between expected and actual behavior (troubleshooting). As importantly, GST can often predict how things will behave or change in the future.
Here are the core components of GST:
- System -- This is the basic unit of GST, and what makes it so broadly applicable. In GST, everything is a system, and there are no exceptions. Since the universe is comprised of things, it is comprised of systems; this equivalence dictates that everything you can perceive is subject to the logic and rules of GST.
- Equilibration -- This is the key process in GST, because it incorporates the concepts of time and change. Unlike equilibrium, which is a (theoretical) state, equilibration is the perpetual process of seeking equilibrium. Equilibration is necessary because of continuous exposure to impacts (stressors) originating from other systems. The primary types of equilibration are accommodation and adaptation. The effects of equilibration are manifested as change in the system over time.
- Relations -- The primary dynamic in GST is how systems relate to other systems. The sum total of all a system's relations constitutes its environment. The reasons specific systems relate, the specific manners in which the systems are related, and the strength of these relations, are all central to the nature of each system, and how it behaves and evolves. A system's relations can be very complex and involve multiple elements of competition, cooperation, and control.
- Boundaries -- The ability to distinguish where one system ends and another begins is dependent upon boundaries, defined by an observer's perception as something unique and independent. System boundaries exist because of constrained variety -- that is, faced with the limitless system relations available in the universe, each specific system exercises constraints in its relations that, in total, define its essence.
- Stressors -- A system equilibrates in response to stressors presented by other systems. While there's an element of strict stimulus/response in GST, stressors are quite rich and varied – what’s important is that they apply pressure in ways that challenge system equilibrium, and they generate equilibration responses.
- Polarities -- Implicit in the idea of stressors is the concept of polarity. As the stressor affects the system, a polarity is created between the system's (theoretical) equilibrium and the stress being applied between the two. That's not to say that all polarities exhibit the same range, but the poles always represent 100% of the difference, and define the range of possible equilibrations.
- Hierarchy and Matrices -- The universe itself is a system, and everything it contains is a participant in that system. This organization means that every system is also both a supersystem to its component systems, and a subsystem component to some larger system(s). The principle of layered organization addresses the way that systems are naturally built upon simpler systems. In highly layered or matrixed systems, it's not uncommon for two systems to relate in very specific ways, but otherwise have very little interdependency.
- Autonomy and Dominance -- Systems are autonomous by nature. However, a system may be controlled by another system, and take on the role of subsystem. As there are typically many subsystems in every system, this introduces the dynamics of subsystem competition and cooperation, as well as the command of the controlling system. These relationships can be strong influencers of system behavior across multiple levels.
- Bonds -- Relations are comprised of bonds; in fact a core GST variable is the type and strength of bonds between two systems. Bonds are subject to selectivity and discrimination. As discussed, no system could accommodate every possible relation. What happens is that systems tend to develop relations with beneficial impact, and avoid relations with destructive impact.
- System State -- There are two types of system state: stable state and steady state. A stable state system is consistent at the molecular level, and will change little in the absence of extraordinary stresses. A steady state system is typical of a living entity, characterized by intense, continuous equilibration, and a finite, relatively predictable term of existence.
- Mapping -- Mapping is how systems integrate through the exchange of information. Mapping can be ad hoc but is commonly driven by existing models. This is one topic where an example is edifying, so I’ll use it: DNA is the mapping mechanism for living organisms on Earth. The capability to map is typically a higher-order characteristic, relying on pattern recognition and learning as important processes.
- Crisis and Transformation -- A system may experience a stressor for which it has no effective equilibration option available. This system will experience a crisis and must transform -- either disintegrate or synthesize. Disintegration means that a system ceases to be, and relinquishes claim over any component systems and participation in any supersystems. Synthesis occurs when two systems combine into something that is recognizably different than either was before; implicit to the concept of synthesis is novelty, or new characteristics that fundamentally change the nature of the systems from which it was derived.
Practical ApplicationSome of those concepts might seem a bit academic. But the beauty of GST is that it’s just logic. You’re applying GST concepts every day, without realizing it. Think about the elements that go into judgment, analysis, and troubleshooting. GST simply identifies and describes the tooling, and pulls it all together into a formal framework.
The first principle in applying GST is to make sure you’re examining the right system. We’ve all made the mistake of assuming one thing to be the problem, only to discover it was actually something else. With GST, often you will realize you are dealing with stressors and equilibrations involving different systems, or additional systems, than the one you started with.
Next you focus on the equilibrations. In GST, the equilibrations are the symptoms of the stressors causing them, so matching equilibrations and stressors is key. Commonly you will find that there are multiple equilibrations and stressors in play. In this case, polarity can be a useful tool – since paired equilibrations and stressors are at polar opposites of their specific spectrum. Importantly, this exercise will often alert you to future possible equilibrations, should particular stressors increase or change.
Lastly, much can be gained by examining the relations between various systems.
- What are the dynamics of control, competition, and cooperation between systems? In one common scenario, two systems may be acting in cooperation for the benefit of a controlling supersystem, while simultaneously being in competition for resources within that system. Or a system may try to attain dominance itself.
- What are the bonds between systems? Are they appropriate or complete? If bonds persist after they are no longer useful, this can cause unhelpful equilibrations. If bonds are quite strong, that can cause individual systems or even supersystems to fail unexpectedly when relatively small stressors are experienced.
- What are the system biases in play? Remember, bonds are subject to selectivity and discrimination. It’s often just as clarifying to examine places where no bonds exist – and why – as to study the bonds you see.
Let’s walk through a few broad examples to see GST in action. This high level treatment leaves opportunity to drill much deeper using GST principles; of course you can also choose to start exercising your new GST skills on your own life and environment.
- Rocks -- You might say, "That's no system, it just sits there. It’s a rock." But it really does follow all the GST rules. A rock is a stable system, so it maintains a high degree of overall equilibration. But as with all systems, its stability is directly related to the stressors to which it is subjected. While a child sitting on the rock may elicit no equilibration response, a stick of dynamite certainly could, and quite possibly cause disintegration. And you may not see that rock equilibrate much in your lifetime, but over geologic time, equilibration will show clear effect.
- People and Societies -- If you're like me, it feels dubious -- and a little insulting -- to posit that any scientific system could address the infinite variability of the human psyche. Well, it turns out that GST is especially useful when analyzing psychic and social systems, which are absolutely subject to the process of equilibration.
Psychologists derive insight from the impacts of various external and internal stressors on a psyche, e.g., social/family pressures or mental illness. Sociologists can use GST to frame the evolution of social groups -- even civilizations -- over time, based on stressors imposed by environmental and cultural systems. Cultures themselves are examples of GST’s elements of selectivity and discrimination, creating powerful mappings shared by the people and groups that comprise the society -- which might be very different from other cultures, creating an opportunity for conflict.
- Freakonomics -- The popular Freakonomics books are regarded as insightful application of economic theory, specifically focused on incentives. But incentives are just stressors, so systems indeed respond as GST would predict. Consider a core Freakonomics example, in which Chicago teachers responded to incentives when they cheated to help students score highly on standardized tests. Freakonomics and GST agree that the situation was caused by an incentive/stressor -- performance evaluation and compensation – and drove the cheating behavior. GST goes a step further to explain why, with identical incentives, only some teachers cheated; the teachers who didn’t were able to equilibrate through adaptations and accommodations that didn’t involve breaking rules. Perhaps they had different cultural mappings, or for any number of other psychic, financial, or emotional reasons the stressor simply didn’t have enough impact to cause the cheating equilibration.
- Atoms and Energy -- To be universal, a theory has to work with the basic building blocks of the universe, and GST does. The hierarchical nature of systems is eloquently expressed in the model of particles, atoms, elements, and molecules. These building blocks form the basis of our natural world. In biology, you see similar hierarchies of cells, tissue, organs, and organisms. This speaks to the concept of layered complexity, as systems become ever-larger aggregations of subsystems, leading to more and richer relations, as well as greater interdependency expressed as system cooperation, competition, and control.
- Politics -- I'll use the US example here, but I'm certain it translates to any political system. Many hierarchical systems make up government, from local to state to national and (nominally) world organizations such as the United Nations. At each level there are candidates, committees, and political parties. Each acts in its own interest but participates in multiple supersystems, with a set of consistent stressors (money, power, service) as well as a set of ever-changing stressors (economic, cultural, political). In one cynical but obvious example, the equilibrations (behaviors) of politicians can often be seen in clear relief by observing the stressors (lobbying and money) imposed by the economic systems whose interests are affected. And we see examples of subsystem control hazards, for example when one wing of one party of one house of congress shut down the US Federal Government in October, 2013.
- Ecology -- Nature is a beautiful example of GST forces at work. In the big picture, the earth’s ecology is a massive and stunningly complex interconnected system that equilibrates pretty well to sustain an overall balance. And that’s a good thing, because without these equilibrations our world could not exist, at least in a way that we could be here to perceive it.
However, we’re all well aware of how relatively minor stressors can create crisis across the planet’s entire ecosysytem. Humans have caused many extinctions through destruction of habitat. Air and water have become polluted with toxins and even hormones. And the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is driving higher average temperatures that the earth is struggling to equilibrate against.
- Music -- The highly mathematical structure of music is one strong indicator of GST at work. All music has systems of notes and scales and chords – the mapping music uses to impart meaning to sounds. Genres tend to embrace certain combinations of instruments that yield the optimal sound. And arrangements tend to follow well-developed sequences.
But what’s most notable about music is its infinite variety, and the creativity that goes into it. A relatively small set of common elements generates amazing variety. The resulting sounds create stressors against the part of the human psychic system that selectively relates to music’s beauty. And if you’ve ever gotten lost in a symphony or found yourself pogoing to a punk rock song, you know how powerful those bonds can be.
ConclusionThat’s the basics of GST. As an all-encompassing theory of the universe, of course there’s lots more. And I think that’s all valuable at an academic level, but I just like the way it can alleviate the messiness of the world, and reduce the noise.
I mentioned that I learned about this in a philosophy course. There’s definitely an element of that in there – certainly there are world views that would philosophically disagree with such a stripped down approach to understanding. But GST is ultimately about logic and rationality. In the end, the benefit is whatever you get out of it. To me, it’s just a few handy tools that can help you see what’s really going on, and perhaps make the world itself a little simpler to navigate.