Avoiding Extinction

Without profound changes in human behaviour the possibility of our extinction is fast becoming a probability. Unless we know how we have reached this state, we cannot know how to avoid it.

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Location: Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada

Neurophysiologist, psychiatrist, with iconoclastic views of current pathological human behaviour and have new concepts of its origins, development and possible extinction. This integrates wide range of disciplines from physical evolution to full self-consciousness. English-Canadian.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Most of you know of the story of the man who bought a mule which was guaranteed to be a wonderful worker and the seller gave an impressive demonstration of its abilities.
The buyer took the mule home but try as he did, nothing would get the mule to work at all. He returned to the seller demanding his money back claiming that he had been sold a dud. The seller grinned at him, reachd under his table and picked up a substantial two-by four, hit the mule over the head with it and it reacted like a high powered machine. He was amazed, but the seller was nonchalant about it, and said: you have to get its attention first.
Well no matter how apocryphal that story is, it illustrates precisely what my long life has demonstrated: Individuals rarely ever change their basic beliefs and practices unless a very powerful shock 'gets his/her attention.' Nowadays the most destuctive factor in causing harm to the body, other than lack of food and the necessities of life ,is far and away smoking. According to every annual U.S. Surgeon's Report it causes unbelievable amounts of disease and suffering that collectively add up to one of the major causes of death and fresh evidence of new such diseases appears every year. On a personal note: my father died after a life as a heavy smoker, my brother is very seriously ill with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, my friend of over 70 years and his brother and their father all died from the same consequences of life-time smoking. And on and on. Yet although it has been known since 1951 of the connection between tobacco and chronic and terminal disease, none of them chose to stop smoking. As a student I worked as a nurse in the Liverpool Chest Hospital during the 40s and although the statistics were not known then the relation between smoking and chest disorders was as clear as a bell but any attempt to persuade anyone to stop was like using a pea shooter to stop a tank.

Although more people are realising the devastating effects of tobacco smoking few have yet to understand that we are all going to die of a chronic disease, with the exceptions of death through violence - accident, homicide and suicide. The statistics in modern western countries vary only a little and the range is roughly the following:
85% of all deaths are through a chronic disorder of some kind. Heart disease.
stroke, cancer, diabetes and its complications... And
15% from all kinds of violence, accidents, suicide or homicide.
These figures do not take into consideration the increasing numbers who die
because of the effects of treatment and mismanagement or political incompetence.

Yet no matter what people are told about the indisputable facts they persist in their illness-creating lives until either they die or they suffer for years. Some of the most imbecilic behaviour I have ever seen was by a man who had had by-pass heart surgery return to heavy smoking within a few weeks post-op. Not only is this a form of suicide, it is grossly irresponsible in this day age and there is even
much support for a policy of refusing further treatment to anyone who acts so irresponsibly.
Timely access to investigation and treatment is often difficult enough without such totally suicidal irrationality. Which of course brings me back to the near impossibility of people changing long time behaviour even though they may be fully aware of the role of some of the factors - eg, smoking.

Thirty years ago, after ten years running a centre for the treatment of severely disturbed children,my wife and I decided to attempt to raise awareness as widely as possible just how their health or illness is a direct outcome of the way in which they live their everyday lives. But everyone knows just how difficult it is to get people's attention without an effective two-by-four, and at the same time how vital their state of health/illness is in dealing effectively with the problems of living
- 'as long as I have my health and strength.' We long ago realised that by far the most effective two-by four is chronic illness and we knew from experience and from statistics that it is by far the greatest problem in the health of any community, no matter the size or the nature of the health care system

Before going any further it is necessary for clarity of understanding what follows - in fact of any discussion anywhere on the subjects of health, illness and disease.
What I have to say later will be clearer if you understand how I use these words and though you may not agree with me, at least you will know why and how. So many words are used that have no precise meaning that it's not surprising that there is general confusion and often conflict over what words mean. Health, illness and disease are three such words that pervade all our thinking about our physical and mental responses to events in our lives but behind their usage is a way of thinking about our bodies and the way they function. For example the word 'health' is based on the idea that there is such a thing or state of affairs that we can either have or not have, a kind of condition which we all want to attain, whereas in fact there is no such a condition. It seems to mean the absence of disease or illness, but there are problems with this. For example, almost invariably the question whether someone is ill arises when that someone - mostly, of course the individual concerned - complains of some symptom that is bothering them, perhaps a cough. When a physician enquires about when it started and how it has developed it is clear that has been a problem for perhaps a month but that it only became annoying or painful enough to ask for help several days ago. Further investigation makes it very clear that it has in fact been around far longer, but that the patient was simply not aware of it - it has not reached the level of conscious awareness. So at what point is the person ill? And was (s)he healthy right up to the time it was felt necessary to complain?
I could go on with similar questions, but they would all add up to a total lack of precision as what the term 'health' means.

Then there is the question of illness versus disease. Most people, including plenty of physicians, use these two terms interchangeably as though they are synonomous but this doesn't make much sense either. It is more appropriate to use 'disease' to indicate actual changes in the functioning of the body and 'illness' to describe the experience of being ill since the two things are different and therefore need some way of communicating that difference.

Again, to avoid confusion, or lack of clarity, I feel it makes much more sense to talk of changes in function than 'health' or 'illness'. What is happening to the body in any of the organs is a change of function from a 'normal' range, which is known and measurable by various means, to 'dysfunction' which includes all ranges of the changes that can occur from mild to extreme and life threatening. It therefore includes changes of function which we can have without being conscious of them since this happens to everyone. So you can feel 'healthy' whilst in fact your body is far from it: you can therefore be 'dysfunctional'in some way but you may have difficuly persuading yourself you are ill. Then there is the time when you feel ill but it may be very difficult to persuade others that you are and you could be accused of malingering because you appear to them to be 'normal.' The most important question anyone can ask of another, whether they are complaining or not, is 'have you felt any changes in you habits?' This means such things as headaches, changes in bowel functioning etc. and such changes simply have to be taken seriously even if there are no other obvious signs that there's anything wrong. In fact I know a number of people,including close relatives, whose complaints of changes have been ignored by physicians and who have later died of cancer of the bowel, which could have been avoided by proper investigation. It was driven into our brains in medical school that when a person over 50 experiences changes in bowel functions for more than two weeks without a specific reason there must by a full investigation immediately. It is the changes that are so important.

There is one most important point I must make here. There is an appalling lack of knowledge by most of the population about just how the body is made and how it works. In our centre I used to give everyone an outline of a body, and then separate cutouts of organs such as the liver, the stomach, the bladder, lungs etc (they usually know where their genitals are so those cutouts wer omitted!) They were asked to place the organs where in the body outline they should be. The results were always astounding, with organs floating around in all kinds of bizarre arrangements. Few of them knew their pulse rate, their blood pressure or their rates of breathing and the changes that happen under various conditions. With such lack of understanding of their own bodies it is not surprising they found it difficult to know when things go wrong unless it is dramatic. Along with this there is an almost universal tendency to ignore symptoms, to shrug them off and hope they will go away, the effects of which is often disastrous. I realise that there is a possibility that some will see this as an invitation to complain about the least kind of change and make everyone upset, rather like the boy who cried 'wolf' once too often. But the point I make is a vital one: we should be taught far more in school about our bodies and how they function, as well as from parents. There are more programmes available these days with a great deal of information, which is a good thing. One huge problem is that often the things we see most often are advertisements which are very unreliable and are there to promote some kind of fast food.

So for me what is happening is a change in function, whether the person has experienced changes or not, and illness is the description of the experience of such dysfunction. And as we shall see in the next blog - to follow shortly - we are all susceptible to the development of chronic dyfunction/disease (I use both so that you will get used to my use of the word 'dysfunction.')

Monday, April 03, 2006

Vision Impaired

Visual illusions at least raise the issue of what our brains are doing that we can 'see' two or more different things although the object we're looking at clearly does not change. It also leads to the extremely important question of which is the 'right' image? Here's another one just to make it a bit more complicated. In the following phrase, how many letter Fs do you see? There is no hidden catch in this: what you see is what you get:you think.


The correct number is at the bottom of the blog, so please check it before reading on.

The probabilies are very high that you got the number wrong. Somehow your visual apparatus failed to provide an accurate image of what was on the page, and this raises even more disturbing questions. If you can distort what is on the page in such a simple task, what does this say for your accuracy in 'seeing' the world around you, in all its complexity. And just what is your nervous system doing to make life even more difficult than it already is? The answer is far more unsettling
than you would think, even in your wildest dreams, but before you blame yourself, read the two following excerpts from books on the subject of seeing:

1. Positioned in the skull as far away from the eyes as possible, the visual c cortex occupies an area in the occipital lobe, at the back of each hemisphere
From the retina light-triggered impulses race over the million fibres of the
optic nerve, half of them crossing at the chiasma junction in front of the
brainstem. They fan out through paired cell clusters called lateral geniculate
bodies (LGNs), and travelling at speeds of up to 400feet per second, slam into
the occipital cell bank, stimulating the miracle of seeing.

2. Again, most of the retinal output is sent to the LGN. But the reticular
connnections in the LGN account for only about 10% of the synapses there:
nearly 60% of the synapses in the LGN are signals from the cortex, and the
remaining synapses are connections with other parts of the brain.

Now without explanation that may seem like another language, which in a way I suppose it is. So the following explanation will clarify it, as well as raise even more disturbing problems. Look at the diagram below.

On the left is the retina, R, which receives the light reflected from your surroundings, and here the first transformation occurs, from light energy to nerve energy in the form of nerve impulses, which then travel along the optic nerve O, to the LGN (lateral geniculate nucleus) deep in the brain. Here they form a kind of relay with a number of other inputs indicated by the arrows, and from the LGN they are then transmitted to the visual cortex VC at the back of the brain (the occipital cortex).

It immediately becomes clear that the nerve impulses from the retina don't go directly to the visual cortex where the formation of images occurs, because they form connections with various inputs, and this is where the whole process becomes extremely complex, and of profound importance in deciding the nature of the images.
Now look at the two excerpts above: the first one omits to mention this relay, simply stating that the impulses go through the LGN on the way to the cortex, and this is the common understanding of the process of seeing,with the assumption that what reaches the cortex is what the retina has created by transforming the light
reflected from our environment. This is what almost everyone, including most scientists, believe, and it is clearly wrong.
Look at the second excerpt, and it shows why it is wrong. Reading it carefully in view of what I have just described shows that only a small percentage of the information being transmitted from the LGN to the visual cortex comes from the retina: the rest comes from the various inputs to the LGN, and fundamentally it comes from other parts of the brain, which themselves receive information from all over the body, including the other senses, such as hearing, which also go through a similar process to that of vision. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that one of the inputs to the LGN is actually from the visual cortex itself! But we'd better leave the implications of that for now.

A critical part of this input to the LGN is from our own body, which may cause some
more questions, but in trying to understand perception, how we evaluate what is happening to us, it makes perfect sense that so much of that perception is derived from our body and brain. If this didn't happen how would we be able to assess the significance of any events that we have to deal with all the time. Remember, change
never stops, and in dealing with it by far the most important thing we need to know
is 'how does this affect me', for if I don't know that, what is going to determine how I react?

The wider implications of this are profound, far-reaching and very disturbing for everyone's peace of mind. However, I shall only deal here with one major consequence, and others will become more obvious as I continue. Consider this: if my perceptions contain only a relatively small contribution from the world around me how accurate a representation of the world can my perception be and what implications does this have for the way in which we think about the world and react to it?


This statement, if you haven't come across it yet, is very shocking, but there is no other conclusion possible given the nature of the processes involved. When we talk about 'mind' in general people have no clear idea of just what it means. It is usually thought of as something behind the eyes and between the ears but the nature of 'it' is nebulous. Intelligence or education has little or nothing to do with it for the same confusion affects even the most learned and seriously minded, as is very clear if you read the learned journals. I don't propose to go into the details here - they have filled libraries - but we do need a way of thinking about it that will mean much the same to everyone reading this blog. Think of the mind as a process, not as an entity or thing or body part. For instance, fluid balance isn't an entity or thing: it is a process involving a number of organs and activities. So with thinking - it is a process involving many organs and activities, the actions of which are integrated by their interaction. For example, in the nervous system information comes together from outside the body and from inside the body, including memory, and it is all processed to provide as accurate an image or representation as possible of the reality we are experiencing in a continuous flow. This processing
is 'mind,'

To appreciate fully the practical meaning of this, recall that we take it for granted that since we all have similar nervous systems our sensory systems must therefore be similar so what we perceive ought to be the same, since after all there is only one world out there. If you think this is an distortion or exaggeration ask yourself what other assumption do you make if someone disagrees with your perception
about an object or a situation? You assume in a very practical way that your perception is the correct one - after all there can only be one correct perception of anything and there is no question who is right and it isn't the other person.

This is bad enough for a relatively simple situation - big or small, green or yellow, fast or slow - the best place to test this out is to spend few hours in a court room and become astonished about contradictory evidence, given in good faith. The reputation of a lawyer can be built on the ability to make a witness seem totally unreliable and psychologists write books on the phenomenon and perform experiments demonstrating this. But when it comes to matters of behaviour, of custom, of fundamental belief systems the consequences of holding belief systems and behaving according to them are responsible for everything from family squabbles to world wars. And all because there is only one right way, and guess whose that is?

So now when I show that difference in perception is built in to the way in which our bodies work, and the fact that social groups of any size insist that conformity based on this fallacy must be observed by everyone in the community, it almost seems that we humans have a fatally flawed nervous system that ensures that it is virtually impossible to live together without conflict of various kinds. In fact there have been important books by very well informed authors and scientists who make this precise point. The best known is 'The Ghost in the Machine', by Arthur Koestler, but his concept and the evidence came from Paul D. Maclean, a highly reputable neurophysiologist whose book 'The Triune Brain in Evolution' is the classical statement on the subject. I met him 10 years ago and he was a charming,
modest and erudite person, though I had to express my disagreement with his conclusion. There are other critical factors that must be understood before coming to an informed opinion which I shall deal with as we progress.

I feel this is enough for a blog, so will continue in the next one.
The number of Fs is 6!

Sunday, March 05, 2006


If anyone is reading this I apologise for the long delay between blogs: they will be much more frequent in future. Having done some very basic introduction to what is to follow, it's time to move on to the problem - and it is a huge problem - of perception, or how do we know what's going on in the world and how close to the truth it is. This all goes back to the earliest blogs and my statement that what matters most in the long run is what we actually do, and that this is an expression of how we think and what we believe, so it's vital that there is real truth in what we say.

There is no better example of this than the incredible series of
events of the past few weeks in which many lives have been lost in a number of countries for reasons that are confusing, contradictory, and are not matters of fact but of belief, of faith.
I do not intend to talk about the rights or wrongs of any particular belief: that is a matter for individuals to decide for themselves. What concerns me is how we all develop our convictions that what we each believe is right, and that any other conviction is therefore wrong. So let's begin with the general understanding of how we come to know what is happening in the world around us and in our bodies.

There is, however, something of the utmost importance to say before going on with this business of perception. I shall deal in more detail with this subject as we get further into things, but for now I want to say the following: The way we think in this 21st century is fundamentally flawed. In our interactions with the world we are using an attitude towards that external world which has in effect distorted our understanding both of the world and ourselves. Our use of language and symbols (a crucial factor in how we think) results in behaviour which is essentially destructive to us all and to our environment. Every day the 'news' (really its the 'olds' as a friend of mine is fond of saying) is full of examples of the destruction we are causing, but we don't question it enough because the source of it all is based on the kinds of thinking we are all taught early in life, and it is very difficult to stand back and take a good critical look at it. We are all parts of this misunderstanding of the reality in which we live but because of our training from infancy upwards we regard this as acceptable, though not necessarily approving of it. What I am doing is presenting the basic ways that thinking takes place, how to look at what we do in a different light, ways of judging if something said or done is valid, and eventually what we can do to change our misdirection. Before doing so I first will show you how mistaken are our belief systems so that you will recognise the need for a different view of reality though, as I have said, and will say again, I am not offering any particular theory or set of ideas: that is for you to decide. I simply want you to know what's gone wrong and how you can go about changing it, personally or as a member of a family, a group, an organisation or a state.

How, then, does the majority of humanity see the world? Briefly
it is something like this. We learn about the world through the information we get from our various senses so I shall take vision - what we see - as the most convenient example. Light is reflected from an object and enters our eyes through the lens and is thereby focused on the retina at the back of the eye where the light energy is transformed into nerve impulses. These are then sent to the posterior part of the brain where another transformation occurs resulting in the images of the objects which were being looked at. Thus what I see is an accurate movie or still picture of the world around me. Everyone has the same kind of brain and therefore we should all see exactly the same image and should react to it appropriately.

This sounds very plausible: the trouble is that it is 180 degrees wrong so I shall give a simple example that shows this clearly.

To do so I shall shift gears and refer to the subject of visual illusions which most people are well aware of and that can raise some serious questions about what is real and what is illusion. I won't go into detail about the the more startling ones: here I am focusing on the questions that illusions raise and the most important is also the simplest. Most people have seen the images above, from left to right:

- image of a woman, old hag or young brunette
- a cube which can shift in its orientation depending on which face is forward.
- a triangle that isn't there on the paper, but which is our brains 'fill in'.

The indisputable fact is that there are images, or marks on the page and that they can be interpreted in more than one way: some switch whilst you are watching them. The question therefore arises: where does the switch take place? There is only one set of lines etc and it is clear that they do not change: the only place they can change is in the visual nervous system. This firmly places the interpretation of external events within the nervous system and it raises a further question. If a person 'sees' one interpretation and someone else 'sees' a different interpretation, and each insists that their images are the right ones, who is right?
Remember that according to the common sense understanding about the process of seeing there is only one possible interpretation, and since I am sure that my image is a correct one, then anyone who has a different image is wrong, and since I know the process of seeing must be the same for both, the other person must be doing this for some ulterior motive. This insistence that we must all 'see' precisely the same image is universal and leads to an insistence that 'I am right and you are wrong' which is the most important cause of disagreement between individuals everywhere. The word 'see' in the above example refers to our visual sense lliterally, but it is also used in a more general sense because this process of misinterpretation applies to all the senses, and therefore to our total perception of the outside world.

The implications are startling, to say the least, at every level of human interaction, from the family relations to the United(?) Nations. We are all sure that our interpretation of events is correct, and I shall discuss this more deeply as other factors come into play, making even greater problems for our relationships.

To continue with the process of 'seeing.' If what I have said is correct - and there is no doubt it is! - it forces us to find out just what is actually going on with this process where it takes place: in the nervous system. The following is a simplified version of the mechanisms involved: the details are extremely complex but this should convey the essence whilst being consistent with the scientifically known facts.

This blog is fairly full so I shall continue in the next one.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Before starting on the main meal I think I should talk about what I've written so far, and though there's not much of it yet it's enough to raise the question: what's all this got to do with the shambles called humanity as it is today? This was prompted while I was watching a DVD called The Corporation, which is one of the most devastating exposures of the roles of corporations in shaping this utterly dysfunctional world. Joel Bakan, author of the book on which the DVD is based, refers to it as pathological and one short segment compares the behaviour of corporations as comparable to the well-documented characteristics of individual psychopaths. This is precisely how I have regarded corporations for many years, though there are some vital differences, particularly in identifying the origins of this kind of behaviour in individuals compared with those of the corporation. This is not a criticism of Bakan or his DVD for which I much admire, but in dealing with either we have to be very clear about just how they develop. If we are not clear about the processes culminating in these kinds of behaviour we are not likely to have much success in dealing with them - either preventing or changing them. That's precisely why I am so insistent on understanding the nature of the processes involved in both individual and collective behaviour, which necessarily means identifying the way things work at the different levels of complexity, from one person to the United Nations.

Put it another way: if you try to use the same method with a family or a group as you would with an individual,it just wouldnt work. Likewise if you tried to deal with trade unionists intending to go out on strike by appealing to their better nature they would regard you as naive and simple-minded.

With their unfailing genius at creating confusion the lawmakers in the U.S. and U.K. decreed that corporations have the same legal rights under the constitution as individuals with all the advantages that this gives them. Later I shall deal with this plainly impossible situation in detail, but for now I just want to
point out that no systems thinker would make such an elementary mistake as to confuse the individual with the corporation or vice versa since no such system can continue indefinitely. It is becoming more obvious as the days go by that this confusion is a
major factor in creating the decline of the structure of modern industrial societies and it has to change. There are more advanced thinkers who are aware of this in various fields and they talk about the need for a new 'paradigm ' (a jargon term used with increasing frequency since T.S.Kuhn's book on 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' in 1962) - ie, a different model of the way the world works.

So, far from being uninteresting, dry, irrelevant the study and use of an understanding of Systems Theory is essential in making sure that whenever a new model arises it will be able to avoid the inevitable self-destruction we are all now participating in.In fact if we ignore the rules that enable natural systems to work we will have no way of stopping, let alone reversing, our present drive to destruction.

Hereditary or Learned: Genetics or Environment.
I need to introduce this here, because it is a central issue in any discussion about human characteristidcs, personality or behaviour. This has been a battle ground for millenia between those who believe that whatever we do is determined either by what we have inherited from our parents or because we have learned it from the time we we born. It's not just a theoretical exercise that provides jobs for hordes of academics who spend incredible amounts of time, money and energy trying to prove one side or the other. It pervades the attitudes of just about everyone who is looking for the causes of behaviour we either approve of or reject. In medicine, for example, any discussion about a particular disease/illness automatically includes a statement about its possible hereditary origins. The answer will inevitably have much to do with the management of the condition. Same applies in law, education and pretty much every aspect of our daily lives. So let's shed some light on this.

Everything we do is a result of the interaction between what we were born with and what we learn. In other words it's not a question of whether what I do is due to a built-in feature of my body-mind: it is always both. The only question is not either or, but how large a part of my behaviour is due to my genes and how much to what I have learned since - or before - birth. The greater the role of genetic factors, generally speaking, the less the effect of treatment. However, our knowledge of the way genes work is increasing at a phenomenal rate, which of course changes profoundly our ways of dealing with hereditary problems.

There are, though, some dubious consequences, the nature of which we are just beginning to be aware of much to our chagrin. The last several weeks there has been a profusion of reports on the latest figures on the threats posed by Diabetes. According to the NY Health Dept, 8% of the population of New York suffer from a form of diabetes and this is being referred to as an epidemic. The overall figure for the U.S. is 7% and health authorities everywhere are becoming alarmed at the impact this is having on society. These figures represent a truly dramatic leap since I was a medical student in the forties and a quite shattering rise since the discovery of insulin in 1921-23 by Banting, Best and several others in Toronto. Prior to that time almost everyone with Type 1 Diabetes died within a few years. In fact diabetes is now regarded as a scourge and with its complications is the fourth most frequent cause of death in the U.S. and comparable numbers in most of the developed nations. It constitutes a potential menace for those who are diabetic and ignoring the need for proper control of blood sugar is a sure way to developing serious complications.

So the question of genetics versus learned factors is clear in the case of diabetes: the life style one adopts plays a very significant part in the outcome, and trying to put numbers on the relative significance of these two factors is an exercise in futility in most cases. The exceptions, as with some other diseases, are sometimes due to the fact that a certain genetic predisposition may be so great that treatment has little or no effect on the outcome. It is clear that our interference with natural processes, however well intentioned, can lead to unforeseen consequences.

We shall see later how these two factors interact to produce what we become.

Friday, January 06, 2006

More basics

To continue with the basis of systems theory, there are two more concepts that are indispensible: feedback and hierarchy, both of which are obvious but are ignored all too often with disastrous results.
A Touch of Reality
Before continuing I'm interrupting the flow after having just watched the BBC News Review of 2005, when two events were shown which are highly relevant to this blog's purpose. First was the bombing of the London Transport system by what appears to have been suicide bombers. The review showed with stark clarity the utterly insane manner in which we behave to one another. In a comparison with some other events the sheer numbers and the range of devastation don't look so large, but it seemed to me to have as great an impact as the U.S. experiences in 2002 in the sense of bewilderment and alarm that human beings can act with such utter lack of consideration of the devastation and death performed in cold blood. And all because of a clash of belief systems. Where does such insanity start, and what is going on in the minds of the killers, which ever side they come from? A brief reflection of the train of events related to this and other bombings show very clearly that they are not isolated acts: they are always part of a process, a series of actions and reactions that go back a long way. And they are always done by people and groups who claim to be justified and often enough use identical authorities - God etc - to prove the other wrong. The history of Europe is full of this - the Thirty Years War which turned everything upside down. This was a war due, at least in part, to the conflict between Catholicism and the Reformation forces of Lutherism and Calvinism each proclaiming that their version of the teachings of Jesus Christ was the correct one. A not dissimilar struggle - at least in principle - is the the modern confict between the Sunni and Shia sects of the Muslim world, each claiming to be the true authority.

Water Depletion and Sinking Land
Item 2. Mexico City is sinking in parts by about 3 cms per year, due to the massive reduction in the aquafer beneath the city and with the size of the population increasing by the day this will increase rather than decrease. Doing the arithmetic shows an dwcrease of 30 cms or more every 10 years. There are very significant places like this scattered around the globe in addition to the ever increasing changes in water levels in the major fresh water lakes and this can only increase as the population rises.

The first is an example of violence due to clashes of belief systems: the second is occurring because we have not yet found a way to control populations especially in the undeveloped countries.
Both are due to the actions of humans, and there are many other examples, the total of which is truly alarming. This is the kind of thing that eventually convinced me of the need to change this trajectory, which cannot be done without a far higher level of understanding by the majority of the world populations. This in turn depends on making the necessary information available in more accessible ways than we usually employ. It's a safe bet that any-
one reading this can think of plenty of examples, but don't fully understand just how it all happens.

Back to Basics
How do you know when your actions are the correct ones? Clearly the effects of those actions should tell you all you need to know. If the action was appropriate it will confirm that your perception of the problem was accurate and your response was correct.So the principle is that information of the consequences of your actions is indispensible in finding your way around your world and without it you could continue actions which could have disastrous effects. This applies to all systems and it's virtually impossible to imagine a system of any kind being able to survive for long with-
out feedback.
Some simple examples. When driving a car your ability to keep to the correct side of the road depends on you knowing what happens when you turn the steering wheel. I wouldn't recommend experiment-
ing to prove it unless you have an urge to find out what happens if you were to close your eyes and eliminate feedback. No doubt you would quickly be faced with the consequences of the absence of feedback - if you were in any condition to know anything.

More sophisticated, but just as instructive is knowing how your thermostat works. The feedback here is from the temperature of the room to the heating device, depending on how it is set. Below the set temperature it switches on: above it switches off. Again - very simple but indispensible if you have such a system, and to repeat the principle: the output of the heater can only maintain a steady temperature if the results of the output are sensed and cut off the output when a desired level has been reached.
Incidentally, one of the first mechanical examples which was devised was the Watt steam engine and its twin-balled governor, and this was one of the pioneering feedback devices 200+ years ago

Talk of a governor suggests that the purpose of the feedback is to enable a degree of control over any system involved, and in fact that is so. An important feature is that it is automatic: it does
not depend on external intervention for it to work and the benefits of this can be seen in biological systems which could not function without some measure of automatic feedback. There are so many events happpening in our surroundings that it would be absol-
tely impossible to pay attention to all of them at the same time. So, if you are climbing stairs you need more oxygen, your heart will have to beat more quickly and you will need to breathe more rapidly and deeply to supply it and there are many other functions that have to change rapidly so that you will be able to continue climbing. If this depended on taking the decisions to change all these functions you would never get them done. In an emergency you would be dead before you could start thinking: doing it automatic-
ally is the only possible way to survive.

There is, however, a catch. There has to be a controller which sets the levels of the various functions outside the system itself, such as setting the temperature at which the feedback shuts down the heater. There are unsuspected ways in which this principle operates at the higher biological levels such as humans
which I shall deal with in more detail later.

Now for the problem of hierarchy. This is a real bone of contention
in many ways, from denial that there should be hierarchies of any kind, to those who say that one of the fundamental aspects of ex-
istence is hierarchy and the battles between these contestants is legendary.

Well what is it anyway? It refers to the fact that if there are
collections of anything there needs to be some kind of organised relations between them that enables them to maintain their identity
because otherwise they will just be a collection. And we know that relations are at least as important as the items that are related.
If we were to take all the items that make up human beings, slap them on the table and try to make a human being, we wouldn't even be able to get started: it is the manner in which they relate to one another that makes the identity. But it goes further than that.
Take a cell in, say, the liver, or any other organ. The proper function of the organ is determined by the way whole collections of cells work together in an integrated way: the individual cells cannot organise the manner in which the organ works as a whole. That is the function of the organ. In other words there is a higher level of control of the organ as a whole to which the act-
ivities of the cells are subordinated without which it would be simply a collection of cells. From that simple example it is obvious that some kind of hierarchical control system is a critical factor in the way it works. And stepping up a notch or two the same thing applies to the subordination of the organs to the control of the body as a whole.

Take our use of glucose as a very basic need for all organisms. We
humans have a very sophisticated system for getting glucose in various forms, liquid or solid, into our bodies, breaking down the substances of which glucose is a vital part, transporting it to all our cells, getting it through the cell membrane, using it in the cells to provide energy and dealing with the left overs from its breakdown. The process is very complicated and it is still clearly known still, eighty odd years after the discovery of insulin and the role of the pancreas. So here we have specialised cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, the secretion of this into the circulation by the organ (pancreas0. But the output must be controlled by the body as a whole - including the brain - and this is a fine example of systems theory at work for if this process did not function according to the rules I introduced ealier this extremely complicated system would break down and glucose would not reach the tissues.
No matter what level of functioning of any organised system we look at, the same basic rules apply, and as we go through increasingly complex of layer on layer the consequences of ignoring the rules will, whether consciously or unconsciously, cause increasing dysfunction leading to total destruction. From molecules to minds to collections of countries in the U.N. they must all operate according to the rules. These are not rules we invent: they have been discovered over the centuries and we ignore them at our peril - which is exactly what is going on at every level throughout the world. And it is the reason for my doing this blog and whatever else I can in the hope that it will arouse the anger of enough people to do whatever they can do, in their particular circumstances, to change things.

Having gone through most of the necessary basics, I shall begin to deal with the details of how they apply in our lives and hopefully what we can do about them. And from no on the blogs will be more regular and possibly more interesting.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Having been away for a week I returned and on reading my last blog I was dismayed at the density of the content. When I began blogging I decided to avoid the use of technical terms and to try to describe ideas clearly, as often as possible by relating them to ongoing world events or common everyday experiences, and it looks as though I got an F on both those counts. So I'll start again to some extent.
Most young boys when given a toy or gadget want to know how it works and to satisfy his curiousity takes it to pieces. Usually once he has done this he will try to re-assemble it only to find out that he can't do it, particularly if he has had to use force to get at the various parts: he has found what the components are but he didn't realise when dismantling it just how important it is to know how the parts fit together - their relationships. They are as important as the pieces - in fact in many cases more important, since it is possible to replace broken parts, but changing the relations between them doesn't result in reconstructing the same toy.

This is a description of a system - any system: it consists of parts/components and the relations between them which will create the identity of the system. It may sound just too simple to think about, but it is far from that: it is a description of one of the most basic laws of nature that we all take for granted until some-thing goes wrong - there is some dysfunction. If all we are faced with is a faulty distributor in a car engine we will go through the necessary motions to correct the dysfunction. But sometimes it is not that simple. I recall an incident during the second world war when I was a member of the seventh armoured division of the British Army in North Africa and we had just taken Tobruk (for the first time!) and went on to take El Adem airport so that the RAF could use it. But a fierce sandstorm blew up as we approached it and all the vehicles, armoured and otherwise, stopped and couldn't be restarted. We had very competent mechanics but they couldn't find the reason for the stoppages, which didn't fill us with joy because the enemy were fairly close and we didn't know whether or not they too were immobilised. Eventually one bright spark looked at the distributors - and although they were tightly closed they were full of sand. We just didn't believe it - but when we cleaned them out the vehicles were mobile again. If I'd been on my own I doubt if I would ever have looked into what everyone thought was an airtight cover. It was an elementary example of a dysfunctional system in which the relations between the parts were disrupted but ignorance could have been every bit as dangerous.

You might object that some machines will continue to work even if they been damaged in some way, which in fact is quite common. I might still manage to ride my bike even if a couple of spokes are missing from the wheels or the frame is bent. It all depends on what the part is made of, how many spokes I could lose before the wheel would buckle and bend so much that the wheel wouldn't turn at all. In other words there are limits in the changes that can occur in a machine beyond which it won't function any longer.

This also applies to biological systems, which are infintely more
complex ranging from cells to organisms to communities of organisms
The most basic factors in our individual existence are the uses of oxygen and water, and everyone knows from experience just how what happens if we either run short of either or we have too much. As with machines as we gradually lose oxygen or water we still manage to function but with increasing difficulty until we just stop alto-
gether. For an infant being born, one of the greatest threats is the lack, partial or complete, of oxygen, and the consequences range from death to permanent disability the severity of which depends on the degree of damage done to which part of the brain. I have seen during my lifetime profound changes in the management of the delivery process which have resulted in far fewer cases of Anoxia -shortage of oxygen and therefore of disabled infants. And of course the same principle applies to water, again a matter of universal experience.

Reduced to practical experience it goes something like this: a person experiences some indigestion, recalls s/he ate too much or the wrong kind of food, takes an antacid and when the discomfort disappears thinks no more of it. It's just a mild degree of dys-
function from an identifiable cause. But it begins to recur both in severity and frequency which eventually leads to a visit to the appropriate professional who, after taking a thorough history pre-
scribes both advice on eating habits and bigger and better antacids
which may or may not result in a return to normal digestion, depen-
ding on the cause. But all too often this doesn't happen. The symptoms become worse and the physician suggests an X-ray to ascer-
tain if there is any actual structural change compared with a normal stomach. Ah, yes: there it is: an ulcer which means that from functional changes which have not been adequately dealt with, structural changes eventually will follow. The next step is exhaustion of the tissues involved and further deterioration such as erosion of an artery or of the stomach wall.

I shall deal with this in greater detail later: for now I was giving a simplified description of the gastric system to show how the organs of the body are subject to the same laws as any other system with inevitable dysfunction, structural deterioration and destruction of tissues as part of the reponse to some external
change that is unacceptable..

One of the most important, and all too often ignored, aspects of Systems Theory is the fact that no system exists in isolation: every system, no matter how complicated or simple it may be is always a part of a larger system. This may sound like another piece of abstract theoretical nonsense but it is the basis of all existence. During the past few weeks there has been a great deal of emotion fuelling the Conference on Global Warming, between those who admit there is a problem and those who don't. Those who
do want to do something effective about it: those who don't simply have refused to consider taking action. Without getting into the often sordid details one fact stands out clearly: No person or group, no matter how powerful, how primitive, can do anything without affecting the world we live in. Food, water, shelter, pro-ducing more humans - everything anyone does has some effect on the world. But until the last few decades wave not faced up to the fact that our world is a limited system: it can only stand a certain amount of change, as I pointed out above, beyond which it will start to deteriorate and become increasingly dysfunctional.
Unless something is done about this there will be structural damage
leading to fatal consequences for many global inhabitants.

It is so obvious to any systems thinker that this applies to any system, anywhere in the universe, and right now it applies to our particular corner of it. We appear to be doing our best to fulfil the worst nightmare instead o convincing people that this is as inevitable as the rising of the sun in the morning and its setting at night unless we change our habits. Our only chance of survival depends entirely on the vast majority recognising this, and being willing to do something effective about it. But recognising must come first. No awareness, no change: no change, no human species. And there is a time limit beyond which the world will become unable to support us.

So, once having accepted the need to change, just what is it we have to change, and how can it be done? This means both an under-standing of why individuals act the way we do, and a realisation by groups that joint action, at whatever level decisions are taken,
must be taken.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Order,Chaos and Sanity 2.

Before we start, I should point out that everything I say ought to be preceded with the letters AFWK - shorthand for "As Far As We
Know" - since there are very few certainties and our knowledge of the world is constantly being revised. Competing beliefs in certain truths have caused more people to suffer and die than all other causes combined: in fact,as we shall see when I deal with perception, it affects everyone's life every day, yet few of us ever question our own beliefs though we are incessantly question- ing everyone else's! so - AFWK.
One of the few certainties is that change is the only constant. We all know from our own experience that the world - of which we are parts - swings between order and chaos, and either end of this range taken to extremes will mean that whatever we are faced with will be completely beyond our control. Everything that exists between the extremes can do so successfully only if there is some way that it can detect the changes in its environment and a mechanism that enables it to adapt to the changes. In other words it has to be a system of a type that will ensure its survival and the better we understand systems the better our chances. So what is a system? It is a collection of components that relate to each other in a very specific way to accomplish certain functions. And that, of course, sounds both simple and obvious, but as soon as we start examining the way we humans deal with our environments it becomes startlingly obvious that we act as though such an idea had never occurred to us. As we shall see,we pay lots of attention to the components of, say, a cell but we often pay no attention at all to the relations between the parts, with are as essential for the workings of the cell as are the parys.
If this should sound ridiculous - well, it is. But the entire history of scientific investigations is riddled with examples of just how capable we are of doing so. Take the 'paradigm', or world view of how the world works, which has changed over the last dozen or so thousand years. The view that has dominated increasingly since the renaissance, and what is referred to as the scientific revolution, is that the world operates like a huge machine in which all the components operate together as interacting cogs. Scientists focussed their efforts on producing techniques that enabled us to discover how specific parts of the machine work, and one of their most effective processes involved analysing first the nature of the components of the external world and then how they worked together. This then enabled us to control, or at least adapt more effectively, whatever was being investigatged. Analysis therefore was one of the bedrocks of scientific research, and the success we have had in learning how to control our external world has been truly amazing.
But though infinitely more sophisticated in dealing with the external world, we continue to demonstrate that our understanding of the nature of human beings, either as individuals or in groups,
is responsible for the possibility of self-extinction changing to being a probability. I shall deal at more length with this later
but I am concerned to show that the very methods that have been so successful in our gaining so much control over much of our natural
world is due largely to the failure to recognise the relentless laws imposed by the nature of systems. I introduced the role of analysis as having been so important in dealing with the external world. One of the most vital features of what is referred to as General Systems Theory is that if we confine ourselves to analysis of events and thereby learn in great detail about the
components involved, and then fail to re-integrate that informat -ion we may cause the eventual destruction of any system we are studing. Finding that a lack of glucose is creating symptoms, then taking in a lot of glucose to deal with the symptoms could produce serious results if other factors are not considered and dealt with. It is essential therefore to understand the basic features of systems theory, for if we don't, we will go on making the same mistake repeatedly.

1. Everything that is not chaotic is a system.
2. A biological system is dynamic (changing), not static.
3. Each system consists of components and their relations.
4. Each system has two aspects:
- it consists of sub-systems which are themselves components
- it is itself a subsystem/component of a larger system.
5. Between the components of a system specific relations must exist
(see 'autopoesis' later for details) thus relations are as
important as the components and are ignored at great peril.
6. The role each subsystem plays in the larger system is its
particular niche in each of the levels of the whole - this is
the case with all organisms - they fulful a role in the larger
ecology to which it belongs and without which the ecology wont
function as it should. Wolves without prey die out.