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Understanding Systems vs. How the Human Mind Seems Wired to Think

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Most of us, I expect, are aware of the alarming state of the  American public's beliefs regarding the biological theory of evolution.  The latest poll numbers indicate that a mere 38 percent of the public believe that theory to be valid.

We're talking here about an theory that's as well-established as any basic idea in science.  "Just a theory," say the opponents-- but they never say that about, say, the "theory of gravity."

Religion is an important factor here, of course.  The theory of gravity does not call into question established religious beliefs, whereas the theory of evolution relegates the opening sections of the book of Genesis to myth or to metaphor.

I've long believed that it was this conflict between the theory of evolution conflicts and fundamentalist religious belief that pretty well explained the tendency of so many Americans to disbelieve the validity of this basic scientific idea.  But, upon reflecting on some experience of my own, I'm beginning to wonder if there's another factor at work here.


Probably the biggest single idea I've come up with in my life is the social evolutionary theory I call THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.  The purpose of the idea is to explain what it is that has determined the overall direction and shape of how civilized societies have developed over the past ten thousand years.  (See "Why Civilization Has Developed in Such a Tormented and Destructive Way: THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES" at <a href="click here />
In its structure, my social evolutionary theory is basically isomorphic with the Darwinian theory:  the evolving structure of the entity (whether it be biological species or civilized society) is shaped by a SELECTIVE PROCESS choosing among a DIVERSITY OF OPTIONS (whether caused by mutation or by innovation).

The "choices" made by the selective process --what is chosen to survive and continue into the future, and what is eliminated-- are in both instances a function of the properties of the over-arching SYSTEM within which the evolving entities are embedded.

I spent ten years trying to articulate the logic (irresistible, as I saw it, and still do) of the parable of the tribes as clearly and compellingly as possible.  (The idea came to me in 1970, it was first formally stated in a document I wrote for my doctoral committee in 1972, it got redrafted several times for my 1600-page dissertation in 1976, and got its final articulation --the version now available at the web address given above-- in 1982 for the book, THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES, published by the University of California Press).

In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I had many opportunities to interact with readers, and with people who'd heard me present the basic idea in lecture form.  From those experiences, I came to believe that the proportion of people who could readily and fully grasp the logic of the theory was distinctly a minority.

And now I'm wondering if what I saw as people grappled with the logical structure of the evolutionary theory of the parable of the tribes might point to a factor in the tenuous standing of Darwinian theory with the American public.

What I believed I discerned is that people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around a form of causality that operates from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.  By "from the outside in" I mean that it is the SYSTEM that is determinative, and that the properties of the system are not simply a function of the properties of the elements in the system.  (In other words, THE WHOLE IS MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS.)

Let me share an instance that may epitomize the issue.

In the mid-1980s, a distinguished psychiatrist at Harvard read THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES and then discussed it with me.  This man was the author of a fine biography of a complex historical figure and, as the cold war intensified in the 1980s, he was a strong force for employing a humanistic and a psychotherapeutic perspective to the effort to reduce the dangerous enmity between the superpowers.  He was, in other words, a highly intelligent and educated man.

When we discussed the P of T, I was surprised to discover that he couldn't quite grasp the nature of the causal structure my evolutionary theory proposed.  His statements and questions to me showed that he was stuck in a theoretical pattern for understanding forces in the human system that I would call PSYCHOLOGICAL REDUCTIONISM.  In that reductionistic theory, all there is, ultimately --in a way, all there COULD be-- is people acting out their psychic forces.

So he saw my evolutionary model as making a statement about human psychology.

But systems are more than the sum of their parts.  And they are not necessarily comprehensible in terms of the characteristics of those parts.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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