UPDATE – Norbert Wiener Also Bridged Mechanical and Biological Worlds

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In my August 10th, 2010, post, I wrote the following (with my addition in brackets):

In this section of vol. I [of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment theory at about page 41], Bowlby deftly moves back and forth between mechanical systems and mechanical forms of linking and integrating (often referred to as cybernetics) and biological forms of linking and integrating (often referred to as Bertalanffy’s system theory). It makes one wonder if Bowlby could have explained the biological version without the aid of the mechanical analogy.

Up until recently, It was my belief that Bowlby was singular in his ability to draw analogies by moving back and forth between mechanical and biological conceptions of systems. Just the other day I was flipping through the pages of Deborah Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General System Theory and I found passages (one of which we will get to in a moment) that tend to shake my belief. For fans of the Bowlby Less Traveled, I would highly recommend this book. Dr. Hammond’s book brings to life (in a way that is reminiscent of a mystery novel you can’t put down) the story behind the development of systems thinking and systems science. Suffice it to say that it is shot through with political, military, and economic intrigue (pulling in such big names as the Rockefeller Foundation and the RAND Corporation). As I have argued, Bowlby’s attachment theory is an attempt to apply systems thinking and science in the areas of human development and psychology. As radical as it may sound, it is my opinion that one cannot fully understand, nor grasp the implications of, Bowlby’s attachment theory without spending time studying the history of systems thinking and science. This is why I am recommending Dr. Hammond’s book highly. This is also why our Foundation commissioned an article by Dr. Metcalf to sepcifically look at the Bowlby – system theory connection. (Use the CONTACT US button above to request a copy of Dr. Metcalf’s article.) Consider this quote from Dr. Hammond’s book (page 64):

Wiener originally defined cybernetics as “control and communication in the animal and machine” and further described the field as a dynamic departure from the Newtonian world view and the basis for a tentative new theory of scientific method.

Two points to note here: 1) Clearly Wiener did keep the mechanical and biological in mind simultaneously (as did Bowlby), and, 2) systems thinking and theory presented a challenge to the Newtonian world view. So, with respect to the former, I stand corrected: Wiener also bridged mechanical and biological systems and processes. With respect to the latter, it cannot be overstated that by framing attachment processes using systems thinking and science, Bowlby was inviting us to join him in the systems revolution (beginning to gain momentum in the 1950s and 60s) that sought to challenge Newtonian sensibilities. Sadly, the systems frame that Bowlby used (and its challenge to the Newtonian world view) is all but forgotten during current discussions of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Lets listen in as Dr. Hammond continues because I find this next quote to be most interesting (emphasis, bracketed additions, and hyperlinks are mine):

As with Bertalanffy’s open-system concept, the starting point for cybernetics grows out of the apparent contradiction between the second law of thermodynamics and the evidence of evolution. The second law states that the entropy or disorder in the universe is constantly increasing, which means that order is the least probable state of matter and chaos the most probable. As Wiener notes, however, there are enclaves within which there is a limited tendency for organization to increase.

Allow me to pause because here we encounter a point that Bowlby makes in his work, one that I don’t see being made (at least not clearly) today: attachment relationships—especially between primary caregivers and infants—are centrally about creating “enclaves” (that is to say, safe and protected spaces) in which increased organization of biological systems can then (hopefully if all goes well) lead to increased organization of psychological systems, systems that are part and parcel of such psychological phenomena as imagination, false belief or theory of mind, empathy, etc. Back to Dr. Hammond:

Life has continued to evolve increasingly complex and highly organized forms. [Wiener] writes, “In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency for entropy to increase.” And it is through communication, imparting organizing information to the system and its environment [such as can be found in the body-based language of motherese], that we are able to counter the tendency toward disorder ….”

So, it would seem that many of the early systems thinkers, such as Wiener, Bowlby, and Bertalanffy, moved back and forth between mechanical and biological models. As a matter of fact, it would seem that, at least early on, biological models greatly influenced mechanical ones. In both cases, these systems models were an affront to Newtonian sensibilities. Sadly, as Dr. Hammond points out, the notion of using mechanical models to control and dominate biological ones in a form of one-way communication began to creep into the overall systems project. As Dr. Hammond puts it, “Despite the fact that Wiener himself became increasingly critical of the military after [WWII], the association between cybernetics and the war machine remains prominent among contemporary historians of science.” As a sidenote, Dr. Hammond mentions that several of the early systems thinkers (such as Bertalanffy) ended up in Canada as a way of distancing themselves from the close bond that was ultimately forged between cybernetics and militarism. I wonder if this migration of “humanist systems thinking” (for lack of a better term) to Canada has anything to do with the high level of acceptance that Bowlby’s theory enjoys in that part of the world.