The Drama of Earth Systems (Pt 6)

Share this Blog post

In this post I would like to move over to the right side of my map The Shifting Landscape of Systems Development. The right side of my map was constructed though my readings of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s 1969 book General System Theory: Foundations, Development and Applications, and Gerald Midgley’s 2000 book Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice. I wrote executive summaries of both books. Specifically, I wrote a summary of Bertalanffy’s book to show systems theory connections back to Bowlby’s work; and I wrote a summary of Midgley’s book to show where systems thinking has gone from the 1960s until today (roughly the early 2010s). These summaries comprise the bulk of my 2011 book Bowlby’s Battle. Here’s my map again for your convenience.



I have written and blogged about Bowlby’s work extensively. For our purposes here I will sketch out a sketchy thumbnail sketch. For an in-depth look at Bowlby’s life and his early work, please see the 1998 book by Suzan van Dijken entitled John Bowlby: His Early Life—A Biographical Journey Into the Roots of Attachment Theory.

After receiving his medical degree, Bowlby embarked on the arduous process of becoming a psychoanalyst. Melanie Klein was Bowlby’s mentor. Klein was an influential psychoanalyst who was the first to develop psychoanalytic techniques that could be used with children. When Bowlby attended the Geneva conferences (mentioned earlier) from 1953 to 1956, he was director of the Children’s Department at the famous Tavistock Clinic in London. The collected proceedings of the Geneva conferences (Discussions on Child Development published in 1971) lists Bowlby’s speciality area as “psychoanalysis.”

I’ll spare you the details, however, Bowlby, not long after the Geneva conferences, became disenchanted with psychodynamics. I’m guessing here but I would wager that his contact with thinkers like Jean Piaget (developmental psychology), Konrad Lorenz (ethology), Margaret Mead (cultural anthropology), Julian Huxley (biology and evolutionary theory), and Ludwig von Bertalanffy (biology and systems theory) during the Geneva conferences got Bowlby thinking that in order for psychodynamics to be taken seriously, it had to be ported over to a scientific milieu where its various hypotheses could be studied and evaluated using the scientific method. Bowlby’s desire to port psychodynamics over to the scientific milieu put him at cross purposes with his psychoanalytic colleagues, who were not happy with Bowlby’s decision.

When I first read about Bowlby’s break with psychoanalysis I did not give it much thought. However, now I can see this as a much more important event than I first thought. I’ll explain in a moment. Suffice it say that Bowlby went on to write his three volumes on attachment. Allow me to summarize them thus:

  • Volume One (1969/1982)—Attachment and Loss, Vol. I: Attachment. Bowlby presents his theory of attachment.
  • Volume Two (1973)—Attachment and Loss, Vol. II: Separation—Anxiety and Anger. Bowlby presents data in support of his theory pulling in large part from the work of his longtime collaborator Mary Ainsworth, and the work of ethologist Harry Harlow.
  • Volume Three (1980)—Attachment and Loss, Vol. III: Loss—Sadness and Depression. Bowlby tries to sell his theory, now supported by copious amounts of scientific data, to the public, to politicians, and to policymakers.

According to information that Sir Richard Bowlby, John’s son, presented during a conference held in Canada in 2005, John Bowlby never imagined that he would have to write more than one volume let alone three. John Bowlby thought that his first volume would be so persuasive that attachment theory would take on a life of its own convincing the public, politicians, and policymakers alike to change their ways. It was not to be.

What I am now realizing is that placing something like, say, attachment, into a new framework like, say, organic systems theory, dramatically changes its identity if you will (pulling from the book I’m currently reading, We Don’t Speak of Fear). I can now see that Bowlby’s desire to “science-fy” psychodynamics was threatening because it would fundamentally change the collective identity formed by psychodynamics. I have used the following quote many times, but I’ll use it once again because I think it is that important.

Writing in her 1999 article entitled Why Is Attachment in the Air?, Orbach tells us that “Feminist analysts first had a difficult time with what they perceived as Bowlby’s [scientific] valourisation of the maternal at a moment when we were trying to [sociologically] understand the relationship of women’s oppression to the structure of the nuclear family.” Orbach continues, “Bowlby’s [scientific] observation of the child’s need of the mother was just the kind of presumption that needed [postmodern] deconstructing.” In essence, feminists took an anti-science stance towards Bowlby’s work and the organic systems theory that held it.

Feminists (along with psychoanalysts) did not want such things as “mothering” and the “mother-child relationship” to be put into the scientific milieu because such a shift would not only put these things into an organic systems theory worldview, but it would dramatically change their identity. Within the science milieu, mothering and the mother-child relationship could then be put under a microscope, scrutinized, and, as is the custom of reductionistic science, reduced to its various components. As Bertalannfy writes in General System Theory, reductionistic science is great for “analyzing elements, but then forgets to look at the relationships between those elements, their interactions, and, as a result, is ill-equipped to put all the elements together as a whole that works.” The irony here is that throughout his three volumes on attachment, Bowlby made an effort to use organic systems theory as a backdrop. Simply, he was not a reductionist. In fact, I would argue that Bowlby’s spiritual mentor if you will was Charles Darwin, arguable the true father of organic systems theory.[1]

If I can put my spin on it, Bowlby effectively argued that the best way a person could attain status as a card-carrying member of liberal humanism was to embrace the basic premise of attachment theory:

Early safe and secure attachment relationships between mother and her infant/child (if all goes well) are the royal highway toward life dominated by the upper brain and its Executive Function skills such as empathy, perspective taking, delaying gratification, appropriately focusing and shifting attention, mental modeling, and running as if scenarios.

While Bowlby saw organic systems and processes as the best way to gain access to the emancipatory powers of the upper brain and its EF skills, others saw the body as the main reason for imprisonment. For them, informational and sociological systems focused on disembodiment, were the ways toward freedom. Both believed in the proverbial “blank slate” approach to systems development that denies that anything approaching the biologically-mediated attachment behavioral system exists.[2]

So, both psychoanalysts and feminists were concerned that Bowlby’s attempts at “science-fying” would unalterably change their respective collective identities. Think about it; when the CDC recommends that people should receive a vaccine against, say, COVID, the CDC is asking people to science-fy themselves. It may well be that they are not railing against the vaccine so much as what it represents: science and science’s penchant for reducing things and making part a whole. It may well be that feminists are not so much rejecting science as they are rejecting objectification. In that light, I totally get it. It’s too bad that in all likelihood Bowlby was painted as a reductionist. But there again, he was a white male born of privilege.

Now, here’s an interesting side note: In recent decades neurobiologists have discovered, using neuroimaging techniques, that many of Freud’s intuitions were correct.[3] Loosely speaking, the upper brain and the Executive Functions it houses is the superego; the middle brain is the ego; and the Id is the primitive lower brain. Freud was spot on. I think psychoanalysts and neurobiologists now have the same goal: to get people and even countries to move up into their EF brain, that is if they believe in biological systems, the brain being a prime example of a biological system.

Not to be a downer, however, Iain McGilchrist in his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, suggests that currently Western society is entering a time dominated by the logical, linear, left middle brain. He does not see this changing anytime soon. As McGilchrist puts it: “If one had to sum up … features of modernism they could probably be reduced to these: an excess of consciousness and an over-explicitness [i.e., left brain] in relation to what needs to remain intuitive and implicit [i.e., right brain]; depersonalization and alienation from the body and empathetic feeling [i.e., upper brain EF skills]; disruption of context [more right brain]; fragmentation of experience; and the loss of ‘betweenness.’ ” McGilchrist continues, “Each of these is in fact to some degree implied in each of the others; and there is a simple reason for that.” Here’s McGilchrist’s bottom line: “They are aspects of a single world: not just the world of the schizophrenic, but, as may by now be clear, the world according to the left hemisphere.”

Rather than allow Bowlby and his ilk to frame mothering, mother-child relationships, and even gender, within organic systems theory, feminists decided to instead place these things within sociological systems theory where they saw a better chance for entry into the realm of liberal humanism. When feminists and others argue that gender and mothering are social constructs, this is a clear indication that we have moved from organic systems theory to sociological systems theory. This is where we will pick back up in the final installment of this blog series. To whet your appetite a bit, note that both information scientists and feminists are trying to move definitions of what it means to be human out of the realm of biology and into the realm of mental constructions. Information scientists go a step further in wishing for us a realm dominated by pure information. Both are engaging in disembodiment. Both are setting the stage for the emergence of the cyborg and domination by the left hemisphere.[4] Bummer.



[1] I say this because in 1989, one year before his death, Bowlby published his excellent biography of Darwin’s life entitled Charles Darwin—A New Life.

[2] For more on this theme, see the 2003 book by Steven Pinker entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

[3] See this Scientific American article Freud is Back:

[4] I do not wish to frame this transition from body to mind as being simple and quick. It’s not. Many feminists have wrestled with this issue, both pro and con. For more on this theme, see the 2000 edited volume entitled The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Another useful reference is the 1991 feminist sci-fi novel entitled He, She and It: A Novel by Marge Piercy.