Biotic Feedback priority and supremacy in nature, science and society

Hector Sabelli
Chicago Center for Creative Development.
2400 N. Lakeview Ave. Chicago Illinois. 60614-2741
[email protected] and http://www\
Abstract: This article presents a new cybernetic concept, biotic feedback, meaning a process of
bipolar, mutual, and hierarchical interactions. Natural and human processes invariably include both
positive and negative feedback, and typically involve mutual feedback between systems that stand in
a hierarchical relation. Simple processes have priority and generate complex processes that acquire
supremacy. Mathematical models indicate that bipolar (positive and negative) feedback generates
bios, a non-stationary aperiodic pattern characterized by measurable features of creativity that
uniquely resembles the patterns found in physiological, socioeconomic and other empirical data.
Bipolar feedback may thus be a creative process present in many natural and human systems. The
concept of biotic feedback is here advanced as descriptive of many natural and social interactions,
and as prescriptive for institutional and political governance. In science, objective reality has
priority; interpretations have supremacy. In medicine, biological processes have priority and
psychological ones supremacy. Socioeconomic processes are co-determined by physical and
biological environment and by culture and ideology. Participatory democracy offers an alternative to
top-down governance.
Key words: bios, causation, complexity, economics, epistemology.
Cosmological, biological, social, and personal processes are creative. They generate diversity,
novelty and complexity. Yet, they also include destructive components. Anabolism and catabolism
illustrate how the coexistence of creative and destructive processes has a net positive outcome.
Simple processes thus generate a hierarchy of levels of organization (physical < chemical <
biological < social < psychological processes), a hierarchy of systems that contain each other
(elementary particles < atoms < molecules < cells < organisms < societies < planet < solar system),
as well as ecological food chains and social hierarchies. In each of these cases, the echelons interact
in both directions, and both synergically and antagonistically. To model these processes of bipolar,
mutual, and hierarchical interactions, I introduce here a new cybernetic concept, biotic feedback.
Biotic feedback is a creative cycle, such as illustrated by the complementary actions of simple
processes that provide energy and matter and complex processes that return information.
Exemplary of this bi-directional but unequal relation is the relation between heart and brain (figure
1); the circulatory system supplies oxygen and foodstuff, while brain determines cardiac rhythms
though the opposing actions of the accelerating sympathetic nerve and the decelerating
parasympathetic nerve. Their opposing actions imprint a characteristic pattern (bios) in series of
heartbeats. Biotic patterns are generated by bipolar feedback.
Priority and Supremacy: Hierarchical Feedback
Biotic feedback (figure 2) results from complementary upward and downward actions
within a hierarchical process or system. The standard concept of hierarchy is a unidirectional chain
of command in which the top element has absolute primacy. Actually, the concept of pri-macy must
be divided into two complementary opposite orders, which we call pri-ority and supre-macy because
these terms are appropriate for describing typical cases.
Figure 1: A biological example of priority and supremacy:
Bipolar feedback appears to be a generic process. Evolution begins with simple processes
and they generate complex ones. Simple processes are widespread. They precede, create, make up,
enclose, and outlast the complex patterns they generate. Simpler levels predominate globally
because they have temporal priority, and more energy, more extension, more duration, and greater
mass (priority of the simple). Complex processes are short-lived and local; they predominate
locally over the simple processes that generate and constitute them via their greater informational
content, greater energy flow density, and greater creativity (supremacy of the complex). For
instance, in the central nervous system, newer and more complex structures (e.g. cerebral cortex)
develop from, and integrate, inhibit and control the activity of older and simpler structures (e.g.
spinal chord), which, in turn, serve as the input and output for the higher ones. There is hierarchy of
levels (spinal < rhomboencephalic < mesencephalic < diencephalic < cortical) that interact with each
other in continual processes of mutual and hierarchical feedback. Each neurological level represents
a phase in biological evolution. Likewise, levels of organization in nature represent phase in the
evolution of the universe. As in the central nervous system, also in nature the higher levels control
the bottom levels, while at the same time are themselves determined by the lower ones. Notably, the
free energy flow density increases with complexity: it is much higher in human brain (150,000 ergs
sec-1 g-1) than in the body, the planet, or even the sun (2 ergs sec-1 g-1) (Chaisson, 1987).
Together, bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom actions constitute a cycle, a continuously
operating feedback. The two components of the feedback cycle, priority and supremacy are
qualitatively different. For instance, the heart is not a specialized organ that enables us to carries out
a particular function. If the heart stops functioning properly, the result is not a less efficient human,
deprived of some specialized functions; the result is that the organism dies.
Processes at each level of organization are in part endogenous and in part co-determined by
processes at simpler or more complex levels. For instance, the physical and biological environment
has priority in economic processes, while the social, economic and legal systems have supremacy in
determining the environment. Economic motivations largely predetermine our ideas and moral
values; knowledge and moral values determine what we consider economically or legally sound.
Figure 2: Priority and supremacy as complementary opposite components of biotic feedback.
Bios Between Chaos and Complexity
The concept of biotic feedback stems from the identification of bios in series of heartbeat
intervals (Sabelli et al, 1997), and the demonstration that bios is generated by recursions involving
bipolar feedback (Kauffman and Sabelli, 1998). The recursions that generate bios and the methods
used for its identification are illustrated in a companion article on Quantum Bios (Sabelli and
Kovacevic, This Meeting).
Bipolar (positive and negative) feedback such as the recursion
At+1= At + sin(At * k * t)
generates a sequence of patterns that evolve in time from simple to complex: convergence to ,
bifurcation cascade, chaos and bios. Unipolar feedback can generate chaos, but not bios.
Bios is a non-stationary aperiodic pattern characterized by measurable features of creativity,
that uniquely resembles the patterns found in physiological, socioeconomic and other empirical data.
Thus bipolar feedback is creative, in a way that unipolar, positive or negative, feedback, is not.
While positive and negative feedback mechanisms have found a wide range of applications in
engineering, natural and human processes invariably include both (François, 1997). The relation
between levels of organization in nature often is bipolar, partly synergic and partly antagonistic.
Priority and Supremacy in Causation
Man-made and natural feedback processes differ also in another respect: while mechanisms like
the governor regulate the function of one device, natural processes typically involve mutual
feedback between two or more systems. Feedback captures the notion of a process of mutual
causation. Biotic feedback highlights (1) temporal order; (2) hierarchy; and (3) the necessary relation
between its components. Mutual causation occurs because the interacting processes are linked to
each other; the interaction is not an event but a process. Combining the insights of dialectics and
cybernetics leads one to recognize the interaction of complementary opposites such as positive and
negative particles, male and female, supply and demand, abuse and abuser, as significant types of
mutual feedback. Adding the insights of modern non-linear dynamics, opposites emerge from
bifurcations, and triads and tetrads of attractors create complex patterns. Finally, most cases of
mutual feedback involve a hierarchical relation between the interacting processes. There is hence a
qualitative difference between upward and downward causation: energy predominates in upward
causation, while downward actions carry more information. For instance, a larger system may have
a selective effect on lower-level entities (see Dent, 2003). Examples of downward causation are the
control of the brain over the body, the dominance of upper over lower classes, the overpowering of
reason by ideology, and the concept of “mind-over-matter”. Granting primacy to downward
causation is not a novel idea. The oldest concept of causation derived from the subjective experience
of willing our actions. Thus our early ancestors assigned a spirit to each tree, river and mountain,
and eventually to the whole universe. The concept of a purely spiritual God creating the material
universe is a paradigmatic example of downward causation, and the precursor of philosophical
idealism. From the Greek sophists to Berkeley and beyond, idealist thinkers have claimed that
perception determines reality. The great intellectual revolution that created science in ancient Greece
was the search for natural causes i.e. the upward causation from the simple to the complex.
Rationalism is intimately associated with materialism. Analysis (chemical, social, psychological),
i.e. the reduction of complex processes to its component parts, is the leading scientific method, and
has met with extraordinary success in studies ranging from elementary particles to DNA. The notion
of hierarchical feedback allows one to assert the priority of natural cause without denying the local
supremacy of downward causation.
Upward and downward causation seldom exist separately. They are components of processes
of mutual feedback that coexist in various degrees, so we may recognize four major types of
causation (figure 3, top left): upward causation (priority), downward causation (supremacy), both
(biotic feedback), and neither (non-hierarchical circular causation, self-organization). These four
categories also describe scientific methodologies (figure 3 top right), educational methods (figure 3,
bottom left), and the flow of power in social organizations (figure 3 bottom right).
It is proposed that hierarchical and bipolar feedback is a generic mechanism that creates
diversity, novelty and complexity in all systems, because all processes evolve within a hierarchy of
multiple and interacting levels of organization. Biotic patterns are widespread because natural
feedback is hierarchical and bipolar. It is thus posited as an alternative to bottom-up causality
(materialism, reductionism), top-down causality (supernaturalism, idealism, observers determining
quantum reality), and non-hierarchical circular causation and self-organization. Most formulations of
circular causation posit that repetition functionally erases causal order and bi-directionality abolishes
hierarchical order, while ignoring the central role of complementary opposition and triads in causation.
Many self-organization models explicitly exclude hierarchical order. To describe a phenomenon as
“emergent” implicitly excludes a causal accounting of creation. Hierarchical and bipolar feedback is
proposed as a causal explanation for emergence (Sabelli, 2003). Linear, simple, mathematical
cause has priority, and infinite complexity is the attractor of evolution. Neither appears to
involve chance or randomness.
Biotic feedback appears to be a universal process, because there are hierarchies everywhere,
in nature, in society, and in mind. Global cycles, including nutrient cycles, are prominent examples
of creative feedback. In cosmological, biological, and social evolution, simple processes have
priority while complex processes acquire supremacy. Life starts with simple forms, but brain and
behavior undoubtedly play a major role in higher species. The concept of priority and supremacy
thus has multiple applications: biological priority and psychological supremacy in medicine,
sociology and economics; mathematical priority and ideological supremacy in science; priority of
the objective and supremacy of the subjective in cognition; and priority and supremacy relations in
ecological and social hierarchies. Figure 2 schematically shows the diversity in which biotic
processes of priority and supremacy occur in these cases.
Biological Priority and Psychological Supremacy In Medicine
The concept of priority and supremacy (Sabelli, 1989) originates with an integrative approach to
medical care that gives priority to biological issues and supremacy to psychological processes
(Sabelli and Carlson-Sabelli, 1989). The practical importance of the concept of priority and
supremacy is exemplified by clinical practice. For instance, restoring breathing always has absolute
priority, but once life is not threatened, taking care of the patient’s emotional well-being may
become more important than treating a respiratory difficulty. Conversely, attending to the
psychological welfare of a dying patient has absolute supremacy. Whether in medicine or
psychiatry, insight into biological issues has priority. A patient who denies the meaning of pain will
not seek the needed treatment; likewise, a patient suffering from a genetically determined affective
disorder cannot be adequately treated unless he or she is aware that it is a medical illness. Therapists
who promote “insight” into hypothetical unconscious reasons, childhood traumas or current family
conflicts, while denying the importance of biological causes, prevent insight. Biological insight must
be complemented with social and psychological insight. In clinical practice, we increasingly witness
patients with the emotional consequences of unemployment, job insecurity, marital conflict, or
childhood abuse being treated with antidepressants.
Figure 3: Upward and downward causation as complementary. In each graph the left arrow
represents bottom-up forces and the right arrow top-down processes. These two axes determine a
plane (“diamond of opposites”) in which we can locate potential outcomes of different combinations
of causation.
Biological interventions may be essential, but patient’s alertness to symptoms and compliance
with treatment are equally important. Equally important, it turns out, is physician’s alertness, as the
business nature of pharmaceutical production leads to systematic lying regarding both effectiveness
and toxicity, and government agencies hide rather than denounce these malfeasances. It thus
becomes the role of the physician to reject commercially supported “education” and to use
medications only after their efficacy and non-toxicity has been demonstrated by non-for-profit
sources. It is also important to attend to social and psychological processes. For instance,
competition, anger, and rushing contribute significantly to coronary artery disease, and we live in a
society that enforces, promotes and even celebrates competition, in the midst of social conflicts that
propagate anger, and an economic environment that imposes rushing to increase profits. Yet
cardiological care seldom attends to these issues. Learning about social influences may help
individuals avoid them, for instance, by changing jobs. Psychophysiological evaluation and
psychotherapy should be employed in medicine (Sabelli et al, 1994).
Priority and Supremacy in Economics
Supply and demand constitute a bipolar feedback processes. Supply satisfies demand and
demand consumes supply, but demand also fosters production and producers promote demand. The
generation of supply by demand was demonstrated by Keynes. The generation of demand by supply
is “Say’s law”. As demand fosters supply and supply fosters demand, one would then expect an
increase in both, rather than equilibrium. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we see in many
economic processes, such as the oil industry. Given that oil plays a major economic role, consistent
with the fundamental role of energy in physical processes, the simultaneous increase in oil
production and profits has a wide social significance. These increases in supply and demand for oil,
however, are not simple linear rises; rather, their pattern is biotic (Sabelli, 2005).
This complexity of pattern probably results in part from the asynchrony of production and
consumption. Consumption has a clear historical and current priority over production, and in turn
production acquires supremacy over the historical course of the process. The priority of
consumption is evident. Animals, children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled, the wealthy, the
military, and many others, consume but do not produce.
Together, supply and demand form a bipolar feedback process. In support of this biotic
feedback model, many economic time series show biotic patterns (Sabelli, 2005). Such pattern
cannot be generated by the equilibrium of supply and demand postulated by standard mechanistic
economics. Biotic patterns observed in economic processes cannot be generated by unipolar
feedback, such as the logistic equation, which models the effect of scarcity. Thus economic
processes cannot be determined solely by scarcity, as posited by standard economics.
Biotic patterns are generated by bipolar feedback, pointing to abundance as the necessary
complement to scarcity in determining economic life. Likewise, abundance is as important as
important as scarcity in nature, albeit Darwinian evolutionary theory adopts the economic model of
scarcity. Life exists because nature’s supplies are abundant. Natural supplies obviously precede
human production.
The fact that production has supremacy, while consumption has priority has obvious social
implications. For instance, it indicates that the decrease in demand that results from impoverishment,
as witnessed today in the USA, is the Achilles’ heel of its economy. Likewise the austerity
programs, such as those demanded by international financial institutions from poor countries, are
bound to reduce rather than promote their development –which is exactly what is empirically
observed. A major failure of command socialist economies was the focus on production without
fostering consumption.
These failures of governance may be attributed to the lack of upward control. This was the
major failure of the English and Spanish colonial systems that led to the revolutions of
independence. Likewise top-down supremacy without complementary priority was a failure of
command socialist economies in the twentieth century, and led to their rejection by the governed.
The same specter haunts top-down corporations today.
Priority and Supremacy in Social Processes: Biotic Feedback as Democracy.
Social processes involve multiple processes of mutual and hierarchical feedback, as social
roles occur in pairs (woman and man, parent and child, teacher and student) in which power is
unequally distributed. Thus, sexes are co-dominant, but in almost all human societies, just as in
almost all animal species, there is some degree of male supremacy. Equally fundamental is the
familial power of the women which we call female priority (Sabelli and Carlson-Sabelli, 1995). We
are mammals −the term itself expresses the idea that being nurtured by our mother is fundamental.
Mothers are the first identification, authority and beloved figure for children. Mother is the first
universe we inhabit, the first person we know, our first love, and our first source of nutrition,
warmth and protection. In our times, women live substantially longer than men. This of course does
not justify the sexual inequities that still persist – Equal Rights are as yet not approved in the USA!
Women and men are more similar than different; there is a total overlap in the range of capacities of
women and men. Male supremacy, as white supremacy, is an unacceptable injustice.
The power relation between social classes and between nations is also bi-directional. Power is
distributed, albeit unequally, among all classes and all nations. The increase in population in the
poorest countries as a result of improved medical care shows that the poor benefit from the
contradictory progress of history, while also suffering its worst consequences in the form of famine,
war, dictatorships, and unemployment. Classes co-dominate: the supremacy of the upper classes is
always in dynamic interaction with the priority of the lower classes, the producers. Class
cooperation and conflict are complementary component of the bipolar feedback process.
Cooperation is necessary for economic production. Conflict results from the uneven distribution of
profits. Class war is often waged by the greedy against the poor, pointed out Bernard Shaw. Slavery
illustrates the role of force in class division (figure 2, lower right panel).
Slavery was justified by religion as racism is now supported by pseudo-scientific psychology.
Wars, most often waged for economic profit, are often justified as patriotic, religious, or defensive.
Social policies emerge from a hierarchical feedback in which decisions are often determined by
material processes but dressed and enhanced by ideology. There is, however, real idealism, and
social science can play a therapeutic role. The treatment of the whole of mankind is the aim of all
worthwhile psychotherapy (Moreno, 1978).
Since hierarchical and bipolar feedback is a reality in social processes, it is cogent to formalize it
explicitly in political organization. For much of history we have lived in top down systems, as
exemplified by army, church, and corporation, and embodied politically in monarchy, dictatorship,
and plutocracy. A major failure of socialist systems was the lack of upward control i.e., supremacy
without priority. The same specter haunts today ”bipartisan” America. Classless societies belong to
the tribal stage; bottom-up only governance has been destructive in modern times, as illustrated by
the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Social evolution differentiates and multiplies classes, rather than
abolishing them as democracy or socialism were assumed to do. Social justice does not require, or
permit, eliminating class differences, but requires controlling the powerful. Bipolar and bidirectional feedback offers a model for social organization: participatory democracy, where the
governed control the governors. Participatory democracy is needed to control the government, so in
turn the government controls, rather than fosters, exploitation and abuse. Participatory democracy
needs to be developed also for schools, churches, and corporations.
It is misleadingly claimed that such transformation is already taking place. However the
examples of heterarchy being offered are corporations in which top-heavy bureaucracies are being
replaced by streamlined networks of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and Al-Qaeda, operating
as a network of autonomous cells rather than as a centralized organization after the fashion of past
revolutionary parties. Corporations and terrorist organizations actually promote top-down authority.
Priority of the Objective and Supremacy of the Subjective
The bi-directional and hierarchical relation between levels of organization implies the
epistemological priority of the objective and the supremacy of the subjective. In the formulation of
our ideas (personal, scientific or political), objective facts have priority, but beliefs and
interpretations have supremacy, and our behavior modifies reality. This supremacy is limited,
transient, and local. When our ideas and behavior defy objective truth, our actions fail. Ignoring
warnings increase the chance of serious illness, environmental disaster, economic ruin, and war.
The priority of the objective is complex. It involves not only external reality but also the
anatomical and physiological constitution of the observer. Sensations are the one and only source for
empirical evidence; brain is our only source for rational thinking. Further, both the sensory and the
cognitive processes are largely reliable because they have been shaped by evolution and natural
selection (Vandervert, 1988). Yet, our perceptions and ideas can be erroneous as a result of
limitations of our sensory system and the supremacy of our subjective mind.
Man’s incapacity to distinguish between illusions, hallucinations and perceptions leads
Maturana (1998) to regard the “assumption” of an objective world as “not viable”, and to posit the
primacy of “languaging”. The observer, not the object, is primary, so human beings exist only as
self-conscious entities in language, and the atom and the hydrogen bombs are only cognitive entities.
I wish it would be so. They are real. As human beings are persons, needing food, clean air, medical
care, and dignity. To dismiss perceptions because sometimes we misinterpret them is an
exaggeration. Philosophers may highlight the difficulties inherent in cognition, and replicate
Berkeley’s idealism under new labels, but clinicians must and do distinguish hallucinations from
illusions and perceptions. What characterizes psychotic persons is their inability to distinguish
delusions from reality. What distinguishes hallucinations from perceptions is, among many other
things, that anti-psychotic drugs stop them. Epistemological idealism minimizes the fundamental
role of biological and economic realities in shaping both the observing subject and the observed
social reality. Objective truth, the agreement of thought with reality, is one. Subjective perceptions
are multiple, because they are relative to diverse perspectives. Truth is the sum of all partial
subjective truths, not the negation of anyone of them. In particular, we have no right to discount how
others perceive our behavior. It is necessary to accept the subjective “truth” of the other, not only
from the cognitive perspective but also from an ethical perspective.
This notion of priority and supremacy considers the subjectivity of observer, but it also
reaffirms the priority of reality. Objectivity is the objective of science, as it has been explicitly
recognized at least since Socrates. Objectivity is required for the human use of human beings –
Wiener’s goal for cybernetics. In this fashion, the notion of priority and supremacy addresses the
issue of the observer that defines second order cybernetics, and highlights the possibility of
developing a cybernetic of creative processes.
Acknowledgements: This research was supported by SACP and by generous donations from Mrs.
Maria McCormick. I am also thankful for enlightening discussions by D. Afton, V. Busch-Zurlent,
L. Carlson-Sabelli, W. Grimsley, K. Kane, L. Kauffman, J. Konecki, L. Kovacevic, L. Maroski, M.
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