To recap Rosen, the perception an individual has of his own culture derived from his interaction
with a limited and unique part of that culture is substantially different from the perception of
that same culture by an outside observer. As a result, his perception of what behavior should be
appropriate at any given point in time is inevitably faulty. Nevertheless, social systems are
probably the most adaptive and persistent systems on our planet.
Walter Buckley combined the backgrounds of a systems scientist and of a sociologist to give
us some insight into how society seen as an adaptive system overcomes these problems.
Equilibrium systems, Buckley explained, are relatively closed and entropic. In going to
equilibrium they typically lose structure, going toward a condition of minimum free energy. The
homeostatic system is open and negentropic. Its main characteristic is its function to maintain
the given structure of the system within pre-established limits. It has both energy and
information feedback loops with its environment but they are geared to self-regulation (structure
maintenance). Complex adaptive systems are also open and negentropic, but they are open
internally as well as externally. The interchange among their components may result in
significant changes in the nature of the components themselves. True feedback control loops
make possible not only self-regulation, but self-direction. In adaptation to changing
environments the system may change or elaborate its structure as a condition of survival or
viability. Buckley's paradigm of complex adaptive systems is derived from cybernetics and
information theory. Here is a brief look at complex adaptive systems in his words.
The environment, however else it may be characterized, can be seen at bottom as a set or
ensemble of more or less distinguishable elements, states, or events, whether the
discriminations are made in terms of spatial or temporal relations or properties. Such
distinguishable differences in an ensemble may be most generally referred to as "variety".
The relatively stable "causal" spatial, and/or temporal relations between these
distinguishable elements or events may be generally referred to as "constraint". If the
elements are so loosely related that there is equal probability of any element or state
being associated with any other, we speak of "chaos" or complete randomness, and hence
lack of constraint, but our more typical natural environment is characterized by a
relatively high degree of constraint, without which the development and elaboration of
the adaptive systems (as well as "science,") would not have been possible. When the
internal organization of an adaptive system acquires features that permit it to
discriminate, act upon, and respond to aspects of the environmental variety and its
constraints, we might generally say that the system has "mapped" parts of the
environmental variety and constraints into its organization as structure and/or
"information". Thus, a subset of the ensemble of constrained variety in the environment
is coded and transmitted in some way via various channels to result in a change in the
structure of the receiving system which is isomorphic in certain respects to the original
variety. The system thus becomes selectively matched to its environment both
physiologically and psychologically. It should be added that two or more adaptive
systems, as well as an adaptive system and its natural environment, may be selectively
interrelated by a mapping process in the same terms. This becomes especially important
for the evolution of the social system.
A complex adaptive system, Buckley said, must include four basic mechanisms.
1. Some degree of "plasticity" and˙irritability" vis-a-vis its environment such that it
carries on a constant interchange with environmental events, acting on and reacting to it.
2. Some source of mechanism for variety, to act as a potential pool of adaptive variability
to meet the problem of mapping new or more detailed variety and constraints in a
3. A set of selective criteria or mechanisms against which the "variety pool" may be
sifted into those variations in the organization or system that more closely map the
environment and those that do not.
4. An arrangement for preserving and/or propagating these "successful" mappings.
A social system must deal with the variety in its environment. In addition to its
structure-maintaining features, it requires a structure elaborating and changing feature. As a
considering the term "steady-state", Buckley said, it must "... not be identified with a particular
structure of the system." In order to maintain a steady-state, the system must be capable of
changing its structure. In describing these mechanisms Buckley uses the term "morphogenesis"
Persistence in an adaptive complex system requires that essential variances in the system be held
within certain limits. This maintenance may depend on pattern reorganization structuring,
destructuring and restructuring, at widely varying rates and degrees as a function of the external
social and non-social environment. "The cybernetic perspective of control or self-regulation of
adaptive systems emphasizes the role of deviation, seen in both negative and positive aspects."
Buckley says that on the negative side deviation can provide signals that may be interpreted by
the organizing centers of the system as a failure of the operating systems or structures relative to
the desired goal-state. On the positive side deviation provides a pool of "potential new
transformations of processes or structure that the adaptive system might adopt in responding to
goal mis-match."Invoking Ashby's Law of' "requisite variety", the variety within a system must
be at least as great as the environmental variety against which it is attempting to regulate itself,
Buckley states that only variety can regulate variety.
Thus the concept of requisite deviation needs to be preferred as a high level principle that
can lead us to theorize: A requisite of sociocultural systems is the development and
maintenance of a significant level of non-pathological deviance manifest as a pool of
alternate ideas and behaviors with respect to the traditional, institutionalized ideologies
and role behaviors. Rigidification of any given institutional structure must eventually
lead to disruption or dissolution of' the society by way of internal upheaval or
ineffectiveness against external challenge. The student of society must thus pose the
question--what mechanisms of non-pathological deviance production and maintenance
can be found in any society, and what "mechanisms" of conformity operate to counteract
these and possibly lessen the viability of the system.
Assuming sufficient deviance and variety in an adaptive system, the next problem is selection of
the most appropriate modes of behavior and a means of preservation of the selected behavior. In
biological systems w˙e have natural selection of some of the genetic variety. In psychological
systems, we have trial and error selection by way of the so-called "law of effect", from the
variety of environmental events and potential behavior repertoire to form experience and motor
skills preserved by cortical structuring.
It is clearly in the area of' "social selection" that we meet the knottiest problems. For the
sociocultural system, as for the biological adaptive system, analysis must focus on both
the potentialities of the systems structure at a given time, and the environmental changes
that might occur and put particular demands on whatever structure has evolved. In both
areas the complexities are compounded for the sociocultural system.
Not only are social systems capable of persisting within a wide range of degrees of freedom,
they are often able to "muddle through" environmental changes that are not too demanding.
These systems are capable of temporary shifts in structure to meet exigencies. And in Buckley's
words, "Thus, although the minimal integration required for a viable system does set limits on
the kinds of structures that can persist, these limits seem relatively broad compared to a
biological system. And given the greater degrees of freedom of internal structuring (structural
alternatives as some call them) and the potentially great speed with which restructuring may
occur under certain conditions, it becomes difficult to predict the reactions of such a system to
environmental changes or internal elaboration."
In developing a typology of systems and their internal linkages we have noted that as we
proceed from the mechanical or physical through the biological, psychic and
sociocultural, the system becomes "looser", the interrelations among parts more tenuous,
less rigid, and especially less directly tied to physical events as energy relations and
transformations are overshadowed by symbolic relations and information transfers.
Feedback loops between operating sociocultural structures and the surrounding reality
are often long and tortuous, so much so that knowledge of results or goal-mismatch,
when forthcoming at all, may easily be interpreted in non-verdical ways (as the history of
magic, superstition, and ideologies from primitive to present amply indicate). The higher
adaptive systems have not been attained without paying their price, as the widespread
existence of illusion and delusions on the personality and cultural levels attest. On the
biological level, the component parts have relatively few degrees of freedom, and
changes in the environment are relatively directly and inexorably reacted to by selective
structural changes in the species.
Although the problem is difficult, something can be said about more ultimate adaptive
criteria against which sociocultural structures can be assessed. Consideration of the
grand trends of evolution provides clues to very general criteria. These trends point in
the direction of: (1) Greater and greater flexibility of structure, as error-controlled
mechanisms (cybernetic processes of control) replace more rigid, traditionalistic means
of meeting problems and seeking goals; (2) ever more refined, accurate, and systematic
mapping, decoding, and encoding of the external environment and the systems own
internal milieu (via science), along with greater independence from the physical
environment; (3) and thereby a greater elaboration of self-regulating substructures in
order--not merely to restore a given equilibrium or homeostatic level--but to purposely
restructure the system without tearing up the lawn in the process.
"The advance of science," Buckley said, "has driven it away from the concern with 'substance'
and toward a focus on relations between components of any kind." Thus, a concern with
complex systems in which some kind of stable structure, often tenuous and only statistically
determined, arises. Buckley continues, "In contrast to some of the general systems theorists
themselves as well as their critics, we have argued that this is not simply analogizing, but
generalizing or abstracting as well. (Although the form is important and scientifically legitimate
also, when performed with due caution). To say that physiological, psychological, and
sociocultural processes of control all involve the same cybernetic principles of information flow
along feedback loops is no more a mere analogy than to say that the trajectories of a falling
apple, an artificial satellite, or a planet all involve the basic principle of gravitational attraction."
Complex systems are open systems in intimate interchange with an environment
characterized by a great deal of shifting variety (booming, buzzing confusion) and its
constraints (its structure of causal interrelations). The concept of equilibrium developed
for closed physical systems is quite inappropriate and usually inapplicable to such a
dynamic situation. Rather, a characteristic resultant is the elaboration of organization in
the direction of the less probable and the less inherently stable,
The concept of a complex adaptive system cannot be identified with the more-or-less stable
structure it may take on at any particular time. The condition for maintenance of a viable
adaptive system may be a change in its structure. Among the important processes for
sociocultural systems are not only cooperation and conformity to norms, but conflict,
competition, and deviation which may help to create (or destroy) the essential variety pool, and
which constitutes the process of selection from it, To complex adaptive systems organization is
the "control", the characteristic of which will change as organization changes,