Development through Alternation

8.7 Alternation between energetic expansion and mentalistic reduction

Anthony Judge

The entropic constraint in social development has been specifically explored by anthropologist Richard Adams. He cites Alfred Lotka's observation that the second law of thermodynamics cannot be contravened by human action. Lotka's principle states that in evolution natural selection favours those populations that convert the greater amount of energy, that is, that bring the greater amount of energy form and process under control. But any "islands" of local order are not themselves an indication of counter-entropic process but rather zones where energy is hastened to entropy or converted into equilibrium forms (130, pp. 125-6).

Adams argues, with Carneiro, that the evident macroscopic expansion of human society in terms of "culture traits" is exponential due to this expansion being proportional to the number of traits already generated. But instead of culture traits, Adams argues that the concept of energy conversion (as opposed to input) is more significant, as well as more directly related to loss of entropy.

He suggests the formulation: "The rate of cultural change is proportional to the rate of energy conversion carried out within the system." (130, p. 281). He emphasizes that this is not simply valid for the material portion of the system. "For not only does the amount of energy in the system have a direct relation to the amount of energy that will be communicated and stored, but it is also subjected to the inevitable human-cultural device of reduction to size." (130, p. 281)

This "reduction to size" takes place through the central process of binary differentiation which Adams considers as providing the basis for ranking and the treatment of much of what is meant by value: "I do not know whether the mere fact of identification, that is, of making a binary differentiation, may be said to imply the immediate bestowal of something we may want to call value; and I am not sure that it really makes any difference." (130, p. 155) A significant aspect of the process is that it is done constantly:

"While there is obviously great individual difference in the relative ability to project new cuts in the environment, we are nevertheless constantly imposing old bifurcate categories on new events, thereby reducing them and simplifying them - in a word, mentally classifying them. More important, there are regularly new formulations of such differentiations, new ways of cutting up the world, that are invented and tried out. Most of these, like the lethal mutants of the genetic process, serve to extinguish themselves (and in some case their bearers)....Westeners have tended to see this process of recutting the world as something of a hallmark of progress. It can, however, also be seen as man's way of reducing the world to size, to terms with which he can deal." (130, p. 281)

Adams points out that in these terms mankind can be viewed as a species confronting a constantly changing environment. The confrontations are however repeatedly made with relatively fixed mental equipment:

"No matter how new the events perceived, they had to be reduced to a comprehensible scope and to familiar dimensions. The totality of the energetic component may have been beyond his control, but man could always cut a piece of it down to size and form it to fit the "order" demanded by his rnentalistic limitations...So while societies become increasingly complex in terms of their energetic structures, their organizational dimensions are constantly reintegrated to mentalistic structural dimensions that are comprehensible to the human mind." (130, p. 282)

Adams draws attention to research on the apparent limitation on the number of taxonomic dimensions that the human mind can comfortably handle within a social communication context (130, pp. 157-8). This number appears to be around six or seven as discussed earlier (58). He cites studies of folk taxonomies showing that there are at least five, perhaps six, taxonomic ethnobiological categories which appear to be highly general if not universal. They are arranged hierarchically and taxa assigned to each rank are mutually exclusive. One modern example given is a banner in a hall at the Palais des Nations (Geneva), indicating: family, village, clan, medieval state, nation, federation (130, p. 158-9).

For Adams the limited number of levels of integration a society uses to describe its own organization then replaces in practice the levels of articulation that may be empirically found in the course of interactions in society (130, p. 282). Such levels of description then become significant determinants of the kind of structures which can be perceived as emerging or required in society (cf. the category structure of the GPID Group A Report). Adams points out that the process of binary differentiation, taxonomy making and classification, and ranking with its implicit bestowal of priority, is not an unorganized activity unrelated to the question of power and control:

"It is, rather, a mentalistic structural concomitant of overt control....Ranking, then, is an attempt to arrange events in the external world so that they will behave as our mental limitations dictate and will reflect our ability to handle them. It becomes a way to put order in the environment, to imbue things with a positive or negative value that permits them to be maximized, minimized, or optimized." (130, p. 166)

Adams also notes how the taxonomic limitations are related to the learning process, even if the six/seven constraint is bypassed as in the Levi-Strauss observation that the figure of 2,000 is the order of magnitude of the threshold corresponding roughly to the capacity of memory and power of definition of ethnozoologies or ethnobotanics reliant on oral tradition. This figure, taken as 2,047, has been shown by Buchler and Selby (131) to be the number of items, classes or terminal taxa that would be found in a taxonomy composed of eleven levels with systematic binary poartioning. Furthermore, the number of deleted taxa at level seven is then 32, at level eight is 16, at level nine is 8. These figures correspond closely with the breaking points observed by Paget and his colleagues in the learning and developing behaviour of children (1 32, p. 72). In a separate paper (27) it has been argued that such figures could well be used as a way of rendering comprehensible the design of any classification system for international organization action. The results of an exercise of this kind are shortly to be published (133).

Given the above relationship between the mentalistic and energetic components, much of Adam's study is concerned with how a (demographically) expanding society organizes itself. For him, the process whereby centralized units expand through a multiplication of their numbers is a coordinate growth process not involving any qualitative change. Centralization, however, marks a qualitative change in the amount of energy that is being brought under control within one part of the system. The process of development has as a parallel a process of power centralization, whereas the process of growth has as a parallel a process of coordination. This correlates closely with the process of ecological succession except that, instead of moving into a steady state limiting further expansion, new inventions set aside this governing mechanism and permit an increase of energy input to press for a continued expansion (130, p. 287). Of great interest therefore is the possibility of using computers to assist in the invention of better cuts of the environment which remain comprehensible. This is one reason for further investigating tensegrity organization as a more powerful way of handling and integrating sets of binary differentiations.

Adams draws attention to the oscillation between the two modes noted above (which correspond to mentalistic and energetic emphases):

"The alternation of phases of coordination and centralization that can be seen in the macro view of societal and cultural evolution is equally useful in the examination of the processes that particular societies are undergoing at a given point in time....This oscillation may take place simultaneously in two phases or dimensions: (a) horizontal, that is, the shift from a fragmented (identity) unit to a coordinated unit and back (in other terms, fusion and fission, or recombination and segmentation); and (b) vertical, that is, the shift from a coordinated unit to a centralized unit and back (also described as integration and disintegration, centralization and decentralization, etc.)" (130, pp. 290-3)

The literature of ethnography and history is replete with instances of societies undergoing some such kind of oscillation, of which Adams gives a number of examples. With regard to this alternation process he concludes:

"I think that we would have to argue that oscillations are inevitable parts of the evolutionary process; they are the ongoing trial-and-error of a unit, at whatever level, the coming into direct touch with the environment, the testing of the validity of mentalistic pictures and accumulated knowledge. It is the constant inherent structural push toward expansion that makes actors and the units they operate in try again. The oscillating pattern simply means some lack of success, which may be due to any of a wide variety of circumstances. But "success" is hardly the appropriate word, particularly when we recognize that consumption and destruction are both necessary parts of the scene. The fact that old people die will, in the long run, mean success for the young. Or what is successful centralization for one nation, state, chiefdom, may spell disaster for another. What is important about the oscillation process is that it cues the observer as to what he should be looking for. Every operating unit will be at some stage of oscillation at any point in time; to seek out its state and the factors that make it move is to understand how the power system is currently working." (130, p. 298, emphasis added)