Human Systems Theory
Symbolic Mediation and the Anthropological Construction of Reality
by Hugh M. Lewis
Human systems theory has as its point of departure the understanding of the role of culture and cultural symbolization in human adaptation and social patterning. There are key psychological, linguistic, sociological and biological components of this theory that are important to consider and must be taken clearly into account in any general formulation of the problem. At the same time, human systems theory deals with a level of comprehensiveness and complexity, directly concerned with the anthropological relativity of knowledge systems, that makes a sense of paradigmatic consensus and unity impossible. There are tremendous political and ideological investments in certain kinds of theories and orientations regarding human reality and social organization. These commitments are an historical product and a conservative force of resistance to all types of changes, upon many different levels, whether they are obvious or not, masked or made evident in people's daily lives.
Human systems theory begins with an understanding of the basic components that constitute human systems as natural patterns, as a force that was constituted by nature, and that remains, as far as we know now, unique in the universe. It also entails that we cleave to a central unifying principle in understanding the patterning and structure of human systems. This central principle is that all human systems are by definition and by design, symbolic systems first and foremost. There is always to be found a main component of human symbolization in all things people do and are, however material or otherwise they may seem. The symbolic realissum of human experience situates the objective reality of being human squarely in the domain of the anthropological relativity of knowledge in general. We are because we think--we know because we are, and as long as we are alive we cannot escape the dilemma of knowing and being at the same time. This dilemma is the attempt to objectify in scientific terms that which remains on some intrinsic level inherently subjective--rather as it has been aptly put, of trying to get outside of the car we ourselves are riding in.
Field methods in the human sciences demonstrate unequivocally that the only means of gaining this kind of objective parallax is to study other people, and to study ourselves as if we were other people, or by means of other people. This is known as a comparative approach and yet it is not without its own shortcomings and inherent weaknesses, as we risk the possibility of a non-reflexive view of others in the world, not as if they were people like ourselves, but merely as objects that have no greater than material significance.
The basis for understanding human systems theory as unique and separate from other kinds of natural systems resides in the patterning of human response in adaptation to the environment in general, and in the human being's evolved dependency upon and pervasive use of symbolic mediation to achieve this form of adaptation. Critics of a symbolic approach would be quick to point out that such an conclusion leaves out the role of human tool use and tool construction methods in accounting for human adaptation. A symbolic perspective does not preclude the possibility of tool use, but in essence embraces it, and even implicitly mandates it. Tools, in their functional general application to a range of problems and scenarios, would be essentially the first sets of symbols that humans ever created for themselves. Tool use and function describe exactly complex processes that are fundamentally symbolic in pattern and structure. Tools as such are "symbolic devices" that work because the logic that stands behind them, however crude or rudimentary, is infallible.
In this consideration of the symbolic function of tools, we must see the technological function of symbolic cognition being articulated at the same time. Tool industry and technology define clearly and concisely the function of symbolism in the life of hominids in direct terms that mediated survival and adaptation to an increasing range of environmental niches. The tool also traces, as with other extant primate groups today, the early transitions to culture of these groupings, in which technologies were learned, adapted and taught to successive generations. Tools were the first items of material culture to be consistently made, used and transported by hominids. Tools also functioned symbolically as markers of identity and relation in complex natural and shifting social environments, and undoubtedly many a primitive cobble tool bore the distinctive imprint of their maker. Tools also came to be infused with power in a manner in which inanimate material objects of the general environment could be invested with supernatural properties or activities.
The theory of the symbolic mediation of human culture in the struggle for survival gains significance when it is realized that the process of making and using tools describes a form of fundamental symbolic interaction with the environment, in which relations with the outside world are critically mediated by a special object that takes on special meanings and powers.
I imagine that there probably existed a long dreamy period of hominid cultural development that could have been identified as "presymbolic" in pattern and structure, and which anticipated and set the stage for the subsequent emergence of a full blown material culture indicative of a keen and fully symbolic orientation towards the world. The key aspect of a presymbolic frame of mind anticipating the advent of full hominid patterns seem to me the general lack of specialization and stratification of function of symbols, hence their lack of elaboration on any level beyond the most basic types. The world and worldview of the presymbolic hominid, (and probably other contemporaneous primates) is that it was a generalist model tied in a very direct and concrete manner to the things that it represented and stood for. Things fit into basic categories, and I believe there was little differentiation between the symbol itself, and the thing that the symbol stood for--they were one and the same. The bow and arrow became a mechanical part of the animal it sought when it met this animal in both aim and final destination. If there was duality of patterning of such symbolic precursors, then this function was limited mostly to the most immediate and concrete contexts in which it occurred.
All other aspects of the emergence of fully human systems are not unimportant to consider, but the concept of the symbolic use of tools is of central importance to the rise of the human brain, the associated characteristics of bipedality that freed hands for other functions, etc. All other significant traits, for instance year long sexual receptivity, long post-partum periods of infant dependency, etc, can be explained in terms of this central complex and its emergence.
Though human's have accomplished something evolutionarily in a manner that was unparalleled in the natural history of the earth, it remains the case that these same humans are every bit as biological a species as any other, and are therefore subject in basic ways to the same kind of constraints by selective factors as any other species, except where and how the new use of tools provided them with an adaptive and selective advantage, which it most certainly did.
One of the most basic aspects of human nature that I believe has yet to be sufficiently explained is our predilection for violence. I will not say it is more innate than it may be acquired and especially shaped by learning, but I will say we cannot ultimately separate these issues. It is clear as nothing else that human history has been marked by one of almost continuous violence wherever human's are found. If it is not innate, neither are any inborn taboos against such violence biologically preprogrammed.
Related to this aspect of human nature I would also include a predisposition for social hierarchy and status competition, or what might be called Homo hierarchus, as well as an apparently innate predisposition for sexual promiscuousness and exaggerated forms of sexual expression. It is not my intention to weave elaborated K. Lorenz type hypothesis about the naked ape, as I think the essential issue about human nature is one that runs much deeper than these kinds of superficial models about human instinct and aggression.
The point of departure in my theory is that at some point in hominid evolution, human's became sufficiently successful, and hence sufficiently numerous, as to be distributed and dispersed through very broad ranges of the earth's biotic niches. At some point, intra-specific competition came to weigh more heavily than inter-specific competition with other kinds of creatures. It is not clear when this point emerged, but it was well before our earliest points of known history. Such inter-specific competition was marked by a principal characteristic of competitive exclusion, niche invasion and social-sexual dispersion of surplus people. People were not necessarily in a state of chronic warfare with other groups, so much as they were on the constant lookout for unknown trespassers and would be invaders of their own home ranges and territories.
Another way of stating this is to see that in the rise of human populations that were marked clearly by tool bearing culture, competition quickly swung away from inter-specific predator-prey kinds of relations, towards one of intra-specific inter-group competition over increasingly scarce and valuable resources.
That humans must have been long territorial is evident even today in the demarcation of national boundaries. Human could as easily enter into a cooperative relationship with strangers as much as a competitive relationship, and hence such relations would always be marked by an inherent tension of uncertainty of outcomes.
Humans did develop early patterns of primitive warfare alongside of early patterns of primitive trade and exchange--territorial privileges, belongings and persons could be as easily appropriated by violence as by reciprocity under the appropriate circumstances.
Driving subsequent patterns of human social development therefore I take to be a pattern of human intra-specific or sub-specific social competition that usually involved small groups or extended groupings in competition with other groupings over scarce and limited resources or access to such resources. This constitutes the second aspect of my theory of human systems, the social competition hypothesis, which states that humans as social animals in groups tend in the long run towards competitive social relationships with other alternative groupings. Such competition would tend to break down even relatively small groupings, except that contravening symbolic mechanisms become instituted that channel aggression ritually into some cooperative endeavor. The challenge of very large and complex states, as is evident in advanced modern nation states, is how to maintain a domestic environment that permits some level of such intra-group competition to occur, but which precludes and prevents the outbreak of violence between people which is frequent and expectable in any such system.
The basic social competition hypothesis can be stated by the main points below:
1. Human biology is comparable to other forms of biology, and involve key issues of adaptation and reproductive success.
2. These drives come to express themselves in terms of feeding and breeding patterns within a society.
3. These patterns become transformed fundamentally through basic, innate mechanisms of human symbolization that are culturally defined & constrained, such that no pure example of natural human evolutionary drives not symbolically transformed by the society that they occur within.
4. Human societies have achieved evolutionary success in basic ways promoting their survival and reproduction, such that human social interrelationships tend to occur in fully saturated systems. Populations tend toward an endemic equilibrium.
5. Therefore, social competition can be said to characterize most social interactions in a manner that is symbolically organized and expressed, taking on patterns of adaptive fitness homologous to evolutionary patterns.
6. Patterns of social organization and relation that are competitive has the character of being innate and natural, but this is due to the symbolic appropriation of innate drives and to their symbolic internalization as if natural.
7. Human beings are therefore socially prone to behave in manners symbolically justified as being natural but no necessarily connected to the actual circumstances of adaptive survival and reproductive success. This is referred to as cultural-symbolic displacement.
8. While most animals are biologically pre-programed to behave in certain ways, the symbolic transformation of human biological drives and mechanisms of their social expression provide us with a choice. We have the quality of "world openness."
9. So powerful are our drives towards competition and their symbolic appropriation, that we will choose by habit and default to behave in ways that seem most naturalized to our own disposition. We seek the maximization of our own symbolic sense of social fitness and social selection in the world.
10. Human beings as social animals are therefore prone to repeat certain patterns of competitive behavior that emphasize exclusive fitness at most levels of society and that lead logically to competitive exclusion, conflict and violence.
By invoking principles of social competition and its symbolic mediation in group interests, I do not thereby mean to undermine the importance of an ideal for human equality and peace on earth. This is just the point, as ideals they are worthy of people to aspire to, but they are as often as not empty ideals in the face of human suffering at the expense of others and of human hierarchy.
Put into a composite form, the theory in general states that human's have come to symbolically rely upon cultural artifacts for the material manipulation and mediation of their environments in an adaptive manner, and this has conferred a measure of selective success upon the human species as a whole that has resulted in a heavy density-dependent pattern of K-type selection and leading to exaggerated forms of social competition between people of all kinds and at all levels. The same symbolic mechanisms allowing for this to occur, also provides the basic vehicle for its secondary manipulation and management in situations where group solidarity and identity take preeminence over the advancement of the selfish interests of individuals. In a competitive environment, individual interests must be subordinated to the needs of the group, as the individual would not survive long outside of the bounds of such a group. If discovered, a lost or banished soul would either be adopted or quickly dispatched to the other world.
It is my contention that these same dynamics that drove groups 1.5 million years ago are still driving the most modern nation states of the world today. What has changed has been the symbolic context of the technologies and secondary institutions of cultural elaboration involved, but not the basic human drives and capacities of people to compete and do violence to one another upon one level or another. Human's are naturally aggressive creatures. This is just not a trait learned in a culture, though cultural patterning certainly does shape these aggressive tendencies to many different purposes.
Another way of putting this argument is to say that humans have evolved with big brains to become culture creators--they capacity to create culture in a productive manner also confers upon them great destructive tendencies, as whatever that can be created, can also be destroyed.
Cultural patterning is the inevitable result of the symbolic organization of the human brain that is tied to the articulation of material artifacts like tools in the environment. The beginning of human systems theory is the realization that human systems take on a cultural patterning that is confined to certain distinctive group contexts, and this patterning is unique to the human species. To a great extent, this cultural patterning has come to mediate for us the processes of our adaptation and survival in natural circumstances, thus cultural groupings that are distinct and characteristic of relatively homogeneous populations in certain regions, takes on characteristics of distinct species, and the processes of cultural dynamics and differentiation that occurs and is continuous, is not unlike in form or function the processes of evolutionary dynamics and speciation that lead to the creation of new species from old. Cultural groupings that are unified with a single symbolic system are relatively coherent and are adaptively integrated to certain natural environmental contexts. Unlike speciation, the traits are culturally defined and phenotypic in expression, and the patterns of transmission are generally borrowing and acculturative contact between different groups, rather than genetic.
In the symbolic transformation of human nature, we must see the dual symbolic function occurring that tends to externalize in the environment the symbolic patterns of culture such that these assume a material and behavioral form of expression that can then be naturalized. At the same time, these same externalized forms can then be re-internalized to oneself or to others such that they come to orient and influence the subjective realities of the culture bearer, to the point of having the force of human nature. Within such a context of dialectical symbolic feedback between external world and internal worldview, the self as a naturalized entity, our "nature" which is essentially unfinished business, can be projected out onto the larger world order and there give reinforcement and positive form.
Though human cultural systems take on many of the characteristics of a natural genetic population, and serve many of the same essential functions and purposes in the realization of the biological imperative for survival and reproductive success, it is important nonetheless to emphasize that the basis for achieving adaptive equilibriation of human cultural systems is not a form of K-selection, so much as it is achieving a degree of symbolic integration of reality that achieves a transformation of genetic-based trait configurations and their related functions toward a higher level of productivity and problem-solving than otherwise achievable.
Cultural equilibrium of such a system depends upon achieving and maintaining a certain level of conservative symbolic equilibrium between internalized ideational and attitudinal constructs, on one hand, and externalized material technologies and distributions of resources, on the other hand. Symbol systems at the heart of this integration provide human beings not only with templates for the organization of knowledge about the world, but also with prescribed agendas for action in response to the world.
But symbolic transformation and integration are always incomplete and imperfect processes, and it entails therefore that there is chronic change in the adaptive equilibrium and profiles for different groups. There arises a form of cultural selection between groups in the exchange and development of ideas and symbolic forms that affects the ability of different cultural groupings to achieve long-term success under certain environmental conditions, especially in relation to other groupings. Cultural selection creates differential patterns of acculturation, and has a net effect upon different cultural groupings very similar to that experienced by natural biological populations under the forces of natural selection. Cultural systems can suffer loss and become extinct, or they can achieve a measure of mastery over their environment that allows them to dominate over other groups.
Up until this point, anthropology has never sufficiently dealt well with issues of the human heart of darkness and their capacity for extreme forms of evil and violence in the world. And yet such a capacity is prevalent in the fossil and historical records, and is as strong today as it was in the beginning. Wishing it away from our lives will not make it go away--only by better understanding it can we hope eventually to exert more complete cultural control over it so that its outcomes do not carry the destructive implications that they have in the past.
This theory is in direct contradistinction to the kind of socio-biological theory as is framed by E. O. Wilson's sociobiological models and their elaborations within anthropology. The predisposition of human violence is probably deeply rooted in human nature, and may indeed have a number of genetic components influencing its expression and pattern of response in life. On the other hand, to claim a nebulous concept like "kin-fitness" implies a dimension of human sociality that, for the most part, simply does not exist, and this is what distinguishes us, as large brained, K-selected social mammals, from the small-brained, r-selected social insects. If many young men are induced into sacrificing their lives for their country, this induction is not biologically motivated or instinctually driven. It is symbolically mediated and manipulated, and there is usually a great deal of violent sentiment and shows of aggression involved in its expression.
Sociobiological theories are more interesting when they concern only the analogically and possibly inter-correlational relationships between patterns of genetic trait distribution and cultural trait distribution, as both of these are tightly linked through the same chain human bearers in terms of both genetic and cultural transmission models. It is assumed that there was always a close tracking of the transmission of genes and culture in a vertical sense, although dispersion and human migratory patterns probably entailed that there was a great deal of early lateral gene flow along similar channels that promoted the exchange of ideas and artifacts between groups. There is indeed very tight tracking of gene and cultural information in extremely conservative groups that can sustain a separate social and group identity through many successive generations. The gypsies of Europe and North America are an example of this. Certain things have to be accomplished in order for this to occur. There must be complete endogamous closure to all outside groups--this is usually accompanied by marginal craft or trade specialization and to a restricted educational system that is promoted in the home and that permits no other alternation from occurring.
Even tight gene-culture coevolution models of transmission breakdown in the face of realities of cultural transmission that occurs horizontally and continuously through wide scale networks, and which occur completely independently of an genetic transmission processes. Any real connection between genetic and cultural transmission is at best fortuitous and extremely limited in scope and effect or consequence. Another way of stating this principle is that culture, once it came into its own, arose completely independently of genetic information of the culture bearer. Humans evolved a capacity for symbolic culture, but once this capacity developed, culture as a social patterning occurring in the world took off on its own independent state-path trajectory.
But such an answer begs the question as to what exactly is human culture and how is it important to our understanding of human systems. Culture is foremost a function of environment and learning. Culture has certain key characteristics that serve to define it.
In general culture can be said to be:
Learned, it is not inherited
Shared as knowledge between culture bearers
Socially articulated & transmitted
Symbolically integrated & mediated
Materially embodied and environmentally embedded.
Psychologically compulsive, transparent and constraining
It can be said furthermore that there are few if any human beings who are born completely dispossessed of any sense of culture in their lives. There occur very rare and exceptional cases of severe child cultural deprivation (so called feral children) who suffer a severe case cultural deficit in their remaining lives. These children in general are characterized by mental retardation and psychological/behavioral disorders and the resulting inability to fully learn the patterns of rules and knowledge required to be a competent culture bearer in later life. In other words, the capacity for the early childhood acquisition of the basic aspects of human culture critical to development is deeply embedded evolutionarily in human prehistory, and involves a series of scheduled events and patterns of environmental reinforcement that must occur in some generalized sense of order if full human cultural development is to occur.
Many anthropologists would see an approach to human systems theory via a definition of culture as inherently problematic, and would prefer a more apparently systematic approach, such as the sociobiological model presented above, or alternative materialist orientations that likes to link the decisive patterning of human social relations in environmental agencies that can be controlled and manipulated. On the other hand, it is both more realistic and necessary to incorporate a definition of symbolic culture into human systems theory as this is what is clearly distinctive about such systems over any others that occur in nature.
The value of such an approach is more evident when it is realized that a symbolic approach to culture can be in fact quite empirical and systematic in method and theory when its definition is operationalized within a symbolic framing paradigm. Such an approach allows us to systematically compare, analyze and evaluate symbolic behavior that is a function of response to standardized and natural behavioral sets and settings. In other words, symbolic behavior, as culturally conditioned and psychologically manifest, is real and demonstrates significant comparative contrasts between different individuals and different categories of people across different dimensions of contrast.
The point of human symbolic mediation of worldview and reality is that once formed, symbol systems develop their own noetic equilibrium and adaptive ecology that affects the behavioral responses of members of the group and the group as a whole. Such symbolisms are deposited organically in the brain and being of the individual culture bearers, and become essentially invisible and transparent to the culture bearers as such. Symbolisms thus culturally embedded become "naturalized" and reified as if natural, even if they ultimately stem from a source of social construction in human reality. Such symbols, if vital, can take on a coercive and controlling function in the life world of individuals that come to have the force and effect of human nature, of instinct and of all the basic implications of the basic imperative for biological survival.
The symbolic mediation of human experience entails as well that social competition in everyday life should take on certain distinctive and predictable symbolic dimensions, and that this is a consequence of the turning of the purposes of symbolization to the legitimization and justification of the world-order and social patterning that is the result of the attempt to manage and control human social competition in the first place. The symbolic structure of the structuration of competition takes the form of ideology that is self-serving and self-justifying of the social order. This process also involves the naturalization of this order as if it is innate. Social order that is justified on the grounds of an alleged natural ordering takes on a legitimacy and matter of factness that is difficult to refute or critique, especially from the standpoint of a true believer.
The depth of ingrained socialization and enculturation implied by such symbolic reinforcement entails that members of a group generally adopt a strong sense of ethnocentric bias in relation to their group in relation to other alternative groupings. This bias can take many forms and defines the framework of preferences and prejudices that people adopt in relation to some shared cultural context.
Human systems are first and foremost biological systems, but they are also simultaneously something more than just biological systems. Homo sapiens sapiens is a distinct subspecies of a line of hominid primates that is at least four million years old and that incorporated several distinct species and subspecies in a successive pattern of phylogenic evolution. Periods of overlap of species suggest some degree of cladogenesis, based most presumably upon niche-diversification of traits, but overall the hominid line has been mostly a vertical one in which each successor appears to have replaced the predecessor.
As a biological system, the human line has been subject for most of its natural history to the same kinds selective pressures and adaptive problems as any other form of mammalian life on earth. Even today, we must meet certain basic biological prerequisites for our continuing survival and our successful reproduction--the challenges of the biological imperative confront us in the same way as they confronted our earliest precursors.
It is unknown today to what extent biological evolution of the human species continues, or if so, in what direction it will take. We support a single mono-specific biomass that is unprecedented in the natural history of life on earth--we can calculate that humans on average have something on the order of more than 1,000,000,000,000 pounds of organic biomass at any given time. I would not be surprised if this proved to be more total biomass than the total biomass of all other land-based vertebrate animal species combined. It is clear also that our gene pool is becoming increasingly heterogeneous and gene flow is incorporating larger and larger groupings of people, such that humans are carrying a tremendous load of genetic variability. At the same time, modern medical practices and social ethics promote the survival and even reproduction of many individuals who would not have survived within a natural selective regime. We cannot say that this unprecedented phenomena of a mono-specific biological social order, of a single dominant species on earth, is necessarily a good or a bad thing. Neither can we now the eventual outcomes of its evolution, if natural selective processes have not been arrested altogether at least in regard to the human species.
At the same time, it is clearly evident that human systems, as natural systems, are not just biological systems. What makes them different and more complex is that they are humanly constructed systems that have emerged as a consequence of a complex history of cultural evolution and development. The basis of this unique patterning of human evolution is its degree of achieved symbolic intelligence, and the externalization of this intelligence in the form of cultural construction and patterning of the environment. This process has allowed humankind to achieve a basic measure of control over forces of natural selection, and even to implement their own pressures and patterns upon the environment of cultural selection.
Anthropologists search for the basis of this unique human systems patterning in terms of models referred to generically as "anthropogenesis" or the rise of humankind as a unique and dominant species upon earth. We search for the answers in the evolution of certain traits that arose under certain selective conditions, that gave rise to the human capacity for culture, language and symbolic intelligence. Most models and theories of anthropogenesis are just so stories. We know a few indisputable clues from the fossil record--humans were fully bipedal before the developed big brains, and big brains seemed to emerge "hand-in-hand" with the development of tools. The question of language remains quite controversial, but I cannot but help think that a system of gesture-gesticulation involving various calls and sophisticated sounds, along with many hand signs, were a precursors to a prototype to true forms of human language. I also cannot but help think other uniquely human traits were involved somehow in this emergent complex--female sexuality, pair-bonding and prolonged periods of infant dependency and nurturance, the rise of material cultures including clothing, shelter, the hearth and probably the emergence of some form of presymbolic ritual culture and probably other important social patterns as well, as for instance some form of exchange and interaction between different groups.
Whatever the exact sequence and functional significance and environmental contexts of these different trait patterns, I believe we cannot fully account for a sufficient model of anthropogenesis unless we understand that these traits evolved as part of a larger trait complex. In other words, the traits emerged together as part of a proto-human system of anthropogenesis, and their emergence and development fed back into the system leading to the further development of the trait complex.
The important traits that need to be accounted for in this complex if we are to understand fully human systems are the following list: big brains capable of symbolic intelligence, a unique capacity for speech, manual dexterity with an opposable thumb, extremely fine hand-eye motor coordination, efficient bipedalism, year-round female sexual receptivity, prolonged neo-natal post-partum development and infant development, and a cultural context that was increasingly of humankinds own making. Of these traits, which appear to be interconnected and interdependent, I believe the most significant are the features of human language, human symbolic intelligence and human manual dexterity.
On the basis of this very rudimentary model of anthropogenesis, I have elaborated a theory I have adopted within this framework of human systems is that of the Anthropological construction of reality, which is rooted in the esoteric field of the Anthropology of knowledge. It embraces and incorporates theories of the psychological and social construction of reality, as well as of symbolic linguistics, symbolic culture and materialism, and symbolic intelligence and information systems.
It is a big bone of contention among anthropologists the extent to which human biology and evolutionary models of biology underlie and predetermine human cultural patterning. Biocultural and socio-biological models, some crude, some more sophisticated, have long been put forward claiming that there is a direct and deterministic linkage between human biology and human cultural and social behavior.
E. O. Wilson's sociobiological models, based upon notions of an altruistic gene and kin-selection, are adapted from observations of insect communities and are applied directly to human society with the presupposition that humans, like insects, are innately social creatures. I must call into question such a line of thinking on several levels. First, it is not clear in any manner that humans are the same kinds of social creatures who evolved in the context of large colonies like insects. To apply an unmodified insect analogy, or are organized mechanical on the basis of signal-chemical response systems and very primitive instincts, to human beings who are sophisticated omnivorous mammals, overextends the model. Humans evolved in the context of small kin-based groups in hunting-gathering conditions that probably couldn't support very great densities of people over relatively small areas for prolonged periods of time. Stable human communities and colonies of any great density probably only arose especially over the last 10 to 20 thousand years. The high levels of violence within populations today suggest that humans are not that social of a creature, but frequently can be quite anti-social.
There is an inherent danger, both theoretically and operationally, in the direct application of deterministic biological models in the explanation of human cultural and social patterning. Even so, it is quite common to see this style of theorization occurring. Such models invariably fail to take into account the critical differences between human cultural patterning and the biological patterning of other kinds of creatures. It is true that primitive culture has been demonstrated in Chimpanzee communities--it is found in variability of adoption of acquired or learned cultural traits between different groups. But what is consistently underestimated is the full power that human intelligence has had in shaping the pattern, function and outcomes of culture--this power is primarily symbolic and it has had the result of transforming human experience and existence in ways unparalleled in nature. These processes are furthermore inherently underdetermined by genetic or other biological considerations--in a real way that can be said to be self-determining components of human systems patterning that transcend many of the constraints predetermined by nature.
More sophisticated models of gene-culture coevolution presuppose that for an early run-way, genetic development of Homo sapiens was tracked closely by and linked more directly to human cultural development and transmission. This makes sense if we consider that for most of human history, small family groupings were both the main purveyors of genes and culture from generation to generation, and most transmission was accomplished vertically. But on a very basic level, we must recognize fundamental differences between human cultural transmission and human genetic transmission, and these differences entailed that from the first inception of a hominid proto-culture, it assumed a trajectory more or less independently of the evolutionary paths taken by its culture bearing humans. It did not take long, therefore, for patterns of cultural development to diverge widely and develop wildly in relation to continuing patterns of human biological development.
The theory I have elaborated thus far, entails two main aspects:
1. The first aspect is what I refer to as the symbolic mediation and transformation of the human experience, that basically sundered and forever altered the basic human relationship to the natural world by the intermediation of constructed symbolic forms.
2. The social competition hypothesis, which states that humans are prone, both biologically and culturally, to compete with one another at all levels of social interaction. Social competition drives the development of coalitional structures that enables people to form consistent alliances, friendships, and families by which individuals, as members of groups, are able to better compete with other individuals of other groups.
I seek in the remainder of this chapter to develop in a more thorough form aspects of each of this two main aspects that have not been previously developed. It must be seen how each aspect entails and in a sense makes necessary the other aspect--symbolic mediation of experience made human social competition a fundamental aspect of human social reality because it conferred a basic adaptive success of human populations in natural environments. At the same time, human social competition becomes organized culturally by means of symbolic systems that serve to demarcate definite noetic and behavioral terrain, and to give natural justification and common sense to such patterns of competition.
It is beyond the scope of this work to elaborate the all the aspects of human systems theory. Human systems theory is rooted in the hypothesis of the symbolic mediation of human experience that is brain based and environmentally contextualized. Symbolic mediation takes certain definite functional and behavioral forms and this can be elicited and analyzed in a variety of ways, principally by means of symbolic framing tasks. From this work it is evident that there occurs broad natural classes of symbolisms that occur that are to some extent segmented into smaller and smaller units, and replaceable or substitutable by other equivalent or alternate symbolic forms. It is beyond the scope to elaborate this entire framework of human symbolism, especially sense its outermost boundaries blur and shade off into the edge of the unknown in human history. Symbolisms are arranged internally in a manner that can be said to be thematic, and the thematic organization of symbolisms within anyone coherent cultural grouping can be said to be probably historically particular and relative to that grouping, in contrast to alternative similar kinds of systems that may occur among other groupings. The thematic organization of cultural symbolic systems gives to these systems a uniqueness and sense of relativity that they are part and parcel of one particular cultural system and no other.
Symbolisms as active devices form the basis for human long-term memory, and allow people to construct and continuously repair and reconstruct their memories, through active thought processes, dreaming, conflict resolution and dialog. To a great extent, the symbolic substrate of the unconscious psyche is in essence the symbolic organization of memory content in a meaningful, dynamic manner. Much of this organization is also a shared process, and unconscious processes of the human mind take on directly collective aspects that are culturally common within a group context.
Symbolisms help to chunk experience and to organize reality for people in a way that not only makes sense on a rational level, but makes sense behaviorally and emotionally as well. In this manner, symbolic systems provide a kind of semantic language of meaning, behavior and belief that serves to organize our world and to make sense of it. We may say that such systems constitute an informal kind of practical grammar for the organization of behavior and attitudes in a coordinate manner. We have an unspoken investment in and commitment to the maintenance of the coherence and consistency of such a system, and that is why changes from without are seen as threatening and discomforting, and can in fact prove to be disrupting.
The symbolic organization of experience is subject to continuous review and revision in an active manner such that different symbolic frames can be evoked and "tested" against the frameworks of others, revised or repaired, and then filed back away again. The need to daily evoke and evaluate symbolisms in our lives attests to the important adaptive function symbolic behavior plays, and to the critical need that they be regularly edited and updated to stay in tune with the events and configuration of the world from the standpoint particularly of the organization of knowledge and meaning.
The symbolic chunking of experience is critical to humans being able to make sense of the world and to make sense of their place and purpose in the world--if this sense of order disintegrates for whatever reasons, whether it is some catastrophic external event or there occurs a degree of internal crisis of noetic equilibrium, then this sense of symbolic organization quickly becomes chaotic in a destructive sense and the source of much dissonance rather than consonance about the world.
Symbolisms are hierarchically stratified in a complex landscape. The principles of organization of this natural human informational-behavioral system are not clear and vary with different cultural orientations and cognitive styles, though in general they follow natural sets (or, alternatively, cultural sets), they tend to be poly-thematically defined, such that one symbolism at one level may and usually does carry a multiplicity of significances that connect it to multiple other symbolisms, often at multiple levels; and symbolic systems cohere into larger thematically organized systems such that especially key symbolisms are displaceable or replaceable by other alternative symbolisms, but within which two or more competing paradigmatic symbolisms cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In other words, there is a complex noetic equilibrium of symbolisms that allow alternative symbolic constructs to compete for the same spaces in relational complexes, and to displace one another from such spaces. Often such substitutions result in symbolic reverberations throughout a larger system that lead to multiple new relationships being defined and reconfigured in the overall schema.
Symbolization is the way that human beings think in normal, common sense terms and it constitutes the basis for human cognition and intelligence. Indeed, the basis for the anthropological relativity of knowledge of natural systems stems from the symbolic transformation of human consciousness as principle knower in the world--we cannot escape the constraints of our own symbolic consciousness even if we try. The symbolic nature of this consciousness becomes most apparent in madness and when the brain runs awry of its normal functioning. In such instances the discrepancies between inner perceptions and beliefs and external realities are so obvious and discrepant that they are clearly wrong and discoordinate with the outside world.
The problem of social structure has not yet been directly broached in terms of the theory of human systems as I have defined this so far. The problem of social structure I take to be as much a residual reification of our theoretical constructs in the social sciences, as it is a real problem occurring in human society. Without a doubt, social structuration processes occur that confer to any society a sense of organization, usually that is corporate and institutional in nature, and that assures a degree of functional integrity and continuity over space and time of the pattern produced within such systems. In the understanding of such processes of structuration, we can separate political, economic, social and religious-ideological aspects of the system, all of which I believe have an important influence in the resulting and underlying patterning. Indeed, we find no societies that have some degree of coherence without any sense of religious ideology of one form or another, or without an economic organization, a social organization and sense of social process, and a political system by which power and resources are articulated to achieve collective group aims and purposes.
What I take issue with is the idea of finding any deep or abstractly a priori principles underlying these patterns of social organization and social formation in human history--indeed, history is an important consideration of human social structure, as all such structures are in the final analysis a product of a complex history of unintended causes and effects that is analytically inseparable from the problem of structuration itself.
But great social systems have been organized on grand principles from time to time, to become more or less successful in the larger scheme of things. Modern experiments in state communism were recent examples of such experiments that for the most part failed or at least produced only mixed results that were far shy of the stated ideological goals. The rise of great market societies on capitalist models have proven to be far more successful kinds of structural patterns for social organization and social formation, but they have generated unpleasant consequences of structural and social inequalities and asymmetries between different groupings and peoples in the world. Many traditional cultural systems that were tied to certain patterns of subsistence livelihood and craft organization adopted, as much out of necessity as out of convenience, a kin-based model of some form of social organization by which to define the sphere of relations and values in an individual's life. The rise of modern nation states, especially in a post-colonial era, but prefigured in the European Kingdoms of the Colonial era and earlier Renaissance period, with stable bureaucratic administrative hierarchies and formally codified legal systems, often buttressed with national conscription, national armies, etc., entailed generally a subordination of principles of kin-based social organization to achieve a more organic form of solidarity in which role-trade specialization in a complex system marked out one's status and lot in life.
I do not believe there are any hard and fast principles that determine why one type of social organization arises and not another. Their configuration, like the configuration of different cultural patterns to which they are related, tends to be a matter of historical happenstance and circumstance rather than governed by any natural rules of social structure. Sociopolitical organization and integration does seem to develop from small and informal groupings to large and highly stratified systems, with a range of possibilities occurring between. It is clear that in all very large social systems, the interests of the individual human being clearly become subordinated to the interests of the system as a whole, and in all such systems some form of principles of stratification give rise to segregated classes or subgroups that are marked by differential access to basic resources and by asymmetries of power and privilege.
Such differences are marked and reinforced by authoritarian attitudes of innate or social superiority/inferiority, and these feed into ethnocentric bias about the superiority of one's own way of life over that of alternate others. What is evident is that symbolic justification of inequality and competition, even if not directly real, can drive human social systems towards mobilization for mass aggression. This capacity of human social systems to achieve a high state of tension and aggression in relation to other people perhaps serves to set human social organization apart as unique. We do see the mobilization of ant colonies and the hives of other social insects to aggressive defense and attack against invaders or intruders, and this is very analogous to what happens in human social systems as well.
The basis of this pattern of organized human aggression and authoritarianism in human life can be said to be a very fundamental sense of social symbolic dependency of the individual upon the group. This sense of dependency is a central weakness and insecurity of human beings that entails that they must, within the group framework, assume forms of aggressive action and chauvinistic behaviors that tend to ameliorate or deny the basic sense of human social weakness that is involved in such affairs. It is evident too that human beings vary considerably along a natural continuum as to exactly how sociable and socially dependent they are. Some people seem to have an innate sense of asocial independence and a capacity for being alone, where other people seem always to need and thrive in the company of others. Human social dependence is a relative characteristic, but it is one that all people must deal with more or less.
The same sense of symbolic capacity that conferred upon us cultural dependency, made us also both socially dependent and socially competitive creatures as well. I believe these must be understood in terms of their fullest implications, both positive and negative, for human social life and behavior. We gain our sense of identity and even sense of psychological well being via the sanctions and feedback of the group to which we belong, and we must make us of continuous reference back to the main group of our identity in order to maintain and cultivate a sense of meaningful identity in the world.
The social stage is therefore the main forum for the playing out of human identity, value and meaning in the world, and it becomes the main focus and preoccupation of a great deal of symbolization.
It suggests as well that no matter what we may or may not do in the future, we as a society will always have to deal with some minimal level of intra-social violence in the world, even fairly bizarre and acute forms of violence that stem from sociopathy and psychopathology. That people should seek to commit violence and victimize other people in the world, and that this occurs with regular frequencies and expectations in almost any society, suggests that it will be a very long, long time before we, as human beings, outgrow our fundamental sense of social dependency and insecurity in the world, and this sense is going to continue to drive a few of us over the edge of the abnormal.
The social dependency hypothesis stems from the unavoidable social predicament that all people find themselves within in the course of their lives. It can be seen as a form of weakness, but also as a source of strength in the world, to the extent that people derive from their social identity and sense of connection to a larger social organization some sense of superiority, strength and power they would not otherwise gain. It also entails that people will always be prone to certain kinds of plagues of violence and authoritarianism that tends toward the victimization of others.
On the basis of this hypothesis of social dependency, we can speculate that there will occur with historical prevalence the rise of certain kinds of social formations as ossified social systems that serve to prevent and hinder change. I have referred to these social formations as authoritarian power structures, and I allege that these kinds of social formations recur with regular consistency throughout human social history and in most locations of the world simultaneously. These kinds of social formations are a natural consequence of human social competition and human social dependency. The best way of describing such authoritarian power structures is to note the central tendencies for highly socially dependent people who gain monopolistic control over basic resources and possibly who gain control over the political instruments of an organization or social systems, such that they can use their power to threaten and manipulate other people within the system to their own exclusive advantage. In this regard, an authoritarian power structure must be construed as a kind of coalitional structure that emerges within a framework of potential or actual social competition, as a means of controlling and restricting competition for the advantage of a few at the expense of the rest. This type of social formation is quite common place and prevalent in human society anywhere we find it. In general it leads to forms of corruption that tend to reinforce the status quo of the asymmetries of power and resource distribution of the system, and often it may even have the implicit or direction sanction of the legal and political apparatus of a society, such that police and other authorities serve to protect and promote the interests of the authoritarian elite who are in power over any others of the society. The problem with the common place rise of authoritarian power structures in the world is that they tend to be so common and so corrupt that they interfere with the development and progress of the society as a whole, by interfering with the changes that such systems need to effect in order to achieve long term stability and growth.
Authoritarian power structures have predictable patterns of social ethos and relation within themselves, and tend to demarcate as well a clear sense of boundary between member and non-members. Membership in such organizational structures tend to be hierarchically stratified, and this can be reinforced symbolically by the maintenance of a sense of false consciousness and pride about one's own superiority. Often such organizations designate clear out-groups that are defined as less than human and that are clearly targetable for any show of aggression by members of the in-group. In such a manner, potentially aggressive relations between members of an authoritarian power structure, or of the larger host society upon which such a structure may be attached, are consistently channeled beyond the boundaries of the group, and are left to focus on members of the out-group. One of the clearest examples of this in the 20th Century was the Nazi's of World War II and their treatment of the European Jews as if they were not human and had no place in the world. When the Germans invaded Russia, they were found to mistreat the Russian peasants that they captured or encountered with the same sense of disdain and disrespect as human beings as they had done the Jews, and this indicates that the driving mechanisms for such behavior were as much the same in origin, in the need to maintain a sense of unquestioning obedience to Hitler and to do all of his bidding, regardless of the consequences.
So common and pervasive are authoritarian powers structures in social life, that we expect to find their occurrence in almost any social formation where there is limited control over access to resources and uneven distribution of such resources. In general, the formation of such structures in society attest to the power of human symbolization to be: 1. Socially self-serving and self-justifying. 2. Ideologically closed.
Human symbolization serves the function of promoting isomorphic identification between the individual as a socially dependent member, and the authority and power of the group as a whole, often as this is invested focally in some central figure of authority or power. In a sense, human families replicate such structures on a more basic level, and issues relating to primary and secondary socialization and the extension of symbolic identification from primary reference group members to larger social contexts, is a normal part of the socialization of the individual into the ethos of the corporate group and its culture.
It is not too difficult to go from this theory of social dependency and the rise of human authoritarian power structures to an understanding of the occurrence of imperialism in society. Tendencies embedded in everyday human affairs would tend towards large scale social formations and towards the mobilization for aggression towards out-groups. Such groups would in time be attacked for the purpose of dominating them or securing their resource base. Strongly marked authoritarian ethos in human social life demands that certain individuals must be exploitable and kept in a condition of exploitability by other individuals. This form of macro-parasitism, of a few people taking advantage of others for their own advance, is a common pattern in human systems as well.
I have sought in the elaboration of human systems to identify those key features of such systems that serve to set them apart from other non-human systems, particularly other forms of biological systems, and that are the most common distinguishing characteristics of such systems. In this I have identified symbolization as a key operator in the definition of human cultural dependency. People cannot function outside of a cultural context and continuum that prestructure their environment. As a result of such cultural dependency, that is biologically rooted in an unfinished human character, people have achieved success in social terms that leads to relatively high population densities of humans in their natural and carpentered environments. These tendencies have resulted as well in marked forms of pervasive social competition, and an ingrained human competitiveness, as well as a marked form of social dependency of people to social organization and group identity. The consequence of this is a predisposition of human beings toward one form or another of social aggression and the social formation of authoritarian power structures.
The last principle I wish to address in relation to human systems is the notion of the trans-culturative effects of civilization progress. Certain technological and ideational forms, once discovered or invented, tend in the long run to become widely adopted and to lead to revolutionary changes in human systems. Such processes are trans-cultural because they tend to pass rather rapidly across cultural boundaries, people quickly realizing the benefits of new technologies regardless of the symbolic or cultural resistance that might accompany such new adoption. They are also transformational because once adopted, they lead to further changes in a human system that entails that the system becomes increasingly dependent upon the new innovations that are adopted. Understanding of this process of technological development of trans-cultural human civilization is often jaded by the notion that such acculturative patterns are uneven and serve the advantages of wealthy, colonizing countries over those countries that are backward and colonized. But I believe that, divested of the political aspects involved in world affairs, the process of the spread of new technologies and new forms of knowledge that are beneficial to people in their adaptation and everyday lives is a fairly neutral and innocuous occurrence. It is from the standpoint of demand almost inevitable. Though certain nation states may monopolize the manufacture, production or distribution of certain forms of commodities or technologies, it remains the case that the design template of such technologies, once transferred, and able to be independently reproduced regardless of rules of copyright and patent law that are designed to protect the monopolistic privileges of the original inventors.
The cumulative effect of the rise and spread of new technologies is the development of a scientific technological civilization that is trans-cultural in scope and that serves in every case to create a condition of even greater human social competition and social and cultural dependency than before. It brings to bear human cultural selection factors to bear upon the environment to a greater and greater extent, entailing that an increasing percentage of other biological and geophysical systems are subordinated or influenced by these human systems.
The rise of human technological civilization has served to produce a pattern of the realization of alternative systems that are man-made. These systems augment human reality in basic ways, and confer new advantages and unseen disadvantages upon human beings in their attempt to adapt and survive and succeed reproductively. They are augmentative of human reality in that they represent the invention of entirely new kinds of systems that did not exist previously in nature except perhaps has possibilities. To this class we can add flying machines, boats, computers, microwaves, televisions, cameras, etc. Now these kinds of technologies are received as if they were meant to be in the world, and the history of their invention and rise is largely forgotten. But all such alternative systems are in fact new systems that are human created and had no a priori existence in reality.
This theory of human systems does not paint a very romantic or pretty picture of human nature, but human history and prehistory bears out the same picture in every case. Human beings have evolved a capacity for civilization that serves a higher moral order based upon nonviolence and equality, but human beings, whatever cultural form or guise they may adopt, are prone toward baser forms of preoccupation and are not prone towards the stable realization of such ideals in the world.
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 03/17/05