Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Body's Wisdom

I'm still in Virginia with my cousins.  The house has an extensive library with books very different from what I usually read (religious books, libertarian books, books on English history and things about Virginia and the southern US, books on computer security systems, etc).  Even so, I've found a bunch of books on different topics that I've been reading through.  I've also been reading through some books that I brought with me, including Thinking in Systems (which I mentioned in my last post).  And I have been thinking about systems.

Some of the books from this house have given me views on systems from angles that I don't usually think about them from.  So my next three post (hopefully) will be on unusual takes on systems.

And why should I write about systems on a blog devoted to social change and focusing lately on intentional community?  Community, as I alluded to in my last post, is a system.  And social change is systemic change.  I remember in the sixties people fighting against 'The System'.  I'm not sure if people were talking about the political system, the economic system, or the cultural system, but they're all systems.  And, in doing social change, we want to create new systems.

A lot of things that we don't usually think of as a system, are systems--and sometimes, systems of systems.  Take the human body.  One of the things about my cousins' library was that, while there were science books, they were about mathematics, and logic, and computers, and electronics.  I complained to one of my cousins that I was more interested in the biological sciences.  And then I found a book called, The Wisdom of the Body.

The Wisdom of the Body is the name of a book, well known in some systems circles, written in 1932 by Walter Cannon, which focused on the body's control over things like digestion, circulation, and temperature.  This book introduced the term homeostasis, which is about mechanisms that keep things constant.  While Cannon mostly focused on body processes, the term is also used to discuss things like the thermostat in most houses, which maintains the house at the temperature you set. This was one of the early writings on what led to systems thinkers talking about feedback loops (something Donella Meadows discusses at length).  However, the book in my cousins' house wasn't Walter Cannon's book.  It was a book by the same name by Sherwin Nuland, (who was a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital), who says that he took the name to honor, not only Walter Cannon, but Ernest Starling (who gave a talk by that name in 1923 and apparently influenced Walter Cannon) and Charles Sherrington (who also gave a lecture by that title around 1938).

Nuland's book is an idiosyncratic blend of discussions of the anatomy and physiology of many of the body's systems, with stories from his time as a surgeon and philosophical musings, which occasionally were about systems thinking.  One very pertinent section (right after he talked about Cannon's book) is a paragraph that doesn't directly mention the body at all, but is about how systems function, particularly around change:

"A stable system is not a system that never changes.  It is a system that constantly and instantly adjusts and readjusts in order to maintain such a state of being that all necessary functions are permitted to operate at maximum efficiency.  Stability demands change to compensate for changing circumstances.  Ultimately, then, stability depends on instability."

This could have been a quote from Dana Meadows or from one of the complexity theorists.

Beyond this, there's lots of good information about how the body operates, and it's been a good review for me.  I've studied anatomy and physiology and this has been a good refresher.  And his surgeon stories have been mostly entertaining and many of his musings thought provoking.  All and all I'd recommend this book as either an introduction for someone who wants to learn a bit about how the body operates (and isn't too squeamish) or someone with a health or biology background that can always benefit from another take on the human body.

In fact, I only had one major disagreement with the book.  That (hopefully) will be the subject of my next post.

(Sadly, Wikipedia informs me that Sherwin Nuland died in March of this year.)

Quote of the Day: "... the stability of this self-regulating organization that is us achieves its stability through the unique nature of its very instability.  Its instantaneous readiness to react and return to constancy's baseline makes possible every restorative response toward maintaining the delicate balance of homeostasis that is the foundation of life.
"Always on the alert for the omnipresent dangers without or within, ceaselessly sending mutually recognizable signals throughout its immensity of tissues, fluids, and cells ... inappropriate alterations are balanced and changes are either accommodated or set right--all in the interest of that equilibrating steadiness that is the necessary condition of the order and harmony of complex living organisms.
"... Our lives march to the molecular beat of our tissues.  Our spirits sing to the music of our biology." - Sherwin Nuland


vera said...

Nice. I always think of driving as a good image of the constant small adjustments that are needed in response to feedback. We don't even think about it, but do it automatically.

I read something recently about efficiency. I think it said that past a certain point, increasing efficiency leads to brittleness, and becomes dangerous. What's needed is a balance of efficiency and resilience... this apropos his comment about "maximum efficiency" which is not really a quality of living systems. (I think what he meant is systems need to run optimally; but that in turn means including redundancies and inefficiencies). Just an aside I been thinking about.

MoonRaven said...

I think that you're absolutely correct--systems need a balance between efficiency and resilience. And I'd go further, if the system needs to err in a direction, it's better to err on the side of resilience--as you say, including redundancies and a inefficiencies. Too much efficiency (ie, 'brittleness') is dangerous.

Thanks for pointing this out.