A Matter of Degrees
In my last blog, “Knowers/Thinkers,” I explored some ideas about systems thinking and depth and breadth of understanding (knowledge). In that post I was interested in what I might call an individual's knowledge profile, a graphic depiction of the depth of a person's knowledge in a number of “aspects” of the world. I claimed that systems knowledge and thinking leads one toward a balanced, or level, depth of knowledge on most or all aspects, with the average depth dependent on a person's native learning abilities and their life experiences. In this post I want to now consider how this relates to another sapience mental capacity, the ability to think strategically.
As with the depth of knowledge measure of systems thinking, strategic thinking comes in degrees. Every morning when you consider what you will have for dinner later, and pull something out of the freezer to thaw out while you are at work, you are thinking strategically. That is you are planning for a future state of affairs that you will have some control over. The time horizon for such thinking is one of the measures we use to determine how good a strategic thinker some one is. Do they think simply about tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now? And do they do it routinely or only sporadically?
Another element in strategic thinking is the capacity to evaluate most or all of the factors that should be taken into consideration when thinking about the future state of affairs as the forces outside of one's control impact the thinker's world. This is a link with systems thinking. If one is a strong systems thinker one has the capacity to model the whole system much better than someone who's knowledge profile dips low in key aspects of the world.
I should probably hasten to say that when I use the term knower/thinker I am not just referring to conscious thinking and explicit memory. Most of our thinking and knowing is going on under the hood, so to speak, in subconscious mind. A vast volume of the neocortex is devoted to processing activity of which we are only occasionally and dimly aware. Our mental models (concepts), embodied in neural circuitry that has been adaptively wired through experience, are working backstage to make sure our conscious thinking is properly guided. Most of our knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, yet it influences our use of explicit knowledge more than most people are aware. An intuition is a vague consciousness of our tacit model of how the world works whispering to our conscious thinking process. Even more powerful and subtle influences from tacit knowledge guide our thinking. Much of such guidance is emotional or mood-influenced, an evolutionary holdover from our reptilian ancestry. The paleocortex interprets our feelings and tries to integrate them with sensory perceptions of the current state of the world. The neocortex provides a substantially greater capacity to model the world as we have experienced it. And that model is the basis of projection into the future. Much of strategic thinking, as with systems thinking, is subconscious mainly, but with veridical models of the world, the intuitions will guide conscious strategic thinking well.
Strategic thinking is supported further by the individual's experience with many different environments — lets call them ecosystems. There are many different kinds of ecosystems (and I include cultural ecosystems in this) on this planet. Exposure to many different kinds provides an individual with new information that bolsters learning, both explicit and tacit. Each ecosystem can be characterized by its complexity (a subject for another post some day). A strong systems thinker can quickly adapt to multiple kinds of systems because the principles of systems are universal. A wobbly knowledge profile person will have difficulty seeing the universality of aspects for which they have shallow depth of understanding.
One of the most dominant dynamics of complex ecosystems is the fact that they evolve as long as free energy is available. So one kind of system can actually evolve to become more like a different kind. This is similar to the concept of succession in ecosystems in the wild. If a person only had experience with a grassland environment, that person would be poorly prepared to survive in a climax forest! Therefore to develop the ability to think strategically, the thinker has to have a notion of what the various systems are actually like and how they evolved. Figure 1 shows a graphic representation of a single knower mapping their knowledge depth profile onto a number of different ecosystems.
Figure 1. An individual with a stable knowledge profile experiences different ecosystems. The higher the system boundary the more complex that system. Typical individuals only experience, directly, a low number of systems or parts of systems. They do not have the breadth of experience to judge whether an ecosystem is evolving into something else.
Different kinds of ecosystems are represented by various colors. Complexities are represented by the height of the boxes. The graphic represents what a single person's knowledge profile would look like relative to each kind of ecosystem. The average person probably experiences a very limited range of ecosystems in their lives. And they may not be able to generalize what they learn in one system to another. If they are not a systems thinker (as developed in the last blog) they do not possess the ability to grapple with evolutionary changes in the ecosystem in which they have lived. Think deep south conservatives as the culture around them changes and they rebel.
Limits of Knowledge - Time and Space
We each live a finite amount of time in a finite space. It is difficult at best for any knower/thinker (K/T, henceforth) to experience all conceivable ecosystems and thus develop a general understanding of common characteristics between them and how they might differ along common but variable dimensions. And eighty to one hundred years doesn't provide enough time to accumulate all possible knowledge even within the environments one is exposed to. We are, all of us, constrained to acquire knowledge that is at best a subset of all there might be to know. Systems knowledge helps out in the sense that it is universal and therefore can be used to interpolate across the gaps in our specific knowledge if the gaps are not too significant.
Figure 2 tries to capture the constraints. It partitions the universe into three domains relative to the K/T. These are shown as circles around the K/T of increasing radius. The inner (green) circle encompass the region of the universe that the K/T can, with minimal effort, directly perceive. This is represented in Figure 1 by “a person's range of perception”. The blue circle just outside of that is called the “radius of conception.” This corresponds with “A person's range of experience.” in Figure 1. This constitutes the systems in the world that the K/T has had some kind of experience with, either directly through perceptions, or indirectly through recordings of someone else's perceptions. For example, I have never been to the Great Wall of China (and don't expect to), but through the miracle of photography and writing I have been able to develop a reasonably good model of this wonder.
Figure 2. Limits of knowledge are imposed by time and space constraints. An observer (K/T) has a limited lifetime and a limited radius of travel and perception in order to experience the various ecosystems in Figure 1.
The outer circle (gray) represents all of the rest of the universe not either perceived by nor conceived of to the K/T. Needless to say these areas are not drawn to scale! The boundary between the blue and gray areas represents the limits that a K/T has with respect to knowledge acquisition. It is different for everyone. And the actual contents of the green and blue regions vary for everyone. This corresponds to the situation depicted in Figure 1 where a single individual (the K/T) usually only has experience over a limited number of ecosystems or even a limited range within her home ecosystem.
The radius of perception is principally constrained by biology - our senses. But some people have learned to use instrumentation to enhance the range of perception so as to expand the boundaries. The radius of conception is similarly constrained by biological factors, the inherent levels of intelligence and sapience. But there seems to be a much higher variance in the population in these factors and thus we see a truly astounding variety of radii in conceptual space. Some people are much better at assimilating information from sources other than direct experience, and that are successful in constructing reasonably accurate models of the world from it. Systems knowledge and thinking seem to help in this regard.
Figure 2 also shows another aspect of knowing and expanding one's conceptual space to at least infer some knowledge about the otherwise unknowable universe. The small gray circle in the “environment outside what one knows” represents processes outside our ordinary conception that nevertheless are not completely unconnected to things within our conceptual space. These are unseen and unknown forces that have an impact on processes for which we have conceptual models. While the K/T at the center of these radii is not able to directly experience (perceptually or conceptually) anything outside that boundary, the things within the conceptual space may be able to do so. Thus there is a chain of causality from outside our space of experience. Something that happened a very long time ago and that had an impact can have a more recent impact on something of which we are conceiving now. That is, the world of the K/T changes inexplicably.
Our sciences of cosmology, chemistry, quantum physics, and evolution (etc.) are all involved with deriving through inferences a much larger space of conception than any one human can do on their own. Thus the blue circle for humanity is so much greater than for any one person. Society as the K/T has an enormous blue circle. Once not that long ago the forces beyond our ken were attributed to super beings, gods, and the like. We made up stories to explain the world we saw (which was pretty small by comparison) and how it was affected by agents in the gray circle. Today we have learned how to not make up stories except for those that have a chance of being invalidated by our scientific methods. We have learned to see into the deep past (astrophysics, geology, evolution et al). We have learned to see into the unseen small (cells, biochemistry, chemical kinetics, quantum mechanics). And we have learned how to make predictions about the future state of affairs based on what we see in the past and the small.
Unfortunately we still have difficulty with meso-scale phenomena! We are just starting to come to grips with visible and recent developments (the social sciences, neurobiology, psychology, economics, etc.) Predictions are not as reliably made. Though we have learned how to generate scenarios from computer modeling. That is something anyway. This finally leads us to strategic thinking. Various K/Ts show a range of capacities to see into the future and based on understanding of the present and how it got to be the way it is from an understanding of the past, generate scenarios for the future as prelude to judging actions that might be taken now to influence the outcome (which scenario plays out). A strategic thinker can go a long way with just the models in her head, but a much longer way still using the assistance of systems models in a computer. Donella Meadows, et al, come to mind with their Limits to Growth work.
History, Present, and the Future
Space and time are indissolubly intertwined. As I just wrote, expanding the space of one's understanding (or that of society) involves expanding one's time horizons, especially into the past. Strategic thinking is, simply put, an ability to see into the future, not as in using a crystal ball to predict specific future events, but to see the big picture of the state of the world in some distant time. The strategic thinker is anticipating a range of possible futures that are, in some sense, ranked by likelihood. Chess is a game of strategic thinking as there are many possible outcomes by different routes and those outcomes can be influenced by what the player anticipates and actions she takes to enhance the probability of a favorable outcome.
There are many ways to derive how historical paths have led to present states. Historians had long wondered what events led to the fall of great empires, or led to wars. They believed that understanding the events would lead to avoiding such catastrophes in the future. Marketing directors often ask what the track record of a product has been to try to understand what its future earnings potentials will be. These kinds of predictions make the errors of linear thinking. Historians thought cause and effect were straightforward, the one preceding the other. And marketing directors, along with most economists, believe trends can provide accurate predictions. The use of linear regression to determine future profits is pretty much de rigor in those circles.
But that isn't the way the world works. The world is full of surprises. The world is process, not events. One cannot use linear thinking to work out the future. But there are a few dynamics that can be reliably mapped onto processes and can produce repeatable (or recognizable) states of the world. The strategic thinker understands such dynamics and uses those to establish a trajectory for the future given the current state of affairs. It is easy to become skilled in this. One only needs to apply the dynamics to post-dicting history! The patterns are readily revealed.
For example the dynamic known as the logistic growth (or development) curve for systems with resource constraints (effectively restricted in some flow), such as using up a non-renewable resource, is for all practical purposes a law of nature. This is the law that obtains for human societies and accounts for the failure of states and empires (where the resource is essential to support the complexity of the society). It is a guaranteed outcome that negative feedback will eventually bring the system to a halt in terms of its expansion. If the flow rate simply backs down then the system might get lucky and enter a steady-state. For example, if our societies could learn to live off of real-time solar flux (without further damaging the ecosystem) then it is conceivable to have a low energy flow-through society that would be sustainable long into the foreseeable future. But if the flow continues to decline then the system is in overshoot and will dramatically collapse. That, unfortunately, is most likely our path into the future.
Figure 3. An ideal growth curve for systems is logistic, the S shaped curve. Unfortunately when the critical resource continues to decline (the balancing loops continue to increase in strength) the system doesn't level out; it goes into exponential decline.
Another dynamic that we are slowly coming to understand is the psycho-dynamics of overcrowding or stresses from population density increases above a threshold. There is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the degree to which people are negatively influenced by density stresses. Recently, however, there is evidence that the variability in stresses felt by individuals, say living in a city, were somewhat moderated by perceptions and beliefs, especially the belief that somewhere else there existed an escape - the countryside perhaps. As our global society becomes more connected to media that reports 24/7 on the rest of the world it has become clear to most that whatever respite they imagined must exist actually doesn't we are seeing more effects from density stresses. It may be too early to draw any conclusions or build models, but researchers have begun to ask questions like, “is society becoming more uncivil?” and for good reason. It is getting hard to ignore the rudeness and self-centered attitudes that so many people are displaying. All you have to do is drive down the freeway and pay attention to driving behaviors, especially when people are merging onto the road.
This dynamic resembles criticality in systems. A pressure builds up. Many frequent, small releases can be seen, but occasionally a medium-scale release (disruption) occurs. And more rarely, large releases can effectively reset the system. Is our social milieu such a system?
The Eusocial K/T
In the past I have called attention to another dynamic that is gaining greater recognition in evolution theory, the emergence of cooperativity among heterogeneous individuals (both inter- and intra-species). Cooperating aggregations turn out to be better at competing with other aggregates for resources. Evolution favors better cooperation within, even as competition between rises. The selection for better mechanisms for cooperation eventually leads to systems that hit on the idea of internal coordination as being more efficient as aggregates (now we should call them systems) get bigger and more complex. Coordination eventually leads to a hierarchical cybernetic system that handles operational, logistical, and tactical coordination that interoperate to the benefit of all participants. But it was not until the evolution of the modern human brain that strategic coordination (with its generation of scenarios and choosing of “strategies” to ensure being better off in the future) became realized in the internal hierarchy. Humans became the first biological entity to be able to think about the distant future and do so with models derived from the past. Even though strategic thinking in this form emerged in our species, it was still limited in scope for any one individual. But at the same time that evolution was selecting for brains with some strategic thinking capabilities it was selecting for greater cooperation between human beings. As if to recapitulate the processes that gave rise to eukaryotes, multicellularity, symbiosis, and colony formation, humans took the path of eusociality (see the Bibliography below for readings on this phenomenon).
And if the pattern of past socialization phenomena holds humans social groups have been recapitulating the tenancy to follow greater cooperation with emerging coordination. Our hierarchical governance systems, as flawed as they are, represent the first trial-and-error steps to a hierarchical cybernetic system, similar to those that produced the successes of all those prior socializations.
In other words, the human species is on the way to becoming a more unified social system — an individual. While we were still evolving through group selection, we called these social systems tribes. And they were relatively loose aggregations of mostly related individuals but sharing through communications and trading specializations. Tribes competed against one another when times were bad and resources scarce. That archeological record is becoming clear. But just as clear is the record of inter-tribe trading and cooperation during good times. It probably all comes down to macro-economic factors, like the availability of free energy.
But the evolutionary trend had been established and should some humans survive the impending bottleneck event they are likely to once again form up in tribes in which intra-group cooperation will out compete those groups of selfish individuals. Furthermore, those tribes that develop more effective coordination mechanism (presumably because they grow in size and complexity in the far future) will fare better still, becoming more efficient and effective in living. The tribe will become the K/T of interest. Should they develop structures and functions that, like the brains of individuals, process collective strategic thinking and should they discover how to efficiently exploit real-time solar energy without disrupting the environment, they will be poised to become the next major transition in evolution, a super intelligent, eusapient system of systems. A super-species.
Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, USA. New York.
Calcott, Brett & Sterelny, Kim (eds, 2011). The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, The MIT Press, Cambridge. (see Smith & Szathmáry below).
Nowack, Martin A. & Coakley, Sarah (eds. 2013). Evolution, Games, and God: The Principles of Cooperation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Smith, John Maynard & Szathmáry, Eörs (1998). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford University Press, USA, New York.
Wilson, Edward O. (2013). The Social Conquest of Earth, Liveright, New York.