20 January 2008

From cellular to social intimologies

It's now the middle of winter, but the buds are already there which will start to grow in the spring. How do they know when to start growing? All multicellular organisms grow until they reach maturity: how do their cells know when to stop reproducing?

This is the kind of question addressed by Werner R. Loewenstein in The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication and the Foundations of Life. It's a cause for celebration when a specialist like Loewenstein can present the gist of a lifetime's research to a general audience as he does here. I've been taking it in small doses (a few pages per day), and i don't expect to retain many of the details—and anyway, in a field moving as fast as this one, the details are subject to change. But some central principles persist, and some of those coincide with basic themes of my work in progress, Turning Words.

Turning Words is about guidance systems, and Loewenstein's book reaffirms that living beings are self-guiding systems, perfused at every level with what he calls cybernetic loops. These loops are the keys to self-organizing and self-regulating processes, and Loewenstein shows in some detail how they work at the cellular level. I think it's worthwhile to investigate whether they also work at higher levels, in the psychological and social domains.

Cell populations, or (on a larger scale) organs of a body, do not regulate themselves by electing a legislature, still less by recognizing the authority of a monarch. They don't obey any central command hierarchy; instead, they self-regulate by means of cybernetic loops. The signals meaningful to them arise among themselves, almost anywhere, and propagate by intercellular communication.

Here's where the coincidence comes in: i'm also reading presently Paul Hawken's recent book, Blessed Unrest. Hawken describes the rise of a new kind of social ‘movement’, one which promotes social and environmental justice without relying on charismatic leadership, central command structures or ideological consensus. This movement is totally decentralized, and yet can act with great singleness of purpose and power when circumstances make this possible, because each ‘cell’ in the movement is organically in touch with many others.

A sure sign of maturity in any organism is that it stops growing. The growth process is self-regulating; the breakdown of growth control is the disease we call cancer. The corporate structures which currently dominate the political economy of our planet are addicted to ‘growth’ as measured by the movement of money and assets. In organic terms, they are dedicated to prolonging the stage of immaturity, and that is why they afflict the planetary ecosystem just as cancer afflicts an individual body. (The corporate connection with cancer is not only analogical but causal as well, by the way: most of the known carcinogens in the environment are of corporate origin.)

All of this suggests that what humanity needs in order to wake from the long corporate-industrial-consumer trance is a decentralized communication network, which will clue us in to our common interests in the same way that a body knows that it's time to stop growing. This way the human race might just have a chance to reach maturity.

1 comment:

Mike said...

It's a ways off from being a perfect Internet community, but have you seen WiserEarth.org? It's a tool and directory for currently more than a 108,000 organizations around the world working on social justice and environmental issues. Anyone can contribute to the directory for free or add their own events, jobs, resources, etc.

It was started by Paul Hawken and his team a few years ago and was a manifestation of Hawken's Blessed Unrest. The site serves to strengthen the connections within these organizations and people (the Earth's immune system) working for change.

Stay in touch as the site evolves and grows!