Miller and the General Living Systems Theory

James Miller, an American psychologist and psychiatrist, became one of the most prominent scientists within systems science after the publication of his book Living Systems in 1978. The General Living Systems theory or GLS theory presented in the book is concerned with a special subset of all systems, the living ones. It is general, or universal, in that it cuts across species, size of systems and type of behaviour and is interdisciplinary in that it integrates both biological and social science, ranging from cellular chemistry to international relations.

Its basic proposition is that a living system is a physical phenomenon existing in space and time. Only a universe which exists in three space dimensions and one time dimension is likely to provide the richness, predictability and stability to generate a lasting structure which includes life. Space time accociated with more than three dimensions does not allow anything to exist in stable orbits. Particles either spiral together or shoot off to infinity. It does not allow the existence of solar systems and also rules out the existence of atoms.

Certain general propositions are true of all living systems, regardless of their size, origin and complexity which may not be true of artificial systems. This is due to the fact that individual sets of relationships are required to enhance and conserve order over time in a universe governed by uniform laws.

GLS theory recognizes the following five kingdoms:

  • monerans
  • protistans
  • fungi
  • plants
  • animals

A living system is a complex, adaptive, open, negentropic system and can thus be characterized as purposive. It maintains within its boundary a less probable thermodynamic energy process by interaction with its environment. Such a process is called metabolism and is possible through the continuous exchange of matter and energy across the system boundary. This process also gives the energy necessary for all essential activities, such as reproduction, production and repair. The metabolism or processing of information is of equal importance, making possible regulation and adjustment of both internal stress and external strain. Information processing and programmed decisions are the means by which matter and energy processing is controlled in living systems. See Figure 3.4.

Figure 3.4 Throughput in a living system of matter/energy and information.

Living systems have attributes shared by all kinds of open system. They import matter/ energy and information from the environment. The reception of input is selective. Not all inputs can be absorbed into every system. Regarding information, systems can react and process only that information to which they are attuned. The selective mechanism works by coding. The throughput and transformation of the imported (a process of negentropy) result into some product which is characteristic for the system. The product is then exported into the environment. Simultaneously, the system is reengergizing itself from sources in the environment.

In order to maintain a constancy over time, a living system must be able to self-maintenance and self-repair. These abilities take place according to the following points:

  • Information processing.
  • Energy processing.
  • Material processing.
  • Synthesis of parts by combining materials.
  • Rearrangement and connection of disarranged parts.
  • Energy storing for fuel reserves and necessary structure.
  • Removal of worn parts.

All living systems, irrespective of species, consist of remarkably similar organic molecules and a general evolutionary progression toward increasing complexity. Starting with the amoeba and finishing with the United Nations, living systems can be divided into eight very real and concrete hierarchical levels. Each new level is regarded as being higher than the preceding; it comprises all lower level systems and is more differentiated. The vital system components of one level are systems in their own right on the level below. In other words, the larger and higher levels with their component lower level subsystems constitute a suprasystem. Miller employs the metaphor of a ship’s cable: a single unit which can be separated into the ropes of which it is twisted. These, in turn, can be unravelled revealing the finer strands, strings and threads. The specific system structure can be seen as the most economical problem solution done by the biological evolution which can cope with a given environment.

Each level has its typical individual structure and processes. The levels are distinguished by the following labels:

  • Cells: These are composed of non-living molecules and multimolecular complexes and represent the least complex system that can support essential life processes. Cells exist either free living or as specialized components of the organs or tissues of organisms.
  • Organs: All organs are composed of structures of cell aggregates. An example is the liver.
  • Organisms: Their components are organs. This level includes multi- cellular plants and animals.
  • Groups: Two or more organisms which interact form a No higher level than this exists among animals. Structure and processes discernible among social insects such as bees and ants are more similar to those of the group than those of the next level.
  • Organizations: With their main components of groups, organizations present a diversity of types: governmental sectors, private universities, churches and business enterprises. The organization has more than one structure in its decider function.
  • Communities: When different types of organizations interact they form a A town, with its schools, hospitals and  fire brigade, is an example which illustrates the community’s characteristic independence in decision making.
  • Societies: With components of communities of various kinds and functions, this level is defined by Miller as This indicates that, within itself, it contains all the essential capabilities as a self- subsistent system. A typical society is the nation which claims and defends a territory.
  • Supranational systems: Here, two or more societies cooperate to a certain extent in decision making and in submitting power to a decider superordinate to their This level is represented by blocks, coalitions, alliances and pacts. NATO represents a single purpose; the European Union and the United Nations exemplify a multipurpose supranational system. Societies express themselves through delegates within the decider function.

While living systems according to Miller’s theory are all systems which support the phenomenon of life, social theory has no definite answer to whether social entities that are not organisms have a real existence ‘in nature’ or not. Some scientists prefer to see them as methodologically necessary theoretical constructs with no existence per se.

It has also been questioned if systems at levels above the organism can be considered to be alive: the components have no physical connections (as in the lower levels). The component individuals need physical contact similar to that of mechanical systems but only for sexual union or physical combat. Furthermore, at the higher levels, components can move from one system to another. These systems also include a great many non-living components or artefacts that are crucial for the system. Living systems create and live among their artefacts. Non-living components in the form of prostheses, for example plastic aortas, can be present at lower levels, where even free-living components such as the white blood cells exist.

The importance of spatial cohesion is dependent upon the nature of the system. To preserve themselves as an effective existing unit the members of a riot squad quite naturally have to work shoulder to shoulder. The family as a system may function well even although grown-up children are geographically dispersed. Generally, the higher level, the less physical contact. Instead, the system keeps the parts together through information, common goals and interests. The occupied space and boundaries of such systems are entirely conceptual, that is, they exist in the minds of people and not in physical reality.

Lack of physical cohesion among components of a living system is often compensated for by advanced communication systems which tie the components together. The low frequency acoustic long distance communication between big whales can in this respect be compared with man’s corresponding telecommunication system.

Living systems at all levels have some critical processes essential for living and reproduction. GLS theory identifies 20, each of which is performed by special units or components of systems. These exist at each of the eight levels, except for the two units necessary for learning, that is, associator and memory, which only exist in the animal organism. A critical process lacking in one system can sometimes be performed by some other. For an observer, some of the subsystems may be transparent, that is, they are systems which one actually do not think of or see until they malfunction or break down. The 20 subsystems are divided into three groups: for the processing of matter/energy and information. (A system can survive without a reproducer, but not without any of the other subsystems.)

All living systems have to carry out the 20 essential subsystem functions in order to survive. Some systems, in which both structure and processes of some of the essential subsystems are missing, survive by substituting with either their own processes or processes of other systems at the same or different levels, or in Miller’s words by dispersing missing processes. All the subsystems are presented below in the order and with the numbers given in 1990, when the timer was added (Miller 1990).

Subsystems processing matter/energy/information:

#1 Reproducer is capable of giving rise to other systems similar to the one it is in.

#2 Boundary at the perimeter of a system holds together the components which make up the system, protecting them from environmental stress, and which exclude or permit entry to various types of matter/energy and information.

Subsystems processing matter/energy:

#3 Ingestor brings matter/energy from the environment across the system boundary.

#4 Distributor carries inputs from outside of the system or outputs from own subsystems to each component within the system.

#5 Converter changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes of that particular system.

#6 Producer forms stable associations among matter/energy inputs to the system or outputs from its converter. The materials so synthesized are for growth, damage repair, or replacement of components of the system. They also provide energy for constituting the system’s outputs of products or information markers or moving these to its suprasystem.

#7 Storage retains deposits of various types of matter/energy in the system, for different periods of time.

#8 Extruder transmits matter/energy in the form of products and waste out of the system.

#9 Motor moves the system or parts of it in relation to its whole or partial environment, moves components of the environment in relation to each other.

#10 Supporter maintains the proper spatial relationships among components.

Subsystems processing information:

#11 Input transducer, with its sensory function, brings markers bearing information into the system, changing them into other matter/energy forms suitable for internal transmission.

#12 Internal transducer, with its sensory function, receives, from all subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information concerning significant alterations to the same. It changes these markers to other matter/ energy forms which can be transmitted within the system.

#13 Channel and net, composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes, transmits markers bearing information to all parts of the system.

#14 Timer transmits to the decider information about time-related states of the environment or of components of the system. This information signals to the decider of the system or deciders of subsystems when to start, stop, alter the rate, or advance or delay the phase of one or more of the system’s processes, thus coordinating them in time.

#15 Decoder alters the code of information input to it through the input transducer or the internal transducer into a ‘private’ code that can be used internally by the system.

#16 Associator carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among units of information in the system.

#17 Memory carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing various types of information in the system for different periods of time.

#18 Decider receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs that control the entire system. This executive decider has a hierarchical structure, the levels of which are called echelons.

#19 Encoder alters the code of information inputs from other information-processing subsystems, from a ‘private’ code used internally by the system into a ‘public’ code which can be interpreted by other systems in its environment.

#20 Output transducer puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter/energy forms which can be transmitted over channels in the system’s environment.

A main feature of the GLS theory is a level/subsystem table of living systems with 160 cells (8 levels x 20 subsystems). Here the components of the subsystems are listed for the various levels, altogether 153, with 7 missing as not recognized. The arrangement has a remarkable resemblance to the periodic table of the elements and in a sense it has a similar function for living systems. For an extract from the table, see Figure 3.5.

To adapt to a continually changing environment and to handle stress from both within and without, living systems embody adjustment processes. System variables are hereby kept within their normal ranges and the system as a whole, as well as its subsystems, maintains homeostasis in spite of continuous changes. The adaptation take place according to the following points:

  • Modify function and structure.
  • Adapt interflows with other systems.
  • Adapt intraflows within the system.
  • Utilize changing resources.
  • Grow/shrink without disrupting system operation.
  • Replace worn parts without disrupting system operation.

Figure 3.5 Extract of the level/subsystem table of living systems (from Miller 1990).

The adjustments, however, entail a cost (time, money, etc.). The least costly processes are engaged in the first instance, followed by the more resource demanding when necessary. A kind of adjustment procedure which should not be forgotten is collapse. Collapse is a last resort adaptive response when no other means remain. It sometimes permits survival on a lower system level. The continuous use of adjustments which are more costly than necessary is a kind of systems pathology. Another kind of process, the historical, is the system life cycle. This includes growth, development, maturation, ageing and death (see p. 95).

As it has not been proven practical for organisms to live for an indefinitely extended period of time, they have got the built in ability to procreate but also to die. This ability allows (through selection) refinement to and improvements of the life forms. In a wider meaning, it therefore makes sense to speak of death as a part of autopoies.

Higher levels among living systems are both larger and more sophisticated and have therefore structure and processes not existing at lower levels. This phenomenon is called emergents and gives these systems a better capability to withstand stress and adapt or exploit a greater range of environments.

The role of information processing has been thoroughly dealt with in GLS theory. In living systems, insignificant amount of energy is consumed in information processing which controls big energies and forces producing a well-organized result. At least on higher levels, living systems depend upon a full flow of the following three types of information in order to survive:

  • information of the world outside
  • information from the past
  • information about self and own parts

Living systems in general are typically confronted with more information of their environment than is necessary or relevant for a calculated response. It is therefore essential to block or reject most of it. Another important quality of information processing is to be able to erase or to forget information. Significant fact, on the other hand, is remembered. The immune defence remembers unfamiliar material exposed to the organism and sometimes mobilize an exaggeratedly defence. The forgetfulness is the key to life’s ability to incorporate the future with the present.

Living systems recognize three types of codes of increasing complexity used in the information metabolism.

  • An alpha code is one in which the ensemble or markers is composed of different spatial patterns, each representing a coded message or Signal agents like pheromones belong to this category. (Hormones are chemical messengers acting in the organism’s internal environment while pheromores act between organisms, thus co-ordinating and regulating interactions of group members).
  • A beta code is based on variations in process such as temporal or amplitudinal change or a different pattern of intensity.
  • A gamma code is used when symbolic information transmission takes place, as in linguistic communication.

Information processing involving these codes often gives rise to stress, known as information input overload, especially on higher system levels. This phenomenon is well-known in Western urban civilization which in a sense exists in this state continuously. Here the citizen withdraws within his own world as a result of adjustment processes or a quite logical attempt to survive in a seemingly chaotic world of excessive information. Of the possible adjustment processes, the following are the most common in connection with overload.

  • omission neglecting to transmit certain randomly distributed signals in a message
  • error incorrect transmission of certain parts of a message
  • queueing delayed transmission of certain signals in a message
  • filtering certain classes of messages given priority
  • abstracting finer details in the message omitted
  • multiple channel transmission parallel transmission over two or more channels
  • chunking messages with intelligible meaning organized in chunks rather than individual symbols
  • escape information input cut off

Information stress which occurs with information input underload, or sensory deprivation (for example, a patient in a respirator — the isolation syndrome), also requires adjustment. While these processes incur some costs, the system normally begins with the least costly. The possible adjustment processes in this case are the following.

  • sleepiness, eventually falling asleep
  • inability to think clearly, growing irritation, restlessness and hostility
  • daydreaming, use of fantasy materials to supply information inputs
  • regression, revert to childlike emotional behaviour
  • hallucinations, sensation of ‘otherness’
  • psychological breakdown, total mental disorder

Some of the main features of GLS theory have now been outlined. This theory, itself too far-reaching to be presented in detail here, has many practical applications. For this purpose the chart of living systems symbols is used when depicting system flows between the twenty essential subsystems, as shown in Figure 3.6.

When applying GLS theory to a problem of the real world a key task is to identify the components of the 20 essential subsystems for the object, within its level. The example below shows how an identification can be established for a supermarket.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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