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Guided Evolution in Society: A Systems View

Bela H. Banathy
Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers
Cloth: 0-306-46382-2

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Reviewed by
Carl Henning Reschke
University of Witten Herdecke, Germany.

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Banathy's "Guided Evolution of Society" is an ambitious project. It is a book about how humans can shape their future social evolution, seen from the systems perspective. It is structured as a textbook referring in a concise manner to the positions of relevant authors in about 400 pages and providing potential students with assignments. I am very sympathetic with the general idea of the book and have no qualms about the systems perspective. Nevertheless, the bottom-up social engineering presented here conflicts with the evolutionary perspective in several ways which I will point out shortly.

After an introductory chapter, the first part of the book reviews the positions of scholars studying evolution (both biological and human). The second part deals with the "Journey from Evolutionary Consciousness to Conscious Evolution", defining characteristics and processes of social evolution. The third part "Self-Guided Evolution" deals with evolutionary epistemology from the perspective of designing systems that can guide evolutionary social processes. It (and thus the whole book) culminates in a chapter about "The Agoras of the Twenty First Century" as a means to foster democratic participation in building our future. Here lies a certain - but fundamental and probably insoluble - contradiction in that Banathy claims (with Margaret Mead) that all meaningful change in history has been brought about by small groups of dedicated people.

My criticism starts with the implementation of the book. It seems to have been rushed in the details, although this may be unavoidable in writing a first edition. For instance, some of the assignments seem like addenda presenting issues that could well have been discussed by the author. For example, Banathy asks the reader to review the statements of evolutionary scholars and identify their core ideas as well as comparing them to identify consistency or contradiction in activity 4. That, I think, might be a useful task for bored students, but it is something that an author should do if he wishes to deliver a good piece of work. This requires a lot of intellectual effort, but I expect it as a reader/student of any writer/educator if he wishes to persuade me of an argument or a system of thinking. This process is what provokes intellectual discussion and learning. Likewise, it is rather unlikely that Darwin's paper on evolution was first read in 1958 at the Linnaean Society! In addition, the Ancient Greek agora is hardly the latest case of direct public democracy, the smaller Swiss cantons are at least worthy of study as more recent examples.

It is probably too much to expect in a world of increasing language barriers and proliferating schools of thought, but is nonetheless irritating to discover neglect of relevant scholars in evolution and evolutionary epistemology. Very relevant is Rupert Riedl's (1978) work which deals with the process of evolution in a systemic fashion and also his later work on evolutionary epistemology. The first book is particularly notable since Gould (an author frequently cited here) has used it as a textbook for some of his courses on evolution (Peter Cariani, personal communication). This book challenges (or rather extends) some of the conventional wisdom of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis in a way that indicates a possibility for fusing systemic perspectives on social and cultural evolution using an account of hierarchical organisation of genetic information, epistasis and selection internal to organisms. Similarly, a more differentiated presentation of biological and cultural evolution as processes can be found in Riedl's later work on cultural evolution and evolutionary epistemology.

Likewise the discussion about cultural evolution which took place in "Human Ecology" during the 70s is not mentioned. This is a problem since that debate would probably lead to a more elaborate conception of the evolutionary process along the lines of Cloak (1973, 1975) and an earlier version of the ideas presented by Boyd and Richerson (1980).

Consequently, I do not agree with Banathy's differentiation between cultural and biological evolution. It is based on the difference between free integration of cultural ideas, technologies and artefacts, while biological evolution "just" leads to increasing separation of characteristics in species. The process of integration (leading to the emergence of new characteristics) has also been discussed by scholars of biological evolution. The argument goes back to Spencer but has been reiterated by among others Lorenz (1977), Mayr (1982), Margulis (1992), and Szathmary and Maynard Smith (1995). Spencer, Lorenz and Margulis are cited, but a deeper discussion would probably lead to the replacement of fuzzy notions like "quantum evolution" with more elaborate and widely acceptable concepts.

If evolution is seen as an open process, then a title involving "guided evolution" quickly leads to ethical questions about social engineering. Here, the discussion about the historical development of governance systems for societies is largely missing. This is a large area in itself, but should at least involve discussion of evolutionary thinkers like Popper, Habermas and Luhmann. In the third part of the book, Banathy describes institutions and processes that are designed to prevent political ossification by empowering people to shape their future from the bottom-up. This is supposed to work by interplay between an Evolutionary Guidance System, that defines an ideal state in the future and an Evolutionary System that reflects the constraints of today. Therefore the book, like this part, should have been titled more appropriately "Self-Guided Evolution of Society", which is in closer alignment with the ideas of the author than the present title of the book.

The book aims to empower people with the means to shape their future democratically and prevent a lapse into autocracy. Still, there looms a potentially insoluble tension in that measures to guide or direct this process are prone to become subject to precisely the political ossification described in "1984" and thus to foster the precise opposite of Banathy's goal. This process is (or will be) more abetted than hindered by the author's use of "spiritual" terminology. This is also a common criticism of the systems perspective and partly stems from its heuristic approach to the definition of terms and concepts that is not open to easy penetration. Despite this, some of the best examples of interdisciplinary easy-to-grasp science writing also come from scientists with a systems background. I do not suppose that it is the author's aim to guide our future in the direction of political autocracy and ossifying belief-systems. Nevertheless his choice of words and fuzzy concepts is nearer to a religious belief system than to scientific or liberal enlightenment in the style of Kant. If he manages to deal more satisfactorily with the contradictions between political change and large scale participation he will really have achieved something.

* References

BOYD R. and P. J. Richerson 1980. Sociobiology, culture and the economic process. Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, 1:97-127.

CLOAK F. T. 1973. Elementary self-replicating instructions and their works: Toward a radical reconstruction of general anthropology through a general theory of natural selection. Paper presented at the Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnographical Sciences. [HTML]

CLOAK F. T. 1975. Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology, 3:161-181.

LORENZ K. 1977. Behind the Mirror: A Search for the Natural History of Human Knowledge. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, NY.

MARGULIS L. 1992. Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, second edition. Freeman, New York, NY.

MAYR E. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

RIEDL R. 1978. Order in Living Systems: A Systems Analysis of Evolution. Wiley, New York, NY.

SZATHMARY E. and J. Maynard Smith 1995. The major evolutionary transitions Nature, 374:227-232.

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