Sunday, April 5, 2015

Homeostasis: What's the cultural analogue?

Oliver Sacks has an essay on wellness and dis-ease that ranges over migraines and his recent cancer treatment. His opening paragraph reminded me of Dawkins on stability as being fundamental to the universe and to evolution. Here's Sacks' paragraph (two actually):
Nothing is more crucial to the survival and independence of organisms—be they elephants or protozoa—than the maintenance of a constant internal environment. Claude Bernard, the great French physiologist, said everything on this matter when, in the 1850s, he wrote, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre.” Maintaining such constancy is called homeostasis. The basics of homeostasis are relatively simple but miraculously efficient at the cellular level, where ion pumps in cell membranes allow the chemical interior of cells to remain constant, whatever the vicissitudes of the external environment. More complex monitoring systems are demanded when it comes to ensuring homeostasis in multicellular organisms—animals, and human beings, in particular.

Homeostatic regulation is accomplished by the development of special nerve cells and nerve nets (plexuses) scattered throughout our bodies, as well as by direct chemical means (hormones, etc.). These scattered nerve cells and plexuses become organized into a system or confederation that is largely autonomous in its functioning; hence its name, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS was only recognized and explored in the early part of the twentieth century, whereas many of the functions of the central nervous system (CNS), especially the brain, had already been mapped in detail in the nineteenth century. This is something of a paradox, for the autonomic nervous system evolved long before the central nervous system.
What's the socio-cultural analogue to physiological homeostasis?

Now,  for good measure, his third paragraph:
They were (and to a considerable extent still are) independent evolutions, extremely different in organization, as well as formation. Central nervous systems, along with muscles and sense organs, evolved to allow animals to get around in the world—forage, hunt, seek mates, avoid or fight enemies, etc. The central nervous system, with its sense organs (including those in the joints, the muscles, the movable parts of the body), tells one who one is and what one is doing. The autonomic nervous system, sleeplessly monitoring every organ and tissue in the body, tells one how one is. Curiously, the brain itself has no sense organs, which is why one can have gross disorders here, yet feel no malaise. Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson, who developed Alzheimer’s disease in his sixties, would say, “I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well.”
I note that, from a logical point of view, the internal environment is external to the brain as is the external world, though the brain and the internal environment are encapsulated in the same physical system. This interesting fact seems to me central to any attempt to make sense of human culture. Thus it became on of a handful of named principles in my music book, Beethoven's Anvil:
Two Environments: The central nervous system operates in two environments, the external world and the internal milieu, and it regulates the relationship between the external world and the interior milieu on behalf of that milieu. [p. 33]
And, in turn, it led to another principle a few pages later:
Facing Principle: As a vehicle for expressing emotion, the body presents the inner experience of individuals both to the external world and to higher brain centers. [p. 40]
But, going back to where we started: what's the cultural equivalent of physiological homeostasis? Until we know what that is, and how it works, we're not going to understand how and why culture changes.

On the Sacks article, h/t 3QD.


  1. There's no "cultural analogue" of homeostatis. Rather, "homeostatis" is a domain-neutral concept. Thermostats and cruise control are familiar examples from the cultural realm.

  2. Not at all what I'm getting at. I know about thermostats etc. What global property of life in a group is culture keeping stable?

  3. That is, life requires homeostasis. Culture requires ____?