Content Is the Group Mind a Self-Organizing System?  
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Hiram Caton

Paper presented to the Eighth Annual Human Behavior and Evolution

Society Conference, Northwestern University, June 30, 1996.

In this paper I review some findings about the traits and dynamics of group minds, especially the human, as they are described in current literature and as I have found them in my own research.

Since the group mind has just recently become a ‘hot topic’, let me commence by referencing the idea’s lineage.



  • The Group Mind
  • Communication
  • Infants
  • Concluding Remark
  • References

The Group Mind is the title of William McDougall’s 1920 study of collective behavior, with applications to nationalism and national character. McDougall synthesized an extensive literature, including studies of animal societies. Among his sources are Margaret Floy Washburn’s The Animal Mind: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology (1909). Washburn began her description with amoeba and paramecium, then passed to crustacea, the ants, fish, avians and mammals, showing in each case the linkages between sensory discriminations, movement, and aggregation/dispersal. The discussion of the mind of bacillus subtilis in the paper by Howard Bloom and Mike Waller is decidedly in Washburn’s school of psychology 1. Their report of the findings of Eshel Ben-Jacob and James Shapiro would surprise Washburn only in the application of fractal geometry to mapping the self-organizing properties of bacillus subtilis. This, I fancy, would have delighted her, for it resolves her wonderment about why animal communication results in the remarkable aggregation patterns she observed. I am a little disappointed that Bloom and Waller do not highlight the mathematics of self-organization as the new tool for conceptualizing and describing minds, since it lies at the core of Ben-Jacob’s hypothesized parallel distributive processing substrate. As everyone knows, nonlinear dynamics is at the cutting edge of computing science, neuroscience, engineering, game theory, animal behavior, the psychology of sense perception, evolutionary theory, and physics (Freeman 1995, Laszlo 1989, Degn, Holden, Olsen 1987, Mohler 1991, Hall 1993). It is, as the buzz word has it, the key that fits all locks.

The importance of nonlinear systems may be accented by correcting the error in McDougall’s formulation of the group mind as a ‘mental entity over and above all individuals in the group’. Group minds are not entities. Neither are individual minds. They are processes. Nonlinear processes (Freeman 1995).

This will seem odd to some. Self is experienced as sufficiently thing-like to prompt the nearly universal belief that mind is some sort of substance. Since self’s body orientation in space leads thoughtful types to conclude that consciousness lurks in the invisible region behind the face, psychologists and neurologists endorse this folk wisdom by assuming that mind is ‘in’ the head. And why not? That’s where the brain is. McDougall’s incomplete emancipation from folk psychology shows in his acceptance (albeit reluctantly) that the group mind must have an organ distinct from the organs of individual minds. He could scarcely avoid this error because the conceptual engine for empirical description of emergent properties had not been devised 2. Today it is known that chaotic properties may emerge from any dynamic process, stable or unstable, physical or biological (Crutchfield et al 1987; Mohler 1991; Kauffman 1991; Laszlo 1989). Robert May, who discovered chaotic attractors in population genetics and in game theory, put the point globally when he declared: ‘Biological systems, from communities and populations to physiological processes, are governed by nonlinear mechanisms’ (May 1993: 95). Properties emerge regardless of the composition of the organs and signals. The signal substrate may be chemical, acoustical, electrical, or photic. The organ may be a synapse or a television screen. The signal semantics may be natural or artificial.

Nigel Franks and co-workers illustrate these claims in their studies of the nest-building and foraging activities of army ants (Eciton burchelli and Eciton hamatum). These ants aggregate in colonies of 500,000 to 20,000,000 individuals (Figure 1). They perform, as a group, intricate activities that are continuous over many generations. The activity patterns are a rubber template, for they can be varied to match habitat variability. Naturalists of all times have recognized intelligence in the architectural marvels and behavioral coordination of ants and bees. Franks and co-workers vindicate this intuition. They show that simple rules of interaction among ants leads, by the dynamics of emergence, to fluid spatial distributions of foraging, nest tending, and nest building, as well as the variation of the distributions as habitat exigencies may require (Franks 1989; Strickland, Britton, & Franks 1995). This rubber template of dynamic spacing and division of labor Franks calls ‘social resilience’.

What then is ‘group mind’? It is communicative activity, that is, signalling that expresses and synchronizes the behavior of two or more individuals, be they cells or mammals. Nonlinearity is built into the definition because signal exchange is a feedback loop that sends new information into the system. In the classical picture of such a system, homoeostasis for example, feedback was a negative control to maintain thermal equilibrium. Chaos, in the guise of randomness, is what the linear system corrects. Today it’s the other way around. Homeostasis and oscillators presuppose chaos as the dynamic condition for maintaining the flexible regularity characteristic of living systems (Hall 1993).

Unlike Bloom and Waller I do not assign adaptive function or a design principle to self-organizing systems. Why not? Well, because they are self-organizing. These systems do what they do; we find out about it after the fact 3. Self-organizing systems are unpredictable; if not in the short term, then in the long term. The evolution of organisms is exhibit A of unpredictability (Kauffman 1991). The evolution of social systems is exhibit B. Governments like to pretend that they are central directive agencies for society. The imposture is obvious from on-going failures even to control events on the small scale of the executive suite and the royal bedroom. The envisioned mechanical control of society is unachievable because human association is self-organizing 4.

So much for the objective definition of mind. McDougall was primarily concerned with subjective mind. The experience of group mind according to him is perception of Self’s inclusion in an association that is ‘wiser, more powerful and more comprehensive than Self’. This is good enough for a start. It would be pertinent to discuss the wisest and most powerful group mind enveloping most us—the scientific evaluation system. Peer review and its many associated minds determine legitimate research objectives, authenticate and deauthenticate knowledge, allocate resources, and assign each Self a status in the prestige hierarchy. Conferences are occasions for groups to express their identity, to pump themselves up for new onslaughts against ignorance, and to sharpen fighting trim for contests with rival tribes. Although strongly hierarchical, the system is obviously not centrally directed. Small variations—a minor funding adjustment or a discovery—can quickly explode to macroscopic scale, changing the material and social landscape of a science tribe, sometimes even the confederation of all science tribes.

Tempting as that topic is, its complexity forbids brief treatment. I shall attend instead to simpler communications, especially as they have been mapped by two decades of research on infants and children.

Human communication is distinctive in two ways. While many plant and animal species mimic the signals of other species—a truly amazing fact in itself—among us mimicry becomes a generalised capacity for communication through natural and artificial signs. Artificial communication, including storage and retrieval systems, is widely believed to be critical to the constitution and development of culture. The expansion of communication over the past century or so has greatly multiplied the scope and number of group minds. These days 600 million may view peak sporting events. Millions of spatially dispersed individuals identify with groups such as Greenpeace or the IRA. Most of us participate in half dozen group minds and casually many more. Such complexity makes it difficult to characterize the swarms called ‘the hive mind’ (meaning, the meeting of minds through internet) and ‘public opinion’.

Human communication is also distinctive in that it often occurs internally. The presence of Self to own consciousness has so long dominated mind thought that the notion of a group mind is oxymoronic to philosophers. Philosophers also baulk at animal minds and puzzle about whether they know other minds and the external world (Watson 1995). Nevertheless, as practical people philosophers know where the best restaurants are and quickly detect the scheming of colleagues. Even Descartes, although he denied mind to animals, was attached to his dog.

I mention these things not to poke fun, but to draw attention to the vast cave of natural self-ignorance that philosophers unconsciously explore. Consciousness turned in on itself cannot discover how the mind works, or its structure, or the character of the ‘real me’, because the evidence needed for such a project isn’t accessible to the mind’s inner eye. The inner eye sees strange forms of life that find expression in art, religion, philosophy, manners, and body manipulation and discipline. This is uncontroversial among evolutionists. Let’s briefly note the reasons.

Consider the human face as a signal box. It is outfitted with an extensive musculature for voluntary and involuntary control of lip, nose, eyelid, cheek, and eyebrow movements (Figure 2). The comparative anatomist sees at a glance that it is the musculature of a primate adapted for highly differentiated social signalling. When two persons engage socially, they gaze at one another in 1-5 second episodes. Episodes are comprised of fixations of about 300 ms, as the eye scans the facial ‘hot spots’—eyes and mouth. They are the ‘hot spots’ because the eye and mouth musculature generate most of the signals indicating the other’s inner state. A different pattern emerges when boy meets girl. The ‘hot spots’ of boy’s gaze are the middle and lower regions of her body, while girl gazes at his face and shoulders (Figure 3). In his study of flirting, Karl Grammer established the patterns of eye contact, facial expression, and automanipulation by which women signal an invitation to approach, and men signal intention to approach; or as the case may be, one or the other signals cut off (Grammer 1993). In gaze episodes, about three fixations per second occur, but we usually pay little attention to where we direct our gaze. The reason is the information complexity of this simple episode. The visual neural wetware processes information at 5 x 105 bits per second. If boy and girl exchange words, they also send and process acoustical and olfactory information. If they speak at normal pace, they will produce 15 phonemes per second, employing about 100 muscles in this precision task. This yields sensory information on the order of, say, 5 x 107 bits per second. But there is more. The sensory information is integrated supramodally, and compared with Self’s perceptions of own inner state. Boy and girl feed the integrated external and internal information back to one another to synchronize voice modulation, gestures, proximity, and body angles. Interactional synchrony and behavior matching occur as a fluid convergence of behavior based on information feedback from the previous moment’s feedback (Bernieri and Rosenthal 1991; Anderson 1985). In her novels of manners, Jane Austen showed how desperately convoluted all this can become.

A simple social episode thus turns out to be very complex. Inspection of neural complexity is beyond the inward gaze of consciousness. Self is also unable to inspect the complexity of its conscious social signalling. And why? Shifting attention to what passes in our mind as we control our signals deflects attention from the gaze partner. Like the millipede whose locomotion seized up when she tried to count her legs, we become self-conscious and ‘wander’ from the Other, disrupting the interaction. The introspecting philosopher is the victim of this predicament. While conversing, he shares mind with Other; thus he knows it, as Descartes knew the mind of his dog Monsieur Grat when they played retrieval games. But when he turns inward to search out a theory of mind, he inadvertently shuts off access to the evidence needed for his theory 5.

To draw the point of this story into bold face italics: no self-ignorance is more tellingly diagnostic of Self’s oblivion to itself than the fact that millennia of soul-searching did not discover nonverbal communication. This domain, which evolutionarily speaking is the primary expression of Self, came to light only in the past century or so, by pains-taking empirical investigation. If you accept this demonstration of the limits of subjective self-knowledge, then you will concur that erudite puzzles about the existence of other minds, or of group minds, formulated on the domain of self-consciousness, are of no evidential value 6.

To move to the next stage of my analysis, let me take note of an objection that may have occurred to you. I said that Self cannot attend to its own social signalling while at the same time maintaining attentional focus on Other. Attempting to do so would induce the millipede crisis. Yet if this were categorically true, self-monitoring would not occur, although I have said that self-monitoring is the source of the feedback that the conversational pair use to synchronize behavior and mood.

Self-monitoring and social mirroring are of course ingredient to any human interaction. Some—actors and diplomats—are virtuosi in controlling their expressive behavior to produce intended effects. Some—anorexics—persist in bizarre self-comparisons despite all pleas. Others—nudists—create social rules that annul prevailing rules of social comparison. However, most self-monitoring in casual encounters is semi-automated by habitual compliance with social rules; and ordinary self-monitoring does not know the actual complexity of social interaction as ethologists describe it. To illustrate. There is a widespread rule that gaze must not become a stare, because it is impolite. A prolonged stare accompanied by narrowed brows is universally perceived to be aggressive. In boy-girl encounters, the girl may avoid eye contact, because it is immodest. Or she hides her face behind a veil, to preserve modesty. Social rules may also prohibit eye contact by persons of lower social rank with those of higher rank.

The principal research site for mapping the intricacies of nonverbal communication, self-monitoring, and acquisition of Self is the study of infants. This rich, fascinating, and experimentally ingenious literature provides a firm basis for understanding group minds. It also throws strong light on ape minds because the research has been comparative. I will pick some choice bits from these studies, without tarrying over nuances.

The neonate is aware only of objects, sounds and odors. Its own limbs and fingers are not initially associated with Self, because it has no Self to associate them with. But at about five months, it learns that the hand can be used to reach for objects, or accept objects offered by another, although at first this behavior is erratic and minimally intentional. It can also spontaneously produce facial expressions and mirror four expressions displayed to it, although intentional control is unsteady. In the eight month, the signs of self-consciousness appear. The infant becomes a participant rather than a spectator of games, it can give objects in addition to receiving them, it has a robust sense that its limbs are its limbs, and it can give itself to the embrace of the other. The infant is developing a theory of mind whose cardinal structure is simultaneous awareness of Self-Other. The elements of this structure are:

  • Awareness of own body as a special object in space, namely, personal space

  • Intentional relation to body and limbs, which is the incipient coupling of sensory-motor control to cognitive control

  • Capacity to self-monitor, i.e., to integrate feedback from perception of own body, to adjust own behavior

  • Social comparison between Self and Other, including awareness that the Other is a Self like Self

  • Self emerges as coupled Self-Other, i.e, Other is ‘internalized’ coeval with Self

  • Other is distinguished from objects by its capacity to engage Self in communication

  • Other’s communication manipulates mood states of Self, and Self manipulates the mood states and behavior of other by intentional communication

This sketch of the ontogeny of Self shows it to be ineluctably social. No Other, no Self. Conversely, flattened perception of Self lowers perception of Other. The social behavior of autistic children is poorly controlled because the child’s integration of Other, as a self like itself, has been disrupted (Baron-Cohen 1995). Its capacity to behave intentionally toward itself is also impaired.

If Self-Other is the main structural feature of human consciousness, then individual mind is inherently shared. That is to say: each mind lurking behind a face is a module of group minds, all based on the infant-mother dyad. This is why the mind’s communication with itself is a conversation. The Other with whom we talk is often an imagined actual person whom we humor, entice, persuade, humiliate, and otherwise engage in feigned interaction. These figments are models guiding self-practice, whether that practice be gymnastics, bartering, or philosophy. In his incisive study The Origin of the Modern Mind, Merlin Donald argues that the ability to make mental models, to compare them with behavioral models given by others, and to rehearse performances using mimetic feedback, is the marker of the emergence of human intelligence from the primate background (Donald 1991). Chimpanzees have throwing ability, but they do not practice to improve aimed throwing. Indeed, they apparently do not rehearse any natural performance. If this is correct, they can be said to have dexterity but not skill (Byrne 1995). Humans by contrast rehearse aimed throwing to the point that it becomes a very effective hunting instrument. Again, despite their prodigious communicative repertoire, nonhuman primates appear to be unaware that their social signals are signals. Or if they are in some measure aware, as opportunistic stealth and deceit suggest, they do not endeavor to improve their game by rehearsals (Byrne 1995). Note too that nonhuman primates do not use body decoration to feign or amplify a persona, nor copy behavior from other species, as we do in the case of dance. Thus I am inclined to agree with Donald that nonhuman primates lack the social mirroring and automanipulative capacity built into the bifurcation of consciousness into Self and Other.

The repertoire of self-practices provides the clue to character and qualities of the group minds available to us. Let infants and children again point the way. One of the earliest games is peek-a-boo. The infant learns that the disappearance of an object behind a screen is compatible with its continued existence, for lo! it reappears. Although out of sight, the infant keeps the object in mind. The child soon engages in games where Other hides itself behind a screen, or disguises itself as an animal or even as an object. The child develops from passive delight in these impostures to become itself an impostor. In pretending to be the pirate or scolding mother, the child learns the complex psychological and sensorimotor self-practices required for shamming. That is, it acquires a repertoire of social costumes, together with the psycho-behavioral control enabling it to simulate and synchronize own behavior with shared selves. Tutored by sociology, we tend to think of these selves as roles inscribed in institutional practices. But self-practices are not limited to roles. They may be inscribed in custom, ritual, manners. Or they may be gratuitously invented, as puppet shows are gratuitous inventions. Children delight in these impostures, even when they are obvious. But so do their parents and the puppet theater company. And again we remind ourselves that self-practices may be utterly idiosyncratic, e.g. anorexia and sexual fetishes.

Pulling these strands together, we may say that a basic, general purpose group mind emerges from the communicative self practices I have discussed. The psyche’s Bauplan persists in dreams, mental illness, and the experience of loss—loss of a loved one, of reputation, of social identity, or of hope. Loss is the deprivation of the significant Other through which we mirror Self. Take away that Other, and Self is ‘no longer itself’.

The human response to loss provides additional clues to the emergence of group minds. Students of mythology claim that it is a universal human practice to honor the dead by funerary practices that install them in a spirit world, where they keep watch over the living. In Asia this becomes ancestor worship, whose spirits are placated by daily token offerings of food, and by annual festivals. In the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated by Malaysian Chinese, the chief spirit is Fat Chi Cong. His presence is simulated by masks, effigies, a pageant, and prayer. As chief of all departed spirits, Fat Chi Cong expresses their terrible anger at neglect but also the blessings they bestow to the ritually pure. The spirits also bestow power, especially immunity from pain. Shamans demonstrate pain insensitivity by body piercing and dissociated states. Ordinary people, helped by ancestors, walk twenty meters across burning coals.

What does the Hungry Ghost festival tell us about the group mind of the Hokkein Chinese? Ancestor worship installs the parental Other in rituals, lore, and visual depictions. It is a religion without deep mysteries, since the activity of spirit ancestors scarcely differs from the activity of the senior generation: they enforce communal conscience and guard custom. There is a smooth transition between the young generation’s modelling its conduct on parental authority and all the living bowing to the ancestor spirit world. Observe that there is no limit to the number of Hokkein spirits: all actual ancestors are imaginatively preserved.

Festival activities differ from daily worship. For a week the Hokkein Chinese immerse themselves in supernormal stimuli that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Christian theology calls this an ‘epiphany’, meaning, appearance of the divine. In aesthetics it is called the ‘ecstatic experience’. I call it ‘facultative eusociality’, meaning an arousal state that can be fully induced only by ritually synchronized communication among many. Its effect is to evoke luminous experience of all minds mingled in one, and one mind (Fat Chi Cong) mingled in all.

There is no single path to this experience, as the diversity of ceremony and festival testify. It can be achieved by mainlining drugs and music at 100 decibels, or indeed by tomtoms alone. But we generally find that musical dramaturgy is the primary evocative vehicle. It is an opera, or pageant, or other enactment in which everyone has a part. The dramaturgy’s narrative core is a story about anger, loss, contrition, restoration, and gift-giving. And why dramaturgy? Because it is the platform for the motivational-cognitive action through which Self intensely experiences Self as co-present with Other.

When the fledgling HBES first convened eight years ago on this very campus, its invited speakers were George C. Williams, William Hamilton, and Richard Dawkins—theoreticians who contributed mightily to the revival of neo-Darwinism as a no-nonsense adaptationist program asserting the primacy of individual selection. The Conference papers were in the mold of selfish gene thinking. Cooperation was understood to be direct or indirect strategies for promoting the representation of Self’s genes in the gene pool. This vision reduced Other to an instrumentality for Self, and Self in turn was reduced to the single-mindedness of genes whose sole impulse is to replicate.

This vision is laced with narcissist paradoxes and founders on speculative distinctions between Replicator and Vehicle. For me it was among the Conference highlights that Dawkins, when persistently questioned about the selfish gene, finally exploded in exasperation: ‘I say that it is a metaphor to defend myself [against ridicule], but I mean that it is really selfish’. I made a note of this amazing confession because the attribution of mind to such a primitive level of biotic organization supported my hunch that nature is understandable only on the condition that mind is attributed to it. The alternative metaphor used in introductory genetics represents genes as eusocial cooperators in a cellular factory. On this view, genes and cells occur only in the milieu of many other genes and cells, so genes cannot be the unit of selection and cells are the unit of selection only in the case of unicellular organisms. But whether the metaphor be the selfish gene or the worker gene, it’s mind all the way down.

In contrast to the inaugural conference, many papers at this conference emphasize the interaction of assemblies and subassemblies at all levels of organization. Mark Lyte discussed intercellular communication in hormones present in microorganisms, and suggested that these hormones may constitute a primitive nervous system. Walter J. Freeman, calling on his splendid achievements in neuroscience, explained how individual minds escape the solipsistic enclosure. He sounds the theme pervasive in my paper, that human brains contain the neurohormonal mechanism for recognizing Self and Other.

Missing from the conference agenda is a paper on Biophilia. Since Ed Wilson began promoting human kinship with other species over a decade ago, a distinguished list of naturalists have joined him in proclaiming their biophilia. Jane Goodall passionately defends chimpanzees against medical experimentation, and Richard Leaky recently published an alarmed defence of endangered African fauna. Wilson continues his defence of rain forests and of biodiversity.

How are we to interpret this surge of altruism toward creatures from whom we can receive no reciprocal benefit? The only novelty here is the public profession of biophilia. I have never met a naturalist who did not experience attachments to creatures from whom they could receive no reciprocal, let alone genetic, benefit. This cry of love is voiced by naturalists who, as they say, experience anguish at the loss of fellow creatures. They promote a new awareness in which the dichotomy between the human species, as the pinnacle of nature, and all other critters, is replaced by the web of life that draws all living things into a great interacting swarm. Biophilia, I suggest, is the subjective biologist crying out against the personal loss experienced through the objective biologist’s selfish gene theory. The subjective expression of objective self genes is narcissism, whose manifestation is cultic admiration of the Compleat Selfish Theorist, whose social theory (it is not irrelevant to note) is concordant with economic rationalism. Biophilia, emerging within the inner sanctum of neo-Darwinism, is not adaptive. It is what it purports to be—an expression of affinity, of kinship that has nothing to do with genetic relatedness. As such, it is a poetic recognition of the group mind.

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[1] The Group Mind: Behavior as Complex Adaptive Systems, paper presented to the HBES annual meeting, Evanston, June 30, 1996.

[2] In addition to McDougall, Henri Bergson and A. N. Whitehead were on the hunt for means to represent emergent properties. They fell back on words, which are inadequate, as both knew. Despite his familiarity with set theory, Whitehead did not recognize its potential for representing emergence. The first nonlinear system was discovered by Gaston Julia in the Twenties. Julia sets, known today as Mandelbrot sets, found the mathematics of self-similarity.

[3] A member of the HBES internet list, Tim Miller, wrote of nonlinear dynamics applied to evolutionary theory: ‘If we knew that natural selection does indeed proceed chaotically, would that change the way we think about evolution? It seems to me that it would wipe out the idea of “fitness” altogether. Fitness would become a logical, plausible, but ultimately arbitrary post-hoc explanation. A large number of equally plausible and logical outcomes might have occurred, but just didn't, for reasons that can never be reconstructed. ALL instances of “fitness” become “just-so stories” in that case, don't they?’ Yes, they do. And of course if adaptation is ‘wiped out’, so is natural selection. In the new paradigm, self-organization replaces fitness as a natural category. Fitness remains as a heuristic, where it has the same standing as engineering design thinking. The latter imposes design principles that are a mix of natural science and intended function. Machines break down because they have no internal self-organizing dynamics, whereas individual organisms replicate. Fitness reasoning breaks down when the assumed fitness matrix is altered by changing the assumptions. The same trait that appears as an adaptation on one assumption is a maladaptation on another. An expression of the undecidability of fitness is the great puzzle about why sexual reproduction evolved at all. Fitness cannot be an inherent trait of organisms because it is not possible to specify all the factors of a habitat against which adaptation can be measured. The velvet worm, unchanged for 500 million years, would seem to be adapted to all terrestrial environments. When fitness thinking is driven to extremes, as in ‘survival of the fittest’, the converse proposition will be that all existing organism are perfectly fit. This imposes stasis on change. Orthodox theory accepts that recombination is not a source of evolutionary change, that most mutations are selectively neutral, that variations in populations tend toward the mean expression of phenotypes, and that populations may change by random drift. These admissions profoundly compromise the orthodox assumption that selection pressure is continuous and directional. Since the discovery of chaos in population genetics, it is known (in principle) that evolutionary change is self-organizing. Consequently there is no reason to retain the natural selection concept. See Kauffman 1991.

[4] This is recognized by corporations, who have made the paradoxical discovery that planning and implementation are not linearly related to control, as it should be in the mechanical idea of control. In the 1970s, Charles Lindblom popularized the disjunct between the flow diagram and actual management by saying that corporate management, in reality, ‘muddles through’. He meant that management consists largely of correcting faults arising from the actual performance of the flow diagram. Today management has discovered that ‘muddling through’ expresses confrontation with nonlinearity, and attempts to promote self-organization by devising self-organizing corporate structure. See Peters 1992; Kelly 1995.

[5] Among the other minds philosophers didn’t discover are the minds of women. When philosophers wrote about women they usually repeated perceptual rules common among the middle and upper classes. Illustrative is Immanuel Kant’s opinion that ‘Women are essentially incapable of acting otherwise than in accordance with immediate inclinations and feelings. They are unable to adhere to moral principles of action and cannot acknowledge any moral constraint on doing what pleases them’. For Kant the virtues of women are charm, docility, compliance, a feeling for beauty, and concern with pleasing appearance. In recent decades the expression of such opinions has been scolded in the voice patterns of the angry mother and spouse. Philosophers responded by enacting the repent-apology-withdrawal routine that they learned as children. In some cases they enlisted in the communal denunciation of the gender fundamentalism that they formerly espoused. I have searched without avail for a philosophical examination of the gender issue based on the relevant empirical evidence. The most celebrated examination, by J.S. Mill, is often cited as having settled the issue for philosophers although its evidence is out-of-date. Indeed, The Subjection of Women was out-of-date when published because Mill (a bachelor for most of his life) did not discuss the implications of pregnancy, child-bearing, nurturing and familial attachments. To have done so would have placed his egoistic (‘individualist’) philosophy at risk, not to mention endorsing the perception of women as mothers. The tract rehearses the then standard polemical repertoire of social reformers. Its hysterical condemnation of one half the human species (viz., males), together with its display of women as victims, is an argument strategy (the tantrum) available to women in all times and places.

[6] The philosophical school known as Phenomenology took as its task the ‘rigorous’ description of conceptual structure, the ‘contents of consciousness’, and the ‘life world’. The school commenced with Edmund Husserl and culminated in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. In this large literature there is no hint of nonverbal communication, beyond passing references to gesture. No analysis of the human face is to be found. Merleau-Ponty appears to be the only phenomenologist to undertake an analysis of the experience of visual perception, but he quickly strays from visual experience to discussion of painting. Logical positivists, who were dedicated to pinning down the sensory evidence of science, did no better. Although these positivists represented themselves as scientists moonlighting in philosophy, their analysis of perception is uninformed by psychology or physiology.

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