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Ian Morton's picture

Considering Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology

In his paper Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing, Paul considers social organization and the importance of interaction between subjects.  Paul argues that there is one, a presumption that hierarchical organization is necessary for effective social environments and two, that there is an inclination to resist hierarchies.  Paul questions the value assigned to hierarchical organization and points to “distributed interactive architectures” as an evolutionarily favorable social organization.           


Unlike in a hierarchical system, in a distributed interactive architecture there is no single element in control.  Instead, each part has an influence on the others, constituting a system of reciprocal, interconnected interactions.  Each of these elements in turn has no absolute information as to the function of the system as a whole and instead acts according to partial, locally available information and its organization.  Finally, none of the elements represent an overall objective for the system as a whole.  The system does not act according to an objective as defined by one of its parts, rather the manner in which the system operates reflects the semi-independent activities of its parts as affected by the reciprocal connections of information sharing.  In sum, a distributed interactive architecture reflects the emergence of phenomena from the interactions of leaderless parts, which have a bi-directional influence on one another.


Paul points to examples of such distributed architecture in biological systems of all levels (from social to molecular), arguing that the predominant presence of this architecture suggests that evolution has favored it over other forms of organization.  One important example of such an organization is the human brain.  It is interesting that our inclinations tell us that our brain is the leader of our body as a whole.  However, it turns out that is not the case.  There is one part of the nervous system dedicated to interacting with the outside world.  This system is comprised of specialized circuits of neurons that function in terms of their organization and locally available information.  These circuits operate simultaneously and are able to intercommunicate to produce coordinated activity, all without creating a conscious experience of this process. 


Conscious content is created when the systems dealing with information received from the outside world send signals to the neocortex.  The neocortex receives a cacophony of inputs working with a large number of variables and attempts to create from them a simplified, coherent story of the collective entity and its relation to the world.  Due to this bipartite organization, we only become aware of the “story” created by the neocortex, while the activity of rest of our nervous system goes on unknown to our conscious self.  Paul suggests that this could be the rationale behind perceiving our conscious self as in charge, and I agree.  While we like to believe that our conscious selves are in control, the truth is there are many times when we act without the involvement of conscious thought.  Think, for example, of breathing, walking, catching a ball or running away from a predator.  While the storyteller function has its clear benefits, one must recognize that there are many situations in which nonconscious action is far more useful.


To digress, I believe our attachment to the belief in our conscious self as being in control stems from our need for a sense of autonomy and agency.  Throughout last semester, in a course I took with Paul on neurobiology and behavior, the class showed clear discomfort when facing the realization that our conscious minds are far from being as in control as our inclinations/logic tells us, that perhaps, free will doesn’t really exist.  For instance, people became upset when considering that “we” may be nothing more than products of the interactions of our nervous system.  (See here, here, and here).  Perhaps it is this need to take comfort in the belief that we have agency in our lives that drives our belief in a hierarchical organization of self.  Perhaps following from this belief in a hierarchical organization of self and a need for a sense of agency, social groups have adopted hierarchical organization as the primary way to construct society.  Such organization allows for a stronger sense of agency for some (the Master) and supports the belief that we, as conscious individuals, are in charge.


To return to Paul’s paper, he argues that as distributed interactive architectures appear to be the predominant form of biological organization, perhaps humanity would benefit from a similar form of social organization.  Paul also points out that there appears to be a natural inclination among humans to resist hierarchical organization.  However, I must disagree.  While I do believe many people will resist such social structuring, I believe their resistance stems from a sense of a lack of agency.  I argue it is predominantly a slave mentality to resist social hierarchies, as they are the ones who aren’t at the top of the chain and who consequently lack agency.  [I use Master/slave in the Hegelian sense.]  Further, I believe that within any hierarchical institution, there will be an active resistance to anyone who opposes the institution, a natural inclination to maintain the structure.


While I believe Paul is right that a distributed interactive architecture would be most beneficial to society, I believe achieving such an organization is a much more lofty goal than Paul lets on.  Perhaps I am just pessimistic, but I would venture to say we will never achieve such organization on a large social scale (and I hope I am wrong).  One must examine the requirements for such social change.  Paul points out that this would require a willingness of individuals to share their own stories and to hear the stories of others as well as a socio-political-economic system that discourages hierarchical power relationships as well as reactive anarchy.  These requirements, while logically necessary for the desired end, do not appear to me as easily met.  As I said before, my experience tells me that within any hierarchical institution, there will be an active resistance (physical, psychological, passive aggressive, etc.) towards anyone who acts to disrupt that system.  The nature of this is very involved is a topic of its own for another paper, but one need only examine one’s own life for evidence.  Voices that oppose the predominant opinion are silenced (women have been silenced for years, individuals who preach financial reform are deemed “communists” and dismissed from consideration, when minority students at Haverford attempt to discuss the racism that exists on our campus they are ignored or their words are heard but never thoughtfully considered and incorporated into our actions…the list goes on).  Further, if silencing opinions proves not to be effective enough, dissenters are reacted to with violence (lynching of heretics, hate crimes etc).  One need only look at our society for evidence of a hierarchical system trying to preserve itself by any means necessary. 

After reading this paper I am left with several questions.  What drives our presumption of hierarchical systems?  Do we possess an innate predisposition to hierarchical structures?  Is this predisposition a result of how our brain is organized (e.g. bipartite organization) as Paul suggests?  Why are we so attached to hierarchical organization (while we may have an inclination to resist such organization, experience shows that we actively attempt to maintain it)?  Do we, as humans, require a sense of agency when living in a complex social environment?  If our attachment to hierarchical structures is a result of neural predispositions, how can we work around those predispositions to achieve important social change?  This is a topic I hope to further examine and I encourage anyone to add his/her $0.02.


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