Systems Science Friday Noon Seminar Series



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This paper uses a systems-theoretic model to structure an account of human history. According to the model, a process, after its beginning and early development, often reaches a critical stage where it encounters some limitation. If the limitation is overcome, development does not face a comparable challenge until a second critical juncture is reached, where obstacles to further advance are more severe. At the first juncture, continued development requires some complexity-managing innovation; at the second, it needs some event of systemic integration in which the old organizing principle of the process is replaced by a new principle. Overcoming the first blockage sometimes occurs via a secondary process that augments and blends with the primary process and is subject in turn to its own difficulties.

Applied to history the model joins together the materialism of Marx and the cultural emphasis of Toynbee and Jaspers. It describes human history as a triad of developmental processes which encounter points of difficulty. The 'primary' process began with the emergence of the human species, continued with the development of agriculture, and reached its first critical juncture after the rise of the great urban civilizations. Crises of disorder and complexity faced by these civilizations were eased by the religions and philosophies that emerged in the Axial period. These Axial traditions became the cultural cores of major world civilizations, their development constituting a 'secondary' process that merged with and enriched the first. This secondary process also eventually stalled, but in the West the impasse was overcome by a 'tertiary' process: the emergence of humanism and secularism and--quintessentially--the development of science and technology. This third process blended with the first two in societal and religious change that ushered in what we call 'modernity.' Today, this third current of development falters, and inter-civilizational tension also afflicts the secondary stream. Much more seriously, the primary process has reached its second and critically hazardous juncture--the current global environmental-ecological crisis. System integration via a new organizing principle is needed on a planetary scale.

This paper was prepared for "Cosmos, Nature, and Culture: A Transdisciplinary Conference," July 18-21, 2009, in Phoeniz, AZ, a program of the Metanexus Institute.

Note: Audio recordings of the seminar are included here as supplemental files.

Biographical Information

Martin Zwick was awarded his Ph.D. in Biophysics at MIT in 1968, and joined the Biophysics Department faculty of the University of Chicago in 1969. Initially working in crystallography and macromolecular structure, his interests shifted to systems theory and methodology, the field now known as the study of chaos, complexity, and complex adaptive systems. Since 1976 he has been teaching and doing research in the Systems Science PhD Program at Portland State University; during the years 1984-1989 he was director of the program.

His main research areas are information-theoretic modeling, machine learning, theoretical biology, game theory, and systems theory and philosophy. Scientifically, his focus is on applying systems theory and methodology to the natural and social sciences, most recently to biomedical data analysis, the evolution of cooperation, and sustainability. Philosophically, his focus is on how systems ideas relate to classical and contemporary philosophy, how they offer a bridge between science and religion, and how they can help us understand and address societal problems.


History -- Mathematical models, System theory, Complexity (Philosophy)


History | Theory, Knowledge and Science

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Holism and Human History