Biology, Systems, and Liberalism

There was an identifiable “systems” approach to problems in biology after the end of World War II. This approach had its roots in the 1920s, when an organismic biology was developed as a replacement for vitalism.*1* This “materialist holist” approach to framing biological problems grew and flourished between 1945 and the early 1970s, and then declined.*2* The reasons for the rise in prestige and popularity are complex, but they were related to larger institutional and ideological changes, which were in turn related to even larger shifts in the context in which scientific knowledge was produced and reproduced.  The fate of the systems approach in human biology was tied to the trajectory of a particular style of management, planning, and control in government, economics, and the organization of firms that became dominant in the United States and other Western capitalist countries after the second World War.*3*

Donna Haraway wrote in 1979 that

I would like to explore biology as an aspect of the reproduction of capitalist social relations, dealing with the imperative of biological reproduction. That is, I want to show how sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction.

Between World War I and the present, biology has been transformed from a science centered on the organism, understood in functionalist terms, to a science studying automated technological devices, understood in terms of cybernetic systems. Organic form, with its hierarchical and physiological cooperation and competition based on “natural” domination and division of labor, gave way to systems theory with its control schemes based on communications networks and a logical technology in which human beings become potentially outmoded symbol-using devices. Life science moved from physiology to systems theory, from scientific medicine to investment management, from Taylorite scientific management and human engineering of the person to modern ergonomics and population control, from psychobiology to sociobiology.*4*

Haraway chose Yale primatologist R.M. Yerkes as the exemplar of the earlier ‘physiological’ view of life, and E.O. Wilson, the author of Sociobiology (1975), as the paradigmatic example of the later, ‘cybernetic,’ one. I am broadly sympathetic to Haraway’s analysis, and I wish to continue in its tradition, but in order to do so I have to grapple with a few important problems.

My first trouble with Haraway’s taxonomy is basically a quibble about periodization, in that it basically skips over the thirty-year period between the end of the Second World War and the publication (though, granted, not the writing) of Sociobiology. Haraway offers Wilson as a typical example of the post-war period, but I would classify him as a relative late-comer to the ‘cybernetic’ approach, and, more importantly, an adherent of a very particular position within it.

My second discomfort with Haraway’s description of biology “as an aspect of the reproduction of capitalist social relations” is that we are left with a rather monolithic picture of a “capitalism” that undergoes some sort of stage-wise progression. In it we have the mode of biological thought typical to the pre-WWII conjuncture: the “physiological” or “organismic”, and that typical of the period after the war: the “systems” or “cybernetic.” I believe this is an oversimplified view of how the production of scientific knowledge changes over time, and that it misses important divisions and differences within capitalism that have had important ramifications for the science of human biology.

My proposition, by way of complicating Haraway’s picture while embracing its project, has two parts.

First, I argue that the style Haraway identifies as “cybernetic” contains at least two partially antagonistic tendencies within itself.*5* The first tendency within the cybernetic mode of biology is the systems-managerial. The second tendency within the cybernetic mode is the systems-self-organizational. Both correspond to particular ideologies and practices of organization and, and I argue that both can be linked to corresponding sets of political, economic, and institutional theories and practices that competed for dominance within the context of twentieth-century capitalism in the United States and Western Europe.

Elihu Gerson makes a similar point about different systems approaches to biology, marking the difference between research that sought to “extend the rationalizing trend” and that which looked for a way to transcend it.*6*

Historian of the social sciences George P. Richardson also marks the distinction between what he calls the “servomechanism” thread, in which humans and machines are united in a system optimized for efficiency, and the “cybernetic governance” thread, which finds equilibrium in the relations among actors in a system.*7*

The systems-managerial (rationalizing, partitioning, “servomechanism”) tendency in human biology was part of a larger trend towards systems thinking and practices in many fields of research that dealt with complex phenomena, from ecology to sociology. The managerial approach to systems was dominant in the period that began in the late 1940s and lasted until the 1970s in the United States and Western Europe. In the United States this approach was part of an economic and political elite consensus that emerged during the Great Depression under the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal, and continued into the post-war decades. Forged in the crucible of world depression and then world war, the central concerns for this approach to economics and governance were steady and predictable growth without the specter of boom and bust, and the amelioration of crisis. Its advocates accepted the market as the primary motor of the economy but worked to understand its complexities and tame its wildness through analysis and, if necessary, intervention. The economic policies that correspond to this approach owe much to John Maynard Keynes, and are sometimes referred to as Keynesianism.*8*

There was another systems approach that co-habitated, mostly peacefully, with its more influential senior partner. The systems-self-organizational (transcendent, “cybernetic governance”) tendency found its basis in a number of seemingly incompatible social formations, from the counter-culture and the New Left to Californian hi-tech entrapreneurs and free-market advocates like Friedrich Hayek.*9* It was subordinate to the managerial approach for most of the post-war period, but it ‘broke out,’ so to speak, and became dominant within systems approaches, after the structural shifts that occurred in the world economy in the early 1970s*10*.

The differences between managerial and self-organizational modes of systems approaches are not always easy to see. Indeed, it seems as though many systems scientists mis-recognized one another’s tendencies, and often investigators from opposing “camps” would happily attend the same conferences and had productive personal relationships.*11*

My second proposition is that the systems-orientation that came to be so common in post-WWII human biology derived, in part, from institutions and research programs that began well before the war. So, in order to make the progress of human biology in the 50s and 60s clear, we should begin in the 1920s.*12*

*1*Alan, Garland. Life Science in the Twentieth Century. New York: Wiley. 1975.  p.109. Allen argues that “the metamorphosis of mechanistic into holistic materialism observed in biology from the 1920s onwards was paralleled b y a similar metamorphosis in society at large”

*2*Gilbert, Scott. Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century. Developmental Dynamics 219:1-9. 2000.

*3*Aglietta, Michel. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, The U.S. Experience. Verso. 2000.

*4*Haraway, Donna. The Human Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology.  Radical History Review 20, Spring/Summer 1979. Pp. 206-237.

*5*What I’m suggesting here is closer to Foucault’s epistemes than to Kuhn’s paradigms, but both of those concepts are skeptical of a causal connection between the content of scientific knowledge and the social context in which it is produced. “Co-production” gets closer to what I am hoping to show here, but I am more in debt to a particular kind of Marxism than is Jasanoff. See Jasanoff, Sheila States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and the Social Order. Routhledge. 2006.


The same emphasis on systems and issues of coordination which characterized other institutions appeared in biology research as well— especially in development and ecology. But here an interesting contrast appeared. In many uses of the systems approach, the language of systems was a way of extending the rationalizing trend in the partitioning style. The problem was to overcome the intricacies imposed by contingency and complex dependencies through the use of more sophisticated analysis. This view was especially strong in the emergent sister disciplines of operations research and industrial engineering. It was brought into biology by Robert MacArthur, who applied these approaches, learned in his wartime work, to ecological problems under the influence of G. E. Hutchinson.

In contrast, other biologists, notably Von Bertalanffy and Waddington, saw the systems approach as a way of transcending the limits of the partitioning approach. For them (and they were notably students of development and morphology), the systems approach was a way to conceptualize and deal with the complex interrelations of system and environment.”

–Gerson, Elihu. In From Embryology to Evo-Devo, Laubichler, Manfred and Maeinshcein, Jane, Eds. MIT Press. 2008.

*7*Richardon, George F. Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory. 1991.

*8*Colander, David, and Landreth, Harry. The Coming of Keynesianism to America: Conversations with the Founders of Keynesian Economics. Edward Elgar Publishing. 1997.

*9*Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Chicago University Press. 2006 and Mirowski, Philip. Machine Dreams: How Economic Became a Cyborg Science. Cambrigde University Press. 2002.

*10*French, Michael U.S. Economic History  Since 1945. Manchester University Press. 1997. p.48

*11*This is not to say that the two tendencies were never in opposition. In his discussion of Liberalism, Michel Foucault offered up the method of “strategic thinking” as an alternative to “dialectical thinking.” The strategic method is to hold different ideas together, and find their overlaps, gaps, disagreements, and compatibilities, whereas dialectical though always counter-poses different ideas as total opposites. I do find dialectical thinking useful, but it is also good to see that things are often much more ambiguous than polar opposition would assume.


The essential underpinnings of these problems [of crisis] have been less well recognized until recently: the understanding that capitalism had overcome its crises of the 1920s and 1930s through the implementation of systematic economic planning, not only by the Soviet bureaucracy but also by the capitalist states in the West. A key figure in the clarification of this analysis was Friedrich Pollock of the Institute at Frankfurt. His studies of economic planning, East and West, led him to conclude that the old ‘automatic’ mechanisms of capitalist market competition that had led to the recent international crisis were being abandoned by capital in favor of an ‘economically planned new order’ based on state intervention. This new, centrally administered accumulation of capital was the essence of ‘state capitalism’ and of the ‘authoritarian state.’

–Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically p53. Parenthetical is mine.