A Brief Critique of Dynamic Systems Theory as Applied to Human Behavior

Some analysts I admire greatly have developed highly refined predictive scenarios based on coupling new-millenial geopolitical models to what is effectively non-linear dynamic systems theory. Dynamic systems theory is the same stuff that’s used to model population growth, weather patterns, and, increasingly, economic systems. They use this lens to analyze the global condition and make reasoned approximations about where we’re headed (and perhaps why we’re in this handbasket) and how we may prepare.

So when they look at the inertia behind the current economic climate and apply the principles that describe all natural systems it’s typically surmised that we’re swinging wildly out of equilibrium and heading for a complete crash. Stockpile ammo and shore up your networks are the unavoidable implications. Each day that reports new lows in the flagging and out-dated stock market adds more credence to the rapidly approaching Global Financial/Civilizational Meltdown.

Perhaps with the deep existential need to hang on to at least some hope, I’ve been looking for reasons why, despite my own passions for systems theory, they might be wrong and we might avert catastrophe. And it occurs to me that humans are different. Not a huge leap, I know, but unlike all other entities within natural systems, which effectively run along by their own immutable rules and finite sets of variables, humans deliberately and often intelligently apply creative feedback to the world in order to modulate it’s behavior. We alone are capable of looking at the system, understanding it, and identifying the ways & means to perturb or otherwise attempt to manage its outcomes. Often we do this without even realizing it or deliberately trying to affect it. This is why one of the new trends is behavioral economics which seeks to understand the feedback effects between the two highly coupled and extremely sensitive systems of macroeconomics & human emotion. You see, human behavior, while mostly robotic and in-line with the Paleolithic Human OS1, is capable of sudden leaps that break the bonds of pure systems theory and allow us to apply sudden paradigmatic shifts to the world (witness fire, the wheel, the steel forge, writing, movable type, radio, tv, the web, cell phones, etc etc… Of course, this incessant meddling with natural systems is also how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.

But the fact remains: you can bet that at least a few hundred thousand really smart people are pushing hard to make sure we can nudge the system back into some reasonable approximation of healthy equilibrium. In the age of instantaneous global comm & collab, it’s likely that the good ideas will, slowly, eventually, hopefully soon enough but probably inevitably, rise through the fetid bogs of politic and bureaucracy (which probably do need some serious systemic shocks) and mobilize the gears of industry to bust the Big Move that will save our asses from the post-apocalyptic scenarios of bartering for bread, struggling to maintain technology & the power needed to run it, while dodging tribal warfare on the way to work at the potato farm.

But I digress. The point is, we’re not wholly subservient to the whims of natural systems. We might not pull it off in time if we dawdle and fight too much but we have the capacity to analyze and overcome… to find the work-around. Hence the imperative of Tim O’Reilly and others like him to leverage the empowering tools of our age to “work on stuff that matters”. This is not just about feeling better and contributing. It’s really about marshaling our shared abilities and wielding the collective will to drive the system and actively steer our civilization away from the edge.


  1. @insidethegod

    Life (systems), especially the ones we live, are really about the kinds of connections made (in the making). I haven’t much to add here but that I appreciate your passion and thot for dynamic systems and humankind. (Push the envelope.) Goodness in/ goodness out as a practical philosophy may be one of the best practices to touch what truly is beyond belief as we find ourselves on the other side of the Great Leap. Trillions of trillions of neural signals.. Dominant thot wins. People of earth, cultivate more meaningful reasons. The Great Work. Positive chaos. gi/go

  2. Seth

    Interesting piece. I think Memetics has something to offer to this discussion because human beings for the most part, need and depend upon routine. However the adoption of cultural and emotional norms that may in the end turn out even to threaten the survival of the individual and community as a whole, is something very real. ‘Received Opinion’ is such a phenomenon, propaganda, self-harm – all of these things are a product of one thing only: conciousness! No other system can act in such a counter-productive way towards itself and even destroy itself like humanity can, because only Human Conciousness gives rise to Memes. What is ‘healthy equilibrium’ as you put it? Surely there is no fixed state, judged as ‘healthy’ by what, a panel of ‘Philosopher Kings’ in some high-chamber of the land? Is it not up to each of us to define what this means for ourselves? Remember that famous Jiddu Krishnamurti quote:

    “I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.”


    “we want to change everybody except ourselves, which means, really, we do not want to change, we want others to change, and so we remain callous, indifferent, cruel, hoping the environment will change so that we can continue in our own way”

    Food for thought…

  3. admin

    Seth, I think the evaluation of “healthy equilibrium” is ultimately determined by nature. Can we sustain our general level of prosperity & resource use while dampening the downstream impacts? What are the human population limits given the landscape of available resources and the downstream impacts of their use? For the most part, nature has been telling us what these limits are but we’re rapidly developing the tools to model them ourselves and determine the corrective behaviors necessary to mitigate our impact.

  4. Eugene

    Chris, I recently wrote a paper expressing these same concerns to a journal that was highly sympathetic to dynamic systems thinking and they rejected the paper outright. It was a highly documented piece, but the reviewers and editors were steadfast in their insistence that this is just the wave of the future and there are far too many systems theorists with varying viewpoints for a single critique to be meaningful… translation, dynamic systems theory is virtually unassailable as it is a moving target. Add to this the new developments in heterophenomenology and neurophenomenology, we may be in for renaissance in scientist consciousness

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