Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution
From the Organic
To the Personal
Layers of Compexity The Importance of Subjectivity The Need for Each Other Bio-sociality and Culture

  What you will find
  in this section

Our ground-breaking bio-social approach, rooted in Maturana and Varela's powerful theory of the biology of cognition - gives rise to a unique synthesis of the biological, social, cultural and personal levels of human reality. This is the foundation for our integrated account of emotional intelligence and lived reality, with new insights into the generation of language, and the evolution of language and culture. The key concept here is "structural coupling" which is the ground for all bio-social interaction, and the continuous evolution of consensual domain.

Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.


  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics


  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality


  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change. This used to include facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which developed and disseminated the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck through the 90s and noughties.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

emotional intelligence
lived reality
biology, culture, evolution
philosophy, science
systems sensibility
dao and shamanism
applications/ study group
return to the top

   From the Organic to the Personal.
   Layers of Complexity
Now we need a bridge between our insights of the previous chapter and the broader picture we have been developing since the beginning of this study. The gap between an amoeba living out its muddy existence, and ourselves with our science, philosophy, cathedrals and telecommunications satellites is a formidable one, and so the translation will not be as simple as we might wish. This is partly because our life is so much more complicated (at both the physical and the social level) than that of the amoeba; we shall consider this aspect first.

We begin by imagining a series of layers of complexity, reaching from the life of individual cells, all the way up to the level of a global individual human physiology. We need to think of each layer in this organisation (for instance, our immunological, endocrine and nervous systems) as a sub-system in its own right, having its own measure of autonomy and - in the same terms as we described the working of the amoeba in our previous chapter - its own sequence of global internal states. Like the single cell, each sub-system has its physiological arousal or quiescence, its state of comfort or stress, and its own mechanisms which are operating to restore a comfortable and viable balance amongst the component elements. These sub-systems embody layer upon layer of structural couplings, relating to different layers of themselves, to each other, and to the biological milieu in which they operate.

We may also imagine that during the thousands of millions of years of evolution of increasingly complex living structures, there has been a parallel increase in the complexity of patterns of behaviour. In the evolutionary line leading to pre-human primates, we see a phenomenal growth in sophistication in the sub-systems concerned with information and behavioural control. There is not just a greater range of behaviour, but a much greater adaptability - and a readiness to improvise new behaviours for new situations. This has led to the set of skills we considered in the section entitled: Re-defining intelligence - the skills that underwrite the sophisicated engagement with life that we call "human. All of this may be thought of as an elaboration of the fundamental pattern of auto-poiesis.

As we take our imaginary journey, ascending the levels of our physical organisation in the direction of an integrated overall sense of "myself", we need to remind ourselves of something we considered earlier(1) - how each higher level includes the lower levels, as a whole includes its parts. Whatever happens at the higher level is dependent upon the contribution which all of the lower levels are making, although it need not be strictly determined by them. Thus the lower levels, by their own auto-poietic activity, create the conditions for my presence in the here and now; but there is a higher-level "me" who still has to orient myself as a person, and decide what to do.

This leads us to the second important difference between the biological account of auto-poiesis and our personal experience of knowing, feeling and acting in the world. The former is our account of the organism and its world (given to the best of our understanding but from the position of an external, scientific observer); but when we explore the human landscape we are giving an account of ourselves and our own world. However sophisticated our account of the organisation of a living body may become in the future, there is a conceptual gulf between auto-poiesis and the all-important dimension of subjectivity in human life.

Why we have to be subjective.
Subjectivity is the first-person dimension of perception, feeling and thought which also includes the sense that each one of us is the author and initiator of our own judgments and actions(2). It has been our constant but unassuming companion throughout this study, and it is already built in to our concept of "the landscape of fact and feeling" as we have been developing this in other sections of this work.

We need to notice two distinct components of subjectivity - not logically equivalent to one another but so closely intertwined that we may easily mix them up. These are the sense of being with myself and my world in every waking moment, and my ability to refer to myself and my world. Both of these are reflexive constructions - I am simultaneously "the subject" and "the object" - but it is a subtly different kind of reflexivity in the two instances. In the first case, I am the object of my own awareness, and in the second I am the object of my own assertions. In both cases there is a a non-coincidence of the self with itself - a kind of doubling, which we shall need to explore further in other contexts.

Subjectivity is another of those features of our life which is so close to us that it can be easy to ignore or take for granted. It is of central importance in every form of human enquiry (dependent as this is upon the exchange of experiences and judgments between human subjects). It is a major irony, therefore, how often we hear the term "subjective" used to downgrade another point of view. People will speak of a "merely subjective" viewpoint, and equate this with caprice or intellectual dishonesty. They should realize that there is a subtle and far more dangerous trap nearby, that of failing to recognize the personal and subjective dimensions which are a necessary part of having a point of view in the first place.

The danger is especially prevalent when we enter into the scientific forms of discourse, such as my account of auto-poiesis in the previous chapter. This type of account seems naturally to frame itself as if it were a faithful report of events as they unfold themselves within their own physical or interactional space. This can lead us to forget that it is first and foremost a story that is being told, albeit a story which is open to being checked against the best available scientific criticism, hypothesis and observation. Once we are clear about this it is easier for us to let the scientific account take its place among all the other kinds of human conversation or judgment - as being inescapably bound up with subjectivity.

When we described the auto-poietic system, we did not refer directly to any personal "subject", but we can now see that the subjective dimension is present in the background. It is implicit in the activity - both practical and theoretical - of the scientist in her hunger to understand, and in her intensive relationship with the variety of systems she is working with. It is also present in the dialogue which takes place between scientists - a dialogue which forms a continuous background to all scientific activity.(3) Since the scientist has elected to relate to the material at hand at a systems level below the personal, these aspects of relationship do not appear in the resulting descriptions. The descriptions remain, however, descriptions made by people for other people(4).

As we shall see, the model gives a good account of the wealth of information which is available to me through my senses and through my inner processing. Indeed it is a major advance on previous biological thinking, which has persisted in representing the living organism as a kind of sophisticated robot. Yet in this account there is still no trace of the irreducible sense of mine-ness(5) which pervades every element in our familiar landscape of fact and feeling. It is significant that the entire structure we have been describing could just as easily count as a model for anyone else, or indeed for any other animal.

How are we to make sense of this lack of any real sense of "me" in an account which in other respects has a persuasive ring of truth about it? We should note how extensive is the deficiency: within our actual experience even the material objects are ordered within a spatial perspective which - unlike the biologist's "physical space" - is centred upon my own bodily location. Likewise, my own body is radically distinct from the impersonal description given by a biologist - it is distinct precisely because it is mine. In this relationship of myself and my own body, whereby I speak out of my mouth, see with my eyes, perform physical actions on my own decision, love from deep within my own heart, and face the prospect of my own death, this body of mine marks itself out from all the other physical bodies in my world. This extraordinary distinction has no counterpart in the account of auto-poiesis, where complex systems are arranged in physical space and related to one another through their various physical and chemical states. There is no "I", no "You", no "He or She", but only a collection of "its".

Let us survey some more features of our conscious life which seem not to be represented at the level of auto-poiesis:-

1. There is no counterpart in the organic model, for our irreducible sense of having choices to make at every moment of subjective time. Each moment of awareness may be a call to decide between rival truths, rival interpretations of what is important, or rival courses of action. In each moment, I am "making up my mind" in some respect and in some degree, and thereby committing myself to one direction rather than another. This applies to where I choose to focus my attention, how I choose to think about things, and which action I choose to perform. Of course, the degree of conscious control is variable, and for the time being I may simply allow myself to "go along with" spontaneous processes which I do not feel any need to guide in a conscious way. This writer strongly believes, however, that there is an intrinsic relationship between the moment of consciousness and having a choice of direction for the experience or the action which is unfolding in that moment(6).

2. Closely bound up with this feeling of choice, is the sense of being personally responsible for my actions. There are sometimes disputes about the degree of choice and the degree of responsibility: I may perform an act under the compulsion of some powerful emotion, or under the influence of a drug, and claim that I had no choice to do otherwise. In both these cases people may well feel justified in holding me responsible for my actions regardless of my claim. They may say that I could or should have been able to control myself, and that strong feelings are no excuse for bad behaviour. Or, in the case of intoxication, they may argue that I am responsible anyway for the fact that I rendered myself into a state I could not control. Regardless of how we decide to look upon these notions of choice and responsibility, however, it is clear that they do not have any counterpart in the diagram representing my global physiological state from moment to moment.

3. My thoughts, my actions and my feelings entail a kind of knowing, which is primarily oriented towards the world, towards other people and my relationships with these. There is also a kind of knowing(7) entailed in the auto-poietic process, but it refers only to itself, to the pattern of its own process and it does not require any recognition of a world existing outside this domain. The meaning of pleasure and pain is similarly transformed; it no longer applies simply to a physiology that is out of equilibrium with itself. Pleasure and pain at the personal level refer to the situation we find ourselves in, in the world and with other people.

4.There has been a mutation even in our most obviously physiological needs, which at the conscious level are expressed in the terms of our local culture and thus with direct or indirect reference to our relationships with other people. For instance, while every organism needs food in order to stay alive, it is remarkable that what counts as food for a given person - frogs' legs, insect grubs, fried ants or apple strüdel - is determined by their cultural framework. Likewise with questions relating to my standing in the primate horde: am I accepted? liked or disliked?, approved of or condemned? respected, admired or ignored? All these social positions may well be registered at the level of primate instinct, and yet what counts as proper respect, or rudeness (or perhaps as an interesting challenge to my social resourcefulness), is determined in the terms of my culture.

5.Corresponding to the sense of having choices to make, the personal landscape has a time structure altogether different from the timeless cycles-within-cycles of auto-poiesis; as persons we are aware of ourselves within a present moment and a present situation, unique and never to be repeated - a moment which we understand against a background of our personal and cultural history. There is a past, which is where I came from - and beyond my own past there is that of "my people" recounted in the history we continue to pass on. It is in terms of this past that I determine my present plans and commitments.

The present moment is made up of a complex of factors contributed by me (my habits, dispositions, expectations and plans) which seems to be interwoven with factors brought to me by the world at large. Whether I interact with it or not, the world at this moment is loaded with manifold inertias and tendencies, and rich with its own possibilities. Some of these possibilities are illuminated for me in terms of my own expectations, wishes and fears, but for the rest I have merely a vague sentiment of the unpredictability of existence. Within this present moment the actual course of future events is not yet decided. Some aspects, but not the entire pattern, will be determined by what I decide to do now. These elements, of personal vulnerability and of personal choice, both help to pinpoint the personal present as uniquely mine.

Auto-poietic time, by contrast, is an aloof and impersonal recurrence of those events (both the desirable and the undesirable ones) which are relevant to the life-cycle. In one sense, the auto-poietic organisation exists only in the present - though with the entire life-cycle enfolded or encoded within the present organisation. In another sense, this organisation is totally unable to register - to form any conception of - a present moment which is new and unique in the world. The present moment is essentially the embodiment of my personal relationship with the universe; this moment demands of me that I find a truthful, personal response; auto-poiesis knows nothing of this.

Thus there appears to be a puzzling gap between the account of auto-poiesis, and our personal experience of life as we live it. It is less of a puzzle if we think of these as two distinct systems layers, whose relationship we still have to find some way of mapping out. The system of conscious activity (by which term I mean to include the roles, objects, actions, intentions, perceptions, facts and feelings which we encounter at the personal level) is then revealed as a level of organisation one or more layers higher than the system of our auto-poietic activity. The challenge for us now is to map out in clearer detail just what the relationship is, between conscious activity, and biological activity. I shall begin by using an identical form of diagram from the previous chapter and using it twice over: firstly to represent a sequence of events from our own auto-poeisis and secondly to represent a sequence of conscious activity. This may seem at first to be an alarming degree of simplification, but I think it will prove to be a revealing exercise of comparison and contrast.

In both of these cases we have something whose pattern is changing with the passage of time: in Figure 1 it is the present state of my physiology which is being depicted; in Figure 2 it is the state of my experience - both felt and perceived. I want to trace a short trajectory on each diagram, representing a series of "changes of state" through time.

map of viability

Figure 1

Figure 1 repeats the usage we established in chapter six. It represents the person as a biological system, showing all possible internal states that are compatible with life - just as we did with the Amoeba. The trajectory marked out by the arrows a1 >> a2 >> a3, is a sequence of global internal states in transition from moment to moment(8).

moments of experience

Figure 2

Figure 2 represents something very different - a sequence of moments of my conscious experience. In the light of remarks I made in chapter three, about the mutual implication of facts and feelings, we need to read each of these moments as a conjunction of mutually relevant fact and feeling. This also includes actions - our actions are registered in our experience as both fact and feeling at the same time, that is: the feeling of performing the action, and the fact of its being done. The enclosed space in Figure 2 represents all possible moments of experience (fact, feeling and action) which are compatible with life. It is divided into two regions, of painful and pleasurable experience. This is the analogy - in terms of how we feel it - for the demarcation in Figure 1, between physiological stress and physiological comfort.

Each successive point in the trajectory marked on Figure 2 (a1 >> a2 >> a3) represents one moment of my experience - consisting of one fact that I am entertaining (or one action I am performing) together with the background of feeling from which this fact (or this action) has emerged. Any shift, whether it be in fact, feeling or action, is marked by an arrowed line which directs us to the next moment of experience.

We should note in passing that the experience referred to here is not merely a private inner world; the perceptions, beliefs, actions and feelings in question are items in a constant process of exchange through human interaction and conversation. Recognizing some given fact or feeling in my own experience also entails that I recognize it as something another person could likewise experience, under the right circumstances. Facts and feelings are, of their very nature, interchangeable between persons(9). It is for this reason that they can be portrayed by actors on the stage and the screen, and lived through vicariously by an attentive audience. Thus each of the steps shown on Figure 2 can also be matched up to a "beat" in an actor's plan of interaction, that is: one precise reaction, energetic shift, act or utterance which moves the story on to the next immediate response.

What do these two diagrams have to do with one another? We will assume for the sake of argument that the sequence on both diagrams ( a1 >> a2 >> a3) corresponds to more or less the same span(10) of clock time in one person's life. For illustration we shall return to a previous dramatic encounter which we looked at in chapter four, above - in which Antipholus of Ephesus disputes with Angelo the goldsmith about the supply of (and non-payment for) a gold chain. Figure 2, I have said, represents a series of "beats". The opening beat of their interaction, "a1" is the moment when Antipholus catches sight of the goldsmith in the street. The second beat, "a2", is his compaint to the goldsmith that he has not received the chain yet. Then he pauses to receive the goldsmith's response, which is the third beat, "a3".

What, in this case, does Figure 1 represent? Broadly speaking, it is the global physiological state of Antipholus, in each of these three beats. In order to make more detailed sense of this, we have to imagine ourselves in his shoes What is entailed in noticing and recognizing someone in the street, and forming a specific intention in regard to him? There is visual recognition of course, but this is not merely the recognition of a certain shape - it is Angelo whom he recognizes, with all the associated personal and social history that is implicit in this. So Antipholus' concerns about the chain also come to mind and a spontaneous request for its delivery follows on from this.

An unconscious operating system.
All these mental operations fall within the capacity of a sophisticated computer and so it is no stretch for our imagination to believe that the auto-poietic system is responsible for it. The goldsmith is recognized, the relevant memories and concerns are delivered to Antipholus' conscious mind, and it is hardly even a conscious decision for him to confront the goldsmith about the chain he has not yet received. We would say that he speaks "without thinking". Though the conscious state of mind may be relatively simple, there is much work going on behind the scenes here, to do with those complex computational tasks of practical recognition, information retrieval and intelligent response which we already began to consider in other sections.(11).

Underneath every conscious "beat" there is the same underlying complexity. It is something like the film and production crew which supports the film actor's performance of the role. We can watch the film in complete unawareness of everything but the character and his world. In our everyday actions we are oblivious, in a very similar way, to the action of our own physiology. For example: I reach out to pick up my pen; here I am relying upon innumerable sub-systems of physiological control, whose automatic functioning I take completely for granted. Thus as I start to scribble the next few phrases, my conscious intention is backed up by a complex choreography of muscles and bones. It depends upon sub-systems such as: a tracking system which manages hand-eye co-ordination; a stabilising system which holds proximal joints (shoulder and spine) steady, whilst allowing the distal joints of elbow wrist and fingers freedom to enact the trajectory of my seeking fingertips; a damping system which absorbs the untidy and inefficient oscillations(12) which any goal-seeking mechanism will otherwise exhibit. In the resultant action my shoulder steadies itself to carry the extra weight of my arm reaching sideways; at the same moment there is a counter-balancing movement in my spine, and there is a co-ordination of numerous muscles in my arm, wrist and fingers, to converge gracefully upon the pen which continues its delicate tracings upon the paper. Most of this action wells up pre-assembled from the depths of my physiology, seemingly of its own accord. It was apparently not dependent upon my conscious deliberation - but it was indeed my conscious decision to pick up the pen. The whole complex autonomic routine, it appears, was called into play by that conscious decision.

Bio-social and cultural operating systems.
(A system of archetypes)

Returning to Figure 1 now, we can see it more clearly as the physiological support system for everything that is happening within the landscape of fact and feeling. One of its functions is to be the delivery system for the "Hypertext" I have previously spoken of(13). In this respect our physiology is providing and operating an active window on a selected range of conscious concerns - those things that feel important(14), or things which are held in the balance in this immediate moment. These are the jam puffs, angry facial expressions, cardboard boxes, the mutual sympathy of lovers or the right to vote, the objects which - with all their relevant qualities - have engaged our attention. They appear in the guise of essential ingredients to each "beat" of our conscious engagement with the world. They are also things which are evidently already organised, so that whichever direction we turn there is a wealth of fresh detail available to us - ready-made patterns and connections swinging into view in response to the smallest movement of our attention. Beneath the level of conscious awareness we have this underlying organisation, self-directed and - if the broad argument of the preceding chapter is correct - attuned with our environment through thousands upon millions of years of past interaction and evolution. For the source and the vehicle of the information and organisation is living cells, doing exactly what they best know how to do and have been practising for all of those millions of years.

What, then, of the transition that has occurred - between the level of auto-poiesis where the information is all about the state of the organism itself, and the personal landscape of fact and feeling in which we are concerned with our relationships with other people and with the world around us? To understand this transition we need to turn our attention away from the system that is doing the work of recognizing, organising and choreographing, to focus instead upon what is being recognized, organised and choreographed. The account of auto-poiesis which I have given so far has been a regrettable simplification, but with the valid purpose of giving us a clear view of one systems level at a time. We now have to expand our view to include something else that is going on over and above auto-poiesis, a commitment in our life which we hold in common with most plants and animals. There is something we are required to recognize and organise - a dance of intricate and magical choreography which changes the entire frame of reference and shifts us to a different order of functioning. It is the incorporation into our life-cycle of an essential relationship with other members of our own species. In human evolution this has occurred three times over; the most ancient of these is sexual love.

The Need for Each Other.

Sexuality - the gendered life - is a fundamental commitment to something different from creating and maintaining our own organism. As a sexual being I have a deep down hunger to join with a partner of the opposite sex - which means someone equally complex as myself yet in a mysterious way different - without whom my life-cycle cannot be completed. This is true for all the gendered plants and animals: a fulfilled life must include finding a partner, and joining in a progression of changes. It begins in the moment we first notice one another(15), moving to an increasingly delicate attunement, a moment of choosing and a final surrender to a new pattern of life in partnership(16). Our auto-poietic process is set up in such a way that we are thrown into a world of compulsory co-operation. It is compulsory because our entire genetic line is vulnerable to failure in this area - able to be wiped out by something even as trivial as bad timing.

Another way to think about this, is that the advent of sexuality in the plant or animal life-cycle shifts the auto-poietic process itself to a new level, where it has to submit to government by a new and different dimension of pleasure and pain. We are hurt at the deepest possible level, if our coupling should be threatened, or damaged, or should end in failure. Another radical shift: success or failure is no longer inscribed first and foremost within our internal biology (as I described it for the amoeba in chapter six); now it dwells amidst the rhythms of our consensual domain. (It shows itself within our biology, to be sure, but as an echo of what is happening between the two of us.)

In the terms of our discussion of consensual domain in chapter eight, we have uncovered a new level of concern which must count as a systems domain in its own right. It has its own specialised symbolic language of display and recognition, call and response, demand and consent - with specialised sub-languages relating to different phases of the life cycle. (In childhood we submit to the discourse of parent-child behaviour, but we also play with this same relationship pattern amongst our peers; in adolescence specialised arena behaviour emerges, in which gender roles are elaborated and rehearsed, fledgling adult identities are being tried out, possibly in many guises before the right one is found. Then there is a shift from the adolescent exploration which takes place mainly in the company of same-sex groupings - towards actual courting behaviour (much of it well-rehearsed during the previous phase). Courting behaviour is a world in miniature, where the entire gendered life-cycle is played with in a kind of rehearsal, with one - or perhaps with a series - of prospective partners. A further shift leads into the intense pair-bonded love relationship which has been designated pre-copulatory behaviour by some authorities; distinct from the actual commitment of sexual intercourse - which is the point where two individuals find themselves irreversibly engaged, and transformed into a new configuration altogether: the pair-bonded(17) couple and oncoming new family.)

At each of these stages a different lexicon of signals - and a different logic of relationship - comes into play. At every point on the life-cycle, a mutual interchange either fits or it does not fit; either it feels right or it does not feel right. These are the same basic distinctions which I referred to in the earlier chapter - the simple undifferentiated categories of auto-poietic logic. These basic categories still apply at the level of instinctive gendered behaviour, but at some time in our evolutionary past the lexicon and the logic have been transformed and made relevant to the species-specific reproductory cycle as it continues to re-create itself in our own times.

The emergence of this higher level can be pictured in other ways than this. In chapter six I gave an account of how the straight lines of cause and effect - causality which we understand from simple practical actions like stacking jars on a shelf or the functioning of clockwork - are co-opted by the process of auto-poiesis into cyclical patterns of causality. We have now uncovered another form of co-option, into a different dimension of circular causation. Within the domain of our relationship, the effects of my actions depend significantly on how you are interpreting and reacting to them, and in their turn your actions have their effect and meaning determined by the way that I am responding to them. This is the same kind of pattern as we described in chapter six under the names of structural coupling and consensual domain. The difference is that in this new context we recognize an intimate coupling between equals - and which is essential to the continued existence of our species.

There are more ramifications to this. Under the influence of the simplistic assumptions of nineteenth and twentieth century biology, we have tended to think of our physical and mental functioning as being a co-operation of an individual brain with an individual body. Our present argument makes it clear that these individual brains and bodies have evolved within a communicational field such that both brains are equally responsible for the integrated behaviour of the couple. None of these brains and bodies has any evolutionary future unless they can establish and maintain a working harmony amongst all four components.

I have maintained the focus upon sexuality because - within the span of our evolutionary history - it was the first and decisive enfolding of our auto-poietic pattern with the life of another. It was the first move into a social dimension of existence. In a more recent evolutionary epoch there has been a second enfolding, affecting only our close relatives in the classes of mammals and of birds. We share with ducklings and kittens the plight of being born in a state of utter helplessness; thus we are initiated into a social existence from the moment of birth through our structural coupling with our mother. Everything I have said about sexual coupling applies with equal force to the coupling of the infant organism with the nurturing parent or parents. It also applies to the looser but mutually dependent social network which we have evolved in common with other anthropoid species which centres on the immediate and extended family in the shape of a tribe. In all these ways: male-and-female, mother-and-child, and tribal nexus, the individual organic life has been surrendered to the consensual domain of "significant others". The chain of species survival has come to depend upon the integrity of this entire co-operative network(18).

In order to emphasise its close kinship with the auto-poietic layer of our organisation, I am naming this domain of elementary social relationships the "bio-social layer". These are social connections which are driven by the internal demands of the life-cycle. They are timeless, repeated in every generation as an essential element of life together. Their subject matter is the building of trust, co-operation and loyalty: between mating partners, between children and parents, between siblings and amongst the wider family group. Hence also the recognition of kin and of tribe, and the recurring competition for position or status within the tribe. In respect of this position or status, there are also ritual codes which - by indicating who shall count as senior and who is meant to defer - have the power to undercut any escalation towards energy-depleting or mutually destructive struggle. And there are games - and other forms of ritual combat - which can fulfill the same function.

We can also note the archetypal challenge of the stranger - the unknown quantity who may subvert all of our painfully negotiated codes of honour and status. In this encounter we start with an instinctive wariness... but how fluid can the transition be, towards a carefully staked-out mutual trust? Or perhaps we need to make the opposite transition: how efficiently can we spot a serious disruptive influence or an outright enemy?

Something else than bio-social...
As we develop a sense of this bio-social perspective we find it already resembles the landscape of our personal experience in recognizable ways. There are familiar types of situation, parallel concerns, and some of the dramatic qualities which we know in everyday life. But there is also an archetypal or dream-like quality, as if the action were located somewhere else than the time and the place where we face our daily struggles and decisions.

Within our map of ascending systems layers, the bio-social layer is working busily away, somewhere beneath the surface pattern of our everyday being together. It is the secret source of the raw archetypal relationships that rise up between us: expressed in ancient stereotypes or roles, such ‘the husband’, ‘the mother’, ‘the child’, ‘the adolescent’, ‘the lover’, ‘the tiller of earth’, ‘the warrior’ or ‘the hunter’. I see these as archaic templates welling up from our collective unconscious, kitted out and ready for action, but somewhat stereotyped and tending to fall short of the subtlety and intricacy of everyday life as we know it. As archetypes they remain mostly hidden, and will normally only emerge into conscious awareness in the form of ritualistic theatre or in dreams. But within our theory of systems-layers they are defined as the biologically driven source material for our everyday motivations and commitments.


how things are meant to be(19). We can also think of it as a another biological operating system which operates at a higher level (and having a different set of objects and linguistic operations) than the auto-poietic. It is generating the templates - a repertoire of basic definitions and roles - for each and every relationship which emerges into the foreground of our everyday life.

At least one further layer is needed, to render our speculative map into a shape we can recognize as the landscape we inhabit together in real time. We need this extra layer in order to account for the local flavour and complexity which pervades our personal lives. I call this the cultural layer. It is a modulation of our consensual domain beyond the bio-social, and is more plastic and adaptable in the here-and-now; it generates the local colour, the definitions of situations, and the roles we play within these situations, in our day-to-day encounters and adventures.

Bio-sociality and Culture

In earlier accounts of these systems-layers, I have spoken about "the social layer" of our relationship with the world; here we are seeing a vertical differentiation of this: into a lower bio-social layer, relatively unchanging, and a higher culfural layer which is more ready to adapt to the demands of the actual relationship that is going on. Within our speculative model the bio-social layer has the function of delivering raw archetypal relationships and roles such as: "the husband", "the mother", "the child", "the adolescent", "the tiller of earth", "the warrior" or "the hunter". I see these bio-social roles as being kitted out and ready for action, but somewhat stereotyped and not quite believable in everyday life. They are archetypes which normally only emerge into our conscious awareness in ritualistic theatre or in dreams. In real life we meet with people - in whom the archetypes have been worked over and re-created in the form of a cultural identity. And similarly, in a novel or film drama, the dramatist or novelist has to work his characters over so as to give them a believable cultural identity - for we want them to resemble the kind of person we might expect to meet in the real world. In this world, every human life is embedded in a pattern of intricate customs and expectations; each one of us is a great deal more than a collection of archetypes. We have been born into a pattern of life, and this pattern has evolved through historical time in the bosom of living human communities. And so there are specifically cultural archetypes - which are elaborations of the bio-social, and are continuously re-fashioned in real time according to the desires, aspirations and preferences of the present community. Some of these are specific to the individual: certain people have aroused our admiration or love, and we have adopted their image - consciously or unconsciously - to serve in our gallery of role models. There are also collective cultural archetypes. In the ancient world these were mostly named as gods, angels or saints, but in the twentieth century they were replaced, to a great extent, by the denizens of the football stadiums, books, and the cinema and TV screens. They may carry personal names - like David Beckham, Robert de Niro, Eminem, Nicole Kidman or Jean-Paul Sartre(20), or they may be the well-known characters of film series or soap opera: Superman, the Godfather, Little Nell, Amos 'n' Andy, Dirty Den. We often call them "larger than life", but what we actually possess is a moving image: an image which dwells in the heart of the admirer. It is an archetype and not a person and yet - as an archetypal personality - it is very much alive, within ourselves and amongst the people we meet; it resonates through the intimate spaces in our lives, lending its unique flavour to our everyday expectations, impulses, hopes and fears. It is an essential ingredient in the personal mix or style which each of us develops in the course of our lives.

The rich cultural differentiation of human communities (which is much less in evidence in the life of other anthropoid species) is almost certainly bound up with the development of our spoken and written language. Our cultural interplay goes far beyond words, however, and includes artistic and ritual symbols, gestures, ceremonies and manufactured objects of all kinds. What marks these out as cultural is, firstly, that they are readily exchanged, recognized and empathised with by other members of the community. And secondly, the recognition depends upon the fact that each individual has a previous acquaintance with the cultural item in question.

These cultural objects are the everyday furniture of the landscape of fact, feeling and action. They are the jam puffs, the angry facial expressions, the cardboard boxes, the mutual sympathy of lovers or the right to vote - the things which repeatedly come to the forefront of our attention, arouse our emotions, and inspire us to action. And so it appears that the cultural layer brings us back at last to our grounded experience in the everyday world.

Threaded through this cultural landscape, however, are the elusive personal factors which we spoke of earlier: our conscious awareness, our sense of having to make choices in real time, and the feeling that we are somehow responsible for the impact of our choices upon one another. These factors are dependent upon the cultural domain for their material - because it is predominantly cultural objects that we bother about, that we feel responsible for, and struggle to make the best choices about.

What emerges from this argument, is that the personal domain needs to be recognized as one further higher level systems layer, above the cultural; it is the level at which our cultural activity is in question - where we are evaluating and redesigning our own cultural process in action, as we go along. It follows that, as we explore the personal landscape in the chapters which follow, we shall need to take account of these parallel sets of factors - on the one hand, the rich pattern of cultural definition and motivation; and on the other, the more personal questions of what we really mean by our actions and reactions.

Our next step will be to start to organise our insights in relation to our actual experience of the personal landscape. From here on the approach brings increasing levels of practical implication, into what has been much more of a theoretical survey up to the point we have reached so far. Thus a new section of the book begins here.


1. Link to this section.

2. I am using the word "subjectivity" in the present context simply because it is the term which will be familiar to most readers. Later in this chapter I shall introduce the word mine-ness (which means: the attribute of being mine) in order to emphasise that all the key words: "subjective", "perception", "feeling", "thought", "author", "initiator", "judgment" and "action" have an implicit reference to the person who owns them - who can say of them: "This is mine!" or "This is me!" This follows the usage and the reasoning which is presented in the authoritative work by Paul Ricoeur: Oneself as Another (University of Chicago Press 1992).

3. The existence of multiple points of view is implicit in the very fact that we communicate with one another. We sometimes overlook how much the scientific enterprise depends upon this interplay of different points of view. But even in the transactions of everyday life, it is the multiple points of view, converging towards a many-dimensioned consensus through dialogue, which enable us to pick out invidual beings as existing in their own right - and independently of any one individual or one group's experience of them. Thus we recognize the existence of other people as independent centres of experience, and we recognize the stubborn, objective "being there" of the material world whose traits we try to explore by means of scientific method. The exchange of views within the inter-personal arena is the necessary condition for an awareness of both self and other, and for the beginnings of an objective sensibility. cf Donald Davidson: "If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know they were on some line down from me toward them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.

The conclusion of these considerations is that rationality is a social trait. Only communicators have it."["Rational Animals". Dialectica 36(4) (1982) p327].

4. This whole argument may be clarified if we give some thought to human language, in its parallels and contrast with the simpler level of linguistic behaviour which was described by Maturana and Varela (and which we discussed in the previous chapter). The diagrams and arguments in the section entitled "Biology of Cognition" have prepared the ground for us to think about language as something we do together. Of course language also has a subjective dimension in the meaning it carries for each of us individually, but it is all too easy to get lost in the subjective system of language and forget that it is primarily a sequence of meaningful actions and reactions between human beings. Language in the broadest sense is what one person does - a speech act, which has an impact on the internal state of the other person and incites them to re-orient themselves to what is (for them, now) a changed situation. In this sense we can say that every action and every gesture made by one person in the presence of another, carries a linguistic component.(See Watzslavick, P. et al. Pragmatics of Human Communication for an excellent early study of this.) In the case of the scientist, this includes the experiments he or she performs and demonstrates to his or her colleagues, and also the mathematical constructions and theories by which the experiments are interpreted. This is merely a restatement of what I outlined previously, now referred more explicitly to the domain of spoken and written language, and to the domain of scientific activity.

5. See note 2, above.

6. This account is in precise parallel with that of Justus Buchler. See Towards a General Theory of Human Judgment.

7. The theory of auto-poiesis was conceived as an account of biology and cognition, and the relationship between the two. (See "Auto-poiesis and Cognition" by Maturana and Varela) .

8. Recognizing the huge complexity of our animal body, we have to think of each point on this diagram having the capacity to be opened up to reveal sub-systems - new levels of complexity - and themselves able to open up in turn, in the fashion of "Mandelbrot diagrams" or as in a series of maps of the coast-line under increasing scales up to and including the microscopic. We are choosing not to enter into the details of molecular biology here, but we take it for granted that molecular biological processes are operating at lower levels of the system.

9. See Strawson, P. Individuals (London: Methuen 1957) and Ricoeur, P. Oneself as Another for further clarification of this important principle - of the interchangeability of perspectives.

10. A more rigorous analysis would probably show that the "events" in these sequences cannot be correlated in any definite way, even if the spans of time denoted are more or less contemporary. Dealing with such questions would require we explore principles of relativity, quantum theories of biological and subjective time, and the meaning of the term "simultaneous". None of these considerations, however, substantially affects the validity of the present argument. For interested readers the best treatment of these questions is probably still A. N. Whitehead's magnum opus of 1928: Process and Reality. There is a very useful treatment of the incommensurability of psychological and material events from an empirical philosophical point of view in DAVIDSON, D. Actions and Events

11. It was considerations such as this which have led me to explore the theory of complex systems in a section to be posted on this site at a later date.

12. See the discussion of Cerebellar Ataxia in another section.

13. The relevant sections will be posted on this web-site in due course.

14. For the time being I am leaving aside our tendencies to fill our conscious mind with daydreams, distractions and wishful thinking - the present argument is about our real capacities and capabilities, if we could only be awake to them.

15. We know that within a human life we recognize one another - and this includes the recognition of gender - from early in childhood. So the "progression of changes" driven by reproductory instinct includes this early socialisation - the first stirrings of that personal identity which we will later carry with us into the courting dance.

16. This account is intended to be read in a flexible way, since it covers the sexual life of trees and ferns, as well as birds and bees.

17. We are not considering failed marriages, or "uncommitted" sexual relationships here, since this is an exploration of the phases of the life-cycle - in which the sexual act is the prelude to conception and a lasting pair-bond at least for the duration of the chidren's dependency upon their parents.

18. Compare BUCHLER, J.(1955): "The human self, as some philosophers have recognized, is spread out in space as well as in time. Its principal power is action at a distance. It is connected with other selves and with the world by unseen ties - of obligation, intention, representation, conflict, memory, and love. Any phase of the self's continuous movement may be regarded, abstractly, as a position, an attitude potentially embodied in a judgment. The self's spread, its relatedness, is the basis of sociality." (p 56)

19. This is lightly satirised in the Princess' reactions to her ogre-rescuer in the movie "Shrek". She keeps on expressing her concern that things are not happening "how it's meant to be"! We can read this as being Clarissa's private obsession with fairy-tales, of course - but could it be that she is simply being sensitive to the bio-social currents which nurture the roots of every story, and not only fairy stories?

20. The actors and performers who are called "stars" evidently have a dual existence: they are everyday people, like you or me, but they also provide the most essential ingredient in the media construct of The Star; this is the element which dwells within the hearts of the mass of the people, and leads an altogether separate life from the person who has inspired it.
return to the top

© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, March 2009