Against System

In the documentary film “More Than Honey,” about the crisis in the world’s honeybee species, there is a startling scene of how commercial agricultural beekeepers harvest honey. Honeycombs are removed en masse from thousands of hive boxes, transported to a central processing plant by large tractor-drawn trailers, and dumped into a mechanized extraction system that removes the honey and beeswax by crushing the honeycombs and scraping out the wax. In the process, many bees follow their honeycombs to the processing plant and are killed in the extraction machines. In the general confusion, queens get put into unrelated hives, and workers become mixed up. This process adds to the stress on the bees, on top of the stress that comes from long transportation by truck from one agricultural region to another during the pollinizing season.

As many people know, the world’s domestic honeybees are seriously threatened by a condition called colony collapse disorder, in which once healthy colonies suddenly disappear altogether, virtually overnight. Many different possible causes are generally cited, including mites, malnutrition, viral diseases, pesticides, and so forth, and it is routine to call for “more research.” Don’t ya just love it? Whenever we don’t want to face the truth, we call for “more research.” Yet the film demonstrates that more research is not needed. The reason for colony collapse is crystal clear: we have turned living organisms, the bees, into industrial units, mere nuts and bolts moving along a factory line, without regard to the fact that they are living organisms—much as we have other animals, such as cattle, chickens, hogs, and fish. The crushing of bees in the mechanized honey harvesting process is not unlike the processing of pigs in industrial slaughterhouses, and the stress that the industrializing of beekeeping puts on bees is not unlike that on hens in the egg producing industry.

There is another, quieter but no less revealing scene in “More Than Honey” that takes place not in a factory setting but in the pristine, flower-strewn meadows of the Swiss Alps. An old beekeeper, determined to protect the genetic purity of his prized black honey bees, decapitates a queen who has apparently mated with a “foreign” yellow and black drone and replaces her with a queen of the desired lineage. But alas, weeks later, his hives are not thriving and a bee expert finds that the larvae are turning into a liquid mush—the entire hive must be destroyed and burned. As the film also informs us, honeybees are not wild creatures; they are domesticated animals whose breeding is controlled as much as that of any other animal kept by humans.

We select breeding individuals (studs and broodmares, bulls, dogs and bitches, etc.) for traits to our liking, usually without a thought as to what other traits might be hitching a ride. Inbred dogs may look nice, but they have genetic diseases, such as hip dysplasia, inability to give natural birth, difficulty breathing, and so on. Even domesticated plants have become so weakened by selective breeding that they require gallons of pesticides to keep them from succumbing to weeds, insects, and fungi. Selective breeding of bees for docility and honey production has weakened them—as a neighbor of the old beekeeper points out, cross-bred bees are more vigorous than inbred “racially pure” bees, just as mutts are healthier and smarter than purebred show dogs.

One might be tempted, and with good reason, to blame all these problems (and so many more!) on industrialization, which displaces the natural, local way with a mechanical, economy-of-scale culture. Replacing crop rotation and varied agriculture with vast monoculture fields of corn, wheat, lettuce, tomatoes, what have you, or depleting genetic diversity with herds of cows sired by a single bull through artificial insemination, is certainly the means by which these problems have arisen. But there is a deeper level that accounts for our enthusiasm for industrializing the organism, a deep level of myth.

It is a myth of the system, both in the sense that devising more detailed, expansive, and widely implemented systems will produce efficiency and better outcomes through consistency, and in the sense that all the world and the greater cosmos are composed of many systems that reflect one great system (i.e., a theory of everything)—that is, all is System.

The first sense of system is admittedly a powerful thing. Systems make it possible to communicate globally, whether slowly through an international postal system or instantly through digital technology; systems are necessary for the transportation of goods, for the organizing of libraries, for the operation of larger and larger corporations and nations, and for building houses and sewage systems. Human beings have always been systemizers in this sense, though systems have proliferated and expanded exponentially in modern times, arguably to the good.

Yet there is a price to pay for this kind of systemizing. Industrial-scale systemizing applied on a national and international basis tends to eliminate that which does not fit into the system. Regional variations and uniquenesses are filtered out; standardization is imposed, even though living things especially are not inherently standardized. For example, the European Union’s standards for apples specify what percentage of the skin of apples must be colored red, and apples must fall within certain size limits; in looking through the EU standards, I did not find any mention of taste. As any American grocery shopper knows, tomatoes are so uniform and standardized, and so bred to survive long-distance shipping intact, that they no longer have any taste. This standardization for the sake of efficient systems applies to virtually all consumer products today, to such a great extent that there is no longer any distinctiveness from one city or region to another. This is the perfect system for large big-box retailers, whose stores are the same regardless of where they are located. More and cheaper products, yes, but lacking in variety and interest.

But while the standardization of products, transportation (including look-alike cars regardless of brand), medical procedures, etc., has manifest material benefits, the standardization of human beings does not, and human beings are being standardized with as much vehemence as the things they buy. For example, the United States is moving inexorably to a nationally standardized educational system (remember that systems require standardization, that the latter is implied by the former), with standardized “outcomes,” tests, curricula, etc., all of which can produce only standardized students (those who can’t or won’t be standardized—those who say “I prefer not to”—will drop out or seek their own ways) ready to fill standardized jobs, like so many interchangeable industrial parts, a trend begun by the factory assembly line and now extended to all professions. The recent trend for businesses to hire temporary employees has created a population of workers who move from one job to the next as needed by employers, an unstable system that paradoxically is glorified in the mantra of “continuing education” and “lifelong learning,” that is, keep going back to school to learn new skills to keep up with changing business needs. Don’t count on a life-long career that deepens your knowledge and experience, or your joy in life, be ready to “adapt” at a moment’s notice.

One could go on at great length with examples of the standardization of efficient systems, but at this point it is more important to move on to the second myth of the system, that all is System. There are a number of metaphors that embody this metaphysical notion that all is System, some of which are no more than fairy tales: Gaia, Holism, Cosmos, Theory of Everything, Ideology, the holographic universe, etc., plus more mundane and innocent or objective seeming myth-metaphors such as computer and other machine analogies (e.g., the clockwork universe), systems analysis analogies, all-things-are-connected myths, etc. Explicit in all of them is the idea that all is one, that the planet (Gaia) and/or the Cosmos is one integrated system operating according to the dictates of universal and unchanging laws that, once known by humans, will enable us (in many people’s minds, already do enable us) to understand everything, and through understanding exercise control over everything. This is a myth as old as monotheism, indeed may be possible only in a culture steeped in centuries of monotheism, rather than a (truly) pagan myth, for paganism views the world as full of competing forces and deities whose actions are often arbitrary and hostile, while Christian monotheism (the one that influences all Westerners, whether scientists or layman, atheists or nuns) views the world as a manifestation of the divine order that is God or a characteristic of God—i.e., that God is in a sense the one law, Order, and since there is only one God there is only one Order (System). A mono-god does not play dice because he has no one to play with; pagan (poly-gods) do play dice because they have each other to play with, and there are stakes in the outcome of each throw. Pagans strove after balance and harmony but did not consider them innate attributes of their world (pagan philosophers, however, often disregarded the caprices of the gods their neighbors bowed to).

This bias comes down to us from Christianity through the deists of the Enlightenment, who imagined that God set the world working according to immutable laws and then withdrew from direct involvement in his creation; this was a convenient way for them to keep their cake and eat it too, for they seemingly reduced God to irrelevance yet in fact kept him on the payroll in an emeritus position, as the source and explanation of the laws the Enlightenment thinkers were compiling. While today’s fundamentalist atheists would deny this view of God, and even more so their Christian antecedents, they nevertheless continue to operate on similar assumptions, i.e., that the laws of nature are universal and eternal and that there is no such thing as chance. Everything can be explained, and even perhaps one day we will achieve the holy grail of physics, the theory of everything (will it be an equation? will it be information?). Not every scientist believes this to be the case; Lee Smolin, for example, thinks that the laws of physics have changed over time, though he admits he doesn’t know (can’t know) in what ways.

Such a world is deterministic (one might say hyperdetermined) and therefore leaves no room for such things as free will or even consciousness as traditionally conceived; it also, as I have pointed out elsewhere, strongly implies that evolution is teleological (despite the vehement denials of its very adherents), that is, that there is purpose in natural selection. That evolution, and the Cosmos or System it represents, is goal-directed.
This goal-directedness is the fatal flaw of any theory of everything, of any System and its embodiment in systems, for goal-directedness is at odds with the actual way the world unfolds. There are no universal and ineluctable laws, there are only particulars. There are no superorganisms, there are only multitudes of individual bees; it is a matter of cognitive convenience for us to metaphorize bees, or any other individual thing, as a part, a cog, of some abstract category. A bee colony is not a superorganism but a sum of the actions of hundreds or thousands of individuals acting similarly but not actually the same. Sameness, as in the example of the inbred black bees above, leads to disaster; differences are what make adaptation and success possible. System wishes to reduce the variable into the invariable—from a practical point of view, something that can be done only briefly before a system breaks down, for in actuality everything varies, which is strength and adaptability, while forcing invariability induces weakness and inflexibility. We see this precisely and most obviously in the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, as well as in other domesticated species, and we see it also in our effects on the “natural” environment.

In China during the Maoist era, Chairman Mao ordered the slaughter of sparrows in order to prevent them from stealing grain; as a consequence, the populations of plant-eating insects skyrocketed, devastating the grain harvests; Mao ordered widespread use of insecticides to eliminate the insects, but “useful” insects also were destroyed, among them honey bees. Consequently, fruit trees were not setting fruit because there were no bees to transfer pollen from one flower to another; now people are trying to pollinate pear trees by hand, a process at which humans are notably inefficient, even on a relatively small scale; imagine the impossibility of artificial pollination of vast acres of almond orchards in California, just as an example. Mao was a great believer in the efficiency of systems, much to the detriment of individual organisms (both bees and humans), but this example also points to another serious flaw in the philosophy of systems: how it defines what is “useful.” Sparrows and then insects were defined as not useful and slated to be destroyed; similarly, Mao and his ilk defined large numbers of humans as useless (because they could not be fitted into the categories dictated by his System) and destroyed them as well. Yet it turned out that in nature there is no such thing as useless (equally, there is no such thing as useful); the grain, the sparrows, the farmers, the plant-eating insects as well as the bees, were all present in their various individual activities. They took no particular notice of each other yet the effects of their activities were, for lack of a better word, balanced.

System is paradoxical because while there is in fact no such thing as System (no Mind, no God, no Theory, no Laws) and all Systems are by definition false, human beings obviously need “system,” both in the efficient or practical sense and in the metaphysical or ontological sense. As the result of the Rube Goldberg quirks of evolution, human beings have great brain power, but only vestigial instincts. Other animals are guided in their actions by well-honed instincts that serve them well in their worlds, but we human beings are on our own; we yearn for the certainties of instinctive knowledge, but we must create our knowledge through thought and culture. We often claim to seek truth and certainty, but actually we create them. We usually go too far and create what could not possibly exist, transcendent and universal meaning. Furthermore, in our efforts to enhance our own existence, we have created efficient systems to the detriment of other creatures, and of the material environment (acidified oceans, salinized agricultural lands, an atmosphere overloaded with CO2, etc.) which supports them and us. In seeking control, we have lost control. Or rather, we have failed to realize that ultimately there is no control to be had.

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