How shall we understand ourselves? Especially the complexity of our minds and brains? Here is author Ian McGilchrist’s answer:

“We answer with the model we understand – the only kind of thing we can fully understand, for the simple reason that we made it: the machine.”
–The Master and His Emissary. (2010. Kindle edition, location 826.]

But are we machines? Or is this simply a metaphor that we fall into because we “made it” and it makes sense to us?

It came to me when I was teaching a group in Hangzhou a number of years ago, we have a tendency to confuse two different systems – biological systems, i.e., living systems like our own minds/brains/bodies – made by Nature, and socially constructed systems such as our businesses, governments, the IRS. Just like we do when we think of ourselves as machines, we confuse the “made” with the “found.” While we humans can harvest seeds, plant and cultivate, even breed specific traits into trees, we cannot “make” a tree. Any particular category of tree (our categories by the way; birds or squirrels might categorize trees based on how well the branches support a nest or provide a transportation system) co-evolved in a specific ecological context and conditions.

Researchers trying to understand how certain ecosystems evolve soon discovered that it was nearly impossible to “restart” a specific ecosystem, at least one of any complexity. There are too many variables and interactions for such a mechanical approach to be successful. Of course, the machine metaphor has been useful to us as well. Because of the very direct cause-effect linkages of simple machines, we’ve been able to make some very effective and useful things in the world like antibiotics (many of us might not be here without these despite the misuse that can cause problems), lights like the one illuminating my room this evening, even computers.

When we confuse socially “made” systems with biologically “found” systems, however, we set ourselves up for difficulties not just in trying to restore a damaged eco-system, but in our businesses and organizations as well.
Biological systems like families show different tendencies and behaviors in contrast to socially constructed systems like businesses. For instance, in a family, every member of the family belongs, that is, natural living systems such as families do not exclude members because they may be eccentric or make us uncomfortable.

Natural systems like families seem to have a tendency towards completeness. When a member of the system is removed, such as removing higher-level predators like wolves from ecosystems, the behavior of the system is dramatically changed. Deer that would be culled by wolves eat too much of the trees, damaging the forest, and so on.

Natural systems find a balance based on varying degrees of participation by all members of the system. This is true for families, too. But what about our socially constructed or made systems like businesses? Or government? Socially made systems don’t have the same force for completeness or wholeness that families do. Instead, membership in such a system is (hopefully!) voluntary and depends on your ability to make a contribution to the success of that system. This has to be the case or your first job would be your last as well. Instead, we need to be able to come and go from socially made systems, leaving one job if another opportunity arises that is better for us (and hopefully for the organizations we leave to join another.) Understanding the differences between the forces that drive dynamics in biological systems and those that are present in made systems is important if we are to understand how people behave in these different contexts.

So be mindful of the metaphors you use. They shape how you think about and see the world.  Man is not a machine (neither is woman for that matter!) Question metaphors! Just how far will that metaphor really carry you? When does it obscure as much as it illuminates? When is a different metaphor a more apt way of understanding your world?

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