Certain peculiarities of organisms as a 'system' from the point of view of physics, cybernetics, and biology

V. I. Kremyanskiy, "Certain peculiarities of organisms as a 'system' from the point of view of physics, cybernetics, and biology", _General Systems_, vol. 5 (1960), Society for General Systems Research, pp. 221-30. [This paper first appeared in Russian in _[Voprosy Filosofii](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problems_of_Philosophy_(magazine))_, August (1958), pp. 97-107.] [in [Systems Research for Behavioral Science](https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315130569), Walter Buckley, ed.] [[on Google Books](https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fJjsAsfGLIIC&oi=fnd&pg=PA443)] [[General Systems Yearbook 1960, pp. 221-230, for ISSS members](https://www.isss.org/yearbooks/)] Snippets of text (from the beginning, maybe the middle, and the end) appear below, to give a sense of the content for the chapter. For more depth, the original source is cited, above. ---

In the heated discussion going on in our country about the significance of similarities and differences between automatic electronic devices and living organisms, the cyberneticists have usually been reproached for their extreme universalism, and also, on occasion, for their inadequate knowledge of biology. The opposition has, on the other hand, often pointed to the indistinctiveness of organisms or to such distinctive qualities of theirs which have already or could become properties of cybernetic machines. The present article represents a biologist's attempt to introduce greater accuracy into the posing of certain questions and into the defining of the distinctions of living entities regarded as material systems of a special type.

## Which Organisms are Involved? In the discussion of these problems most of the attention has been given to those plans of automatic machines of modulating systems which are designed to increase the effectiveness of the brain or to study it. As a rule, reference is made only to the nervous system of humans and the higher animals. It is not difficult to see that this limitation is broadened at the discussion in question. The reasons for it are clear -- these devices are, after all, designed to raise the productivity of mental labor. [p. 125] Nevertheless, the question of the significance of the similarities is often posed in a most general form. For example, can cybernetic automatic devices be acknowledged as 'living'? Biologists are often disinclined to admit these machines into their domain. Is it possible, however, to solve the problem of understanding organic life at all if as evidence we use facts relating to society, i.e. another form of material existence, or only to the highest forms of activity of the highest animals ? In that case the concept 'living entity' does not include the lower animals and those organisms which have no nervous system -- the plants and most of the microbes. [pp. 125-126] Within the organic world itself, there evidently exist very pro- found qualitative differences between different organisms. It is a universally known fact that life is possible only in highly organized bodies; but natural scientists cannot, of course, be satisfied with general ideas concerning the higher or lower organization of living bodies. There exists a vast literature dealing with matters concerning the basic levels or degrees of organization which have developed in the organic world and beyond its limits, the peculiarities characteristic of each of these degrees, and the reason that one level is indeed 'higher' or 'lower' than another. However, there does not yet exist a strictly objective criterion of progress. Without dwelling upon the history of these problems or indulging in unfavorable criticism of the respective theories and nomenclatures, we attempt primarily to give a very brief definition of the most important differences between the fundamental types of material systems.

## The Fundamental Types of Material Systems In mathematical logic there is a theory of numbers which concerns the grouping of objects, phenomena, and concepts, including those whose combination might be hypothetical or abstract. Contrary to this theory, the theories of material systems pertain solely to actually existing associations. [....] [p. 126]

Material systems are called, according to their type of relationship with the environment, isolated, closed or open. * Absolutely isolated systems are, of course, purely abstract and hypothetical. * In the changes of closed systems, the exchange of elements and energy with the environment does not play a very important role for a very long time. * The entropy of the closed system as a rule only grows, whereas the system as a whole, being subservient to the environment and incapable of renewing itself, is inevitably destroyed, without, moreover, leaving a successor. [p.129, editorial paragraphing added]

In open systems, on the other hand, a periodic or continuous exchange of elements and energy with the environment is typical. This exchange can serve as the basis for the perpetuation of this form of existence and as the basis for the decrease or relative constancy of entropy only when the system possesses certain features of internal organization and interaction with the environment. There is no need to explain that these are then living bodies, and that they contain far more regulated internal interconnexions which associate the components so intimately that the system becomes, as is said, an 'organic whole'. [....] [p. 129] [....]

## The Relationships Between Different Degrees of Organizational Development of Systems Following the rather widespread custom, we will call these degrees the organizational orders of matter. The relationship be- tween the organizational orders of matter consists in that the organic system of each succeeding order contains the systems of the preceding order as its basic components, not directly, however, but mainly as part of the subsystem, e.g. as part of the organelles of cells, or organs of multicellular organisms. Here the whole contains the parts 'under itself', as Hegel said. The whole is bigger than the sum but not bigger than the organized system of its parts, in all their connexions and intermediaries. In the organic world these latter are extremely complex. [....] [p. 130] [....]

The developed components of an organic whole always contain something more than they would alone, but never more than the given whole and its environment (and also its history). * This is not taken into consideration by those foreign cyberneticists, and particularly philosophers, who arrive at idealist conclusions by supposing that the information involved in the operation of, say, memory devices or communication channels is something that can be reduced neither to matter nor energy. * The idea that this infomation is hence something 'non-material' is very much like the 'overcoat point of view', in which only the trappings are considered matter, while society with its internal and external relationships is not considered matter. The word matter should not be reduced to the word substance in its physicochemical sense, as is generally the trend outside the sphere of gnoseology. [p. 131-132, editoral paragraphing added]

Let us now see how the problems raised at the beginning of this article could be handled on the basis of the aforesaid. Let us first frame an objective criterion for progress, and then outline the relative importance of the similarities and differences between living systems of the organizational orders, representing the most important stages of development in the organic world.

But we first must prove in a more complete exposition that the leading properties of organic systems are actually superior in certain stages of development to the subordinate properties or subordinate variables (where domination does not always mean superiority) and that the development of ways and means of variability offers the organism more, and not fewer, advantages than the development of dynamic stability. * We note that cyberneticists emphasize in theory the significance of ultrastability and multistability (phenomena discovered by Ashby), but in practice they also concern themselves with variability. * It is known that the latter serves as a means for attaining stability (stabilizing variability); but, in addition (and this is far more important for biological systems), it serves as a means for developing new forms both of the species' stability and also of the variability itself (form-creating variability). [....] [p. 132, editoral paragraphing added]

In the light of these preliminary schematic observations and that which was said earlier, we can objectively, if in 'qualitative' form only, draw the following conclusions with regard to the questions posed: [p. 132]

1\. One organic system is truly superior to another organic system if * (a) the first possesses every essential property of the second, but in addition to this relationship of essential similarity or kinship (not to be confused with the relationship of identity) with the latter, it possesses properties which are essentially lacking in the second, whereupon * (b) the total of these original properties of the first, with the pre-eminence of one of them, acts as the leading factor in its internal and external interconnexions, that is, relates to the properties of the second system as major to secondary (and, in the end, better ensures preservation and development. [....] [p. 19, editoral paragraphing added]

2\. When comparing organic systems of different orders, the exclusion of everything similar results in the isolation of everything which does not belong to the systems of the lower order. These distinctions are precisely what we must know about the living systems of the higher order, for it is in these distinctions that the leading moments of their life-forms lie. Thus, if we are comparing organic systems of different orders of organization, the differences between them are of greater importance than the similarities. [pp. 133-134] [....]

## Forms of 'Feedback' in Living Nature Self-awareness (in a certain sense the 'reflexive relationship' in the theory of numbers corresponds to it) in living systems is based in particular, on the progress development of 'feedback'. Cybernetics has called attention to the part played by feedback in the organization of living bodies, after having created automatic devices modeling, in this regard as well, organisms of higher levels of development. [....] [p. 134] [....]

## The Evolution of the Relationship Between Organism and Environment The question of the relationship between organism and environment, both internal and external, is one of the central problems in biology. There still exists today the trend of studying this problem on the basis of factual material relating to only a few forms of living bodies. The inadequate attention given to the necessity of having a differentiated and historical approach to this question is also typical of the viewpoint of the founders of cybernetics, just as for von Bertalanffy's 'general theory of systems'. p. 136] [....]

In going further into the question of the relationship between organism and environment, we would have to show also that the development of the relationship to the environment did not proceed along a straight line. [....] [p. 141]

We must now follow the example of the physicists who are endeavoring to explain life and advance sevefal ideas on certain physical aspects of biological systems, attempting here to describe primarily their peculiarities. [p. 142]

## Life from the Standpoint of Physics The physicists, who have in recent years taken up questions of biology, place great emphasis on the idea of the 'ectropism' of living bodies - the ability of open and organized systems to use the environmental substances, rich in easily released energy, to maintain irregular distributions (gradients) of substance concentrations and to support synthesis processes founded on the binding and simultaneously the dispersing of energy -- in a word, to maintain a given level of entropy and even to lower it (this being expressed by the term 'negative entropy' or 'neg-entropy'. [....] [p. 142] [....]

There seems no doubt that this important feature of living systems can be studied quantitatively and quite objectively in mutual connexion with the 'calculation of progress'. [p. 146]