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On structure and survival.

KORZYBSKI WAS principally concerned with man as an organism-as-a-whole and the relationship of the structure of his psycho-logical, time-binding processes to the world in which man lives. In his profound discussion of the structure of these relationships, Korzybski tended to under-emphasize the environment-as-a-whole in which the organism exists, and perhaps never appreciated fully the contribution he had made to the understanding of this essentially ecological problem. It was because Korzybski's generalized formulation so adequately fitted the structure of ecology--a young science and one from which general principles are only beginning to emerge--that I felt little of the resistance to general semantics that is occasioned by the necessity of many of us to unlearn when we first encounter it.

Ecology, classically defined as the relationship of an organism to its environment, might be more adequately described as the four dimensional interrelationships of the environment-as-a-whole, including the organism-as-a-whole. This means that it is chiefly concerned with variables, that most of these are dependent variables, and that they must therefore be regarded as functions. Just as the organism-as-a-whole is different from the sum of its parts, so is the environment-as-a-whole. This fact has, to an amazing degree, escaped economists, conservation authorities, agronomists, foresters and especially statesmen and administrators, whether they be at the government, international or philanthropic foundation level. The very wide failure to fit psycho-logical processes to the four dimensional, functional world of dependent physical variables has resulted in costly, wasteful, and even destructive and dangerous errors.

We live in, and are dependent on, a physical world that supplies not only the basic means of our survival but the surplus wealth that, operated on by human thinking and skills, makes possible what we consider a high standard of living. Basic to our physical survival are adequate supplies of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, etc. These are often extremely complex substances, and primarily drawn from the soil.

Besides our food we must have, in virtually every part of the globe, adequate housing and this again has frequently been drawn from the soil in the form of lumber if only as the wattles supporting adobe walls.

In all except the most primitive societies, usually but not always restricted to the tropics, we must be adequately clothed and for the vast majority of the people on the face of this globe clothing comes either in the form of plant fibres from cotton, or animal fibres from sheep. The cotton is derived directly from the soil and the wool indirectly through pastures and ranges.

Water is an equal necessity with food, since, deprived of water, a human organism dies much more rapidly than when it is deprived of food. Perhaps water should be considered more important than food. Water is required not only for drinking but for agriculture, manufacturing, sanitation, power, etc., and as the standard of living increases the per capita use of water necessarily goes up at a, geometric rate--in the U.S. to more than 1,000 gallons a day per capita! Great shifts of human populations have been set in motion by climatic changes resulting in reduced availability of water. In many parts of the world today lack of water or the extreme costliness of securing it, not only in terms of money but in terms of energy and materials, is one of the most powerful factors limiting the potentialities of human 'progress.'

The various elements making up our productive world--soil, water, forests, and grasslands--seem relatively simple and are thus considered by many people. In fact, however, each, one of them is a dependent variable and is frequently part of a structure that could be described only by an extremely complex equation, were it possible to describe it mathematically.

Soils, for example, are functions--that is to say the resultant of interactions--of the parent material or rock from which they are derived: of insolation (a particularly powerful influence in the tropics, the chemical action of air and rain), of slope (some soils have a higher angle of repose than others), temperature (in reference to absolute amounts, range, and distribution throughout the year), of water (in relation to total precipitation, its distribution throughout the year, and the amount deposited in brief periods of time), of wind, (as an evaporative and erosive force), fire (caused by friction, lightning or man), of plants (as they condition the soil through their successions and as they protect it against erosion), of the animals that live in and condition the soil--protozoans, isopods, insects, earthworms, and larger burrowing forms, plus grazing animals that may destroy plant cover and initiate erosion with their cutting, hooves, of time, etc.

Even the parent material is a function of tectonic movements, volcanic eruptions, climate, glaciation, time, etc.

Slope is a function of parent material, winds, precipitation, temperature (which by freezing tends to loosen the surface of sloping rocks and soil and thus to advance levelling), plants (which by root action may break down slopes or by protective action may hold sloping soils in place), and animals (which may act as either stabilizing or erosive forces), time, etc.

Temperature is a function of slope, evaporation, wind, plant cover, proximity to large bodies of water, the parent material (as, for example, on the guano Islands of Peru where contrasts in color of the sub-stratum will frequently result in temperature differences within a few meters of 15 degrees centigrade or more), time, etc.

Winds are a function of slope, temperature, proximity to deserts or large bodies of water, vegetation (which may act as a significant wind control in the microclimate and as a means of reducing the violence of convection currents), time, etc.

Fire may be a function of vegetation, precipitation, wind, slope, time, etc.

Plants will be a function of soil, slope, temperature, precipitation, evaporation, wind, fire (as an example might be mentioned the jack pines of Michigan which occur as a part of the plant succession following forest fires, of other plants, which act through soil conditioning, competition, etc.), of animals (which affect plants through destruction as in the case of insects, through seed dispersal, through actual planting and grazing), of time, etc.

The animals in a given biota will be functions of soil, temperature, precipitation, wind, fire, plants providing food and cover, other animals that act through competition, predation, parasitism, etc., time, etc.

This perhaps tiresome catalogue of inter-relationships is far from exhaustive. I have merely abstracted some of the salient facts. It is not to be thought that all of them are present in every environment. Deserts and the Arctic are especially appealing to ecologists as research areas because the number of elements is reduced and the possibility of understanding inter-relationships is correspondingly much greater. The most complex environments are probably found in the sea at the convergence of major current areas as, for example, where the Humboldt or Peru current meets the Equatorial Counter Current, or in tropical forests. It is largely because of the complexity of the dependent variables in this last region that civilized man has encountered such great difficulty in coming to terms with it.

When so many variables in these environments are dependent upon the status of other elements, each of which, as a variable, is also unstable, we should expect to find a natural environment in a state of flux. This is, as every field naturalist knows, the normal situation.

One need not have much technical training as zoologist or botanist to see the changes that are taking place around the edge of shallow lakes filling with decaying vegetation, or receiving a normal complement of silt, areas that have been swept by fire, bays where one or more variables have been altered by such a major force as the disease that some ten years ago swept through the eel grass (Zostera marina) of the Atlantic coast, or in the great swaths that have been ripped through eastern forests by recent wind storms, smashing down trees, opening the forest floor to the full impact of the sunlight, exposing the soil to the effect of rain and wind, etc. Here, what might be called dominant variables have been affected and the impact of this on the host of variables dependent upon them is dramatic.

Climax is the name given to an area in which the relationships of the dependent variables have, usually after a long period of time, finally balanced one another and achieved an equilibrium except in micro-areas. Examples of the climax are our own short grass prairies, the beech-maple forest of our southeast, and the Taiga, or vast belt of coniferous forest that sweeps across Canada, northern Europe and Siberia. Even in such landscapes as this, wherever lakes are being filled by silt or decaying vegetation, where there has been a fire, or trees have been felled by wind, one can see the reversal of the processes and the struggle to regain the equilibrium on a small area. Once a climax has been achieved it will maintain itself during centuries, unless disturbed by some such factor as a shift in climate. In this case, in effect, the change in temperature and/or distribution of precipitation acting upon the other dependent variables in the complex, reverses the trend toward equilibrium and places the erstwhile climax in the status of a sub-climax which must now adjust itself to the new conditions. A change in x brings about a corresponding change in y.

In the discussion so far there has been little mention of man. The reason for this is that until recently, in most of the world, he has been an insignificant factor in the physical complex. In 1650, only 300 years ago, his total population probably did not much exceed that of Pakistan and India today. His time-binding characteristic, to which so much weight is given by Korzybski, has acted as an effective force only during the last 10,000 years or so or probably less than one percent of the time since he emerged as a time-binding anthropoid.

For millenia, man, too, was a part of the natural climax, he had to be, or perish. Korzybski observed that "in the case of primitive tribes which apparently have not progressed at all for many thousands of years, we always find, among other reasons, some special doctrines or creeds, which proclaim very efficiently, often by killing off individuals (who always are responsible for progress in general), that any progress or departure from 'time-honored' habits or prejudices 'is a mortal sin' or what not." Here a significant phrase, apparently given little weight by Korzybski is "which apparently have not progressed at all for many thousands of years."

Many human aggregates in all parts of the world have evolved culture patterns--time-binding structural relationships--that so little disturbed the equilibrium developed among the dependent variables of the physical environment in which they live that, measured by the biological criterion of survival, they have been extremely successful. Notable examples are primitive tribes in Africa, South America and Australia, and peasant societies in south China and western Europe. Indeed, these last two evolved ways of life that so well fit into the structure of dependent variables of their respective geographies that it would seem they must be considered functions of the physical environment. It should be noted that these particular cultures, in primitive and peasant states, have lived close to the process level and have been relatively little influenced by such high order abstractions as money, legal codes, political doctrine, etc. Perhaps there is a moral here but this is not the occasion to attempt to state it.

These human societies that have maintained stability over long periods have developed what might be called a cultural climax. Their agriculture, industry if any, economic system, medicine, family structure, religion, value systems, ethical codes, justice, military capacity, many of which involve such lower order abstractions that they are virtually at the process level, and all involving dependent variables, have arrived at an equilibrium comparable to that found in the Taiga or short-grass prairie. That we may consider this climax inferior to our way of life is beside the point. It would scarcely seem our province--though this would be rank heresy to some of our active do-gooders--to say that these people are better or worse off than we. (A cynical friend of mine, attached to our diplomatic service in one of the so-called backward countries, remarked, "The first function of our Point IV program is to make people realize how unhappy they are.")

The one lesson we should learn from an understanding of structure--the organism-as-a-whole-in-the-environment-as-a-whole--is that it is indefensible to consider any of these factors in isolation, but that they must be seen as part of the total situation. And, as we look at any set of dependent variables in the sub-climax stage, we must be fully aware of the fourth dimension. The rapid increase of the population in Great Britain resulted in many accomplishments that would generally be conceded to be 'good,' but most of these have been variables dependent on forces that the British can no longer control, and it would be a rash individual indeed who, following the British trend through from the 19th Century, would today say that it is 'good.' Sweden, whose complex of dependent variables is widely admired, has developed most of her structure on two variables over which she exerts no control: importation of raw materials, including fuel, food and fertilizer, and sale of her manufactured products in foreign markets. Should either of these variables be significantly changed as by war or depression, the effect on the structure of the Swede-in-his-environment could be profound.

To a very considerable extent the increased integration results from dependence on such high order abstractions as money, newspapers, with their wire services such as the Associated Press and the United Press, and most recently the radio. Not many years ago a president could blunder and blush relatively unseen, today his blunder (if not his blush) is reported within a few hours upon the front pages of newspapers in every major city in the world. The Word, man's most useful time-binding device, has been given a currency that even fifty years ago would have been considered unbelievable. Unfortunately the increase in communication has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in our powers of evaluation and the "Big Lie" has become a most dangerous tool, not only in the hands of the advertising profession but in the service of such dictators as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. This, most of us in the West are agreed upon.

Not many of us, however, are aware of the fact that the "half-lie," a label we might in all fairness pin on the "half-truths" that have so much currency today, may in the end prove to be as dangerous as the Big Lie. That these half-lies are spread in good faith does not draw their fangs. They may have an equally potent influence on the dependent variables by which men live, and when the truth finally prevails, the reaction against the half-lie may be as violent as against the Big Lie.

Not all of the half-lies originate in official propaganda sources. One of their most fruitful spawning beds today is Hollywood, and the high-level abstractions we call "supercolossal features" have today convinced hundreds of millions of people that we must be a rather despicable nation. On a number of occasions I have had foreigners say to me, "Oh yes, I know all about the United States. I go to the movies." A friend in the Malayan Forest Service told me of an argument he heard between two boatmen, with whom he was traveling, as to whether Tarzan or Tom Mix was the greatest man in America! The dress, ethics, and it is said, even the sex habits of peoples throughout the world have been influenced by what a small group of people in Hollywood thinks will have a box-office appeal.

As a matter of unhappy fact, the abstractions which are words, like the abstractions which are motion pictures, are constantly identified, as Korzybski points out repeatedly, with 'reality.' When this is done even by our own leaders, how can we expect the millions of India, Ceylon, Africa, etc., to be any wiser? It is extremely important to recognize that upon the structure of dependent variables that make up our physical world, we are attempting, Canute-wise, to impose a controlling structure of symbolic, semantic variables. And as we alter these, in a revolutionary manner, and as a consequence attempt to torture physical structure into a shape that will conform to our verbal structure, we are reversing the natural order and trying to make the territory fit the map. For example, when in the name of 'Democracy,' 'Christianity' and 'Capitalism' we deliberately superimpose a western demographic and economic structure upon peoples living in tropical rain forests, we are simply asking for trouble.

Notions such as are expressed by the words democracy, justice, and human rights--multiordinal terms--are dependent variables. Such a high-order abstraction as 'democracy' represents a structure of dependent variables that make up a culture pattern. One of the most important of these variables is education, which can be developed only through a system of schools, provided with books, based on scholarship and scientific research, and adequately staffed with teachers. The availability of these, and especially their quality, will depend upon sufficient surplus wealth to support activities, and provide physical materials, in ways that are only remotely productive. Each of these elements is itself a dependent variable that, if it were possible to evaluate it mathematically, would have to be given a different rating in Guatemala and New Zealand, Mississippi and California. In poverty-stricken, overcrowded, countries like India and China, where the vast majority of the people live on the bare edge of subsistence and where even the raw materials of buildings, laboratories, books, libraries, and a free press are available in only minute quantities per person, the abstraction 'education' has little reference to what it might be in the United States and Sweden and is far removed, indeed, from the process level at which education operates.

Because the actual scarcity of physical materials is an all too potent factor limiting the process 'education,' and the dependence of this variable on such a withered, anaemic base results in a process that is of little use in helping those who receive the 'education' to adjust themselves adequately to the complex modern world, they are likely to continue to be deluded by high order abstractions, to identify these with 'reality,' and thus to fall victim to communist and fascist dictators. Just as an absence of 'education' may prove an effective limiting factor on democracy, so may a lack of understanding of and respect for lawful processes, and an unwillingness to abide by the decision of the majority, etc. In the parts of the world where the normal processes of democratic elections are replaced by assassination as the means of changing the government--and this would seem to include much of Latin America, Africa, and the Near, Middle and Far East--'democracy' differs little from Korzybski's "blah-blah-blah."

Our system of political democracy, which has never functioned perfectly, has always consisted of a structure of variables that, since they were dependent upon many other variables, have constantly undergone changes that may or may not have been for the better. Nineteenth century thinkers increased their understanding of the structural relationship between political democracy and economic democracy and, for a time at least, changed both processes so that they became increasingly satisfactory to the majority of the peoples of many western countries. Economic democracy, however, involves a very complex structure in which the process world is inextricably mixed with very high-order abstractions such as money, in a rapidly changing system of dependent variables. While the structure was initially built on the process level, abstractions of higher orders, farther and farther removed from the process level of land and barter, have come to exert increasingly greater influence, and verbal, symbolic abstractions are actually affecting the process level. An instance of this is the policy of the United States Department of Agriculture which, through its system of parity payments, has induced the farmers of the United States to accept vast quantities of the symbol money, a dependent variable of an extremely high order of abstraction, in exchange for the fertility, structure and water retention capacity of their soil. As the money variable decreases in its power to accumulate objects that the farmers require, the government simply increases the number of symbols, or substitutes others marked with numbers of a higher order. Meanwhile the calcium, phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, a host of micro-elements, colloids, and organic matter are removed from the farmer's land at an increasingly greater rate. This is done, in part, so that we can ship the products of the American farmers' land to foreign countries that, identifying the abstractions human rights, justice, economics, democracy, etc., with some sort of 'reality' at the process level, feel they are entitled to receive them--even though these crops have been produced through destructive processes.

The world island is dangerously close to being filled with human beings and (within the present structure of dependent variables, including education, communication, scientific knowledge, technology and its application) can no longer safely permit the structure of dependent variables at submicroscopic, microscopic, and macroscopic process levels to be distorted to fit the structure of semantic, verbal maps--a reversal of the natural order and, therefore unsane.

We are, at the present time, in the midst of one of the most profound revolutions in the history of the world, if not the most profound. Not only is the physical structure of dependent variables being altered more thoroughly, through the application of physics, chemistry, genetics, engineering, etc., than at any period since the Renaissance, the 17th Century's agricultural revolution, the 18th Century's industrial revolution, and the 19th Century's sanitary--or vital--revolution. The 20th Century's physical revolution is indivisibly part of a semantic revolution that is more effective at the psychological level--and therefore at the physical level--than the Christian revolution, the Reformation, the Franco-American revolutions, or the Darwinian revolution that freed mankind from thralldom to priestcraft.

Though man is in more complete control of the structure of physical variables than at any time in his history, and today's commonplace would have been yesterday's miracle, in the most literal sense, he is at once master and captive of his semantic structure to an extent that would have been equally incredible a few decades ago.

He is captive in Moscow, Belgrade, Rome, Peiping, Washington, etc.--wherever he has identified the word with the process, the propositional function with the proposition. This, unhappily, means that he is captive nearly everywhere since the structure of our semantic reactions is such that we have elaborated a beautiful map on which our modern semantic fantasies are as carefully delineated as the Neptunes, sea serpents, Aeoluses, etc., of the 15th Century charts. Our symbols are Aristotelian but without a date to indicate that they were valid 2,000 or more years ago, or Marxian, without an indication that they were charted in the library of the British Museum in the middle of the last century. We still navigate by these maps and it is small wonder that at times we pile up on shoals, or even continental shelves, that were unknown when the Aristotelian, and/or Marxian maps were devised.

Those who have re-educated themselves in 1952, non-Aristotelian structure, through the formulations of Korzybski or some of his colleagues, will have learned to discriminate among orders of abstraction, to separate symbol and 'reality,' to date and extensionalize--i.e., to work by formulations that correspond to the world of process as it is now understood by science.

The percentage of those who have learned not to confuse orders of abstraction, not only in the total world population but among world leaders, is dismayingly small. The vast bulk of mankind, acting upon what was taught to their parents before the latter were eight years of age (a reasonable enough procedure when societies, like the physical world, were characterized by the equilibrium of the climax) is acting upon assumptions that have little to do with the present 'reality' of rapidly changing systems of dependent variables.

When, in a four-dimensional process world one's behavior is adapted to a verbal, symbolic structure that approximates such a three-dimensional world as never was, chaos, catastrophe and destruction are not far ahead. Korzybski's formulations, difficult though they may seem, and imperfect as he admitted them to be, are one of the few charts that fit not only territory of 1952, but that of the world's immediate future. Is it vain to hope that those bearing the responsibility of charting our survival will at least give respectful consideration to his up-to-the-minute presentation of the structure in which we have our being?
"If the world has nearly destroyed itself, it is not from lack of
knowledge in the sense that we lack the knowledge to cure cancer or
release atomic energy, but is due to the fact that the mass of men have
not applied to public policy knowledge which they already possess, which
is indeed of almost universal possession, deducible from the facts of
everyday life. If this is true--and it seems inescapable--then no
education which consists mainly in the dissemination of 'knowledge' can
save us. If men can disregard in their policies the facts they already
know, they can just as easily disregard new facts which they do not at
present know. What is needed is the development in men of that
particular type of skill which will enable them to make social use of
knowledge already in their possession; enable them to apply simple,
sometimes self-evident, truths to the guidance of their common life."
--Sir Norman Angell, 1941, as quoted in Lee's Language Habits in Human

Excerpted from General Semantics Bulletin Nos. 10-11, Autumn-Winter 1952-53. Dr. Vogt authored Road to Survival and served as National Director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The complete article is accessible online at:
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Author:Vogt, William
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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