Modern organic metaphors for society have run parallel to the very idea of sociology as a science, starting with Comte and Spencer’s use of the term “social organism” (Comte, 1830–42; Spencer, 1897). These metaphors provide a self-renewing source of debate, analogies, and disanalogies. Processes of social regulation, conservation, growth, and reproduction provoke an irresistible epistemic resonance and make us lose little time in offering explanations resembling those of biological regulation, conservation, growth, and reproduction. The phenomenon has not been restricted to metaphor-hungry social scientists: the final chapter of W. B. Cannon’s The wisdom of the body (1932) is called “Relations of biological and social homeostasis.” Attempts to apply a modern theory of living organisms — the theory of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980) — to social systems are but the latest installment in this saga. Despite the appeal of the organic metaphor, there are good reasons to remain skeptical of these parallels. “Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede,” says G. K. Chesterton (1910) ironically in his essay against the medical fallacy. Doctors may disagree on the diagnosis of an illness, he says, but they know what is the state they are trying to restore: that of a healthy organism (implying, admittedly, a rather unproblematic concept of health). In social systems, a “social illness” confronts us with precisely the opposite situation: the disagreement is about what the healthy state should be.
Research Professor on society, culture, art, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, neuroscience, autopoiesis, self-organization, complexity, systems, networks, rhizomes, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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