Friday, October 10, 2008

Homeostasis for the body politic

As we approach Election Day, political discourse seems ever more present. The recent downturn in the financial markets and conflicts around the world turn one's attention to the imbalances in society. Even in medicine, one cannot escape considerations of the health of nations and analogies between the human body and the body politic.

In 1939, Walter Cannon published a revised and expanded edition of his 1932 work The Wisdom of the Body, a study of homeostasis in human physiology. In an epilogue, he applies these physiological principles to politics, musing on the "Relations of Biological and Social Homeostasis." His remarks are particularly interesting in light of current events.

Some excerpts:
For the present adhering fairly strictly to physiological considerations (i.e., to the supplies of food, shelter, etc.) we are forced to recognize that the homeostasis of the individual human being is largely dependent on social homeostasis. ... There are other needs, however, which in the long run are quite as urgent as the needs for water and oxygen, and which at times cannot be satisfied because of the lack of social stability. These are the elementary requirements of food and of shelter (clothing, housing and warmth), and the benefits of medical care. To specialized workers in the social organization, limited and segregated as they are by their specialization, so that they must rely almost wholly on social homeostasis, disturbances of that homeostasis may be seriously harmful. Not only may the bodily needs be inadequately supplied, but in addition there may be suffering because of a loss of a sense of security. ...

The social organism like the animal organism is subject to disturbances, some imposed from without, some due to its own activities. ... A new machine may be invented which, because it can do the work of thousands of laborers, throws thousands of laborers out of their jobs. Thus they lose for a time the opportunity to earn the money which they must have in order to take from the stream what they require. Or there may be an excessive production of certain goods so that they do not move in the stream but accumulate; or such goods have a value so much reduced that they bring little in exchange, and consequently other exchangeable goods accumulate; or men may become apprehensive of future security so that money is not used to take goods from the stream but is hoarded, and again goods accumulate; or credit may be withdrawn, which has the same effect of retarding the usual processes of trading. ... In these various types of disaster the individual members of the social organization are not responsible for the ills which circumstance forces them to endure. As more or less fixed units, performing specialized tasks in a complex system of tasks, they are incapable of making quick adjustments to new conditions as they arise. ...

The organism suggests that stability is of prime importance. It is more important than economy. ...

The organism suggests, also, that there are early signs of disturbance of homeostasis which, if sought, can be found. These warning signals are little known in the social organism, and yet their discovery and the demonstration of their real value would make contributions to social science of first-rate importance. ...

As a Lord Chancellor of England has declared, and his declaration has been approved by a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, "Necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men."

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