The fall of cybernetics in anthropology, with citations

I’m reading an ethnobotanical ethnography of the Huastec or “Teenek” Mayans. Its a big fat impressive monograph published by Janis B. Alcorn in 1984. Here is a passage suggesting that cybernetics had come and gone from anthropology by 1980. The criticism focused on the restriction of early cybernetics modeling to closed systems. The attack is well-targeted and well-cited, pointing to a bunch of lit I hope to check out at some point.

Ethnobotanical interactions occur in an open dynamic ecosystem of natural and social components. The closed cybernetics systems once used to descrbie natural and social systems have been criticised as inadequate representations of reality (Bennett, 1976; Connell, 1978; Ellen, 1979; Friedman 1979; Futuyma, 1979; and others). Although feedback has an important stabalizing effect, other non-feedback factors operate to influence the Teenek ecosystem and the directions of its development. The friction of opposing tendencies and the introduction of new variables (themselves often the products of other internal and external processes) create a dynamic ecosystem in non-equilibrium, evolving in ways shaped by its past and its present. Less than optimal adaptations may exist because of quirks of history and available variability. But, at the very least, suboptimal adaptations are not so maladaptive as to become unbearable “load.” Evolution often proceeds along a path of trade-offs in the midst of conflict.

Besides pointing out that no useful model is an adequate representation of reality, I think its worth asserting that the closed systems of cybernetics were not an ideological commitment but an assumption of convenience that the founders hoped to be able to break one day. I’m really only speaking to the first sentence or two, I didn’t totally get the bridge from cybernetics to the picture of trade-offs. Of course my role isn’t to defend cybernetics, I’ve got my own problems with it. But I’m always interested in problems that others have faced with influential theories. Here are those citations in full:

  • Bennett, C. F. 1976. The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation. Pergamon Press, New York.
  • Connell, J. H. 1980. High diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199:1302:1310.
  • Ellen, R. F. 1979. Sago subsistence and the trade in spices. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Friedman, J. 1979. Hegelian ecology. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Futuyma, D. J. 1979 Evolutionary Biology. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts.

As a bonus, here are some fun bits from the glossary:
boliim – a large (25 cm. x 25 cm. x 10 cm.) square tamale-like ceremonial food prepared by placing an entire uncooked chicken or turkey, large chunks of meat, or a pig’s head on a flattened piece of masa dough, dribbling a thickened red chili sauce over the meat, wrapping the dough around the meat, and then wrapping the whole thing in banana or Heliconia schiedeana leaves and steaming it in a large earthen vessel for several hours. (Boliim are referred to elsewhere as “large tamales”)
Boo’waat – tranvestite male apparition.
ichich – illness caused by the heart of an older or more powerful person sapping strength from a more vulnerable heart leaving the person weak; in infants characterized by green diarrhea.
theben – weasel who climbs under the clothing of a curer-to-be as he walks down a path, tickles him/her until he/she falls unconscious, and the piles shoots of medicinal plants around him/her.
tepa’ – a person who flies over long distances repidly to steal from the rich, seen as a bright streak in the night sky.
te’eth k’al a iits’ – bitten by the moon; painful, swollon, purulent fingertips caused by pointing at the moon.
ts-itsiimbe – condition of suffering from an imposed spirit caused by spirit, human, or bird agent (usually following loss of patient’s own spirit); symptoms include midday drowsiness, poor appetite, and bad temper (occasionally equated with mestiso folk illnesses “tiricia,” “avecil,” or “mollera”)
walelaab – evil eye