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Curiosity vs Conformity

“Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” – Vladamir Nabakov

It’s becoming increasingly common for leadership coaches and innovation experts to espouse the benefits, and even necessity, of curiosity. And yet we also know, as I explained in a previous post, that education systems and workplaces typically discourage curiosity.

Why is this? What is it about curiosity that is so repellent?

Curiosity, actually, has a very long history of being seen as dangerous; we all know the aphorism, “Curiosity killed the cat”. The Greek myth of Pandora is the classic tale of curiosity gone awry. Zeus commissions Haephaestus to design ‘Pandora’, the first woman, as a trap for Prometheus in revenge for his stealing fire. Zeus then gives Pandora a gift on her wedding day, a beautiful jar, but forbids her from opening it to see the contents. As we all know, Pandora’s curiosity gets the better of her, releasing all the evils known to humanity. Another even more familiar creation myth is also a tale of the danger of curiosity: the story of Paradise. Eve cannot resist the temptation to eat of the apple of the tree of knowledge, the result of which is humanity being expelled from Paradise by the angry God, to live and work ever after in toil and suffering.

The stories of Pandora and Paradise have quite a few things in common. In both cases curiosity is represented by the feminine, in both cases curiosity is related to contravening a masculine authority, in both cases there is a punishment for stealing a transformational power that only the gods can have (fire and knowledge), and in both cases the punishment is permanent and catastrophic.

Evidently, according to the myths, there can be a very high price to pay for curiosity.

What is the authority that would punish curiosity?

Mario Livio states it plainly in his TedTalk ‘The Case for Curiosity’: “Who is it that doesn’t want you to be curious? Totalitarian regimes. People who have something to hide.” Trump - Media the enemy of the peopleA powerful indictment against those who reject questions! What is that totalitarian regimes do the world over: claim that the Free Press – the questioning corps – is the enemy of the people.

Curiosity – the virtuous cycle of questions – is revelatory: it wants to know… its got to know. And so, where there is much to hide, it is most unwelcome, and so it is that this essay opened with Nabakov’s exclamation that “Curiosity… is insubordination in it’s purest form.” So curiosity, in the context of political oppression, can be a cognitive Molotov cocktail.

Curiosity is typically challenging to an insecure status quo. In classrooms and also boardrooms ‘the way things are done’ can prove to be immutably resistant to change. Curiosity may question ‘the way things are done’, and make those who benefit from the way things are done feel vulnerable. This feeling of vulnerability is rarely welcome. Furthermore we live in a culture in which teachers and managers are expected to have answers. Any really good question is hard to answer… but rather than provoking a thoughtful reflection, or discussion, or avenue of exploration, in an insecure culture it will provoke a fiercely defensive rebuke.

There are, however, much more subtle, and possibly more powerful, ways in which curiosity is suffocated. If – as we learned in a previous essay – anomalies, misfits and deviations heighten curiosity, we can also say that habit and conformity suppress it. And we are indeed creatures of conformity. The renowned and somewhat disturbing series of experiments done by Solomon Asch in 1951 demonstrated with great clarity the fact that a majority of people will literally deny the evidence of what they clearly see with their very own eyes if it risks social alienation, even amongst a group of strangers. Put in a room with a small group of actors who were instructed to all agree on a patently false statement about a chart they were shown test subjects would – despite evident discomfort – almost always agree with ‘the group’. Conformity can be a great silencer of questions than threats of imprisonment.

In Susan Engels’ book ‘The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood’ she discusses a complex and subtle array of cues by which adults – parents and teachers – encourage or discourage curiosity in children. She describes how “different avenues of influence converge and blend to create an overall environment that may be more or less conducive to children’s curiosity”. “Although curiosity leads to knowledge”, Engel writes, “it can stir up trouble, and schools too often have an incentive to squelch it in favor of compliance and discipline.” (1)

Cultures of conformity – whether in homes, classrooms, tribes or workplaces – are just such ‘overall environments’. Culture is made up of webs of significance, nests of commitments, cycles of behaviour and paths of influence which mesh and blend together to create an overall environment. Cultures also have, like any organism, an immune system which a poignant curiosity may provoke, releasing the antibodies of defensiveness, shunning, demotion, degrading, expulsion, aggression, etc.

(1) Excerpt from Susan Engels, ‘The Hungry Mind’ @ Salon.com


The Neurology of Curiosity & What Makes Us Curious

How does it feel when you are searching for the possible answer.” – Matthias Gruber

Curiosity: NeuroChemical Learning Overdrive

Probably the most exciting frontier of psychological research today is the field of neurobiology. With an exponentially rapidly evolving panoply of new tools with which to observe the brain in action and analyze its chemistry and network circuitry, we’re making extraordinary discoveries that have great ramifications beyond the field of neurology.

Your brain on curiosity

How does it feel when we are curious? There’s an urge, an excitement, a stimulation; curiosity is energizing! And what’s happening in our brain when we are feeling this way? Curiosity activates the mid-brain and the nucleus acumens which are part of the dopaminergic circuit (1), the brain’s ‘wanting system’. These are the areas of the brain involved when we anticipate rewards like money or food or sex. Essentially curiosity behaves in the brain like a hunger, recruiting the same brain areas whose function is to maintain motivation and drive towards a reward – in this case a cognitive reward (2). As astropohysicist Mario Livio puts it bluntly, “Satisfying our curiosity is like having good sex.”(3)

The activation of curiosity also activates another potent combination in the brain, that of the hippocampus and its communication with the mid-brain. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory and particularly with forming new memories. When this area of the brain is activated in relationship to the part of the brain associated with motivation you have a very simple and massively important result: learning. “Curiosity energizes us via the brain’s wanting system so that we go out seeking new information and curiosity helps us to make our memories stick.”(4) The obvious import of this? If you want learning to happen, find a way to make folks curious about what you want them to learn.

Curiosity’s Learning Vortex

Black Sheep Excuse Me - outliers anomalies

Outliers & Anomalies

Memory researcher Hans Gruber discovered that curiosity not only dramatically increases the retention of information that a subject is curious about, it also significantly increases the retention of ‘incidental information’ that ‘happened to be present’ while a subject is curious. People who are experiencing a surge in curiosity don’t just remember more about the topics they’re curious about, they remember more about everything happening while they’re in a curiosity surge.

If optimal learning is achieved when curiosity is activated, the obvious question is, “How do we activate curiosity?” Astrophysicist Mario Livio, in his TED talk on ‘The Case for Curiosity’, says that there are two things that activate curiosity: surprise, and what he calls ‘confounded evidence’. When we are surprised we have an expectation, and this expectation is foiled by something else happening. Curiosity naturally surges to comprehend, and fill, the void between the expected and the unexpected: ‘surprise’ is a temporary cognitive void. Extreme outliers, anomalies and non-conformity – anything that breaks an expectation or pattern – are also a form of surprise and activate curiosity.

Confounded evidence’ occurs where there are a multitude of possible answers to a problem, or multiple possible futures to a situation. The instigation of uncertainty arouses curiosity (5) and, as research psychologist Susan Engel writes, curiosity “can be understood as the human need to resolve uncertainty.”(6)

Curiosity and the Knowledge Gap

There are two extremes in which people have very little curiosity: people are not curious about something they already know everything about; and people are not curious about something they know nothing about. Curiosity is most active where there is a knowledge gap. The greatest masters of optimising the potency of that knowledge gap are storytellers and game developers. The power of suspense is its leverage over curiosity; we just gots to know! And the power of gaming is the drive to know what’s on the ‘next level’; we just gots to level up! And, let us not forget, perhaps the grand masters of seducing curiosity… BuzzFeed… “Evil or not, Buzzfeed headlines work because they evoke an overwhelming sense of curiosity.”(7) writes digital marketer Ahmad Munawar.

The neurology of curiosity – tied so deeply to dopamine, the brain’s motivation and reward chemical – demonstrates how ancient, intrinsic and important it is to human evolution. It also demonstrates its current significance in how we can face, and excel in, our current immediate challenges, obstacles and disruptions.


(1) Dopamine has traditionally been associated with ‘pleasure’, and with ‘pleasure seeking’, but it is now being more directly associated with a basic ‘drive’ or ‘motivation’ which includes wanting and desiring, but also seeking and searching.

(2) Hank Pellisier writes in his article ‘Cracking the Code on Curiosity’, “Research suggests that dopamine should now be more associated with our need to discover things, of wanting to know more, than making us feel pleasure. It keeps us motivated. Dopamine drives our goal-directed behavior. It causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It may have kept cavemen alive.” http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/cracking-the-code-on-curiosity/

(3) ‘The Case for Curiosity’, Mario Livio. TedXMidAtlantic.

(4) ‘This is Your Brain On Curiosity’, Matthias Gruber, TEDXUC Davis Salon

(5) Curiosity researcher Daniel Berlyne characterized it as “an optimum amount of novelty, surprisingness, complexity, change, or variety.”

(6) Susan Engel in ‘Cracking the Code on Curiosity’

(7) ‘The Buzzfeed Guide to Sending Irresistible Email’, Ahmad Munawar


Why Curiosity?

curiouser & curiouser

I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.
– Albert Einstein

The World Economic Forum – backed by an outpouring of mildly panic stricken white papers from big name organisational consultancies (1) – hails our era as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are already riding the rising wave of an increasingly complex fusion of technologies – digital, biological, material, social – which will disrupt, revolutionize and transform almost all spheres of human culture and conduct.  Artificial intelligence, blockchain encryption, genomics, 3D printing, driverless vehicles, ‘the internet of things’, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, renewable energy systems; any one of these innovations will have a profound impact on technical, social and organisational structures as we currently know them. The combination of all of them emerging simultaneously is, lightly stated, mind-boggling (2).

We’re entering an era of hyper-complex rapid change which will be experienced by most as serial disruption.
How to cope?
How to manage?
How to navigate intelligent pathways through tumult?

Social researchers and organisational experts from the Harvard Business Review (3) to Brene Brown (4) are proclaiming the value of curiosity to successfully navigate the turbulent cultural vicissitudes of the early 21st century.

But, what is curiosity?

Curiosity is the human trait that has enabled a physically feeble species with an exceedingly lengthy and vulnerable infancy to become completely dominant.  It’s the drive that has led to every important invention and exploration that humans have engaged in, from pre-digesting food by cooking it over a fire, to sending a vehicle (called ‘Curiosity’) to Mars. Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry, a virtuous cycle of recurring, adaptive questioning. It’s a proactive journey of questioning, rather than a reactive defensive entrenchment.  Curiosity is a call towards something, rather than a flight from something.  Curiosity is not driven by crisis, but by wonder and awe, and it’s a drive that’s inspired people to take extraordinary risks and endure extraordinary hardships. As James Stephens wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will, indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from…”

I would like to pose that curiosity is the characteristic best adapted to resiliently navigate the kind of emergent complexity and serial disruption that we face as a species existing on an astonishingly unlikely finite living system.  Curiosity is the most useful response to what is known in strategic leadership as VUCA; Volatility/Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  It’s a key to innovation, productivity, agility, continuous renewal, well-being and fulfillment.  It responds mindfully to crises, it discovers opportunities in obstacles, it enables the release of outmoded habits and patterns and is a core element of basic resilience. But, oddly enough, curiosity is not taught in schools or places of employment, and, in many cases, it’s actively discouraged.

Why would we discourage curiosity, when it’s many benefits are so very obvious?
Is curiosity dangerous?
What, really, is curiosity?
And, if it’s of value, how do we cultivate curiosity?

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll explore these questions.

We’ll go on a journey exploring wonder and respect, conceptual bubbles and perception blinders, disruption and hard transitions, habit creation and dissembly, resistance and innovation, and vulnerability and creativity.  We’ll look at the nature of ‘questioning’, the neurology of curiosity, the relationship of curiosity to ‘mindfulness’, and how habits and preconceptions can suffocate curiosity.  We’ll look at curiosity and learning, and curiosity as a disruptor and a rebel.  We’ll explore vulnerability, experimentation and failure, and curiosity as a navigator.  Finally, we’ll dip our toes into the real question….how do we ourselves, and our organisations, become more curious?

I hope you’ll join me in this curious ongoing investigation and become, in the words of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, “Curiouser and curiouser”.




(1) Age of Disruption. Are Canadian Firms Prepared. Deloitte.

(2) Above and beyond the exponentially increasing speed of technological innovation we are already dealing with the increasing effects of climate change, resultant mass migrations, increasing inequality, and increasing ethnic division demonstrated by the rise of terrorism, nationalism and authoritarianism.

(3) Tomas Chumorro-Premuzic, Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence. Harvard Business Review.

Warren Berger. Why Curious People are Destined for the C-Suite. Harvard Business Review.

Todd B. Kashdan, Companies Value Curiosity but Stfle It Anyway. Harvard business Review.

(4) “The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.” – Brene Brown

“Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” – Brene Brown


‘Disruption’ is asking the Question, ‘Who Are You’?

Disruption painting

Last month I attended and gave a workshop at ‘Berlin Change Days’ – a conference full of an extraordinary diversity of bright, creative and highly progressive ‘Change Agents’ – whose theme this year was ‘Disruption’.  The conference opened with a mock trial of ‘disruption’, debating whether the word still has credence and traction, or whether it has become a washed-out meaningless buzzword from its overuse in contemporary ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ parlance.  In a deft and creative move the organizers had an artist-provocateur disrupt the trial itself, demonstrating the word in action.

What really is ‘disruption’?
What has to happen for ‘disruption’ to occur?

Disruption painting

Collaborative painting done during workshop at Berlin Change Days.

The word itself opens with the intrinsically negative connotations of the prefix ‘dis’. In Roman mythology ‘Dis’ is the ruler of the underworld, and Dante carried that forward in the Divine Comedy in which the ‘City of Dis’ encompasses the sixth through the ninth circles of Hell. Today, when you ‘dis’ someone, you’re insulting them. ‘Dis’ is followed by the word ‘rupture’ which indicates a ‘break’, ‘burst’ or ‘breach’.  A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency, a ruptured pipe is one that is broken.  ‘Rupture’ is not so much a change word as a word connoting severe damage requiring emergency action.

So, ‘disruption’ is no ordinary change.  Nor is it the change necessarily resulting from an innovation, which is where we see it used so often today in entrepreneurial circles. While a new and innovative idea may have a significant impact, does it actually ‘rupture’ something? If an organisation can adapt to the innovation – by changing tactics, by buying it up, by hiring expertise – it’s not ‘disruptive’.

To break it down, disruption requires two core elements. Firstly there needs to be a functional identity: a clearly defined organism or organisation, an operating system or a set of rules, a score or a choreography of some kind.  Secondly we need an intrusion that challenges the functional identity with sufficient force that it ruptures some aspect of its core process such that it cannot continue functioning without ‘radical’ (emergency) procedures.

Real disruption is a wound to the integrity of an identity.

Band-aids don’t work on ruptures. Recovery from real disruption requires more than ‘repair’ or ‘replacement’. In fact disruption isn’t asking for ‘recovery’, a return to a previous mode of operation, at all.  Response to real disruption requires radical adaptation, structural transformation, a change in identity.

Disruption is asking a question.
The question that disruption is asking is ‘Who are you?’
How you navigate that question determines the path of your evolution.
Will you react or respond?

Will you deflect, dismiss, resist, deny or hide?
Or will you recognise it, meet it, acknowledge it, bear it?
Will you be willing to wrestle with it and, more importantly, with yourself?
Will you seek to understand it and, more importantly, seek to understand yourself?

From a theological perspective ‘disruption’(1) has a strong correlation to the ancient Greek word ‘apocalypse’.  ‘Apo’ translates as ‘out from’, and ‘kaluptein’ is ‘cover’. The word uniquely combines a sense of catastrophic termination with revelation and disclosure. Really answering disruption’s challenging call requires diving into a deeper level (the sixth through ninth level?) to ‘discover’ and ‘uncover’ deeper more intrinsic core strains and veins of meaning from which can emerge (emergent-cy) new vigorous forms and paths forward.


(1) Interestingly, Japanese contemporary artist Moriko Mori defines ‘Rupture’, in her Rebirth exhibition, as “the state between death and rebirth”.

In Tibetan Buddhism the ‘state’ between death and rebirth is called ‘Bardo’ and is the subject matter of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Chogyam Trungpa reinterpreted Bardo as simply “that which exists between situations” asserting that the spiritual and psychological processes that we go through in periods of extreme disruption are very much akin to those that we go through at death.


Spasm, Splinting, and Change Dynamics: Injury, Immobilisation & Aggravation

Spasm & Splinting

So, I threw my back out…
I planted somewhere over a million trees in an evidently overlengthy treeplanting career, once upon a time rowed a dory down the coast of BC, and, for a time, took great pleasure in something called ‘Martial Dance’ which involved improvisationally and consensually flinging one another all over the place with great grace, so, my back has done its fair share and periodically lets me know it’s had enough.

fight flightThe cause is pretty much always a combination of heavy object(s), reaching, twisting and stress; in this case an innocent enough maneuvering of an amp into my ‘95 Honda (aka ‘The Blue Flame’).  Not uncommonly, having set one of my lower vertebra adrift, I exacerbate it by doing some other activity; in this case Lebron Jamesing with my ten year old who is on that delicious cusp of finally thoroughly whooping his dad at a game that he’s far more gifted at.  Baddaboom baddabay and I’m calling the game a little short and gentling home to lay my sorry ass flat on its back with a huge sigh of relief.

 ‘Herniated disc’ = one wrong move = shooting nerve pain + persistent exhaustion aching through glutes, hips, all through lower back, not to mention, in my case, a permanent slightly twisted forward tilt.  Like I said, I’ve been here a few times before and I know know that, despite an urgent desire to do something, anything to fix it as soon as possible – massage, twist, do yoga, stretch – the best thing to do at first is almost nothing except, as often as possible, lie down and give it some relief.

 Fact is, the pain is there for a reason.
Human physiology is a marvel.
Pain is a marvel – if an unwelcome one – and has a most compelling story to tell.  Pain’s great and powerful cut through all the crap nervous system megaphone announcement is “STOP”.   Stop doing whatever you’re doing that’s damaging some part of you.  In the case of back trauma it’s a whole lot of ‘STOP MOVING’ because a very high percentage of typical movements mobilise your lower back and/or pelvis.  Mobilising your lower back scrapes your herniated disc across the highway of nerves running just beside your vertebra and, nerves being what they are, you get an electric shock wave of shooting pain jolting you into immobility.

Mobility causes damage and excruciating pain, and excruciating pain is paralysing and debilitating, so the autonomic nervous system pulls a brilliant trick to immobilise the traumatised area.  It puts the muscles directly around the injury into spasm, which makes them as hard and unyielding as a piece of wood. The autonomic nervous system ‘sets’ the injured area in a splint of spasm.[1]  The traumatised area becomes effectively frozen.

Emotional & Organisational Splinting & Freezing

 Physiological ‘splinting’ is a good metaphor for some forms of both emotional and organisational trauma.  Splinting occurs, non-volitionally, around physical, emotional, organisational and social trauma[2] to reduce further damage and pain.

 The American physiologist Walter Cannon, who coined the term ‘homeostasis’ to describe the ‘internal fixity’ he believed necessary for an organism to survive, was the first to describe the ‘fight-or-flight response’; “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival”.  More recently PTSD specialist Pete Walker elaborated on ‘fight-or-flight’ in describing the 4Fs: fight, flight, freeze or fawn, which are psychological response to perceived harm.  

 Simply stated, the anxiety caused by real or perceived threat to which one feels helpless to respond can result in psychic ‘freezing’ well documented in PTSD sufferers.  The symptoms can be strong involuntary disassociation from situations which trigger memories, emotional ‘numbness’, or feelings of complete powerlessness, despair and futility.  They can also manifest as ideological and ideational rigidity or even fixity, as well as in addictive behaviour. In organisations a traumatic situation – a hostile takeover, deep layoffs[3], market failure – may be ‘fixed’ or ‘splinted’ by temporary authoritarianism, extreme legalisation or bureaucraticisation.

 Aggravation & Enculturation

 In physiological ‘freezing’ the functions of the immobilised muscle groups need to be covered for, so the brain calls up substitute muscle groups which, while not adapted for that role, can temporarily ‘pinch hit’.[4] A localised injury, by calling in temporal support, sets off chains of adaptations resulting in global shifts in the ecology of coordination that characterises healthy movement and posture.  Prolonged reliance on substitutions, however, will result in the brain neuroplastically rewiring itself such that aberrant and substitute posturo-movements becomes normalized and permanent.[5]

 The same can hold true for individuals and organisations: ideological fixations, addictive behaviours, authoritarianism, legalism – all of which may have been a temporary ‘fix’ for a traumatic situation – become normalized and enculturated.  However, because temporary fixes are inadequate long-term solutions they typically engender more instances of conflict and turbulence hence further aggravating an initial trauma. A vicious circle takes hold.

[1] “By ‘splinting’ the area with spasm, the hypercontracted (shortened) muscles, ligaments and fascia effectively reduce painful joint movements. Splinting is a common form of protective guarding clinicians address day-in and day-out… “
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[2] Taboo is social splinting. Taboo is a socially strategic immobilisation around an area of conduct in which there has been great pain and damage: sex, money, mental illness, etc.

[3] David Noer, author of Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations, gives a compelling account of ‘layoff survivor sickness’. “Survivors of most organizations are angry, depressed, anxious and fearful. They are not able or willing to take risks or focus on increasing customer service. At the very time organizations need them to be the most creative and energetic; they hunker down in the trenches, absorbed in their own toxic survivor symptoms.” – http://www.cnbc.com/id/32990164

[4] “Regardless of the reason for loss of joint play, when vertebrae are not free to move, muscles assigned the job of moving them (prime movers) cannot carry out their duties and are substituted by synergistic stabilizers, i.e., the brain sends in the subs when a key player is injured.”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)

[5] “Prolonged joint damage can set the stage for aberrant posturo-movement patterns which, in time, causes the brain, through the process of sensitization, to re-map and re-learn the dysfunctional movement as normal (neuroplasticity).”
– True Grit of Muscle Spasm: Erik Dalton (http://erikdalton.com/media/published-articles/true-grit-of-muscle-spasm/)


Translibrium: Quest-ioning Homeostasis

Translibrium: ‘Trans’ comes from the Greek ‘across’, and ‘librium’ is from the Greek ‘libra’ which connotes both balance (equilibrium) and freedom (‘libre’, liberty).


The object of the pilgrimage turned out to be a pilgrim.
– Jorge Luis Borges

In 1986 I was involved in a reconnaissance of evolutionary biology. I was doing an undergrad at Trent University with a focus on the origins of consciousness (!?). I had been buried in grand speculators on the history of civilisation; Oswald Spengler, Pitrim Sorokin and Arnold Toynbee, with a nascent sprinkling of Teilhard DeChardin.

Amongst the historians Toynbee stood out for me, in large part because he was reviewed in an obscure book called ‘Experiment in Depth: A Study of the Work of Jung, Eliot and Toynbee’ by a Quaker, PW Martin, which I had stumbled on in a second-hand bookstore. Martin’s premise from reading the three authors was that cultural transformation and renewal were realised by individuals going through a quest-like ‘creative withdrawal’ from society, initiated and guided (called out) by an intrinsic creative source that Martin called ‘the deep centre’, followed by a ‘return’ to society now informed and inspired by a rejuvenated and compelling symbolic language and imperative.

Toynbee’s contribution was through his encyclopaedic survey, briefed in ‘A Study of History’, of the rise and fall of multiple civilisations, by which he derived a theory of ‘challenge and response’ to explain how and why some societies thrive and others don’t. For Toynbee the success of a civilisations was dependent on its capacity to respond to grand challenges. Civilisations succeed “not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which raises [it] to make unprecedented effort.”

From the grand historical syntheses I drifted over to Systems Theory and Cybernetics, and then from there over to evolutionary biology. And it was a first reconnaissance of that field that turned up the central thesis and nom de plume for much of the field, ‘homeostasis’.

The concept of ‘homeostasis’ was first described by Claude Bernard in 1865. Bernard held that the basis of organic survival is ‘internal fixity’. Organisms respond to challenges by returning to their original state; the ‘fixity of the internal milieu’, as he called it.   “The constancy of the internal environment” wrote Bernard, “is the condition for free and independent life.” More than half a century later, following on Bernard, the American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term ‘homeostasis’ in 1930 to describe the ‘steady-state’ that any system requires to “maintain a constancy necessary for survival.” Internal homeostatic processes resist external pressures to maintain internal fixity. This notion quickly spread out of biology to find applications in the world of social sciences in general, and particularly Systems Theory and Cybernetics.

I had a problem with this notion of ‘homeostasis’ as a description of health.  I was an etymology junky and knew that ‘homeo’ is from the Greek meaning ‘same’ or ‘similar’, and ‘stasis’ means, you guessed it, ‘stasis’.  There was nothing that I had ever observed that could survive by staying the same or static.  So from my perspective, the notion of ‘homeostasis’ – a return to an internal fixity – was an excellent descriptor for the conditions leading to death.

Philosopher/Biologist Henri Atlan provided me with an alternate model and language.  Atlan understood organisms to have the capacity for self-organization; for emergence and newness.  In the language of biology he called ‘challenges’ ‘perturbations’. ‘Random perturbations’ are temporary disturbances to which an organism can react, neutralise, and then return to it’s original state. ‘Structural perturbations’ however are persistent, even terminal, disturbances through which an organism can survive only by elaborating a new structure.  Returning to the original state would result in obliteration.

Organisms need to continuously evolve, and their evolution creates stresses – challenges – for surrounding organisms, which must also evolve. Challenges require responses which will normally require subtle shifts in behaviour.  Greater challenges will require significant modifications, permanent structural shifts, or even full-scale migrations of identity.  Health is not the maintenance of fixity: fixity, and fixation, are fatal.  Health is a dynamic feedback requiring constant alteration, and renovation as well as periodic bouts of drastic innovation and structural transformation to respond to potentially catastrophic disruption.

As Heraclitus (is said to have) said, “You never step into the same river twice.”
And, I would add, we are all rivers.

Translibrium’ is a word I invented as a counter to ‘homeostasis’.
Trans’ comes from the Greek ‘across’, and ‘librium’ is from the Greek ‘libra’ which connotes both balance (equilibrium) and freedom (‘libre’, liberty).  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ assumes a return to an initial state as a descriptor of health, ‘translibrium’ assumes continuous adaptation as a requisite for survival.  Whereas ‘homeostasis’ emphasises returning to ‘fixity’, ‘translibrium’ emphasises a perpetual path of transformation, in response to a basic milieu of emergence and feedback, requiring novel strategies frequently characterised by an increase in complexity.