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.

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