Bookshelf

Marc Pilisuk (Dept. of Applied Behavioral Sciences, U. of California, Davis), The Day Before The Day After: Psychological Accommodatins to the Extinction of all Life.

The incomprehensibility of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and the difficulties in mobilization of action to avoid it are examined as psychological problems.

Available from SFP.

Review:

Anatol Rapoport, General System Theory, Essential Concepts and Applications, 1986, Abacus Press, PBS P.O. 643, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA. $34.50.

It is satisfying to discover simple laws that unify a body of knowledge. Occasionally, much to one’s surprise, what serves as a unifying idea in one field carries over to another. It may be an amusing (or profound) observation to note that the equations describing a laser are structurally the same as those for convection in the atmosphere. What is much more baffling is the observation that the interplay between fear and rage in a dog can be described in the same mathematical language as the coexistence between gaseous and liquid water, or the fact that the analysis of the arms race is similar to that of the population dynamics of spiders and green rice leafhoppers. How does one identify the common threads linking such diverse systems? What tools are needed to carry out such a unification? These are some of the questions posed in the general system theory approach.

It is not always obvious what constitutes a system, especially if it evolves in time. This seemingly paradoxical notion of constancy amid change is central to the understanding of how a system preserves its identity and is the first of the three major themes of the book.

The study of how a system is organized can be couched in the language of information theory: ‘The more organized a structure or process is, the less information is required to specify it completely.’ The often stated idea that biological organization decreases entropy and, thus, violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics is easily refuted. The relation between thermodynamic entropy and information theory is intricate, yet clearly discussed in the book. Questions concerning goaldirectedness are tackled in a systematic way through the study of decision theory, which is the focus of the third major portion of the book.

In spite of the fact that the tools of general system theory cover many branches of mathematics, not to mention physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc., the clarity of -presentation and the simplicity of the examples make for enjoyable reading. The book is liberally sprinkled with amusing examples: the stochastic process leading to an almost sensible English sentence, the exorcism of Maxwell’s demon, an unusual look at a game of chess, and so on. I highly recommend this book for either desk or armchair reading.