Swirling Star Dust
Life in Our Serendipitous Universe
Charles (Kalev) Ehin
Life on Earth is an evolving wonder or tragedy depending on from what vantage point we view the setting. What we should also not forget is that what we observe around us all came into being by chance. Further, science suggests that chance is likewise the very foundation of everything that is taking place in the whole universe and most likely as well in other parallel universes beyond ours. As a consequence everything, including our bodily compositions and the ground beneath our feet, is in relatively unpredictable constant motion.
But please relax and sit back. My focus on UnManagement.com is almost exclusively on that little ball of compressed star dust that we graciously call Mother Earth. More precisely what you’ll find on this website primarily deals with the ins and outs of human nature and how understanding it will lead to more innovative and productive social settings. That is, my intent is to shed as much “useful” light as possible on life and work in our serendipitous world based on the latest available scientific evidence. Unfortunately, too many management principles still in use today are mostly based on guesswork and “seat of the pants” theorizing.
So, first let me briefly provide some very general background information on our own kind or more precisely on the aspirations and fate of the Homo-sapiens in our neighborhood of the Universe. I will conclude by defining who we are and give you the website visitor a general perspective as to what to expect, in more detail, in books and articles displayed here.
Our Extended Home and the Cycle of Life
Our Universe is normally defined as the entirety of existence, including galaxies, stars, and planets in addition to the contents of interstellar space (including all matter and energy). Science suggests that the Universe has been run by the same physical laws and constants throughout most of its existence. Further, the Big Bang theory is the prevailing astrophysical model that describes the development of the Universe, which is calculated to be roughly 13.7 billion years old.
Also from what has been observed the Universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate. In the process, over time, old galaxies, stars and planets disintegrate while new ones are constantly forming from the “swirling star dust.” Finally, scientists have also developed various hypotheses suggesting the existence of multiple parallel universes in addition to ours. Hence, we are surrounded by all sorts of configurations of star dust, including our own bodies, which are in constant motion and relating to each other by serendipitous chance events.
As Neil Shubin succinctly suggests in The Universe Within, “Each galaxy, star, or person is the temporary owner of particles that have passed through the births and deaths of entities across the vast reaches of time and space. The particles that make us have traveled billions of years across the universe; long after we and our planet are gone, they will be a part of other worlds.”
Life in general is a characteristic that differentiates entities that have some forms of communications and self-organizing/sustaining capabilities from those that lack such capabilities. Inanimate bodies on the other hand originate from two categories: death where biological functions have ceased, or objects that simply lack such self-sustaining functions to begin with.
Self-sustaining organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis (biologically and culturally—see one of my articles) have a capacity to grow, react to stimuli, replicate and through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations.
There is conclusive evidence that suggests life began on our planet roughly 3.5 billion years ago. Further, according to the panspermia (cosmic ancestry theory) hypothesis, life on Earth may have originated from meteorites that spread organic molecules or simple life that first evolved elsewhere.
So, what does all this have to do with our daily lives and work? Fundamentally, it suggests that we are all part of an overall never ending cycle of life and death weather here on earth or out in interstellar space. Therefore, our primary focus should be on mutually beneficial relationships and not on devising better and better processes to control other self-organizing entities. In other words, it makes little sense to deliberately “swim upstream” or try to function contrary to the principles of life in a serendipitous self-organizing universe.
Knowing Who We Are
Snowballing rates of technological progressions have made societies progressively more dependent on artificially created entities, both visible and virtual. In the process we tend to ignore the biological basis of our existence and how we instinctively relate to one another. Therefore, it is to our benefit that we grasp the fact that the physiological process of homeostasis extends far beyond our bodies. That is to say, we also constantly seek to maintain dynamic equilibrium within our immediate social settings.
We are now resolutely moored in the Knowledge Age (Ehin, 2000). So, why is there seldom mention in our schools and boardrooms of the vital importance of mutually supportive relationships based on the latest findings in social neuroscience and evolutionary psychology? After all, relationships are such an important part of human nature and one of the most critical components of increased productivity and innovation (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008).
Why are we ignoring such an important part of our evolutionary make-up? Most likely it is because old habits and beliefs are hard to break. Neuroscience, for instance, has revealed that change is literally painful. It may also be that relationships are intangible and, therefore, are seldom, if ever, included in financial statements and other business reports.
Also, we humans are not quite as smart as we think we are. For instance, Michael Shermer (2011) in his book, The Believing Brain, concludes that, “On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but also the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs about the universe and ourselves, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves even while we are trying to avoid being fooled by nature.”
Also, in Everything Is Obvious, Duncan Watts (2011) illustrates how common sense reasoning and history often mislead us to believe that we understand more about human behavior than we actually do. This, of course, is why efforts to predict, manage, or manipulate social systems so often fail.
Consequently, it is extremely important to keep in mind that organizations are composed of emergent social networks, rather than artificial structures as visualized and arranged by management. These networks are organic self-organizing entities, not machines. They can be influenced but not controlled.
Accordingly, human nature should receive the utmost attention instead of machine metaphors like the Industrial Age functions of management. What is most disturbing about the lack of focus on our evolved predispositions is the fact that most work in any enterprise is accomplished within informal networks with scant management oversight.
People are constantly looking for places where the focus of each individual’s frame of mind shifts from avoiding the “dreaded power of the boss” to “engaging and enjoying the power of the surrounding, and continually evolving, mutually supportive relationships.” Therefore, what is essential is the development of organizational contexts that facilitate the emergent use of unique individual skills and talents in concert with other individuals. It is a case of compliance versus commitment.
The major factors in this churning process are the sharing of tacit knowledge (un-codified knowledge grounded in personal experiences), the expansion of social capital (goodwill provided to informal network members through valuable information, influence, and cohesion) and human nature (fundamental evolved predispositions constantly differentiating between hostile and hospitable stimuli). These factors are explained in more detail in my books and articles.
Further, we seem to consciously and unconsciously reflect on the here and now and the future almost simultaneously. In effect, we try to constantly balance the current with what lies ahead on the horizon. At the same time, as Timothy D. Wilson (2002) points out in Strangers to Ourselves, at any given point in time our minds can take in about 11 million bits of information. What’s most significant about this statistic is that we are only consciously aware of not more than forty of these pieces of information.
What this means is that each person must first interpret a given situation (process, problem, opportunity or work environment) in their own particular way before they can or will take some meaningful action. Yet we still want to manage people as if they were precisely honed parts of a machine.
We can safely conclude that traditional management concepts seldom work any longer, especially when it comes to knowledge workers. That is mainly due to the continued use of cause-and-affect theoretical paradigms. People are not machines. Rather, we are all self-organizing entities from our DNA molecules to our interactions with the external world.
Evolutionary psychology and social neuroscience are converging (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008). Hence, if we want to expand the innovative capacities of our organizations we need to pay much closer attention to our biological foundations. New research of the brain and DNA is helping to rewrite not only the origins, but also the innate behavior of our kind. That is where our attention should also be in all of our social institutions.
In the final analysis, what I suggest is that we start paying much closer attention to Mother Nature. Accordingly, the intent of this website is to help advance a comprehensive framework for the understanding and advancement of “sociocultural homeostasis” (a term coined by Antonio Damasio, 2010) based on self-organization rather than top-down control within our enterprises and extended social networks.