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An ecology of pain

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 11 Aug 2015

Short arcs of a circuit

“Life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.

Seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.

If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects.

What is most serious about our assumption is that it makes us cut through the complete mental circuits and perceive (and then rely on) only short arcs of these, which we see as straight line linear causality. We lose access to the total integrated network” (emphasis added)

– Gregory Bateson

This was Gregory Bateson*, the great anthropologist, cybernetician and towering intellect, writing in Steps to an Ecology of Mind in 1972. Bateson encouraged his readers to think bigger, deeper and more collectively – to think in terms of  complex systems and dynamic networks, to see beyond the ‘short arcs’ so as not to be surprised by the consequences of actions taken based on simplistic, short-sighted thinking.

A recent article in The Washington Post demonstrates the tragic consequences of seeing only the short arcs of bigger, complex circuits:

Cheap Fix: Heroin’s resurgence

“Maine is at the burning core of a nationwide heroin epidemic, the perverse outcome of a well-intentioned drive to save Americans from the last drug craze, a widespread hunger for heroin’s chemical cousin, prescription opiate pills such as Oxycontin.

Heroin — now cheap, plentiful and more potent than ever — is killing people at record rates. Across the nation, deaths from heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled in the decade ending in 2013, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

After a decade of widespread over-prescription of opiates such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin, the federal government pressed pharmaceutical makers to reformulate pills to make them difficult to snort, and it required physicians to prescribe fewer of the habit-forming pills. After Oxycontins were reformulated in 2010, street availability of the pills tightened; prices shot up.

“There can be no argument: Heroin has become much cheaper in the past two years because the crackdown on Oxys made it much harder to get pills on the street,” said Dan Perry, the assistant U.S. attorney in Maine who is in charge of drug cases.”

The well meaning response to the problem of Oxycontin abuse was a response to a short arc of the broader problem of illicit drug use, addiction and many other complex societal issues. In hindsight the shift to a more readily available opioid may seem obvious – a simple equation of supply and demand, but often it is only after we have messed with a system and observed seemingly surprising outcomes that we realise (or are reminded) of the complexity of the system that we are dealing with. Societies are complex systems, and so are the humans that make them.

-Tim Cocks


*A lot of Gregory Bateson’s work and ideas is available via various web pages, organisations and institutions – here are just a few, The Institute for Intercultural Studies, The International Bateson Institute, Steps to an Ecology of Mind preview, An Ecology of Mind documentary website – a film made by Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Nora.


  1. Interesting article Tim and it applies well to the devastation that can follow when clinical reasoning is short circuited …….
    On location 😎

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