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As mentioned on my Systems Thinking page, I believe that the universe is a system, comprised of smaller systems, each composed of still smaller systems, ad infinitum. And I believe that each of these systems, different as they may be, can be understood using similar principles, namely those explained by the field of Systems Thinking. Thus, an understanding of that field gives us tremendous power to consider and optimize systems of incredibly diverse types on many levels.

However, given that I and those that I care about most are human beings, and given the enormous role that humans play in affecting the other systems that I care about - for instance, the ecosystems on which we all depend and of which we are a part - I have found it particularly meaningful and important to understand systems principles as they apply to human systems.

What Are Human Systems?

Humans, like all other entities in a universe comprised of holons, are simultaneously made up of subsystems and themselves parts in still larger systems on various levels.

These levels include:
  • Physical Systems and Subselves - Many of us would, if asked off the top of our heads, think of the individual person as the basic building block of human systems. However, this is clearly not true. We all realize upon greater thought that physically we are made up of still smaller systems, including organ systems, and, at an even smaller level, cellular systems. We could continue to delve deeper into the systems that make up cellular systems, as well. This could go on down to the level of atoms and beyond.

    While most will easily admit that physically we are made up of many smaller systems, they may have a harder time accepting that psychologically and emotionally we also may be made up of even smaller systems. However, Richard C. Schwartz in his Internal Family Systems model, shows us that most of us experience ourselves as a multiplicity of personality parts, and also looks at the history of others who have expressed the same belief. Whether or not one believes we actually contain multiple selves, it is valuable to understand that part of the human experience does seem to be an experience of having various aspects to our personality that interact as a system.

  • Individual - The individual human is the level at which all of the internal physical, intellectual, emotional and, some would say, spiritual systems integrate. The healthier we are, and the more optimized those systems, the more unified the individual may be.

  • Family - The family is a basic unit of human systems, consisting of several closely related individuals.

  • Community - A community is a human system that may be slightly to quite a bit larger than the family. Historically, a community would have consisted of a number of families that lived in close proximity to each other. However, with greater travel and communication abilities, communities may now be formed around all sorts of relationships and interests.

    • Tribe - The tribe, a small, tightly-knit community consisting of several related families, was, for most of human history, the fundamental unit of human survival. Tribalism of this kind still exists in some parts of the world, and the lessons of tribalism's long history of success for us in our current crisis of health and sustainability, is one of the main focuses of the work of Daniel Quinn.

  • Society - A society is a still higher level of human system, usually composed of many communities organized in any of various fashions.

  • Nation - In the modern era, many humans have chosen to organize their societies into nations, states with centralized governments and defined geographic borders that consist of a number of different inter-related social groups.

  • The World - Humanity as a whole, as we exist throughout planet Earth, make up the highest current level of human system. In this era of globalization, the interdependence of all people as a system, where all have affects on all others, has become a more important issue to grasp than ever.

Principles of Human Systems

Complicated as they may be, humans and their systems can nonetheless be understood to a great extent using the tools of Systems Thinking, which is specifically designed to understand complex systems. In his Internal Family Systems model, Schwartz explains in great detail the various systemic measures that we can use to understand and assess the conditions of human systems on various levels. This is perhaps the best explanation of the topic I have read.

Optimizing Human Systems for Health and Sustainability

Just as Systems Thinking principles can help us understand human systems on these various levels, they can also help us to optimize these systems. What is optimal for a human system? My belief is that the two most important measures are health and sustainability.

Health in a human system is related to the ability of a system on a given level to meet its human needs, whereas sustainability relates to the ability of that system to continue to meet those needs for a significant time into the future. Both of these measures can be significantly impacted by the effects of trauma, and the resulting coping or defense mechanisms, on the system's structure.

There are various fields that specifically address what health and sustainability mean to a human system, the roles and nature of trauma and defenses, and how to optimize human systems. Some of them explicitly describe themselves as applying Systems Thinking, whereas others do so without necessarily recognizing or describing themselves as doing so.

These fields include: Since one of the main goals of my company, Emergent Associates, LLC, is optimizing human systems on various levels, my work is greatly informed by all of these fields, as well as others related to them.


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