The overgrowth of control circuits and the rise of autism

by Brian @

This is a repost from TheEmergist on April 21, 2013. Brian runs the twice-monthly blog The Emergist.  He is a stay-at-home dad of two young children and one very young six-acre forest garden.  He became enthralled with HT Odum’s theories after reading Environment, Power, and Society in the 21st Century (EPS) and uses his blog as an outlet for the strange stream of consciousness that EPS induces in its readers.

Key questions

  • What are the reasons civilization maybe more prone to frequent collapse? Cancer? Complexity? Something else?
  • What do models of autism tell us about the “disorder”?
  • How should/has humanity combat/ed autism?

H/T to Mary and Jan for helping me parse this post out. I don’t think they necessarily agree with this idea, but their resistance helped make it much better. Further, I apologize if anyone takes issue with my usage of the term pathology or autism. They just happen to be most succinct words I can think of for this topic.

Emergist definition

Autism-/’ô – tizem/ – Using high quality energy to do a task that can be performed with lower quality energy to gain control by simplifying a subsystem. The resulting effect is waste, which feeds back to disorder the overall complexity of a system.

Cancer and civilization

Odum explains cancer well in EPS (pp. 58-59), so this will be just a brief overview. Cancer from a systems perspective is when one component/organism/cell in a system is severed from its control circuits and uses another component of the system as “excess resource.” In ecosystems, this generally happens when either an organism is introduced from a different ecosystem into a new ecosystem (zebra mussels), organisms controlling another organism are removed (wolves removed from Yellowstone National Park that control mouse populations), or energy flows become excessive leading to overgrowth (fertilizers released into a stream causing algal blooms). There is no doubt that humans and civilization have been engaged in cancerous activities as we have used other planetary subsystems as excess resources.


Some authors have tried to put forth complexity as some kind of problem that civilizations run into that create their downfalls. In self-organized biological systems, ordered complexity arises time and time again after massive extinction events, which suggests complexity is evolutionarily advantageous and a consequence of energy flows. While it is true that complexity is not enough for maximum long-term empower or energy flows, it is absolutely necessary. Civilizations are also self-organizing systems and therefore benefit and depend on ordered complexity for long-term survival. Further when looked at from a total systems perspective, civilizations that survive crisis run to complexity when confronted with problems, such as environmental degradation (Imperial China or Edo Japan) or hostile neighbors (any insurgency past/present). The reason that complexity is often misunderstood by anthropologists, archeologists, and historians is that their system boundaries stop at the energies and functions controlled by humans. In EPS there is a great table demonstrating this very fact:

Item Transformity (SECAL/CAL) Emergy Store (SECAL)
Infrastructure of Civilization 5.2 E6 3.8 E26
Soil* 1.2 E6 1.87 E27
Learned Information 7.7 E7 3.8 E28
Human Dreams** 9 E12 5.6 E32
Genetic Information 3.8 E18 1.1 E34

The above table suggests that when ordered complexity is understood by either transformity (amount of energy turned into higher quality forms) or emergy store (the amount of ordered energy embedded in a system), ecosystem information on regional and global levels are multiple orders of magnitude higher in ordered complexity than anything humans have learned (on the table above) or have even dreamed of (a bad emergy joke that our dreams are often beyond what can be learned). In simple comparative terms, nature is complex and civilizations are not yet.

Not seeing the forest from the cultivated field

An often cited example of humans “adding” complexity is the human penchant for replacing forests with cultivated fields. The anthropocentric viewer will often presuppose that a cultivated field is more complex than a forest, because of all the off-site functions and energies are carried out by humans. While the same viewer thinks the forest is simple because it must rely on on-site solar and geological energy inputs. The ultimate idea embedded within the anthropocentric view is that current/recent energy use determines the complexity of the system. On a universal scale, energy certainly is a measure of complexity and order, but within each system a specific form or concentration of energy can be either ordering or disordering, ex. the energy that orders stars and galaxies, like a supernova or black hole, is not necessarily ordering to carbon based life forms. The truth is that a lot of human technologies are simplifying in nature. While Odum describes this simplification process of agriculture in-depth in EPS (pp. 179-183), he most succinctly describes it in Odum and Odum, 2001: “Networks may be simplified, causing energy to concentrate in fewer pathways.” Put another way, agriculture concentrates energy for only human use by removing complexity.

Overgrowth of control circuits and the withering of complexity

Note: Most of this section is from memory of a talk I heard about 6 years ago and I was able to fact check about 60% of it. I am not sure if the other percentage is unpublished or a figment of my imagination.

Aesop's fables-Country mouse makes a social call
Aesop’s fables-Country mouse makes a social call

Mouse models have recently shed some light on the pathology of autism. A researcher, Prof. Lousi Parada, has found different gene knockouts in mice that act very much like humans with autism. The mutant mice will generally sit independently far away from the other mice in a cage and rarely interact or make social calls. Prof Parada and his group tracked the behavior down to the part of the brain called the dentate gyrus. The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampus and is responsible for controlling stress responses, novelty-seeking, and memory formation. They noticed that the dentate gyrus of mutant mice had an over-proliferation of neuronal cells and also dendrites that projected from the dentate gyrus were elongated and projected further into other regions of the brain. Interestingly, the proliferation of the dentate gyrus was not significantly different from normal mice until four to six weeks, which would be about two to six years old in humans, and maybe consistent with some findings of the disease progression in humans.

Many of the dentate gyrus functions are modulating or controlling in nature. For instance, the size of the dentate gyrus would suggest that it is not the site for memories because it is not large enough to encode the necessary information, but oblating the dentate gyrus disrupts long-term memory formation. For the sake of illustration, the brain will be demarcated into the brain stem and cerebellum, the limbic system (site of the dentate gyrus) and the neocortex. These three brain areas were developed into the triune brain theory, which although no longer scientifically supported, will be used as a proxy for transformity and ordered complexity, since Odum did not leave a table of transformity for different areas of the brain in EPS. The important point is that the brain is most likely hierarchical in nature and some areas are involved in bulk processing and information storage (neocortex in mammals), while other areas are involved controlling where and how information is processed (hippocampous and the dentate gyrus). In Figure 1, the different areas of the brain have been color coded and then placed into the triune hierarchy. In Figure 1, the normal hierarchy of the brain is in the middle and the hierarchy of the autistic brain is on the right. The pathology of the autistic brain arises because of the over-growth of the dentate gyrus in the limbic system, which in real terms is an over-growth of controlling circuits/neurons in number and length. The dentate gyrus with high transformity in the autistic brain participates in functions that would be better left to the neocortex with a lower level of transformity, which has the effect of feeding back to impair certain social aspects in affected people.scan0001

Identifying autism in society 

My proposed definition for autism differs from cancer in the fact that autism does not use other parts of the hierarchy as “excess resource”, but instead replaces these parts with simplified independent analogs to natural systems. Compounding the problem of simplification is that Odum noticed that when high quality energy was used to do processes that could be done with lower quality energy this creates waste. This waste then feeds back into the system and creates disorder in the system. When humans/civilizations simplify systems and then use high quality energies to do processes that can be done with lower quality energies, this lowers complexity both below and above on the energy hierarchy (Figure 2).  This creates a situation whereby near-term collapse is almost certain.autism flow chartModified from Odum 1996.

Examples of societal autism (wasteful = using high quality energy to do a task with the ultimate effect of creating disorder)

Human excrement. My brother-in-law called me on the phone about four months ago. This is that conversation:

Me- “You wouldn’t believe this. I was listening to NPR and some foundation had a prize for the person who could come up with the best way to deal with human excrement in third world countries. Guess what type of system won the prize.”

Brother-in-law- “Humanure!

Me- “I know. Right! But no. Na-No-Technology!”

Brother-in-law- “Utilizing bacteria and leaf litter is less wasteful than manufacturing some small particle in a factory with a huge energy and land footprint.”

Agriculture and reproduction. I was watching talking political heads on TV and one said that the U.S. congressional republican stance amounted to, Every ejaculation deserves a name. At which point I began laughing and my wife happened to asked me, Are we still saving paw paw seeds from the fruit? To which I responded, Yes. Every paw paw seed deserves to be grafted to a named variety! While I was being silly, my uncles’ farming equipment today is fitted with GPS and uses weather radar information, topography information, and can even take into account farmer’s willing drought risk assessments to determine seed planting rate and row distance and “proper” amount of chemical application when needed. I imagine it is only a hop away from being able to geo-cache every seed, so that investment banks can sell tranches of seed risk. Fukuoka showed that broad casting seed in a relatively diverse plot can achieve a high rate of return without large-scale waste. Industrial agriculture almost does not care about complex interactions of indigenous species or using them as excess resource, but wishes only to create its own wasteful independent system using high quality energy inputs.

Modern warfare.  Reported lately in the news press is the fact that the President of the U.S. might be engaged in the execution of drone strikes. This bypasses almost the entire command structure of the military. And the question must be asked: Does the president (supposedly the highest transformity citizen in the U.S.) really change the course of the war on terror? Again, a case of simplifying the entire command and control structure of the military and wasting energy.

The fox, raccoon, possum, or hawk that klls a chicken.  Often when I tell someone that I have been a horrible chicken keeper and have losses to any of these predators, the response from others revolves around some version of shooting a gun or setting a trap. My mind then wanders to thinking about how I then become responsible for controlling the mouse population. And then since I am then now killing mice, I become responsible for controlling whatever mice eat. And then since . . . .  Or instead I learned to let my chickens out after 11 a.m. and I have yet to lose a chicken (knock on wood). The choice is to kill predators or live in a complex world. Though in a high population density situation, one might try to go down the path of simplification.


The point of this post is to create a way of understanding a certain aspect of human civilization through the lens of autism, much like Odum and many other ecologists have understood over-growth through the lens of cancer.  Agriculture and fossil fuels have expanded human abilities of creating control and independent systems (Figure 3), but when we use these energies to do functions that would best be left to other organisms then we can disrupt the complex biological system that we ultimately depend on to live.  It is not to say that humans cannot use agriculture and fossil fuels or that using them appropriately will lead to “sustainability.” The point is to say that humans should use agriculture and fossil fuels appropriately in the context of supporting complex systems at every level of the hierarchy and not try to create independent less tested energy dependent systems.  If humanity works to do this then it will not be subject to collapse as often or severely.  Humans must step back and evaluate where to act to support or increase system complexity. Technologies like Fukuoka-Bonfils agriculture, forest gardening, coppicing, and water storage in swales might be possible ways to conserve resources at the same time that we out-compete energy flows coming from independent simplified technologies and thereby shift to long-term complex systems.


Individual action

  • Try to get a humanure system going.
  • Try to leave as many subsystems intact when interacting.

Next time on Brian’s blog

I gas up the fossil fuel time machine and things get weird. By the way, I will be watching my favorite time travel movie, Primer, at least once to get me into the proper mindset before writing the post.

Ed note: Do androids dream of electric sheep? You can find more of Brian’s posts at