Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces Bowen’s theory. Bowen’s theory of the family as a unit of natural selection involves a measure called “differentiation of self.” This chapter also describes how human beings habitually behave in the context of their early family life. It discusses the triangle hypothesis. It shows that the use of Bowen’s theory to the simplest and earliest life forms reveals what is most basic about social relationships in general; it simultaneously provides new ways to think about bacteria. This chapter also suggests that Bowen’s main idea helps explain extremes in survival and reproduction in social species.
Whereas dogma once insisted that natural selection operated only “on the level of the individual,” some current analyses focus on genes, populations, and species as units of selection. Here Lassiter introduces us to the work of Murray Bowen—a psychiatrist who never treated individuals in isolation, but always as members of human groups, specifically families. Bowen’s theory of the family as a unit of natural selection involves a measure he calls “differentiation of self.” The extent to which each of us responds to new social situations relatively independent of our early family experience is measurable.
The notion that individuals (or their genes) are the only bona fide objects of natural selection is deeply entrenched in neo-Darwinism. It is obvious, however, that human beings live, prosper, reproduce, and die in group settings—families, tribes, nations—that crucially affect the chances of an individual’s survival. Moreover, the importance of the group to which the individual belongs, and in which he or she survives, is pan-biological: group membership matters not only to humans, but also to other animals and even microbes. Attempts to understand ourselves as individuals are doomed if we fail to take account of the overwhelming influence of the social groups in which we developed.
In most populations, individual organisms that live in the same place at the same time tend to form identifiable groups. The relationships between members of these groups often determine the health and fate of the entire group, even over more than a single generation. Murray Bowen (1978), a scientific investigator of human behavior for many years, recognized the transition from herds, flocks, and families of nonhuman animals to the tribes, clans, and families of humans. Years of studying the behavior of socially impaired, often institutionalized young people in the context of their families, along with later observations of (p.72) “normal” families, led Bowen to document unnoticed regular processes of development in families based on systematic variation in siblings. He agreed with Charles Darwin (1898) that the “emotional system” (in this case the human family), not any individual person, is a minimal unit of natural selection in the evolution of the genus Homo. Bowen was especially interested in quantitative descriptions of automatic behaviors that involved four fundamental responses to social relationships. He noted that all people, to differing extents, use these responses:
distance, or avoidance of emotional pressure
capitulation, yielding, or giving in to emotional pressure from others conflict, or refusal to give in to emotional pressure while attempting to force the other to capitulate
involvement of another person (often a vulnerable child) or persons through emotional pressure.
Bowen (1978) invented and refined a measurement called Differentiation-of-Self (DoS). Bowen’s concept refers to the extent to which an adult responds to the environment based on perception and judgment (high score) or reacts as a member of his or her original familial group based on emotional programming (low score). The four types of responses, often hidden behaviors, can be observed after appropriate training. Behaviors of individuals may be predicted by means of Bowen family systems theory (ibid.). Not only do the analyses of Bowen and his colleagues apply to our species and to other social animals (e.g., chimpanzees, dolphins, wild and domesticated dogs); they seem to apply to microbes, including myxobacteria and heterocystous (nitrogen-fixing) cyanobacteria. Natural social phenomena such as altruism, aggregation into complex societies with shifting alliances, gang rape, mass deception, and crowd madness long antedate the appearance of primates, let alone humans. Some of this social behavior can even be detected in the fossil record. The dismissal of the observable phenomenon of “group selection” as not scientific unnecessarily turns a blind eye to a large and growing literature on the differential survival of animals as members of social units (families, tribes, or herds) relative to their more solitary close relatives. The worldwide expansions of both ants and humans are attributable to the effectiveness of their groups.
If the species Homo sapiens is unique, different from the rest of life, the study of human social groups—family, work, social organizations—is not related to behavioral science of other species. But if, as Darwin insisted, we humans evolved from nonhuman primates and, like them, (p.73) are connected through evolution to common microbial ancestors, then human social behavior may be illuminated by study of other social species. Indeed I believe that scientific analysis of our social behavior contributes, in principle, to social studies of other animals and even of bacteria. Our behaviors have measurable antecedents in other forms of life. All life on Earth shares common ancestry, represented most closely today by the bacteria, as inferred from molecular biological and fossil evidence.
Murray Bowen was led to develop his ideas by psychiatric observations of repeated, predictable patterns of emotional behavior in the human family. In the middle of the twentieth century, he derived a widely applicable theory of human behavior from empirical studies. Bowen’s inference of how individual behavior is regulated by social groups, especially the family, extrapolates to many other life forms. If predictable Homo sapiens social-development behavior were accurately documented in other species, including non-animal societies, a broadened social science would become seamless, in principle, as it integrated into the rest of evolutionary science. I argue that, even if incorrect, Bowen’s theory of group behavior will generate observations that otherwise would not be made.
Current systems theories tend to be cybernetic analyses, and—whether applied to bacteria, nonhuman mammals, or humans—they mainly derive from engineering. Bowen, by contrast, directly observed human interactions that he theorized to be products of evolution. Believing that living systems could be accurately understood only by direct observation, he limited his systems theory to observable facts of living groups. In my view, his publications receive far less attention from scientists than they deserve, probably because they are confined to the psychiatric literature.
Murray Bowen, MD
Murray Bowen (1913–1990) grew up with an unusual ability to solve puzzles. As a youngster he accompanied his father—the only ambulance owner in Waverly, Tennessee—on a drive to Memphis as he brought a comatose girl to the university hospital. The confusion of the physicians led to her death within hours. Young Murray Bowen, who believed the girl’s death had been avoidable, determined to become a physician. Interested in cardiac surgery, he built an early mechanical heart. On the basis of experience during World War II (which interrupted his medical (p.74) studies), he concluded that doctors routinely found psychiatric casualties the most difficult to treat. Psychological treatment seemed the least effective of medical practice.
In Topeka, Kansas, Bowen joined Karl Menninger and others in an effort to bring a new science of human behavior—Freudian theory—to the United States. Eventually, however, he concluded that much of Freud’s “theory” was unscientific and inadequate. Freud emphasized such undocumentable sources of emotional behavior as Greek dramas and patient narratives. Although Bowen learned from the theory and from its practice, studying it assiduously in a personal effort to move it toward science, he abandoned it by the end of the 1940s. He sought alternative approaches based on evolution and animal behavior.
Bowen maintained that hypotheses of living behavior must derive, not from engineering analogies, but from physiology and direct observation. He devised and executed long-term experiments—perhaps the only human field studies—at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. From 1954 to 1959, he and his team of nurses, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists observed entire families that had agreed to live on psychiatric wards for up to a year or even longer.
Bowen discovered that the family functions as an integrated whole, and that behaviors of which an individual is largely unaware are determined by the family unit. Bowen was more attentive to actions than to talk. Discrepancies between stated intentions and behaviors were routinely documented. What, Bowen asked, is the function of an action? He repeatedly noted that the effect of a behavior was the opposite of the stated intention. In one common example, a declaration of an intention to help a member of a person’s family was followed by behavior that led to impairment of the family member’s functioning. For example, a mother who insisted that her adult son should live his own life acted in ways that impeded, even precluded, his independence. These actions were seen as evidence of a systematic process that led to impairment of the function of some members of a family while enhancing the function of others.
Plate III includes a photograph of Dr. Bowen.
Bowen theory comprises several interrelated concepts understandable as aspects of a single phenomenon. One of these concepts is that individuals, largely unaware, are subject to and participate in systematic (p.75) processes that occur in families or equivalent social groups. Most central is the recognition of the family as an “emotional system,” a reproductive unit in which the behavior of any individual is part of a larger process. For Bowen, who saw human families in an evolutionary context, “emotional” means instinctual (in the broad sense). “Instinctual” or “emotional” here has the same meaning it had for Darwin when he referred to the emotions of man and animals. Darwin (1898) asked “whether the same general principles [of emotion] can be applied with satisfactory results, both to man and the lower animals.” Since “emotional system” refers to repeated, systematic, coordinated behavior among regularly interacting members of a single population, I chose to retain the use of “emotional system” to name the same phenomenon in social groups across species, even though for bacterial colony populations it may seem odd. For Bowen, “feelings” were emotions and instincts of which people were aware and could speak. Systematic patterns of repeated behaviors of which people did not speak, because they weren’t aware of them, were what most interested Bowen.
The degree to which any member is free from automatic response to signals in the emotional system is described, in Bowen theory, as Differentiation-of-Self. The lower the DoS, the more predictably a family member behaves, guided by stimuli of the emotional system. Especially during periods of perceived threat, coordinated behavior may contradict direct perception of reality as individuals attend to emotional signals from others in the group more than to facts in the social and the wider environment.
At lower DoS levels, individuals are conspicuously sensitive, often hypersensitive, to the behavior of members of their emotional system. They are preoccupied to a greater extent with how others feel about them, yet less aware of the extent of their emotional reactivity. The individuals most reactive to emotional cues from others are often those least aware of that sensitivity. Symbols, phrases, facial expressions, vocal tones, or other communication lead to automatic, predictable responses to emotional pressure. The survival and the reproductive success of any individual are subjugated to that individual’s larger emotional system to some degree. But a trend is measurable: the lower the DoS level, the greater the subjugation of the individual to the family unit, and the more the individual will tend to participate in automatic processes that lead to his own and/or others’ exploitation by the group. The exploitation of some by the emotional system increases the likelihood that the system as a whole will survive and reproduce, though certain members may not. (p.76) A mother who incessantly tends a mentally impaired or precociously talented child limits the reproductive future of the affected youngster but increases the freedom of his or her siblings to reproduce. Bowen described the processes that lead to the impairment of some members as reciprocal; that is, the impaired individual also participates, unaware, in the process that leads to his own impairment.
Once one has grasped Bowen’s DoS concept, one can easily estimate variations in DoS levels by observing oneself and others. Bowen’s DoS scale ranges from 1 to 100. Bowen believed that levels in principle were quantifiable and (especially with access to at least three generations’ worth of family data) potentially scientifically objective. The extent of numerical-value consensus between Bowen and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Family Center (now the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, where the Family Database Project defines the parameters of Bowen’s scale) for an individual patient was remarkable when all members of the staff had independent access to the same set of data. Though their work was not validated in a formal research project, Bowen and his co-investigators often agreed within one numerical value—say, on 30 or 31—on the scale of 100. Bowen asserted that quantitative estimates of behavior—that is, of characteristics commonly believed to be personality traits—were valid.
Bowen observed four classes of behavior—distance, capitulation, con-flict, and involvement of a third person (often a child)—used by everyone to manage lack of DoS in relationships that result in what he termed the “impingement” of one or more by the system. (See box 7.1.) He noted that those people who were assigned lower numerical values on the Bowen DoS scale were observed to utilize these behaviors with greater frequency and intensity, but there was no qualitative difference in behavior at different values.
The fourth class of behavior is due to the triangle’s central function: to regulate the behavior of individuals in the emotional system. The triangle produces variation in DoS values—the child who is more emotionally involved in the relations of his parents, guardians, or siblings predictably develops a lower DoS value. Differential involvement of offspring in a family is the basis for variation in the development of DoS over generations. Intense emotional involvement leads to impairment in one or more person’s social functioning. This often frees the other siblings to work and to reproduce.
The intensity and frequency of the four classes of behavior are determined by DoS values and by degree of reactivity to perceived threat. (p.77) (p.78) When humans, like members of other social species, are exposed to threat, their groups react with increased automatic coordination as single units. Families, guilds, tribes, nations, and other social units tend to consolidate and to act as one.
The four classes of behavior describe emotional pressure on the vulnerable (the lower the DoS, the more observable impairment in functioning). Most families use a mix of the four, with impingement of several members predictably the result. One class of behavior may predominate in some families, leading to greater impairment in one family member. In families in which one of the spouses capitulates, for instance, and there is a lack of distance and a lack of conflict, with the children relatively free of the emotional process, the spouse who systematically yields to emotional pressure is likely to have a greater degree of impairment than in a family in which conflict and distance are more utilized, or in which one or more of the children are more impaired by the process (given that both families are at the same level of DoS). The higher the level of DoS, the less distance, capitulation, conflict, and involvement of a child occur. At the same level, families may utilize one or more of the four ways differently, but the behaviors will add up to about the same overall utilization of them.
Bowen recognized that these social interactions occur mostly outside of the awareness of the participants. His theory generates detection of processes that occur in people and their families—independent of nationality, social class, race, culture, or family size. In my work, I have observed the same processes in various family structures and across cultures. My clients have included people from Korea, India, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Italy, Pakistan, Spain, Mexico, and New Zealand, as well as from diverse backgrounds within the United States.
The Differentiation-of-Self Scale
Bowen showed a predictable correlation between numerical DoS value and potentially quantifiable frequency, duration, and intensity of the four kinds of social behavior. No correlation between DoS values and particular qualitative behaviors was found. In other words, people at higher DoS levels make use of the same four classes of behavior as those at lower levels, but to a lesser extent. All people manage their social relationships in those four modes.
No individual has achieved the maximum DoS-scale score of 100; it remains hypothetical. Those scored in the higher ranges tend to be guided (p.79) more by individual perception and judgment. They assess social reality more accurately. Persons assigned higher DoS scores are more effective in maintenance of long-term, close relationships with others, and function more responsibly and flexibly. They tend to enjoy good health, productive work lives, and financial well-being, all things being equal. People who live in war zones or experience natural disasters often suffer difficulties beyond those indicated by DoS scores. Higher scorers often have vital relationships in close-knit families that can be documented for as many as four generations. They handle adversity with appropriate resolve, and they neither ignore realistic threats nor overreact to them. Freer from emotional reactivity to others, they display more freedom from the burden of the four classes of frequent behavior easily observable in those at lower DoS levels.
On a practical level, DoS refers to behavior not negotiable in social relationships. How extensively might DoS be interpreted? How free of reactivity to any environment might an individual be? How far might one go to base his responses on integrity rather than status in the relationship system? Interested in these questions, Bowen, who was not religious in the traditional sense and had not been raised in a religious home, referred to the poem attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi (box 7.2) as illustrating the substantive aspects of the DoS phenomenon. For those who practice Bowen theory, the poem can be viewed simply as a realistic, practical description of the effort to be free of reactivity to social pressures, and “dying” can be taken as neither a prelude to a supernatural (p.80) afterlife nor an admonition for ideal behavior, but simply changing oneself to adjust to reality.
Bowen, who considered the highest DoS scores to be probably hypothetical and not achieved, asked himself if any historical figures might have exemplified such high DoS values or might have achieved a significant increase in DoS over a lifetime of living by principle. Saint Francis, who was emotionally close to his mother but estranged in childhood from his father, may be an example of one who raised his DoS value when evaluated by his behavior over a lifetime. Raised in what is now Umbria, Francis (ca. 1181–1226) abandoned the opportunities of his social class to become a friar. He established the Franciscan Order and was known for his ability to gain acceptance even from those who initially opposed him. He dictated the following in 1220:
Francis said: “Friar Leo, write.” Who responded: “Behold I am ready.” “Write”—he said—“what is true joy? A messenger comes and says that all the masters of Paris have entered the Order, write, ‘not true joy.’ Likewise that all the prelates beyond the Alps, archbishops and bishops; likewise that the King of France and the King of England: write, ‘not true joy.’ Likewise, that my friars went among the infidels and converted them all to the Faith; likewise that I have from God this grace, that I heal the infirm and work many miracles: I say to you that in all these things there is not true joy. But what is true joy? I return from Perugia and in the dead of night I come here and it is wintertime, muddy and what is more, so frigid, that icicles have congealed at the edge of my tunic and they always pierce my shins, and blood comes forth from such wounds. And entirely with mud and in the cold and ice, I come to the gate, and after I knock for a long time and call, there comes a friar and he asks: ‘Who is it?’ I respond: ‘Friar Francis.’ And he says: ‘Go away; it is not a decent hour for traveling; you shall not enter.’ And again he would respond, insisting: ‘Go away; you are a simpleton and an idiot; you do not measure up to us; we are so many and such men, that we are not in need of you!’ And I stand again at the gate and I say: ‘For the love of God take me in this night.’ And he would respond: ‘I will not! Go away to the place of Crosiers and ask there.’ I say to you that if I will have had patience and will not have been disturbed, that in this is true joy and true virtue and soundness of soul.
In the absence of dogma, religious injunction, and moral judgment, Bowen, on the basis of his keen observations and scientific approach, apparently concurred with Francis’s recognition of the value of emotional freedom in the face of adversity.
DoS levels are measured as distinct from other factors that may affect social relationships and overall functioning. They do not correlate with intelligence, talent, innate personality traits (such as shyness or extroversion), cultural style, socioeconomic class, or political or economic (p.81) circumstances. They are largely independent of genetic propensities. The major determinant of an individual’s DoS score is the history of the individual within the family and the functioning of the emotional system in which his or her social development occurred. To ascertain a numerical score would require, at a minimum, knowledge of the individual’s social history (i.e., relationships with parents, siblings, spouse(s), and offspring) and of the documented functioning level of each, including at least three generations. Bowen theory posits that the basic nature of an individual’s historical relationships with others, especially early experience with parental figures, determines the DoS, that the DoS is the major indicator of an individual’s physico-mental health, and that it pertains not only to family relationships but also to social relationships in work life and in other areas.
People with lower DoS values show increased sensitivity to emotional pressure, more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting emotional reactivity, and less emotional flexibility. They tend to be upset by minor disturbances. They are more self-absorbed or more intensely focused on one other person. They expend less energy on behavior beyond variations of the four classes of management of lack of DoS. Some use intellectual activity, often with a high emotional charge, to help manage their social relationship difficulties. Habitual behaviors that aid in emotional management tend to extremes: self-sacrifice or selfishness. Those with lower DoS scores tend toward increased reactivity. They respond emotionally, with anger, hysteria, stubborn silence, or other inappropriate habitual behavior, to relieve their personal stress in the present moment. They fail to act on principle or to plan ahead. Often, to avoid emotional pressure, they flee their primary emotional system, family of origin, and/or nuclear family. Since they cannot function without the intense pressure of their emotional system, however, they predictably replicate it in new relationships. Those with the lowest DoS scores require continual guidance by external pressures of the emotional system. Having failed to develop a guidance system within themselves, owing largely to factors within the emotional system in which their development has occurred, many of the lowest-DoS people are so reactive and so unable to cope responsibly that they must be institutionalized in a prison or a psychiatric hospital.
Bowen distinguished what he called “solid self” from functional level, or “functional self.” DoS is independent of immediate circumstance—and independent of negotiation within the system. “Functional level,” especially for those with lower DoS levels, varies over time and is contingent on situations, such as making a new friend, receiving an award (p.82) or a promotion at work, losing a job, being divorced, or being rejected by a lover or a boss.
Functional level may shift through reciprocal relationship processes. People “borrow and trade” functional levels through stereotypical predictable behaviors of which they are not aware (Bowen 1978). Among members of an emotional system, some may enhance one’s individual function by preoccupation with another’s perceived problem. One enlists others to focus on the problem as well. Borrowing and trading decreases one’s functional level, with simultaneous reciprocal increases in others. The four classes of behavior (distance, capitulation, conflict, involving a third) regulate social relationships to stabilize the emotional system in a way that results in some individuals’, as a result of being impinged upon, functioning more poorly. The inevitable borrowing and trading in relationships is exploitive of some, while benefiting others. Bowen thought that if one could become aware of his or her propensity to participate habitually in the behaviors listed in box 7.3, the self-awareness itself might help thwart unpremeditated harmful action.
The Triangle Hypothesis
Individual behavior is guided by the emotional social system. The individual’s intimate group, usually the family, guides responses to many stimuli in ways of which the individual usually isn’t aware (Bowen 1978). The “triangle hypothesis” (an abbreviated way of saying “the regulatory-function-of-the-triangle hypothesis”) proposes systematic, identifiable behaviors that occur in social animals, and even in some version in microorganisms, including those that most closely represent early life—bacteria. I developed the triangle hypothesis over 15 years of applying the Bowen theory to biologists’ observations of social species and studying the direction of Bowen’s research in his last decade, using notes and audio tapes of his meetings with individual patients.
The triangle hypothesis offers an explanation of how individual members of a social species force other members to contribute to the survival and reproduction of the group in ways that may even threaten themselves. In contrast to the unfounded neo-Darwinian assumption that only individuals are units of natural selection, the triangle hypothesis recognizes that the family or some other group (that is, the emotional system) is a unit of natural selection. In fostering the overall survival and reproductive success of group members, the emotional system exerts pressure on all its members, some more than others. During times of (p.83) scarcity or some other threat, in coordinated behavior each member is pressured by the family, and, simultaneously, each puts pressure on the other members. The triangle hypothesis is an idea about shifting alliances with explanatory power that generates new observations and suggests future experiments in social species.
After Bowen’s research led him to identify the “triangle,” which I have described as an automatic two-or-more-against-one behavior system, he used his knowledge of triangles to raise the DoS levels of his patients or those of members of their families. His technique increased individual regulation vs. regulation by the emotional system and generated new observations about the emotional system. Although his work did raise the DoS levels in patients and their families, I believe that Bowen wanted (p.84) to understand the dynamics of the emotional system more than he wanted to practice therapy.
In the 1950s, while ostensibly researching schizophrenia at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bowen extended Darwin’s idea to show how the emotional system of the human family, like that of other groups of social species, is a product of evolution. He kept that work private to avoid the interrupting controversy that he reckoned would be inevitable. And during the last ten years or so of his life, Bowen kept his clinical research private to protect his work from the vociferous criticism it generated among colleagues who valued only effective therapies and had no interest in or patience for Bowen’s scientific pursuits. His early attempts to coach people more openly had led to some confusion and to some emotional reactions against his techniques. In the 1980s he let it be known that he would terminate his coaching of colleagues.
Notes and audiotapes of Bowen’s experimental sessions document how “triangles” control individuals, who themselves also participate in alliances to control others, beyond their own awareness. When an individual takes steps to self-direct, hidden triangle threats activate predictable group behaviors to regain control of that individual. The emotional system, functioning for the survival of the group, has evolved to react so as to regain control of the individual who attempts self-guidance. The triangle threats take the form of taking sides against the individual, while invitations are made to join the emotional system. Exaggerated threats and invitations make visible what is usually hidden.
Shifting alliances occur, each member seeking a comfortable position in relation to others. Humans predictably seek one of the two or more triangle “inside positions,” each wanting approval, acceptance, and reassurance from the others. Each opportunistically uses the two-against-one threat of rejection to exert pressure on the others. The emotional system ensures the family unit’s survival and therefore increases the probability of reproduction by regulation of its members. All tend to be unaware of the regulatory function of their own responses.
The intensity of cues (both invitations and threats) inherent in the group behavior correlate with the degree of a member’s inability to guide himself independently without reliance on frequent cues. The inability to initiate one’s behavior, accompanied by predictable responses that seek chronic reassurance and chronic praise and avoid rejection by emotional unit members, generates anxiety (= stress reactivity). The lower one’s DoS score, the greater is his or her sensitivity to the triangle. The greater one member’s need to be in an “inside” position, accompanied (p.85) by reactivity to expulsion from such a position, the greater is that member’s chronic anxiety and stress reactivity. The triangle hypothesis predicts the frequency and the intensity of stress responses in social relationships.
If excessive reactivity impairs group members in social relationships, why does it persist? Excessive sensitivity, usually detrimental to an individual, functions to optimize the probability of survival and reproduction of the group.
All humans develop in complex social groups whose members vary in DoS. Higher DoS is desirable. The higher the number of individuals within a group who respond to the reality of the fluctuating environment, rather than to habitually responded-to emotional pressures, the more effective is the group. Yet DoS is produced through development in the family within a sibling group in which some siblings develop lower DoS, freeing others to develop higher DoS. Bowen theory explains the wide variability in functioning and health that can be observed in Homo sapiens—a range that can be noted in all families over multiple generations—and offers ways to increase DoS by awareness that minimizes tendencies to impinge upon group members.
Group Selection in Non-Human Animals
Does Bowen’s description of the triangle apply to species other than Homo sapiens? I suspect, as did Bowen, that these human behaviors are so basic that they will be found, if sought, in non-human social animals and beyond. Bowen-theory concepts generate potentially new scientific research. Knowledge of social behavior of human and non-human life is complementary; advances in understanding cross-fertilize the study of both.
New facts about social mammals have been coming to light. Two-against-one processes that have regulatory functions have been identified in non-human species. Only since the 1980s, research of dolphin social behavior has discovered complex alliances that control mating and hunting (Connor et al. 2000). Chimpanzees form alliances that determine troupe dominance (De Waal 1982). Though these alliances that resemble two-against-one patterns in the human triangle are not necessarily ubiquitous and require more research, regulatory processes that are equivalent in function to the triangle may occur in all social species.
In the 2005 documentary film March of the Penguins, hundreds of male penguins unite in a circular mass on an Antarctic ice sheet in (p.86) December for two months of egg incubation. They do not feed while they keep the eggs warm. Male penguins appear to take turns in an orchestrated dance so that each has an opportunity to be both in the center of the mass and outside it. Although it is known that not all of the penguins survive and successfully reproduce, individual variation based on social relationships in the mass of male penguins has not been studied very much. Penguins in the central, warmest part of the mass are protected from the bitter cold. Do some get pushed more to the circumference—or push others outward in an attempt to get into the center? Loners would predictably perish, and if some relative loners found themselves more often toward the outside of the group then others would be permitted more time toward the inside. The cold induces severe stress, which threatens the survival of both eggs and male penguins. During periods of increased threat to the group, the emotional system increasingly guides individual behavior, and impingement of some may accompany survival and reproduction of the larger unit.
Cellular Slime Molds
In Dictyostelium discoideum—cellular slime mold—the individual amoeba reacts to the pheromone (social hormone) cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). During periods of stress—such as desiccation or starvation—cAMP production is induced, and all amoebae stream toward local concentration maxima. (This social hormone of bacteria is discussed in chapter 3 of the present volume.) Each amoeba excretes the hormone, and each reacts to it by moving toward the highest concentration that it perceives. The system regulates the individual as amoebae stream toward the highest concentration in a central aggregation. Independent of genetic relationship, individuals respond to concentration gradients produced by their fellows. Those with the greatest reactivity excrete the largest amount and race toward the position that becomes the dead stalk made up of individual organisms that now function like cells in the multicellular structure. Those with lower reactivity to the social signal excrete less cAMP and develop into the propagules. Depending on the stalk for dispersal into a new environment with needed nutrients, these spores enter the future generation. Amoebae in the pre-spore position of the structure move in a deliberate, orderly manner. In the pre-stalk position, movement is chaotic and hyperactive; with a greater number of surface pheromone receptors, these individuals show greater reactivity to the social cues and do not survive to the next generation (Bonner 1998).
(p.87) The hyperactive amoebae resemble those humans who develop the greatest reactivity to the alternating approval and rejection in the two-or-more-against-one triangle. Yet “a three-position process” does not describe what in cellular slime molds determines that some amoebae become dead stalk and others become the living spores. The word “triangle” even misleads in describing human social behavior. Even the hypothesis of groups in which some individuals gang up against others in shifting, opportunistic alliances is inadequate when applied to all social species. The human, species-specific two-or-more-against-one triangle exemplifies a broad category of social group regulation. The hypothesis that all social species are regulated by their group members generates detailed observations.
Regulation of individuals by emotional systems is not yet systematically studied in biology, although descriptions of individual variation in social groups ranging from bacterial colonies to baboon troupes provide facts that support it. The neo-Darwinian tradition of evolutionary thought that rejects “group selection” out of hand lacks a theoretical approach to social living. Life science itself lacks a theoretical approach to integrate studies of automatic, predictable social (group) behaviors that become more intense under stress. Bowen adds something new to the study of life: the idea of an emotional system (“emotional” in the sense in which Darwin used it, meaning instinctual) that regulates individual organisms, along with variation in degree of group regulation of individuals (DoS).
It is the study of group behavior in bacteria, of all social organisms, that has been most open to a systems view (Shapiro and Dworkin 1997). The small size of bacterial individuals and their groups—as well as, perhaps, their presumed irrelevance to human social systems—has left researchers free to evaluate how the group determines the life course of a single individual. Ideas about individual human behavior that bias the study of animal societies, especially other primates, is much less marked in these newer studies of the social systems of bacteria.
The application of Bowen theory to the simplest and earliest life forms, from which all others evolved, reveals what is most basic about social (p.88) relationships in general; simultaneously it offers new ways to think about bacteria. Filamentous heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria evolved more than 3,000 million years ago. Living and ancient multicellular bacteria show the same basic morphology. Extant cells observable today greatly resemble the fossils seen in thin sections of rock. The social and reproductive group is the beautiful blue-green cyanobacterial filament. About 10 percent of the individual cells that make up the filament transform under stress to live for the group. These specialists are large non-reproductive cells called heterocysts. (See panel B of plate III.) Unable to photosynthesize and provide themselves food to maintain and grow, heterocysts cannot reproduce. However, they remove inert nitrogen from the air and convert it to a chemical form that can be metabolized by members of their “emotional system” (the reproductive cells in their filament).
When Anabaena sp., a filamentous cyanobacterium, experiences a deprivation of ammonia or nitrate, its usual nitrogen source in the soil or water, the bacterial filament—the reproductive and social group of the cyanobacterium seen as a chain of cells—changes. The change leads some individual cells, at regular intervals along the filament, to transform: the heterocyst’s transformed wall now blocks the entry of oxygen that would otherwise poison the nitrogen-fixing enzymes. The heterocyst’s blue-green color is replaced by brown when the chlorophyll of photosynthesis is no longer synthesized. Filament cells that do not transform continue photosynthesis; they remain green, release oxygen, feed themselves, and reproduce by division. (See panel C of plate III.) They survive on the usable nitrogen produced in brown heterocysts.
That automatic programmed altruism exists in these cyanobacteria was shown dramatically by Popa et al. (2007). Organic (usable) nitrogen produced by the non-photosynthetic, non-reproductive mature heterocyst is altruistically transferred to its photosynthetic filament neighboring cells (incompetent to fix nitrogen) within 90 seconds of the metal-ion-mediated stimulus. (The metal that mediates the stimulus is manganese.) The stimulus to break the very strong N ≡ N bonds and incorporate atmospheric gas into organic matter stimulates only the transformed heterocyst cell, which, within a few minutes, transfers most of its organic nitrogen to its green, photosynthetic, growing neighbors, keeping nearly none for itself. The heterocyst never grows or reproduces again. It suffers programmed cell death.
(p.89) How does one cell sacrifice itself and become a heterocyst? A smaller cell, or any other in the filament more sensitive to nitrogen starvation, reacts to scarcity earlier than larger, less sensitive cells. Once a cell transforms into a heterocyst and leaks organic nitrogen to its neighbors, it relieves other nearby cells of the need to transform. All cells are genetically capable of conversion to heterocysts if nitrogen starvation pressure suffices. A cell that begins to transform into a heterocyst can revert back to a photosynthesizing and reproducing cell only if an adjoining or nearby cell at the very beginning of its transformation reduces local stress by relieves the pressure by completion of transformation into a heterocyst. Once the heterocyst develops, reversion is impossible.
Heterocyst development is regulated by precise external environmental conditions where one cell’s environment includes the rest of its filament. The cyanobacterial filament, the social and reproductive unit, is capable of regulating the genes of other cells in the filament. The filament is the “emotional system,” a functional unit, a group that survives to the next generation.
The early appearance of fossil heterocysts along filaments of once-green cyanobacterial cells raises questions. Is the formation of impaired, deficient, specialized members of a group induced by the group itself correlated with survival of the group? Might Bowen have discovered a general characteristic of social beings? Life requires growth and energy transformation and, to ensure continuity via reproduction, in most animal species individuals tend to survive only in functional groups, such as mating pairs, families, herds, tribes, villages, or colonies. All life is stressed by paucity of food, energy, or space and by other environmental threats. When individuals behave so as to enhance their group’s survival, does the larger emotional system survive and reproduce more predictably than do related but isolated individuals? Was the emotional system Bowen describes in human families present in early life forms? Growth of cells leads to reproduction in all of life—might epigenetic behavior of the group be prerequisite to survival and reproduction in social species? Observation of such group behaviors leads me to reject the insistence of zoologists that no group selection exists.
What behavioral, metabolic, physiological, and genetic processes lead members to behave against their own survival and reproductive interests in ways that promote the survival and reproduction of their group? Certain individuals are more vulnerable than others to elimination by natural selection because of their smaller size, younger age, distal (p.90) position in the group, or some other circumstance. These individuals are rendered more reactive to signals from their social surroundings. Bowen’s main idea—that developmental processes in the family emotional system determine individuals’ life course trends—helps explain extremes in survival and reproduction in social species. Bowen’s more inclusive perspective is conducive to detailed analysis of individual and group behavior for accurate description of the social lives of not only the human family but also the many other gregarious forms of life.