The capacity of a system to maintain its morphology, its functionality and internal states at some definite level through fluctuations within established maxima and minima, in spite of changing external conditions.
Under the heading "Constancy of internal milieu", P VENDRYES writes: "The coupling of storage and control has immense consequences for physiology, for through these mechanisms an organism maintains the constancy of its internal milieu. This happens despite incessant variations which can take place externally. This maintenance of constancy is a vital condition for cells, in which life activities take place. The intra-cellular milieu, while different from the internal milieus of the organism, maintain continuous exchanges with them, and they also are kept constant. Claude BERNARD was the first to recognize this constancy, which was to be discussed later by CANNON (1932) in America under the term "Homeostasis" (1989, p.146)
Very numerous biophysical, biochemical and physiological examples of homeostasis have been discovered since BERNARD's, CANNON's and VENDRYES' work, as for example the adjustment of the pupil to the intensity of light, the stabilization of the cardiac rhythm, the level of glucose in the blood, etc…
Homeostasis can also be observed more generally in human systems (families, enterprises, organizations, nations, etc.) in which cases the term "dynamic stability" is more readily used. In some cases, as for instance, in G. BATESON's double-bind, homeostasis may become pathological.
Still, the homeostasis concept is somehow mechanicist: L.von BERTALANFFY wrote: "AIthough the homeostasis model transcends older mechanistic models by acknowledging directiveness in self-regulating circular processes, it still adheres to the machine theory of the organism" (1962, p.8).
Homeostasis can be maintained only within the limits of the theorem of minimum entropy production which, in PRIGOGINE words asserts that: "(in the linear region) a system evolves towards a stationary state characterized by the minimum entropy production compatible with the constraints determined by the boundary conditions" (1985, p.5). There is however a nonlinear region where a bifurcation takes place after ever widening fluctuations. In this region, the homeostasis concept is no more valid. This is generally a very important caveat, specially for social systems.
H. MATURANA and F. VARELA's concept of organizational closure is clearly related to homeostasis. It offers a model of an internal iterative mechanism of maintenance of the system's identity allowing for circuits of specific states. However, organizational closure, at its high level of abstraction, minimizes (or even in some authors, ignores completely) the challenging role of the environment.
Homeostasis is normally a result of a set of complex adaptive conditions, as for example arterial pressure, breathing rhythm, body temperature, etc…, among interacting processes, alternating according to necessities.
Of course, even a homeostatic system has a limited tolerance to changes in external conditions. Human systems are however able to enhance this tolerance by modifiying their environment, at least up to a certain point.
Homeostasis is, at least, a property of biological, ecological and social systems, and probably of many physical systems.
W. KÖHLER writes: "W. CANNON… prefers to give the name homeostasis to the fact that certain steady states are so obstinately preserved or re-established in the organism. Equilibria, he adds, are found in simple closed systems, where known forces are balanced. Again, he says, the word homeostasis does not imply something set and immobile, a stagnation" (1969, p.61).
(Let us remember how necessary it is to distinguish open, closed and isolated systems from each other – see corresponding entries).
L.von BERTALANFFY interpretes CANNON in the following way: "Homeostasis according to CANNON, is the ensemble of organic regulations which act to maintain the steady state of the organism and are effectuated by regulating mechanisms in such a way that they do not occur necessarily in the same, and often in opposite, direction to what a corresponding external change would cause according to physical laws. The simplest example is homeothermy" (1962, p.6).
Shortly, homeostasis is a dynamical property entailing an uninterrupted sequence of transient quasi-equilibria around an optimum, and not a static equilibrium that could be reached once and for all.
KÖHLER states: "From the point of view of physics it is, therefore, simply impossible to state it as a rule that transformations in organisms occur in the direction of equilibria" (Ibid.).
It should however be noted that the final state of a system, when it becomes unable to produce adaptive fluctuations, is a static equilibrium (rigor mortis), in any case absolutely transient, since it is immediately followed by a process of decomposition and scattering of the elements.
As noted by St. BEER: "One of the key features of any viable system, and a sure index of its submission to control, is that it can maintain a homeostatic equilibrium… And this is surely true also of the industrial, social and economic systems with which managers have to deal" (1968, p.289).
In relation to homeostasis in social systems, we find in the MERRIAM – WEBSTER Dictionary the following definition: "A tendency toward maintenance of relatively stable social conditions among groups with respect to various factors (as food supply and populations among animals) and to competing tendencies and powers within the body politic, to society, or to culture among men" (1961, p.1083).
However, some of the greatest question marks of our time are: Are our contemporary societies still homeostatic, at least up to a point? Will they become homeostatic again in the future? And if not, what could be the outcome of our present instabilities?
- 1) General information
- 2) Methodology or model
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To cite this page, please use the following information:
Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]
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