Home > Uncategorized > The concept of homeostasis

The concept of homeostasis

from Ken Zimmerman  (originally a comment)

On the one side were those who believed that the existing economic system is in the long run self-adjusting, though with creaks and groans and jerks, and interrupted by time-lags, outside interference and mistakes … These economists did not, of course, believe that the system is automatic or immediately self-adjusting, but they did maintain that it has an inherent tendency towards self-adjustment, if it is not interfered with, and if the action of change and chance is not too rapid.

Those on the other side of the gulf, however, rejected the idea that the existing economic system is, in any significant sense, self-adjusting. They believed that the failure of effective demand to reach the full potentialities of supply, in spite of human psychological demand being immensely far from satisfied for the vast majority of individuals, is due to much more fundamental causes …

This begs the question, what is self-adjusting? Rather than go down that rabbit hole, I prefer to begin with a concept with a long and useful history that thus might benefit economics and economists—homeostasis.

I begin with this from the journal article, ‘Exploring the concept of homeostasis and considering its implications for economics’ (Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio).

In its standard format, the concept of homeostasis refers to the ability, present in all living organisms, of continuously maintaining certain functional variables within a range of values compatible with survival. The mechanisms of homeostasis were originally conceived as strictly automatic and as pertaining only to the state of an organism’s internal environment. In keeping with this concept, homeostasis was, and still is, often explained by analogy to a thermostat: upon reaching a previously set temperature, the device commands itself to either suspend the ongoing operation (cooling or heating), or to initiate it, as appropriate. This traditional explanation fails to capture the richness of the concept and the range of circumstances in which it can be applied to living systems. Our goal here is to consider a more comprehensive view of homeostasis. This includes its application to systems in which the presence of conscious and deliberative minds, individually and in social groups, permits the creation of supplementary regulatory mechanisms aimed at achieving balanced and thus survivable life states but more prone to failure than the fully automated mechanisms. We suggest that an economy is an example of one such regulatory mechanism, and that facts regarding human homeostasis may be of value in the study of economic problems. Importantly, the reality of human homeostasis expands the views on preferences and rational choice that are part of traditionally conceived Homo economicus and casts doubts on economic models that depend only on an “invisible hand” mechanism.

This clearly lays out how homeostasis can apply to economic arrangements (institutions). These are regulatory mechanisms aimed at achieving balanced and thus survivable life states but not via any automatic or automated processes. In other words, economics is a regulatory process that helps but does not guarantee human success or survival. It promotes homeostasis.

Constructing ‘gadgets’ like IS-LM macroeconomic models, or, for that matter any mathematical model is not just useless but destructive of all efforts to create such an economy. By this the result is direct threats to the survivability of our species. Economic institutions that do not regulate leave the door open for disaster.

This brings us to the question of the point of the regulation. Do economic institutions regulate to maintain themselves or to protect our species? Currently, most regulate to protect themselves and the small minority of humans that benefit from them. Reversing this is one of major projects of our time.

  1. July 15, 2021 at 2:26 pm

    The use of homeostasis has a long and venerable, and sometimes not so venerable history throughout the social sciences. It’s application can be traced back at least to August Compte as he distinguished between those forces that lead to “order” and those that lead to “progress”. It’s definitely present in Durkheim and its very strong in Parsons. I don’t think that the concept of equilibrium per se needs to imply optimality. Even Samuelson noted that an equilibrium could mean 20% unemployment and I think we wold be better served thinking of equilibrium as more like homeostasis. I agree with what I think you are saying: if one is going to talk about “system maintaining” properties then I agree the question has to be asked to what degree the system as it is promotes the functioning of everyone, or just some, or to what extent the system is maintaining a healthy balance with the ecosystem, or undermining the ecosystem. All that said, an over emphasis on homeostasis or equilibrium can be unhealthy in the social sciences, causing us to lose sight of the dynamic processes.

  2. July 15, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    Homeostasis as described here seems to assume that balancing feedback loops predominate. But it seems to fly in the face of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy not to mention negative and positive feedback loops that are also part of the economic and societal systems.

    Perhaps too much emphasis is placed in the analysis on the notion of self-adjustment in the face of evidence that adjustments may take place within a new paradigm or framework at an entirely new level — a reorganization different from homeostasis. If my thermostat breaks down or I have a power failure the oscillations can be corrected — eventually. But the heat in our homes that might be maintained at a certain level can overwhelm or destroy those mechanisms as the recent heat dome over the west coast demonstrates.

    In the human body, homeostasis frequently breaks down and while it often returns to equilibrium, sometimes — more frequently than we like — it does not. That breakdown occurs over time as we age and as well as a result of a complex mix of positive and negative feedback loops that include diseases such as COVID, cancer (the ultimate failure of homeostasis), nutritional needs (often unique ones that are unrecognized), and increasingly environmental insults (chemicals in our food, air and water, climate crises, etc.). Entropy rules.

    As I enter my dotage, I am aware of my body breaking down in various ways and reminded of it every time I take my pain meds and other meds to control blood pressure and cholesterol levels. I just looked at the obituary column in my paper and did not find my name there but saw many others where the homeostasis as well as outside efforts to correct the balance clearly failed.

    I agree that regulations — especially economic — are necessary and require oversight mechanisms but the concept of homeostasis seems to mean that we deny adaptation and evolutionary developmental factors or even what is sometimes known as “gaming the system.”

    While I do not believe the intention of the writer is to maintain dysfunctional homeostatic equilibria, those can be the effects of emphasizing this concept.

    I prefer a more systems approach where we understand that things are always in flux moving towards entropy because of both balancing and reinforcing feedback loops. Thus, we must consider carefully the responses to the inevitable entropy in order to determine if we are accelerating or decelerating the process in desirable or undesirable directions. The climate crises coinciding with the pandemic evident everywhere about us is an example of entropy related to human economic activities that introduced numerous negative economic feedback loops such as the nonsensical but pervasive concepts of the GDP, economic efficiency and growth. However an anthropomorphic view of Mother Nature could see the environmental entropy towards which we are heading as desirable because as a species we are like Mother Nature’s cancer which is itself an out-of-control and self-destructive growth of our body cells.

    But anthropomorphic views are deceptive, mystical and misleading. They produce actions that result in known and unknown feedback loops. Clearly they are not leading to equilibrium or homeostasis as much as some of us may hope. There are those who see Armageddon as desirable leading to a rapture which may be the ultimate entropy for our species.

    Dinosaurs were once ubiquitous and in a balanced relationship both with each other and other species on the planet but only remnants of them remain. Entropy “won” out in the end but negative reinforcing loops — asteroids/meteors — happened. If you wish to see that as self-adjustment on a grander cosmic scale than just that species, stepping back allows us to see that the adjustment led to a reorganization at a different level or equilibrium producing a new dominant species — for a time. The time of dinosaurs was temporary in cosmic terms and that species eventually collapsed into entropy out of which new self-organizing organisms arose. Indeed that may be a more relevant perspective. The myth about the Phoenix arising out if its ashes comes to mind. As do reincarnation ideas and the christian story about easter.

    As a species we have developed a rich, complex set of narratives in most of our cultures about entropy and reorganization not self-adjustment nor homeostasis. But do we really understand those narratives?

    Has the effort of economists to develop a new narrative of self-adjustment to cope with largely unconscious ideas of entropy helped or hindered? Is homeostasis any better?

  3. July 23, 2021 at 3:09 am

    Conventional economics is geared to promoting perpetual growth, not homeostasis. It actually seeks to prevent ‘economy cancer’ being cured!

    There is nothing to stop a steady state economy being developed, but we evolved to have our numbers controlled by disease and predation, and to fit one particular ‘Goldilocks zone’, where it was not too hot, or too cold, and where there was sufficient to eat and drink. This meant that human numbers were naturally, in the six figure range for most of our history. Then we started getting technical, and carried our homeostatic environments around in clothes, and in houses, and with central heating. As climate change puts temperatures above those that our built in homeostatic device of sweating can cope with, those that cannot move toward the poles (heat domes allowing), will die out. Some rich types will probably manage to go around in space suits, but it’s not much to look forward to.

    We need to arrive at oecological/oeconomical homoeostasis: which is called sustainability, but it can only be achieved by drastic reductions in our numbers and our consumption (entropy is kept at bay in our oecosphere by the energy from the Sun, but we’ve sabotaged the energy in/energy out balance, by taking the stored sunlight of many millions of years, and releasing it in only a century or so! We are frogs heating the water in the saucepan we call home.)

    So far, only one state has achieved sustainability according to the World Wildlife Fund. That is Cuba. At the moment, US ‘cancer capitalists’ are trying to ‘free’ Cuba from the sustainable living it was able to maintain, with zero population growth, and moderate trade. As with all things Homo sapiens (there’s an ironic name if ever there was one!), might will win out over right, and we will destroy Cuba’s isle of hope, and all burn, starve, or drown together.

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