The human system and its sub-systems at its highest level.


Figure 1a - Components of the Human Activity System

This schematic captures the components of what can be called the "human activity system" in which we all live. If we look at humans in a holistic way, as part of a system, our behaviour emerges from the interaction of the component parts (knowledge, ways of acquiring it, nature, mind, body and culture). Our behaviour in this sense is an emergent property of the system.

The boxes and the lines highlight the components, which are both areas of knowledge and sub-systems. The lines represent major interconnections. This is the simplest representation of what is a massively complex system that I could devise. Because behaviour is an emergent property of the human system (taken in total) it is fundamental to political economy. This is because the structures and culture that make up any instance of political economy are themselves subsystem of the whole. We see that the are created (constitutions get written) and the behaviours we observe are different in different political systems and cultures. (Note: Human System Schematic)

  • By the human system I mean the interaction of nature, mind, body and culture taking in the way we acquire knowledge and use it to shape our ethics and beliefs and culture.
  • By political economy I mean the way in which we negotiate the rules of our coexistence to enable us to rub along and earn a living. I use the term political economy in much the same way as Adam Smith or Karl Marx – economics is not separable from politics.

I use knowledge in the standard sense that it is the understanding of something based on organised study and discovery, knowledge can be thought of as well founded belief. Because of my IT background I think of knowledge as the top of a hierarchy that goes from data, through information to knowledge. In this sense data is just facts and figures, information is usually collections of facts and figures that tells us something and knowledge is when we gain understanding. Before looking at the way knowledge is accumulated, disseminated and used I explain the way I have represented it in the Human Activity System.

To what extent can we change behaviour by changing what we think?

Included here is the discussion of norms and beliefs that are also part of culture.


For this I am relying mainly on these sources; (Capra and Luisi, Ch12)(Damasio) and (Hands Ch24)

It appears that there are several levels of consciousness

  • Cognition is the sense of detecting the environment and taking things from it (nutrients) to enable the organism to maintain itself is ubiquitous.
  • Core Consciousness is the ability to sense the environment; a simple biological phenomenon that provides the animal with a sense of self at one particular moment in one particular place
  • Reflective Consciousness which I call self-consciousness; at some point in evolution our consciousness passed a threshold, we no longer just sensed and reacted to the environment but also had a continuing sense of self through time. This is not limited to humans but reaches a peak in humans when augmented by language and writing.

A place in nature

Our knowledge of people has progressed; we recognise that as primates we are part of the animal kingdom and we learn a lot about our natures by looking at our closest relatives. This is a recent development that depended on the work of Wallace and Darwin on evolution in the C19th. It has now entered the realm of common knowledge; Desmond Morris famously used the term “naked ape” and Jarred Diamond wrote the best selling the Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Dimond, Chimpanzee).

An encyclopaedic round up of current knowledge about evolution and humans within it is provided by John Hands, Cosmo Sapiens (Hands).


The etymology of the word is that it is linked to cultivation. It is useful to rediscover this overlay of meaning since the implication that we can cultivate society in order to make our culture is empowering and something that this site advocates.

The Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time." In the schematic of the human system all individuals with overlapping group memberships would feel some affinity for the whole represented by the larger grouping of society. Systems are never static, within the human systems cultures vary and are never static; at any point in time is both the interplay of our artefacts combined with our valuers, beliefs and norms of behaviour which in turn is influenced by the groups we form and the interplay of many minds and the knowledge we have built up and all of these things over time - the playing out of history.  In systems thinking terms culture could also be emergent from this interplay of individuals and groups acting and reacting with/against each other. Up to now all of this may be described as accidental or contingent. 

As noted in Our Natural Selves we have groups because we are primates, we have groups as part of our culture.

The key point of systems thinking and the knowledge we have that goes with it is to locate people within a physical system – the world (actually the bio-sphere) within which we exist as individuals and groups.

If human behaviour is an emergent property of the whole system as has been described then some parts are given; these stem from our physiology and our primate inheritance. However other parts are malleable; these are the parts we have control over, the artifacts we use and culture that goes with them together with a large set of norms and beliefs. Our brains plasticity means we can change the way we behave. We have only have to look at other cultures and past ones to see how different these can be.