The Rube Goldberg Principle

on December 5, 2009

In looking back over the previous entry, I noticed one glaring omission. I’ve been discussing the proto-history of holism as though it was spurred on primarily by its own internal imperatives, but this was far from the case. At every stage of its development, holism was subject to the impact of other visions — and the most crucial early influence was that of the science-and-democracy partnership at the time when it first formed in the 1930’s.

It troubles me when I overlook something that big, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. The longer I work with the visions, the deeper I go — and in this current series of entries I’ve been trying to pin down a number of things that I never considered before, such as the delicate mechanisms by which each new vision emerges from its predecessor.

One thing that’s been striking me as I work is how much the dance of the visions resembles a cross between a chambered nautilus and a Rube Goldberg device. From a distance, each vision seems to unfold smoothly and gracefully, forming an elegant addition to the series. But up close, the process is far more of a six-dimensional trapeze act, in which the senior visions hurl the new arrival from one unsteady perch to another even as they themselves are jigging back and forth into new configurations.

It’s a wonder that it ever comes out even — but somehow it always does.

rubegoldbergIt’s significant, by the way, that Rube Goldberg, who was designing his zany machines from the middle teens into the 1930’s, was obviously a chaos guy — and perhaps one of the most profound. Hold onto that thought for the moment, though, because first we have to deal with democracy.

The democracy vision was at its peak of energy and intensity between about 1910, when it became the driving force behind the counterculture of the teens, and 1940, when it finished forging its partnership with science and subsided into relative conventionality. It enjoyed an overwhelming degree of moral authority during those years, most of which was directed towards expunging the final vestiges of the social vision which had come before it.

That earlier vision was based on a strictly hierarchical worldview, in which all political authority trickled down from monarchs who received the right to rule directly from God. Democracy was the complete antithesis of this top-down approach, and its central principles were equality, freedom from oppression, and governments which derived their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The concept of self-government was widely accepted by the start of the 20th century, but in ordinary life people were still divided into masters and servants, natural superiors and natural inferiors. It was only after the democracy vision became a moral touchstone that these remnants of the old elitism were finally swept away.

When vitalism faded after 1910, for example, it was partly because its central image — the fairy dust of mind waking dead matter to life — retained far too much of the trickle-down attitude. And even though early holism tried to be more scientific in its vocabulary, it still insisted that, in Haldane’s phrase, “mechanism, life, and personality belong to different categories constituting a genuine hierarchy.” For holism to become fully acceptable, it would have to give up all forms of hierarchical thinking.

Making the situation more complex, however, the democracy vision itself was changing rapidly in the early 20’s as it shifted its allegiance from reason to chaos. For over a century, freedom had been understood as the absence of crude forms of political coercion that might impede the formation of rational judgments. But starting in the 1920’s, freedom was redefined as liberation from any sort of constraint whatsoever — the kind of personal freedom symbolized by short skirts, bathtub gin, and hot jazz.

By the end of the decade, this new ideal of freedom had started to affect science, as well. Nineteenth century science had been characterized by a belief that there were natural laws governing every aspect of life, with human nature, human history, and human evolution all being controlled by inexorable cosmic principles. But this top-down approach could not withstand the intense moral authority of 20th century democracy.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, the concept of all-embracing natural law was pared down to a limited set of simple physical equations — mathematical expressions like F=ma or E=mc2 that did no more than describe the fundamental forces acting upon matter. Life and mind, being regarded as accidental combinations of atoms, were essentially left to their own devices, free to take any form that did not actively defy the laws of physics.

The result was what might be described as a Rube Goldberg universe — one in which most of existence was governed not by law but by wild improvisation. This vista of total freedom could leave its adherents feeling lost in in an existential void, but it promised them in exchange the power to control their own destiny.

One sign of the change was the development in 1926-28 of quantum mechanics, which brought an element of chaos into the very heart of science. Another was the emergence of the new genre of science fiction, constructed around a belief in the future as a realm of infinite possibility.

The shift from determinism to complete freedom can be seen in the difference between H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) — in which there is only one, unalterable future — and a story like Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time (1938), in which “certainty is abolished” and there are an infinite number of possible futures to choose among.

This radical transformation of the science vision had two momentous results. One was that it made it possible for science to enter into a close partnership with democracy, held together by their common belief in freedom. The other was that it finally enabled holism to define what made living things different from non-living matter without resorting to hypothetical non-physical forces.

It’s no coincidence that ecology began to develop in the late 20’s, just when these changes were occurring in science, or that the key term “ecosystem” would be coined in 1935, as the science-and-democracy partnership was falling into place. An ecosystem might even be seen as the ultimate manifestation of the Rube Goldberg principle in action — a motley assortment of whatever life-forms happen to wander into the neighborhood, all of them learning together through trial and error and positive feedback loops how to live in ways that keep everyone happy and the whole system running smoothly.

This proto-holistic vision was not confined to the understanding of nature, however. It appears to have struck a number of people working in different areas at almost exactly the same time — and it was manifested most strongly in an unprecedented degree of tolerance of personal and social diversity.

Even though the democracy vision was nominally committed to personal freedom, as late as the early 30’s ordinary people were routinely described as “the masses” and perceived less as individuals than as a faceless horde. Conventional science also dealt in “masses” — that is, undifferentiated lumps of matter, like rocks or planets, that were acted upon as a unit by outside forces.

But the new Rube Goldberg universe wasn’t at all like that. In an ecosystem, every species — every organism — has its own unique role to play, its own way of reacting to stimuli, and its own contribution to the whole.

This new holistic understanding began to show up in screwball comedy in the late 30’s. In You Can’t Take It With You (stage play December 1936, film version 1938), for example, every member of a household of eccentrics is slightly crazy in their own unique way, but the family as a whole is intensely loyal and mutually supportive against an uncomprehending world. This enormously influential play has set the model for every band-of-misfits story since, from the X Men to the Addams Family.

An emphasis on differentiation was not confined to screwball comedy. In Walt Disney’s Snow White (December 1937), every one of the Seven Dwarfs has his own name, face, and personality — marking a sharp change from the seven identical little men who had appeared in the Betty Boop Snow White as recently as 1933.

At precisely the same time, other writers were applying the same principle not just to individuals but to larger social groups. I previously pointed out the hints of multiculturalism in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (September 1937), where previously feuding Dwarves, Elves, and Men must join together to battle the Goblins. There are similar alliances of diverse species in C.S. Lewis’s science fantasy Out of the Silent Planet (April 1938) — which was inspired by a suggestion from Tolkien — and in E.E. Smith’s space epic Galactic Patrol (serialized September 1937 to February 1938).

It’s still far from clear to me just how so many seminal works expressing related ideas could have welled up spontaneously between the end of 1936 and the early months of 1938. And that’s not even mentioning the first classic drawings of M.C. Escher, the first Dr. Seuss book, the proto-version of Bugs Bunny, or the first Superman comic, all of them from this same period.

My best suggestion is that when a new partnership is first assembled, it releases a burst of creative energy that cascades through all the visions simultaneously, transforming the entire culture.

Notably, neither the Nazis nor the communists were able to accept this radical change in consciousness. Both remained wedded to 19th century concepts of rigid natural law — the communists in the form of “historical inevitability,” the Nazis in their obsession with race. Both paid lip service to equality while actively crushing freedom. Both detested chaos, as can be seen in their suppression of modern art. And neither had any tolerance at all for diversity.

As for Rube Goldberg, he gave up cartooning in 1938 and moved on to other things. Perhaps he felt he’d gotten his point across.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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Read the Previous Entry: The Proto-History of Holism
Read the Next Entry: Moral Agents

One Response to “The Rube Goldberg Principle”

  1. Gus says:

    Regarding “alliances of diverse species”: I finally saw Avatar here in Muscat, and I agree it’s another version of Chester Cricket. But I mention it here because it also includes the climax wherein all the mutually threatening forest creatures unite to fight the humans.

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