- Negative feedback has become ubiquitous in science both as a
technique and as a conceptual tool. As a technique, negative feedback
has a long history; devices based in its use were made in
antiquity. It has only been during the last century, however, that
rigorous quantitiative methods have become associated with the applications
of negative feedback. These methods originated in communications
engineering and during the World War II period spread rapidly
to other areas of science where further applications were soon made.
During this process of dissemination negative feedback was transformed
into a powerful conceptual tool, of general application,
having to do with the organization of behavior.
The central figure responsible for both the dissemination and
transformation of negative feedback was the American mathematician,
Norbert Wiener, who, as a child prodigy, had developed graduate
level proficiency in science, mathematics and philosophy before he
was twenty. Wiener's multidisciplinary background and interests were
critically important in allowing him to interact with professionals in
many different fields and thereby to disseminate the feedback ideas.
Wiener and two colleagues were the authors of the 1943 paper,
"Behavior, Purpose and Teleology," which stimulated a number of
interdisciplinary meetings. These meetings were important in
spreading the feedback concepts to the different disciplines.
Participating in these meetings were, among others, Gregory Bateson,
Wolfgang Miler, Margaret Mead, Warren S. McCulloch, F. S. C.
Northrop, John von Neumann and Wiener. The successful assimilation
of feedback by the various disciplines in spite of the problems
associated with modern discipline specialization provides a lesson
in how these problems may be overcome. In the case of feedback, the
climate for its assimilation was made considerably more receptive by
concurrent developments in computer science and neurophysiology
which mutually reinforced the robotic view.
The role of negative feedback in scientific research and the
significance of this role have not yet been fully identified. Such
an identification must be made in order to evaluate the historical
events which led to the assimilation of negative feedback. I
attempt to define the role of negative feedback in scientific
research in terms of a program called "cybernetic analysis." This
program develops the behavioral and functional roles of negative
feedback in terms of "adaptive goal-directed behavior"; such
behavior occurs when a system can maintain a certain state or tend
toward a certain state even while being disturbed by external
influences. This behavior is exhibited both by organisms and by
mechanical devices controlled by negative feedback.
Until now the idea that systems could be directed toward an end
has been unacceptable because goal-directedness has been associated
with the outdated notions of teleology and final cause. The ability
of negative feedback to account for goal-directedness mechanistically
not only challenges the view that organisms alone can exhibit such
behavior, but also stands to revise the scientific view of goaldirectedness
in general. With the new legitimacy of both adaptive
and non-adaptive goal-directedness, the path is opened for more
effective analysis of scientific problems.
Despite the great value of Wiener's Cybernetics in focusing
attention on the many new robotic developments of the World War II
period, it tended to obscure many of the critical points made in
the earlier (1943) paper with regard to the role of negative feedback
in scientific explanation. The term "cybernetics" came to be
a great source of confusion because of Wiener's initial presentation,
a presentation which mirrored many of the earlier events in the
interdisciplinary meetings which led to the writing of the work.
It is suggested here that the term "cybernetic analysis" be used to
designate that type of problem analysis which utilizes the hypothesis
of a negative feedback mechanism to account for adaptive goaldirected
behavior. The use of the term "cybernetics" in this manner
will not only succinctly identify one of the great unnamed developments
in science, but give the word renewed meaning in terms of the
literal roots from which Wiener first derived it.