Sapient Governance III — Strategic Decisions

Strategic Governance in Nature

Strategic Control in the Biosphere

A strategy is often characterized as a long-term program of actions, to be carried out by the tactical and logistic controllers, geared to position the entity in the most favorable way as the future unfolds. Examples of strategic 'management' include certainly the military, but also include most large organizations in society. Government heads talk about strategies as if they actually understood what it meant. It is, after all, a good word to bandy about. The problem with modern democracy and representative governance is that no regime is in power long enough to effectively plan and execute a strategy. But that is another story.

For the moment I want to focus on the concept of strategy in nature. My argument for sapient governance has been that the hierarchical control system is a product of nature whenever the complexity and dynamics of a system becomes so great that simple cooperation mechanisms in the operational level can no longer assure smooth, continuing operations. Governance, I've argued, works best if it follows nature. Indeed, I have tried to build up a vision of the natural development of social governance as fulfilling this scheme. We have seen how the coordination level of governance/control works in natural and human systems. And now the question of strategic governance/control comes to the fore. Essentially I want to argue that strategic control, as we think of it, is actually a very recent development in the biological world. In fact it doesn't really become a factor in system dynamics until we get to the hominids and then not really major until Homo sapiens. I will argue below that it is in the sapient brain that we see a truly autonomous agent that can strategize and provide flexible directions to the coordination level. The evolution of the neocortex has resulted in taking strategic decisions out of the realm of Darwinian evolution (as described below) and into the realm of individual and social actions, where we see it in our world.

Ultimately all strategy is based on a few basic needs. The entity needs to acquire the right resources from the environment for as long as possible. The entity needs to avoid injury from physical accidents. The entity needs to avoid being eaten. And the entity needs to perpetuate itself in some form long into the future. These are the rules of life and evolution. All actions that an entity can take, all behaviors it can have, are geared in one way or another to these rules. The intentions that we read into what organisms do, as they go about their lives, come from these rules. Living systems have a core strategic imperative — continue life.

Evolution Decides Strategies

For the vast majority of the biosphere neo-Darwinian evolution is the strategizer. That is, the life cycle, what to eat, how to get it and how to find mates is all worked out by neo-Darwinian mechanisms. Evolution, from the first animals up through the primates, has worked to select behaviors and phenotypes (bodies) that execute strategies for the life imperative relevant to all of the niches life finds itself occupying. Consider this figure, to summarize:

Early version of strategic control shaped by evolution

I have shown that the operational and coordination levels (tactical and logistical) can be found in early brains of animals. I hinted at what amounts to coordination between tactical and logistical functions. These two have to work together to produce animal behavior covering time scales much longer than real-time operations, indeed for the entire life cycle of the animal. In other words, the functions of the coordination level have to be coordinated over longer time scales than they operate in. As with the rise of the coordination level itself, from the evolution of information brokers (see: How does Hierarchical Control Systems Theory help us?) emerging from the operations level as it got more complex as animalia evolved, a similar emergence arose in the coordination level. This form of coordination, between tactical and logistical, was largely automatic and not necessarily model based (remember in SG II I argued that higher up on the evolutionary scale of complexity, animal brains developed learned models, particularly of the external world, as a basis for anticipating near-future states). This automatic coordination level amounted to little more than a bundle of neuronal connections between parts of the brain fulfilling those functions.

And just as the coordination functions evolved to become more flexible (especially the tactical controller) by incorporating learned models and more complex processing, so too this emergent third level evolved greater competency. Probably initially the new level borrowed from the coordination level models. Eventually it developed a capability to construct its own model (described below) and its own functions in providing a new kind of guidance to behavioral decisions — judgment. It started monitoring the major aspects of the animal's body and environment and building correlations between larger-scale spatio-temporal and social patterns. Strategic thinking evolved.

Strategic control evolved from early coordination level 'coordination' circuits

To summarize, evolution was responsible for the strategic control of animals by the selection of brain processing circuits for coordination that increased the fitness of the species in terms of the life mandate. Animals do not consider that many options in the wild. Animals didn't have to think about the distant future. Or dwell on the distant past. They didn't have to wonder about what was on the other side of that mountain; would it come over here and eat me? Animals had it pretty easy until about 2 million years ago when a series of strong climate changes in central Africa started a sequence of selection events that would favor expansion of the cerebral cortex of apes. Some areas of the continent would undergo drying and create niches that favored cooperative hunting and foraging. It created herd behaviors in ungulates that got them to go through seasonal migrations (their strategic plan) and set up a need for these apes to remember the herd behaviors for longer periods of time. The environment produced numerous different kinds of game and edible plants that required more complex decision processing. Intelligence and creativity expanded, but so did strategic processing. These apes became the first animals to emerge with brains able to do strategic thinking. And the line, the hominids, led to modern humans.

Strategic Thinking

Humans evolved to become strategic thinkers. Their mission was still given by the biological mandate of continuation of life. But their options for choosing various means to achieve that over the individual's life cycle became immense. Indeed, humans evolved to be able to invent strategies like hunting with bows and arrows or farming and animal husbandry. The inventions continue right up to the present. Our invention of machines that use external sources of energy, our invention of capitalism as a goad to more production and more invention, are just that, invented strategies for continuing life. Of course, strategies need to be selected carefully and with regard to the world around the entity.

This new status was all made possible by newer and expanded structures in the executive part of the brain, the frontal lobes, and in particular the pre-frontal cortex. This patch of cortical tissue right behind your eyebrows collects data from virtually every major part of the brain, both the more primitive limbic system and the rest of the neocortex. It also sends innervating processes back out to every major part of the brain. Its connections to the limbic areas are the reason you can consciously control your emotions (when it is working well), or at least not act on impulses. But most of all it acts to coordinate all of the rest of the brain systems, the tactical and logistical controls through an incredible capacity to build very large models of the self and the world and using those models to anticipate the future. It then can guide the intelligent selection of actions, actually long strings of actions, to achieve favorable outcomes in that distant future. This is sapience. The ability to make long-term and broad scale judgments with moral sentiment motivations.


I have claimed several times that the brain builds models, or has genetically installed models in the more primitive brain parts. I haven't actually said much about these models, leaving it to the readers' general understanding about what is meant by a model (like a computer model of the climate) and that what brains do is construct models from experience — learning. The case for recognizing our memory systems as a model constructor is beyond what I can outline here. But I will provide a few examples to make the point.

In general a model is any dynamical system that mimics another, generally more complex, system in its basic behaviors. Most models that we are familiar with are used to make predictions about what the real system will do under various starting conditions. Mental models are basically the same. But how do we envision a mental model? Clearly the brain tissue has to be involved. It requires memory. Without elaborating, I will just mention a few characteristics of models and brains that permit us to understand (at least in principle) what is going on in the brain as it forms models for use in controlling behavior. The first thing you should know is that, as far as anyone knows, any real system can be represented by a network of nodes, representing components, and links, representing relations. If the nodes have activity (like firing rates of neurons) and that activity can flow through the links to activate (or inhibit) other nodes then the network can represent dynamics as well. And that is what a model is after all. What I have just described, of course, is a neural network and that, of course is what the brain contains in spades. From the mathematics of 'graph theory' (not pie charts but networks) we have reason to believe that there are network representations of anything we can imagine. Ergo, the brain, especially the cortical structures of the neocortex, are well suited to encode models of things and processes in the world.

Of course, we call it knowledge.

Take a simple example of riding a bike, so-called procedural knowledge. When you learned to ride, your conscious attention was focused on all aspects of balancing and pedaling, etc. But at some point your brain developed all of these aspects into an automatic structure, a model of riding a bike, that allows you to do so without thinking about it. You unconsciously anticipate the behavior of the bike/body system and provide the appropriate control signals to your body parts to keep it upright and moving forward (or turning as needed). Your brain built this model and you use it, tactically, to achieve a higher, strategic, purpose — getting somewhere or getting exercise.

Strategic models have to do with the long term positioning of the entity and all that the entity cares about in its environment so as to fulfill the life mandate. A strategic model has to be far more comprehensive than any single tactical or logistical model. It is the model of how all those lower-level models work and when they are to be used. It has to be represent things in the world and how they interact with one another in a relatively free form way. This is because it needs to have flexibility in how it combines those representations in novel ways.

Strategic thinking, then, is the brain's ability to use this extended model of everything known to the individual to anticipate future novel states of the world and/or even create such states. We see bits of this in our nearest relatives, the great apes. But in humans the capacity to generate future states, sometimes far into the future, of an incredibly complex world knows no match. While apes probably imagine what could happen in a few hours time, and imagine what they have to do to make it to their personal advantage, humans can make strategic plans that go out for months and even years. That is, they can if the complexity of the world isn't too great.

The Process of Strategic Thinking/Planning

Model construction is a life long endeavor. One part of sapience is using judgment to guide one in what to attend to and learn in life. Fools attend to trivialities. Wise children are curious about why things work the way they do, and they seek understanding. This is, incidentally, where systems thinking comes into play. The more strongly the systems framework is embedded in the mind, the more easily one can attend to the things, patterns, that really matter in forming powerful tacit knowledge (the models).

Strategic thinking and planning evolve over time as one builds more elaborate (and hopefully veridical) models of the world (including those in the society of conspecifics) and the self. There is a natural cycle to the process. One first takes assessments of what one is already doing, what strategies are currently being pursued, which ones are successful and which are not. One analyzes the characteristics of the environment that play into these successes and failures. One analyzes one's own powers to alter environmental factors, what is manipulable, what is not? What resources need to be brought to bear to improve one's situation? All of this is targeted toward some future time. And the majority of it goes on under the radar of consciousness!

Occasionally a question will rise to conscious thought. What kind of education should I get if I want to make lots of money? It seems isolated or pertaining only to a specific goal, making money. But in fact it is connected to every other strategic decision in the subconscious mind. I want to make lots of money in order to achieve lots of other goals, not least of which is to attract a good mate. And all of those other goals, like the last one mentioned, is ultimately tied to the biological mandate. We can pick our strategies but we can't pick our mission (even celibacy has been shown to contribute to inclusive fitness of the celibate's family!) We all go through this process, more or less continually. Even our dreaming time is dedicated to consolidation of new memories, fitting our new facts into our existing framework.

Moreover, with human evolution producing a truly altruistic social species our capacity to think strategically goes beyond just our personal lives. We think strategically for our families and even friends. We are able to think strategically for our village and some of us can even do so for our towns and cities. Some believe they can for our states and nations. That is where things tend to go a little fuzzy.

Strategic Management

Which leads us into the evolution of strategic control in human organizations. Over many generations of us observing ourselves, and our ways of getting things done, some brighter bulbs noticed that we employ the thinking cycle I mentioned above when we manage our social groupings. With the advent of large-scale agriculture and later the emergence of civilization we noticed that we tended to form hierarchical management structures, kings, priests, scribes, tax collectors... down to the field workers and slaves. The guys at the top were responsible for thinking about where our societies should be going in the future and issued policies and directives for the coordinators to implement. Whether with whips or granaries, armies or magistrates, the coordinators made sure the operations of farming and resource collection and trade were going according to plan.

Much of this understanding of organizational structure and function got formalized and codified. We simply systematized what we were doing in our heads already, wrote it down in symbolic form to share with future generations and management science was born.

As with any new science this one was descriptive more than explanatory. That is we noted roles, processes, etc. which already were in practice. We classified them and described their relationships. But we did not actually try to develop a grand theory of what was happening. That is until folks like Stafford Beer and Herbert Simon, just to name a few, came on the scene very recently in terms of human history, and started showing us the outlines of a general theory.

The modern versions of Operations Research and Management Science are still not quite offering a unified theory of organizational structure and function, in the form as I'm suggesting of a hierarchical control model. But they are maddeningly close. As the field of systems science consolidates some of its diverse areas I believe we will find a unifying theory of hierarchical control (or maybe preferably call it cybernetics) that will be a basis for the organizational design work that lies ahead.

Strategic Governance

So here is where we want to apply the theory. Already we can see the outlines of subconscious human efforts to design governments and economies, mores and jurisprudence, international treaties and covenants, even military-based agencies (e.g. UN Peacekeeping Forces) to effect smooth operations of human society. This is reaching to a global scale. Our systems have evolved from early villages to the world marketplace. From simple word of mouth to the Internet. Mechanisms to achieve forms of hierarchical control have emerged over and over again. Each phase of our social evolution, from agrarian-based empires to service-based hegemonies, from barter to cybermoney, has seen some form of hierarchical control trying to operate. The US Founding Fathers explicitly attempted to forge a governmental system that could accommodate geographical hierarchy from local control to the control of a nation. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of the three layered structure attempting to emerge in a more integrated form.

At this juncture the main form of strategic management of social order is at the nation level. Heads of state are still tasked with strategic thinking/planning for their nations as the entities of interest. They are trying to situate their nations favorably with respect to all other nations as their environments. But now something new is entering the picture. Globalization after a couple of world wars has made many of us realize that we need to be talking about the world as a whole entity. This need is underscored by our very recent awareness of how our current system is damaging the rest of the Ecos and ultimately threatening to damage ourselves as a result.

Mankind needs to have a strategic plan for how to exist on this finite globe in cooperation with all of the other components of the Ecos. And we need a strategic management structure to assure that our coordination level is going in the right direction.

Strategic thinking within one individual's head is not going to cut it for global strategic management. It doesn't seem to be working well for nation-level governance, so how could it work for the global level. Our current forms of representative democracy with a unitary heads of state (president, king, prime minister, or whatever) is not working out very well for nation-states. How could we expect it to serve the globe? Even so, some form of distributed local control superimposed on a hierarchical coordination and strategic management structure will be needed if humankind is to have an integrated and sustainable existence on this planet.

And strategic management begins and ends with wisdom. No one individual could ever constitute the level of wisdom that will be needed. No member of our species has sufficient sapience to produce that kind of wisdom. But there are a few, rare, wise people who collectively might provide the kind of true leadership this world needs. A council of the wise, not unlike met in villages in ancient times, might be able to provide strategic guidance to the coordination governance level.

Of one thing I am certain. If we humans do not intentionally devise a workable global governance based on the model of hierarchical control outlined in these last few essays, and do it reasonably soon, we will likely not have anything to govern. Homo sapiens is just as subject to natural selection as any other species. In our case we are the only representative species of a genus that is substantially distant from all other species in terms of level of sentience. If we go that will be the end of the intelligence experiment, at least for a very long while. Some of you might be thinking that would actually be a good thing. But I don't think so. I actually believe there is progress in evolution toward higher levels of conscious beings, of which we are just a way station so to speak. I believe we will achieve the kind of internal cooperative steady-state dynamic that early life achieved in the form of unitary cells. Only our level of evolutionary achievement will include explicit strategic management and sapient thinking.