Vickers’ Is Adaptability Enough?

The third paper in Vickers The Undirected Society University of Toronto Press 1959, after The Needs of Men and The Criteria of Well-being.

Is Adaptability Enough?

We cannot read the future in the past; but we can be sure that … trends are developing which will present new challenges to us and our children and that our ability to meet them will greatly depend on our ability to identify and understand them in advance.


   The word adaptability is … most often … used with approval of the readiness and skill with which an individual fits his social group. Less is heard of the readiness and skill of the group to accommodate and learn from the deviant individual; but these are also an aspect of adaptation and an important one.


It is useful … to distinguish signals that compel action from those that merely invite it, a distinction which runs closely parallel between to the distinction between urgency and importance.

[Concerning control by error.] What we are not told, with any certainty  if at all, except in the simplest and most often repeated cases, is what contribution our past actions have made to the results. Control by error in this sense is much more valuable – and much rarer.

To select a behaviour which one has always selected in the past in what seem similar circumstances is to be controlled by rule. To select a behaviour because it is likely to have a foreseen and desired result is to be controlled by purpose.

[Control by purpose] becomes increasingly weak and misleading where the outcome is remote and is affected by many other variables besides the behaviour which is designed to influence it. It is thus particularly weak and misleading in matters of major state policy, especially where these are designed to affect outer rather than inner relations.

It is a feature of [Regulation] in a modern complex society that action, when chosen, can only occur with the collaboration of very many people, of whom the vast majority are not personally connected with the action, will derive no personal success or satisfaction from it and would be personally none the worse and less burdened if it were dropped.


“What is the best way to preserve the essential values of [the environment]?” is not a question that can be put to a computer, since it involves the precedent question, “In case of conflict, which value is to be put first?” And this cannot be answered in advance even for a [Lorenz] jewel fish.

Decisions taken in apparently similar circumstances in the past exercise so powerful an influence over future decisions that even when the deciding mind or minds that wish to escape from them, they are often unable to do so because of the expectations which have come to be based on them by those whom any change would affect.

The process of valuation is also seen sharply where an established system experiences disturbances widely different in character or much greater in force than those to which it is accustomed. … The past, though accessible, is impotent to guide but potent to fetter.

In all arguments … the object of the rival disputants … is to alter the tensions felt by others so as to accord with their own. There are two ways of doing this:

  • One is to persuade others to classify the situation according to some type to which as strong attitude is already attached. (War is murder. Pacifism is treason.)
  • The other is to change the attitude already attached top the classification. (War in the nuclear age demands an assessment different from war in the nineteenth century.)

The second … involves new and more refined classification.

    I have no doubt that adaptability, as commonly understood, is not enough, as a goal or even as an explanation of our striving. We must also assume a “nature” which men and societies are striving to realize and which gives force and direction to their adaptation and sets limits to their adaptability. [This nature] is something which we may be said to both to “make” and “discover.” At any given moment of history it consists … in that ideal of ourselves which guides our valuations and hence our compromises.

The concepts of maximizing satisfaction or minimizing tension, useful at lower levels, need at higher levels to be translated into terms of form-seeking.

[There is] a lack of any adequate means to represent to ourselves the circular relationship whereby our governors are both discovered and modified by the process of decision, including the successive acts of commitment. [And also] the difficulty of representing these governors to ourselves as a Gestalt, which grows and changes not merely quantitatively, by addition or subtraction but qualitatively, by change of relationship.


As the volume of disturbance approaches the limit of the system’s adaptability, the result is a general sense of stress.

The regulative mechanism becomes fully occupied with the short term at the expense of the long term, with the urgent at the expense of the important.

There will follow … severe criticism of those responsible for the regulating mechanism … .

[E]xperience does not readily disclose how far a situation is under our control or even how wisely our control has been exercised.

Until both governors and governed have a common and realistic view of what can be controlled and how far and at what cos, the relations between them are bound to be disturbed; and these disturbances may be as dangerous to the system as any.

The ultimate result of overload is certain. In the end, the system will fall back to a lower level of organization, discarding or modifying such of its expectations as cannot be realized. … It will be simpler; and, for a time at least, less effective even at its new and lower level.

An overloaded system may not break down. …:

  • It may improve its regulative machinery so as to deal with the heavier load.
  • It may learn to control the the rate of change, so as to keep its load within capacity.
  • Or it may lower and change its governing expectations … and thus alter what it is trying to be.

[T]he first and greatest regulator would certainly have seemed to be the market. [Whose operation in practice is criticised.]

The idea that the economic field could be separated from the rest of life, always an illusion, is long since dead.

[There are assumptions], still basic to Western culture, that the individual should prize and strive for increasing independence, through the increasing production and exchange of goods and services.

[During the dominance of industrialization] insights won over the last two thousand years, virtually the whole of our accumulated knowledge of value, will be either confirmed in a form profoundly changed or lost for some later age painfully to discover.


While this is ostensibly about industrialization, it has relevance to a wider range of complex dynamic situations, including other aspects of ‘progress’ such as financialisation and globalisation. The key features are:

  • Radical uncertainty about future developments.
  • Uncertainty about which are the key factors.
  • Uncertainty about what levers are available, and how they might operate.
  • Uncertainty about the actual effects of the use of levers, even long after.
  • The need to take a ‘holistic’ perspective.
  • The need to titrate, to balance out the key factors.
  • Deficiencies in ideologies, representation, languages and classifications.

Thus there is no known situation to be adapted to. Indeed, the complexities and uncertainties of the situation as a whole appear radically different to those situations where adaptation is straightforward.


The Predicament of the Industrial Society,

The Round Table in Retrospect and my overall comments.

Dave Marsay

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