Genealogy of Systems Thinking | Debora Hammond | 2002

In the history of science of systems thinking, Debora Hammond related the backgrounds and connections of the founder of the Society for General Systems Research, that is now the International Society for the Systems Sciences.

Boulding (1956) plays a large role in framing two orientations towards “general systems theory”.

Kenneth Boulding used to distinguish between what he called ‘special’ general systems theory and ‘general’ general systems theory, the first oriented primarily around mathematical modeling and the second incorporating a more philosophical consideration of the ethical dimensions of systems. From my own perspective there are three primary orientations within the systems community. Each of the original founders reflects one or more of these orientations, with slightly different emphasis.

(1) Theoretical/Rational—Formal Models, Quantitative Analysis
(2) Applied/Empirical/Utilitarian—Interdisciplinary Problem Solving
(3) Normative—Humanistic, Anti-mechanistic [p. 426]

These three orientations reflect the motivations of why individuals might be interested in diving into a science of systems.

While von Bertalanffy is considered the father of General Systems Theory, he was actually in an earlier generation of researchers (born 1901), before the founding of a society.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy is generally recognized as the father of general systems theory (GST). He introduced the idea of a general theory of systems in a seminar at the University of Chicago in 1939. He also contributed significantly to the development of organismic models in biology. His most important contribution to the field is the concept of the ‘open system’, which is capable of taking in energy and matter from its environment in order to create increasingly complex organizational structures, in apparent disregard of the second law of thermodynamics. Although Bertalanffy initially conceived GST in mathematical terms, emphasizing isomorphic relationships, much of his writing reflects a deeper concern with the mechanistic and reductionist orientation of then current models in biology and psychology. His concern with the unity of science may have evolved out of his participation in the Vienna Circle, although he rebelled against the dominant current of positivism in that group. The most significant influences in the evolution of his own thinking were philosophers and mystics, including Heraclitus, Nicholas of Cusa and Leibniz. [p. 426]

James Grier Miller was a convenor, becoming the editor for the journal Behavioral Science.

Although it also contained normative elements, the work of the Committee on the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago, under the leadership of James Grier Miller, was probably closest in spirit to the articulated goals of the society. In additional to Miller, the two most active members of this group were Ralph Gerard and Anatol Rapoport. Although Miller was not at CASBS with the other founders, he continued to work closely with Gerard and Rapoport throughout that year. Miller had been inspired to integrate the biological, psychological and social dimensions of human behavior by Enrico Fermi and Alfred North Whitehead. As a student at Harvard he was very much influenced by the homeostatic models of Walter Cannon and Lawrence Henderson. As Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago he formed the Behavioral Science Committee in 1949. [p. 426]

Ralph Gerard (born 1900) preceded James Grier Miller (born 1916).

Born at the turn of the century, Ralph Gerard entered the University of Chicago as a student at the age of 14, later returning as a professor of neurophysiology. The range of his interests included ecology and social theory, and he spoke often on the role of scientists as the brain of the social organism. He was particularly influenced by Herbert Spencer’s organismic model of society and was one of the original participants in the Macy conferences on cybernetics in the early 1940s. The framework for Miller’s Living System model grew out of a much more simplified framework that Gerard developed to explore the relationship between different levels of organization in biological systems, examining structure, function and evolution at the level of the cell, the organism and society as a whole. [p. 436]

Anatol Rapoport (born 1911) was a University of Michigan (1955-1975) when Miller directed the Mental Health Research Institute there (1955-1967), subsequently moving to Toronto.

Although he worked closely with Miller and Gerard on the Behavioral Sciences Committee, Anatol Rapoport’s most significant contributions to the systems field grew out of his work with Nicholas Rashevsky and the Committee on Mathematical Biology, where he became interested in neural networks and game theory. Like Bertalanffy, he became increasingly concerned with the symbolic dimension and began to study semantics. Among the original founders he was the only socialist, and he split from Miller and Gerard over their respective views during the Vietnam War era. He continued to work with Boulding in the field of Peace Research and Conflict Resolution, which had grown out of their collaborative efforts at CASBS. [pp. 436-437]

Kenneth Boulding (born 1910) was at University of Michigan 1949-1967, and then moved on to Boulder, Colorado.

Boulding was the only member of the original group of founders who was not a biologist. By training he was an economist, although he was one of the first in that field to incorporate ecological considerations, drawing on Robert Park’s concept of ‘human ecology’. Beginning in 1949 he began organizing interdisciplinary seminars on a variety of themes, including competition and cooperation, a theory of the individual, growth, communication and conflict resolution. It was in this context that he was first introduced to Bertalanffy’s work and his proposal for a general theory of systems. Most significant from my perspective is Boulding’s emphasis on the importance of dialogue in the decision-making process

In contrast to what he described as the physiological orientation of Gerard and Miller, elaborating common processes at various levels of organization in living systems, Boulding was more interested in qualities and properties that emerged at increasingly higher levels of organization, illustrated in the following progression from simple to complex (Boulding, 1956): [p. 427]

The levels of organization from Boulding (1956) [(i) frameworks, (ii) clockworks, (iii) themostats, (iv) open systems, (v) plants, (vi) animals, (vii) humans, (viii) symbolic systems, (ix) social systems] should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t know them.

Boulding had the distinction of being accused of NOT being an economist, when he was president of the American Economic Association!

In seeking to understand the nature of social systems, Boulding emphasized the role of perception and values, which could only be elaborated through collaborative and inclusive decision-making processes, challenging efforts at problem solving by experts external to a system. [p. 427]

The generation of founders was marked with a series of passings: von Bertalanffy in 1972; Gerard in 1974; Boulding, in 1993; Miller, in 2002; Rapoport in 2007. Now in the 21st century, we’re in another (or maybe even a third) generation of systems scientists.

Tracing back earlier in Hammond (2002), we can see some of the origins predating the first generation of system scientists.

Hammon (2002), Table 4: Overlapping influences in the development of system ideas

For those who prefer to watch and listen than to read, there’s 2016 recording of a lecture by Debora Hammond on “An Overview of Systems Lineages and Implications for Research and Practice“, given a the ISSS meeting in Boulder, Colorado. (You’ll have to go to , because there’s no preview available cross-site!)


Boulding, Kenneth E. 1956. “General Systems Theory — The Skeleton of Science.” Management Science 2 (3): 197–208.

Hammond, Debora. 2002. “Exploring the genealogy of systems thinking.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 19 (5): 429–39.


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