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Myth's Spiritual Psychology of Network Agency

Characterizing The Behavior of Rouge Systems

Monstrosity as a Symbol of Failed Inter-System Reciprocity

  • Systems science shows how a system can disrupt others when feedback networks between systems fail to reciprocate

  • "Invasive species," whose agency disrupts the ecology they 'invade,' are examples of such 'rouge systems'

  • The presence of an invasive species in an ecology indicates the self-ordering of that ecology is disrupted

  • Thus a 'rouge system' is somehow 'cut off from' and thus disruptive to, the collective feedback network of other systems

  • These scientific distinctions are symbolized in the mythical representations of monstrosity

Monsters Represent the Characteristic Agency of Non-Reciprocating Networks


System Functionality as Cooperatively Sustainable Self-Organization within an Environment Over Time

From a systems science perspective, functionality is relative to whether or not a system's feedback network enables it to accomplish two contrasting operations. One is to maintain its previously functional self-organization within its external environment. The second is whether, when that environment changes, the network can adapt by re-organizing the system in ways that enable sustained operation of some version of the system's past formation and behavior Thus we can think in terms of 'self-sustaining' operations and 'self-adapting' ones. the latter leading to a new self-sustaining regime of behavior. An example is a prey species, such as orca whales, which must adapt their hunting behavior when the available prey species in their environment changes.

This need to sustain yet also adapt creates the interplay of systems such as predator and prey species. Ecologies are constituted by an intricate, reciprocating flow between many such interdependently interacting systems--from geological and meteorlogical to those of plant and animal species.  Together, these form 'meta-systems' that manifest self-organization and adaption as a result of the reciprocating interplay of those component sub-systems. Thus the self-sustaining functionality of a forest ecosystem arises from its sub-systems adapting to each other's feedback in ways that maintain the overall sustainability of the forest system. Evolutionary biology gives us an image of these reciprocal relationships in what are termed "fitness landscapes." This topographical abstraction shows "peaks' as enhanced or elevated level of self-sustaining adaptations. As one species becomes more effective at self-sustaining adaptation to its environment it gains an 'elevated' position relative to other species--such as lions becoming more effective at hunting antelope. Consequently, the antelope 'loose some elevation' in relatives term on the "fitness landscape" model until their system responds with adaptive physical or behavioral changes.

Interdependent interactions of specie systems represented as "fitness landscape":

Such inter-system relationships are often regarded as "competitive." But, because the reciprocating interdependency of species sub-systems is what gives rise to the self-sustaining self-organization of an ecology (as with individual humans in a society), a change in one set of inter-system relations can prompt disruption of the overall meta-system's self-regulation.  The failure of one system to maintain its role in the overall reciprocity scheme can disrupt the functional self-organization of others or even of the entire meta-system. Removing wolves from Yellowstone National Park resulted in decreased sustainability of some other species, enhanced that of others, and altered much of the landscape ecology.  The overall effect was less biodiversity and consequently decreased vitality in the overall system's adaptive capacities over time. Thus what on one scale appears competitive looks more cooperative at a the larger meta-system scale. When all component systems are operating within reciprocating parameters, the overall system is both more self-sustaining and more capable of further sustainable adaptation. Such overall functionality depends upon sub-systems responding to each other's feedback in ways that benefit each other's functionality. Thus lions contribute to the vitality of antelope and vise versa, which in turn benefits many other species. Ultimately, complex system functionality involves continued self-sustaining adaptive self-organization through reciprocating inter-system interdependency.

System Dysfunction as Failed or Non-Reciprocating Self-Organization

The capacity of a system's network to adapt sustainably to changes in its environment has typically been thought to arise from random genetic mutations, some of which provide enhanced adaptive advantages. The latter are then 'selectively favored' by the conditions of the environment. This is the concept of "evolution by natural selection." However, most of these random genetic mutations are non-adaptive in that they disable a systems capacity to sustain its self-organization within its environment over time.

Genetic mutations can result in non-adaptive failures of self-organization or lead to

new subspecies with differently enhanced self-sustainability:



Plant and animal species that are introduced to an ecology, where they did not evolve their system's form and behaviors through reciprocating interdependency, are termed "invasive species." That is, because the ways they manifest their self-organization evolved in relationship with a different set of ecological sub-systems, they can often proliferate excessively when a new environment does not constrain their mode of manifestation. Invasive species are in a sense 'rogue systems' that do not promote meta-system sustainability by cooperatively interacting with the existing overall network of reciprocity. A further example is that of cancer cells in the body. These cells act to promote only their own growth while inhibiting that of other cells essential to a body's sustained self-organization. 

An "invasive species" of worms can devastate a forest ecology just as cancer cells can lead

to the collapse of body functions by inhibiting and out-performing growth of healthy normal cells:

From one perspective, such non-reciprocating sub-systems are 'rogue invaders' that debilitate other systems' functionality and thus the overall meta-system's capacity to self-sustain. But in the larger view, these are symptoms of the meta-system's failure to sustainably adapt to the new behaviors of these systems. Some bodies prove capable of suppressing cancerous cell growth, others do not. Over long periods of time, if an invasive species does not totally collapse an ecosystem, it can re-self-organize adaptively when other species evolve the capacity to suppress the disruptions of the invasive one, thereby reestablishing cooperative inter-system reciprocity.

The Conundrum of Proportional Disruption that Enhances the Resilience of Functional Self-Organization

An important aspect of systems science is evidence that complex ordering on the level of the biosphere, and its myriad agency-enabled creatures, necessarily arises from inherent instability and disorder. This relationship between functionally self-sustaining system operations and disruption is illustrated by the concept of "disturbance regimes." This notion refers to how the ongoing self-organization of a complex systems, such as a forest ecology, society, or individual body, is disrupted in ways that temporarily disorder its operations. Examples are forest fires, civil unrest, and illness such as the common cold.  Studies reveal how these disruptions and the dis-ordering they can generate in a system's operations can play an essential role in enhancing that system's long term sustainable vitality.  Forests can gain additional biodiversity from fires, civil unrest can revitalize interpersonal reciprocity in a society that enhances its future adaptivity, illness can strengthen a body's immune system thus its sustainable self-organization in the future.  


Thus there is some relationship between sustainably functional self-organization and its occasional disruption. The ultimate vitality of a system's ongoing adaptive self-organization is dependent upon a certain amount of disordering. We might term this dangerously disruptive yet potentially vitalizing impetus 'disproportional feedback.' When a meta-system fails to accommodate to the 'feedback' of disruption it can fragment or entering into what is termed "cascading collapse," when the mutually supportive reciprocity of its sub-system components disintegrates into relative chaos. Thus complex adaptive systems are ever dependent upon degrees of disruption yet subject to its dissipating and even disintegrating effects. If the disruption becomes 'disproportional to' the system's self-ordering out of its own disorder, sustainable adaptation can fail. The astroid impact assumed to precipitate the extinction of the biosphere caused cascading collapse of then existing biospheric self-organization. Such an event is obviously not 'agency driven.' But the devastation of an ecology by an invasive species is--including that of human destruction of ecologies without regard for accommodating the maintenance of self-organizing agency within those ecologies.


The science then demonstrates how the biosphere requires a significant element of discontinuity to stimulate its relatively adaptive overall self-organization over time. Most significantly, some of this disruption stimulus arises from a type of network agency that is transgressing existing flows of reciprocating feedback within a meta-system. We can think of this as a fundamental paradox in Nature: its higher levels of complex organization in living systems depends upon dis-ordering agency within its overall meta-system.

The Monstrosity of Myth as Symbol of System Disrupting Agency


In so far as Nature's complex self-organization involves elements of disorder and disruption, human understanding of 'how the world works' ever depends upon some representation of this ordering-disordering relationship. A common trait of diverse cultural mythologies is the motif of the monstrous, represented by entities with traits that appear deformed or mutant, as if somehow 'un-natural.' Their size and behavior is often extreme, their appetites voracious, their attitudes angry, violent, greedy, and sometimes sly. There is a strong sense of non-reciprocating behavior in these characters. Interacting with them is dangerous, even lethal. Consequently, ordinary humans are shown to regard them with fear, disgust, and terror. Those 'heroes' that dare engage these 'monsters' typically require some form of magical assistance from spiritual agents such as talking animals, dwarfs, gods or goddesses.

The English word monster derives from the Latin monere, translated as to warn, advise, or make aware. In ancient Rome the identification of something monstrous was regarded as an omen or portent indicating a future event, likely one with disastrous consequences. This view of monstrosity regards it as a warning that 'trouble is afoot,' all is not well in society or the world, among humans or the gods. Thus monstrosity suggests some transgression of the normal ordering of the world has occurred--and that a response is required to 'set things right' again. A spirit, god, or goddess might have been offended. 

Mythic imagery is replete with what might seem, to a modern attitude, entities with monstrous appearances. Many spirits and divinities appear deformed, out-sized, and dangerous. But monstrosity can be discerned more narrowly as a distortion or transgression of the functional 'ordering of things,' particularly through behavior that is obstructive or destructive without contributing creatively to the reciprocity of life's systems.  In this view, monstrosity indicates network agency that is primarily debilitating to the the larger scale of interdependent network systems wherein it emerges. It is often represented transgression of

civility, custom, law, or decency.

Monstrous Psychology and Network Reciprocity Obstruction

Psychologically, monstrosity can be thought of as an obsessive, reactive attitude that blocks all empathy and affinity. It is thus a form of psychopathology or even psychopathy. Mythical monsters are often so obsessed with their anger, treasure, appetite, or aggression that they have no self-regulation in relationship to others. Thus they can be regarded as personifications of psychopathic agency. The psychopath is an iconic manifestation of incapacity for participation in the mutually beneficial inter-system network reciprocity that facilitates overall functional self-organization in society. Thus its agency tends to obstruct or even debilitate the flow of network reciprocity essential to meta-system functionality. As in psychology, so also in myth, such behavior can appear to arise from either "nature or nurture," either as elemental to an entity, as in genetically encoded, or as a result of experience, such as childhood abuse. But in myth this attitude appears as an archetypal spirit that can 'infest' most the attitudes of most any system.

Ancient Greek examples of such monstrosity include the Homeric version of the cyclops, a brutish, selfish, anti-social, one-eyed giant prone to eating humans. These land dwelling progeny of the sea god Poseidon who know nothing of seafaring, suggesting something went wrong in their original formation. In contrast, the Gorgon Medusa was, by some accounts once a beautiful priestess in the temple of the virgin goddess Artemis.  But when she was raped by the sea god Poseidon, Artemis changed her into a monster with snake hair and a gaze that turned any man to stone who looked in her eyes. The Cretan Minotaur, human eating half-man, half-bull, was born monstrous as the offspring of a queen's lust for the white bull given by the god Zeus to her husband, king Minos. One must be wary of 'gifts from the gods.'

The 'tunnel visioned' Homeric cyclops, who lacks 'perspective,'  the abused,

snake-haired Medusa whose gaze can turn men to stone even after death,

and the monstrosity of transgressive breading between species, the Minotaur::

This motif of monstrosity is perhaps the most enduring mythic theme in modern societies. Movie monsters are so numerous it would likely be impossible to count them all. Familiar types include the nosferatu or vampire, a kind of undead ghoul that feeds upon the blood or 'life force' of the fully living. The resurrected creature assembled  from unrelated body parts and animated by an obsessed doctor Frankenstein, in an effort to 'defeat death,' becomes behaviorally monstrous only when rejected by his creator. The werewolf or wolf man is doomed to become repeately monstrous by the cyclic aspect of Nature--the full moon. Then there are the innumerable 'human monstrostities' of movie psychopaths, such as The Joker, of the Batman series.

But modernity also remains fascinated with monstrous creatures that are 'portents' of disruptive transgression on a large scale. Direct experience with the horrific disruptions of atomic warfare, Japenese culture conjured the personification of its monstrosity in the theme of Godzilla, who wreaks vengeful disaster upon the medling of technological civilization. In the Alien movie series, what seems a loathsome, aggressively violent, mutant creature becomes a mirror of humanity's intrusions into the functional self-ordering of 'alien life.'

This theme is readily applied to actual history as well. The qualities of archetypal monstrosity as both 'abberant' and dangerously disruptive of network reciprocity is readily seen as a 'portent,' or perhaps a symptom, of 'something gone wrong' in the larger context of a meta-system--whether that of a personality or a society.

The Importal Spirit of Archetypal Monstrosity

Such representations of monstrosity in the mythic symbolism of premodern cultures, modern film, and historical events all convey  an archetypal quality of 'immortality.' The psychopathic 'monster at hand' might be 'vanquished,' but it always seems to come back.

No matter how many times you 'kill' it, even if you 'drive a wooden stake in its heart,' and 'bury it at a cross roads under a full moon,' it returns.

This theme is illustrated historically as well. The psychopathic element in societies is a kind of 'living dead' agency that resurfaces in one era, one personifying historical figure head, after another.

Whatever 'it' is that 'infects' a meta-system's self-organizing network with 'the monstrous,' it seems to be 'ever with us.' This notion is apt, from the point of view of the science, in which we see the intrinsic role disruption has in stimulating functionally adaptive self-organizing agency over time. But it does seem that human social systmes are particularly prone to fostering its 'psychopathololgy of agency.'

What is 'it' that turns the empathetic moderator of civility

into the rampaging enforcers of 'control for control's sake?'

Whatever 'it' is, monstrosity lurks in some most unexpected places.

Mythical Approaches to Monstrosity

In mythological representations, the 'psychlogical spirit of monstrous network agency' is approached in varous ways. Often there is an aggressive hero who 'slays the dragon' to 'save the maiden.' The Gorgon Medusa is slain by Perseus who cuts off her head as a deadly trophy to use against his enemies. But he is only able to do this because the 'agency of the gods' magically aids him with a hat of invisibility, winged sandals, and a mirrored shield. In contrast, there is a motif of outwitting the monstrous. Oedipus solves the riddles of the Sphinx. In fairy tales such as Jack the Giant Killer, a lad tricks the rather dumb and gullable monstrosity of giants. But in Buhddist tales, it is intense composure of one's consciousness that can ward off the depradations of "hungry ghosts." This last example suggests how monstrosity is not simply an 'abberation' in and of itself but a symptom of dysfunction in the self-organizing agency of the meta-system it appears to afflict. That is to say--'the monstosity is us,' or 'of our own system.'

Confronting monstrosity is a pervasive theme in cultural mythologies and always requires special efforts:

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