James Grier Miller

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James Grier Miller (1916 – 7 November 2002, California) was an American biologist, a pioneer of systems science, who originated the modern use of the term "behavioral science".


  • General systems theory is a series of related definitions, assumptions, and postulates about all levels of systems from atomic particles through atoms, molecules, crystals, viruses, cells, organs, individuals, small groups, societies, planets, solar systems, and galaxies. General behavior systems theory is a subcategory of such theory, dealing with living systems, extending roughly from viruses through societies. A significant fact about living things is that they are open systems, with important inputs and outputs. Laws which apply to them differ from those applying to relatively closed systems.
    • Miller (1956) "General behavior systems theory and summary". In: Journal of Counseling Psychology. 3 (2) 120-124. Cited in: Francis Ferguson (1975) Architecture, cities and the systems approach. p.12
  • In 1978 when the book Living Systems was published, it contained the prediction that the sciences that were concerned with biological and social sciences would, in the future, be stated as rigorously as the “hard sciences” that study such nonliving phenomenon as temperature, distance, and the interaction of chemical elements. Principles of Quantitative Living Systems Science, the first of a planned series of three books, begins an attempt to fulfill that prediction...
    It is our opinion that this book represents an important step in the development of a quantitative living systems science... As Simms shows, the concepts of available energy and the capacity to direct energy, as well as the causative relationship between information and behavior, are useful in the analysis of behavior...
    The systems with which this first book of the series is concerned are mainly at the level of the cell and the animal organ and organism.... It will be interesting to see how the science is applied in later volumes to the complex behaviors of human being, and higher level systems.
    • James G. and Jessie Miller (1999) Principles of Quantitative Living Systems Science. Foreword; As cited in: James R. Simms (2013) "Advances in living systems theory"
  • The universe of all things that exist may be understood as a universe of systems where a system is defined as any set of related and interacting elements. This concept is primitive and powerful and has been used increasingly over the last half-century to organize knowledge in virtually all domains of interest to investigators. As human inventions and social interactions grow more complex, general conceptual frameworks that integrate knowledge among different disciplines studying those emerging systems grow more important. Living systems theory (LST) instructs integrative research among biological and social sciences and related academic disciplines.

Living Systems: Basic Concepts (1969)[edit]

Miller (1969) "Living Systems: Basic Concepts" in: William Gray, Frederick J. Duhl, Nicholas D. Rizzo eds. General Systems Theory and Psychiatry. p. 51; Reprinted, in modified form from Behavioral Science Vol 10 (1965) p. 193-237; This article is later reprinted in Living systems (1978) as first chapter The Basic Concepts. See also panarchy.org

  • General systems theory is a set of related definitions, assumptions, and propositions which deal with reality as an integrated hierarchy of organizations of matter and energy. General systems behavior is concerned with a special subset of all systems, the living ones.
    Even more basic to this presentation than the concept of "system" are the concepts of "space," "time," "matter," "energy," and "information," because the living systems which I shall discuss exist in space and are made of matter and energy organized by information.
    • p. 51; Opening paragraph
  • In the most general mathematical sense, a space is a set of elements which conform to certain postulates.
    • p. 51
  • More concrete, physical space is the extension surrounding a point. It may be thought of as either the compass of the entire universe or some region of such a universe.
    • p. 51
  • Scientific observers often view living systems as existing in spaces which they conceptualize or abstract from the phenomena with which they deal. Examples of such spaces are:
    1. Pecking order in birds or other animals.
    2. Social class space...
    3. Social distance among ethnic or racial groups.
    4. Political distance among political parties of the right and left.
    5. The life space of Lewin, - the environment as seen by the subject, including the field forces or valences between him and objects in the environment, which can account for his immediately subsequent behavior.
    6. Osgood's semantic space as determined by subjects' ratings of words on the semantic differential test.
    7. Sociometric space, e.g., the rating on a scale of leadership ability of each member of a group by every other member.
    8. A space of time costs of various modes of transportation, e.g., travel taking longer on foot than by air, longer upstream than down.
    9. A space representing the shortest distances for messages to travel...
    10. A space of frequency of trade relations among nations.
    11. A space of frequency of intermarriage among ethnic groups.
These conceptual and abstracted spaces do not have the same characteristics and are not subject to the same constraints as physical space. Each has characteristics and constraints of its own. These spaces may be either conceived of by a human being or learned about from others
  • p. 53; About conceptual or abstracted spaces
  • My analysis of living systems uses concepts of thermodynamics, information theory, cybernetics, and systems engineering, as well as the classical concepts appropriate to each level. The purpose is to produce a description of living structure and process in terms of input and output, flows through systems, steady states, and feedbacks, which will clarify and unify the facts of life.
    • p. 126
  • In such fundamental considerations it would be surprising if many new concepts appear, for countless good minds have worked long on these matters over many years. Indeed, new original ideas should at first be suspect, though if they withstand examination they should be welcomed. My intent is not to create a new school or art form but to discern the pattern of a mosaic which lies hidden in the cluttered, colored marble chips of today's empirical facts.
    • p. 126-127

Living systems, 1978[edit]

  • My presentation of a general theory of living systems will employ two sorts of spaces in which they may exist, physical or geographical space and conceptual or abstract space...
    The characteristics and constraints of physical space affect the action of all concrete systems, living and nonliving... Physical space is a common space because it is the only space in which all concrete systems, living and nonliving, exist (though some may exist in other spaces simultaneously). Physical space is shared by all scientific observers, and all scientific data must be collected in it. This is equally true for natural science and behavioral science.
    • p. 9-10; As cited in: Kenneth D. Bailey (1994) Sociology and the New Systems Theory: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis. p.262
  • The term system has a number of meanings. There are systems of numbers and of equations, systems of value and of thought, systems of law, solar systems, organic systems, management systems, command and control systems, electronic systems, even the Union Pacific Railroad system. The meanings of "system" are often confused. The most general, however, is: A system is a set of interacting units with relationships among them. The word "set" implies that the units have some common properties. These common properties are essential if the units are to interact or have relationships. The state of each unit is constrained by, conditioned by, or dependent on the state of other units. The units are coupled. Moreover, there is at least one measure of the sum of its units which is larger than the sum of that measure of its units.
    • p. 16; As cited in: Sven Rasegård (2002) Man and Science: A Web of Systems and Social Conventions. p.29
  • The structure of a system is the arrangement of its subsystems and components in three-dimensional space at a given moment of time. This always changes over time. It may remain relatively fixed for a long period or it may change from moment to moment, depending upon the characteristics of the process in the system. This process halted at any given moment, as when motion is frozen by a high-speed photograph, reveals the three-dimensional spatial arrangement of the system's components as of that instant.
    • p. 22; As cited in: Egolfs Voldemars Bakuzis (1974) Foundations of Forest Ecosystems: Concepts of systems in general. p.490
  • The most general form of systems theory is a set of logical or mathematical statements about all conceptual systems. A subset of this concerns all concrete systems. A subsubset concerns the very special and very important living systems, i.e., general living systems theory.
    • p. 41

Quotes about James Grier Miller[edit]

  • James G. Miller, a psychologist and medical doctor, wrote a large book, Living Systems, which is a discussion of matter, energy, and information processes. Miller saw systems as having 19 critical subsystems at each level: cell, organ, organism, group, corporation, nation, and supranational organization. One distinguishing feature of Miller’s work is his treatment of information.
  • In a life-long partnership with his wife Jessie, James Grier Miller contributed substantially to the development of behavioural science and to the integration of disciplines through general systems theory, remaining actively engaged in these areas throughout his working life. From his early work on the human brain in the 1940s, Miller worked for over 60 years within influential circles to foster a wide range of new endeavours. In 1949, as Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago, he founded the new field of behavioural science, devoted to the theoretical integration of the biological and social sciences, through the establishment of the influential Committee on Behavioral Science. In 1955, he got funding from the State of Michigan to set up the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan; and in 1967, he became President of the University Louisville where he established a Systems Science Institute. His comprehensive integration of the sciences, in Living Systems (1978), remains core to the study of Living Systems and many other fields of research and practice within the systems community.
    • Debora Hammond, Jennifer Wilby (2006) "The life and work of James Grier Miller". Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Special Issue: James Grier Miller's Living Systems Theory (LST), Vol 23 (3), p. 429
  • Miller’s scientific and professional activities have centered around the single theme of integrating knowledge about biological and social systems. But there have been great changes over the years. His early approach to science, under the influence of Whitehead, was a mixture of philosophy and experimentation. His current research relates modern information processing technologies to living systems. The basic research consists of quantitative studies of cross-level identities among multiple levels of systems. The applications extend from the use of artificial intelligence ‘expert systems’ to measure matter, energy, and information flows in living systems to the development of an electronic University of the world.

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