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Walt Hellman: 'Virtually all animals have some version of a brain that regulates the many systems ... required to live.'

PMG FILE PHOTO - Walt HellmanTesla, with all its engineering expertise, struggles to make a self-driving car that will reliably stop at a stop sign. Meanwhile, we can do so without effort.

The typical heart, an incredibly complex mechanism, successfully beats about 86,000 times a day for a lifetime.

Nature displays a complexity of engineering that makes Tesla's seem like child's play. A whole field of study, cybernetics, was invented to see what we could learn from nature's engineering marvels.

That field was stimulated by a particular problem during World War II. Airplanes were flying too fast to bring them down by shooting directly at them. Norbert Wiener and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigated how animals successfully attacked their prey and how we can grab a moving object to gain insights into the aircraft problem.

Today, we face a problem of a different kind, but one that threatens to wreck our society: polarization. A fundamental polarizing issue is to what extent we should have "big government" and central authority. This disagreement is clearly seen in the anti-vaccination and mask requirement rebellion, but also in the campaign to undo Obamacare, a federal health program. There are many other examples opponents of big government will cite as "socialism."

Anyone familiar with the battle over adopting the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s knows that the intense battle over big government had already started at the birth of our country. There were fears that a federal army would, like a king's army, take away freedom in the states. When Alexander Hamilton successfully convinced George Washington that a national bank was needed, none other than Thomas Jefferson, a small government advocate, wrote that anyone aiding national bank activities in Virginia should be executed. Talk about strong feelings!

Of course, the country came to actual civil war over the issue of the federal abolition of slavery. While that war ended the military hostilities, the division over government authority has always been lurking.

Lately, the huge changes of globalization, cultural mores and immigration have revived the intensity of the debate. Once again, we hear talk of civil war over the role of big government.

Can nature, the ultimate engineer, tell us anything about the value of big government? There is good reason to believe it can.

We are animals. Virtually all animals have some version of a brain that regulates the many systems in an individual required to live. All our sensory inputs, our hands, ears, skin, eyes, nose and tongue, all have nervous system wiring that connects to the brain, which like the central processing unit in a computer, allows all those inputs to function together successfully. We know how important the brain is because the final measure of death is brain death. The various systems of the body, the heart, etc., have a life of their own and self-regulation, but the system as a whole cannot function without the brain.

Our society, with a population of 330 million people with countless systems such as commerce, transportation, health care, agriculture, defense and so on, like any animal, requires the equivalent of a brain to keep it going. That brain is our central, federal government.

Without a functioning central government to regulate our systems we would have chaos and a tremendously diminished economy as so many things that work now wouldn't work well or at all.

Think of the interstate system becoming local roads dependent on local funding. State governments could also disappear as being too centralized. Where does that all lead? Think of how Europe was governed in medieval times.

Of course, we see countless examples of poorly implemented big government regulations and waste. In most cases, this is not the fault of corruption, but a lack of skill in creating those regulations.

The COVID-19 situation is an ideal example of the difficulty of creating good regulations. In a fog-of-war type situation, all kinds of mistakes are made. But even with the many mistakes the federal government made with COVID, it's fair to say that with its economic support programs and vaccine development, the government saved the country from a far greater disaster. The only thing worse for sure than poor regulation is no regulation.

Nature had no trouble creating our brains. The big question for us is whether we are smart enough to do the same in building an effective central government for the successful regulation of our complicated and huge society. The alternative, like brain failure, is not one we want.

Walt Hellman is a retired high school physics teacher whose doctoral dissertation at Oregon State University was on the history of cybernetics. He lives in Hillsboro.


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