The Ghost in the Machine

An emotionally maladjusted species, we have the uncanny power of turning every blessing, including language, into a curse.

Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine

Arthur Koestler’s 1967 The Ghost in the Machine was written in response to the then-hanging sword of Damocles that was nuclear annihiliation of the species. Koestler begins by criticising the then-dominant behaviouralist school of psychology, which focused on breaking down all human activity to chains of cause-and-effect atoms through the use of pared-down experiments on rats, monkeys and the like. To Koestler, [Behaviouralism] consist[s] of analysing bricks and mortar in the hope that by patient effort somehow one day it would tell you what a cathedral looked like, with the Behaviourists having taken [a] programme for a methodology, which had its arguable points, [and] transformed [it] into a philosophy which had no point at all. Echoing Korzybski, he writes that [o]ne might as well tell a team of land surveyors that for the purpose of mapping a limited area they could treat the earth as if it were flat—and then subtly instil the dogma that the whole earth is flat.

Hinting to the emergent nature of consciousness and, subsequently, complex forms of human behaviour, Koestler presents the parable of the centipede: When the centipede was asked in which precise order he moved his hundred legs, he became paralysed and starved to death, because he had never thought of it before, and had left it to the legs to look after themselves. We would share a similar fate if asked to explain how we ride a bicycle. Or, as QWOP shows us, how we run. He follows this up with an overview of the structure of human languages, primarily via Chomsky.

Koestler introduces the idea of the holon, or …something that is simultaneously a whole and a part of something. For example, individuals are simultaneously both whole individuals and parts of their societies, just as atoms are whole atoms and part of the things they make up. Obviously, I can get very behind this. Koestler proposes that each holon forms it’s place in a grand holarchy, and that each has both an integrative and an assertive tendency—that is, they exist in a tension between their desire to integrate into the greater structure in the holarchy and to assert themselves as a whole. He then presents a view of behaviour as a holarchy, writing that [a]ll instinctive activities consist of hierarchies of sub-skills—in the spider’s case the judging of angles and weaving of the thread—controlled by fixed rules and guided by adaptable strategies [and i]t is this dual characteristic which justifies us in calling a sub-skill a functional holon. He also introduces triggers and filters—the former are triggers from above that instigate action in the lower levels of the holarchy (e.g. make a nest triggers collect twigs, which triggers there’s a twig there let’s go there , which triggers contract and release leg muscles, etc.) and the latter filter information from below to strip out all but that which is required at the given level (e.g. the brain filters out most visual information received by the eyes when producing a view of something).

In the second part Koestler details his theory of evolution, aiming criticism at the concept of neo-Darwinian natural selection. Arguing that such a process of random mutations (and re-combinations) of genes in which most mutations are harmful, but a very small proportion happens to be useful and is retained by natural selection—in short, that evolution appears as a game of blind man’s bluff—could not possibly lead to the complexity we see before us today, he presents the example of the giant panda, which has on its forelimbs an added sixth finger, which comes in very handy for manipulating the bamboo-shoots which are its principal food. Koestler argues, though that that added finger would be a useless appendage without the proper muscles and nerves and that [t]he chances that among all possible mutations those which produced the additional bones, muscles and nerves should have occurred independently are of course infinitesimally small. He also cites the evolution of reptiles from some primitve amphibian form:

The decisive novelty of the reptiles was that, unlike amphibians, they laid their eggs on dry land; they no longer depended on the water and were free to roam over the continents. But the unborn reptile inside the egg still needed an aquatic environment: it had to have water or else it would dry up long before it was born. It also needed a lot of food: amphibians hatch as larvae who fend for themselves, whereas reptiles hatch fully developed. So the reptilian egg had to be provided with a large mass of yolk for food, and also with albumen—the white of egg—to provide the water. Neither the yolk by itself, nor the egg-white itself, would have had any selective value.


He goes on to point out that the egg also required an outer shell in order to contain the egg-white, as well as means by which the embryo could both get rid of its waste products whilst inside the egg and break out when it’s time was up. Koestler’s point is that [t]he changes could have been gradual—but at each step, however small, all the factors involved in the story had to co-operate harmoniously. Not only that, but [e]ach change, taken in isolation, would be harmful, and work against survival. Instead, Koestler proposes that complex holons like the eye, or the egg, are something akin to Platonic forms, existing independent of each instance of them and towards which embryonic development strives—the growing eye-bud of the embryo is an autonomous holon, which, if part of its tissue is taken away, will nevertheless develop into a normal eye, he writes. From the chemical level of the developing embryo upwards …there seems to be…a hierarchy of correctors and proof-readers at work to eliminate [misprints]. This process he calls internal selection, stating that …before a new mutation has a chance to be submitted to the Darwinian tests of survival in the external environment, it must have passed the tests of internal selection for its physical, chemical and biological fitness (emphasis his).

Most intriguingly, Koestler cites the further example of the fruit fly, which has a recessive gene that, when paired with another in a fertilised egg, will produce an eyeless fly. If now a pure stock of eyeless flies is made to inbreed, then the whole stock will have only the eyeless mutant gene, because no normal gene can enter the stock to bring light into their darkness. However, contends Koestler, …within a few generations, flies appear in the inbred eyeless stock with eyes that are perfectly normal (emphasis his). Koestler finds the traditional explanation of this process—that there has been a re-shuffling of the other members of the gene-complex and that the new genes are formed in such a way that they deputise for the missing normal eye-forming gene. As this process is supposedly random, Koestler believes this to be tantamount to claiming that …the new insect-eye evolved by pure chance, thus repeating within a few generations an evolutionary process which took hundreds of millions of years. Koestler’s arguments are compelling, but I lack the biological knowledge to verify them—so I asked the Biology Stack Exchange to do so.

For the third and final part, Koestler moves on to examine what it is what makes man so irrational, pathological even. He considers our innate tendency towards tribalism: In the rat it is the smell which decides who is friend or foe [but i]n man, there is a terrifyingly wide range of criteria, from territorial possession through ethnic, cultural, religious, ideological differences, which decide who stinks and who does not, concluding that we are …an emotionally maladjusted species, we have the uncanny power of turning every blessing, including language, into a curse. He posits that we may have evolved too fast, with the rational part of MacLean’s proposed triune brain model conflicting with the underlying reptile brain. For example, whilst the rational part comprehends the inevitability of death, the reptile rejects anything against it’s base instinct to continue forever—[t]he refusal to accept death either as a natural or as a final phenomenon populated the world with witches, ghosts, ancestral spirits, gods, demi-gods, angels and devils. The air became saturated with invisible presences, as in a mental home.

He relates this inherent flaw to the bloody path of human history, culminating in the horrors of the then-recent past:

The opium of revealed religion was replaced by the heroin of secular religions, which commanded the same bemused surrender of the individuality to their doctrines, and the same worshipful love offered to their prophets. The devil’s and succubi were replaced by a new demonology: sub-human Jews, plotting world domination; bourgeois capitalists promoting starvation; enemies of the people, monsters in human shape were surrounding us, ready to pounce. In the thirties and forties the paranoid streak exploded with unprecentended vehemence in the two most powerful nations of Europe.


Countering criticisms that his view may be too reductive, too pessimistic, Koestler proposes that [a] more balanced approach to human history might be to view it as a symphony with a rich orchestration, played against a background of persistent drumming by a savage horde of shamans. At times a scherzo would make us forget it, but in the long run the monotonous beating of the tom-toms always gains the upper hand and tends to drown every other sound. His solution, albeit one which remains rather underdeveloped? Psychochemical social engineering via some sort of substance in the water that would suppress the reptile brain and compensate for evolution’s mistake.


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