Social cells

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 06/08/2017 11:30


Social system: a system in which animate actors play roles in regular, repeatable processes.

E.g. bees collecting pollen for a beehive; an orchestra’s performance of a symphony.

The symphony score is a system description; every performance of that symphony instantiates that system description in reality.


Social entity: a group of actors who may chose their own behaviors, and may interact to reach agreed aims.

E.g. the group of actors hired to play in an orchestra, who may agree to hold a party after the performance.

Since the roles and rules of a social entity are adhoc and in flux, it cannot be described and tested as matching that description.


System theory is primarily about the roles in the symphony (the system).

Some systems thinking is more about the social entity - the actors in the orchestra, and their motivations.

A social entity may succeed in meeting goals, of its actors or sponsors, despite the roles and rules of a system in which the actors work.

But the ideal business is a social entity in which actors work happily in the roles of whatever system those actors are hired to work in.


Social cell: a social system whose roles reward the actors of a social entity sufficiently well to ensure the actors voluntarily perpetuate the system.

In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between the roles of the social system and the actors of the social entity.

E.g. regular choir rehearsal meetings, a tennis club, and Japanese tea ceremonies.

Reward examples include hope, comfort, endorphins and money.

The very idea of a particular social system may be so appealing that other actors, who hear of it, may replicate it (cf. Dawkin’s “meme”)


Note: this definition of social cell has no negative connotation.

It allows that social cells can be of mutual benefit to all actors in it.

Indeed, the general idea of the social cell may be regarded as a model for the survival of a business.


Insidiously effective social mechanisms?

Daniel Dennet introduced the notion of social cells (in this essay) as insidious, even as parasites on society.

His essay started with a somewhat strained analogy between biological cells and social cells.

A biological cell has

A social cell

captures materials and energy (metabolism)

preserves itself in a social environment

reproduces (using genes or the like)

finds the nutrients its needs

has a membrane that lets in only what needs to come in.

fends off the causes of its dissolution.


Denneit’s examples were: Japanese tea ceremonies, debutante parties, Ponzi schemes and some Christian churches.

He described his examples as sharing some common features.

They are “insidiously effective” social mechanisms.

They “thrive on human innocence and are threatened with extinction by the rising tide of accessibility to information.”

He proposed that the full system description is hidden by a “membrane” from innocent initiates.

And when those actors see through the membrane they become disillusioned.


Dennet proposed nobody designed the roles and rules of a social cell.

Yet the roles and rules of his examples were designed by somebody.

And then, most likely, incrementally refined to better meet the goals of actors.


Dennet described the Japanese tea ceremony thus:

“The Japanese tea ceremony exploits the human desire for status and influence in order to raise the money to capture the energy,

and has evolved an elaborate developmental programme for enlisting and training new hosts

who can eventually reproduce their own schools (with mutations) for training yet another generation of hosts, and so on,

all of this within the kind of protective shell that can readily be constructed and defended in a stratified society.”


Parasites on society?

Dennet described the debutante party tradition as “a superannuated cultural parasite”.

He also classified Ponzi schemes as parasites on society.

What did he mean? Is it a political statement?


By definition, a social cell survives because it rewards some if not all cell members.

·         People enjoy a Japanese tea ceremony as a calming, comforting meditative exercise.

·         Debutantes parties fulfil some dreams of their participants and/or their parents.

·         Churches give hope, comfort and support to their members.

·         Even a Ponzi scheme rewards early investors, at the expense of the last ones.


A social cell draws its actors from a wider environment, society or market.

Actors in that wider environment may regard the social cell as a benefit, cost or threat to them.


The social cell as an ideal in business

Defining the roles and rules of a human activity systems is not enough.

Role definitions and work procedures cannot possibly spell out everything human actors must know and do.

Business managers have work in harmony with the motivations, ingenuity and self-determination of those actors.


Every business is social entity in which individual actors contribute much to its success.

In some kinds of business, workers largely organise themselves, whether through formal or informal interactions.

Agile software development methods propose managers (if needed at all) serve the workers.


The idea of the social cell may be regarded as a model for the survival of a business.