Fundamentals of Cybernetics: Development of the Theory of Complex Adaptive Systems

Stuart A. Umpleby
The George Washington University
Washington, DC

The field of cybernetics originated in a series of meetings in New York City between 1946 and 1953 sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. These conferences were attended by Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Alex Bavelas, Kurt Lewin, J.C.R. Lickleider, Heinz von Forester and others and chaired by Warren McCulloch. Since then the field of cybernetics has made notable contributions to the fields of computer science, robotics, management, family therapy, neurophysiology, philosophy of science, sociology, etc. From time to time ideas developed at the Macy meetings have been reinvented using names such as bionics, self-organization, complexity, or memetics, though frequently in less advanced form.

There will be three different tutorials on three days:
Tuesday: Engineering Cybernetics Adaptation and Self-Organization
Wednesday: Biological Cybernetics Cognition and Self-Reference
Thursday: Social Cybernetics Reflexivity and Social Change

The purpose of the tutorials is to review the history of cybernetics with emphasis on how concepts have developed and how different groups have pursued different research agendas. Numerous examples of the key ideas will be given from a wide variety of fields.


Stuart Umpleby is a professor of management at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. As a graduate student in the early 1970s he was associated with Heinz von Foerster and Ross Ashby at the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In the late 1970s he was the moderator of an on-line discussion of General Systems Theory, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. In the 1980s he was the American coordinator of a series of meetings between U.S. and Soviet scientists on the Foundations of Cybernetics and Systems Theory. He is a past president of the American Society for Cybernetics.