[An expanded, corrected and illustrated update of this article appears in The Lost Inventions of Buckminster Fuller.]
R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983) claimed that nature was efficient. Fuller claimed the efficiency of nature was the model he used for his inventions, inventions with which he attempted to ‘do more with less.’ As part of a critical analysis of Fuller and what he called comprehensive anticipatory design science, this essay will demonstrate that Fuller’s claim is false.
Fuller used the words nature, Universe, everything, all and similar words as synonyms. This essay will use the single word nature to reference what Fuller spoke of by each of these words. Nature is “the totality of both all that is known and all that is unknown.” [1056.13: this an all other numbered citations are from Fuller's Synergetics and Synergetics 2] Nature “consisting always of observer plus the observed.” [540.03] Fuller’s use of the words nature or efficiency are not unusual or strained or vague. When Fuller spoke of nature, he spoke of all that is.
Humans are part of what is known and unknown. Humans are in part observer and in part observed. Fuller claimed humans are part of nature. Humans are “an essential metaphysical function of Universe.” [326.24] Fuller claimed that humans have a function in nature. This claim will be more fully addressed in a future essay. For this essay, it is sufficient to note that the function of humans is addressed only as evidence that Fuller claimed humans are part of nature. Fuller claimed that humans have a “cosmically unique [function] in the generalized design scheme of Universe.”  Scientific and artistic discoveries are the “the gradual discovery of the function in Universe which humanity has been designed to fulfill.”  “Humans were included in the cosmic system’s design to fulfill critical functions in respect to maintenance of the integrity of eternally regenerative Scenario Universe.” [265.01]
Fuller applied his claim that humans are a part of nature and that humans have a function in nature to humanity as a species and to individual humans. “The individual metaphysical human viewpoint - the individual ego of the human – is indeed an essential function of the eternally regenerative integrity of complex law-governed Universe.” [310.13] “[Each] one of us is where the problem-solving of Universe is being transacted [...] each of us might be a department of the mind of what we might call god [...] each of us humans is an important function in sustaining the eternally regenerative integrity of Universe.” [311.14-15]
The above quotations establish that Fuller claimed nature was all-inclusive, and that humans (as a species and as individuals) are part of nature. Fuller also claimed that nature was efficient. Like his use of the words nature, Universe, everything, all, etc. as synonyms, Fuller used a number of words as synonyms for efficiency. These include economical, least effort, most comfortable and others. This essay will use the single word efficiency to reference what Fuller spoke of by each of these words. Fuller was clear about where nature’s efficiency could be found by using words such as only, always, all, 100%. Fuller claimed that there were absolutely no exceptions to nature’s efficiency.
Fuller claimed “There are no straight lines, physical or metaphysical. There are only geodesic, i.e., most economical, interrelationships (vectors).” [240.25] These vectors “are always the most economical event interrelationships.” [240.27] Nature “always operates most economically” [260.33], “always employs only the most economical intertransformative and omnicosmic interrelatedness behavioral stratagems” [537.06], “always operates in the most economical ways.” [990.03] Nature is “100-percent-efficient.” [987.031] Efficiency is found in “all design of all pattern integrity of Universe.” [539.05] “All the forces operative in Universe result in a complex progression of most comfortable – i.e., least effort, rearrangings.” [601.01] “All the physicists’ experiments show that nature always employs the most energy-economical strategies.” [950.21]
Fuller clearly claimed that nature was always efficient and that humans were part of nature. Criticism of these claims yields logical contradictions, internal contradictions and contradictions with evidence.
If all things are part of nature, and if all of nature is efficient, then how can one know that nature is efficient? There is no non-natural thing to measure efficiency against, and there is no non-efficient thing to measure nature against. Equating nature and efficiency and removing the possibility that there is a non-natural or non-efficient thing makes either nature or efficiency or both impossible to observe.
If humans (as a species and as individuals) are a part of nature then all inventions by humans (as a species and as individuals) are equally based on nature. Fuller’s inventions are neither more or less based on nature than any other invention by any other person. No invention by Fuller is any more or less efficient than any any other invention by any other person.
Fuller contradicts himself when he claims “The cosmic design often employs precession to guide the ignorant players into inadvertently producing the evolutionarily necessary regenerative integrity functions, while the ignorant are consciously preoccupied only in vain and selfishly expedient ends.” [541.18] Are humans efficient or not?
Efficiency is inherently a singular state. But Fuller writes “Nature employs only one or another of the most equieconomical relationships.” [1023.15] If a thing or process is most efficient, that must mean that all other things and processes are less efficient. How can there be more than one “most equieconomical relationship?”
Fuller may have been aware of some of the claims in his contradictions. When he usually writes about humans in absolute terms (always, only, all, etc.), at least once Fuller left himself an out by speaking of humans in relative terms (it could be, if, might, etc.). “So it could be that human beings, wherever they occur in Universe, may be introduced as a means of coping metaphysically with the most complex kinds of local Universe problems, so that each one of us is where the problem-solving of Universe is being transacted. If we were to think of ourselves as things – as china dolls, as kinds of china dolls that would just get smashed up or would just get worn or eroded away – that wouldn’t be very good thinking. It would be much closer to actual Universe to think of ourselves as an absolutely continuous complex process. We are quite possibly the most complex of the problem-solving challenges of the invention that is eternally regenerative Scenario Universe. In this way each of us might be a department of the mind of what we might call god.” [311.14]
Fuller’s contradictory claims about nature and efficiency have three sources: the powers and responsibilities he claimed as part of his revelation of 1927, his theism and his misunderstanding of the scientific method. Fuller’s revelation will be more fully addressed in a future essay. For this essay, it is sufficient to note that Fuller claimed to know “the coordinate system of Universe.” Fuller “need not await temporal attestations to [his] thoughts, [for he thought] the truth.” Where science is the process of making claims and subjecting them to criticism, design science (Fuller) was exempt from criticism. Fuller claimed that evolution was deliberately not working in any area addressed by others. [250.51] Fuller’s theism will also be more fully addressed in a future essay. For this essay it is sufficient to note that Fuller advocated teleology, the interpretation of apparent order as deliberate design. This essay will address the role of efficiency in science.
Nature does not appear to be especially driven by efficiency. Universe has changed over time; wouldn’t it have been more efficient for the Universe to occur at it’s present ‘most efficient’ state (or some future ‘most efficient’ state)? The human body is replete with examples of ‘inefficiency.’ These include the ratio of the human head (large) to the birth canal (small), breech birth, genetic disorders and congenital diseases, wisdom teeth and more. Was Fuller’s wife Annie’s cancer ‘efficient?’ Was Fuller’s own heart attack?
Evolution, the change found in nature, is the non-random endurance of traits influenced by random internal and external events. Evolution is an accumulation of what has not yet been chipped away, not the accumulation of fitness. Science is the process of attentiveness to error, what has been chipped away, and not the accumulation of facts. While the apparent inefficiency of the human body contradicts any claim that nature is always efficient or intelligently designed, the process of evolution is a claim by science that fits the evidence.
There is a flawed but serviceable method for humanity to measure and increase efficiency. That method is science. Claims can be made about the efficiency of an object or process, those claims can be submitted to tests, and those objects or processes that do not fail can be provisionally held to be efficient. These objects or processes can be submitted to repeated and hopefully more critical tests. Such testing will not breed efficiency into an object or process. It will not discover an inherent efficiency in an object or process, like a fairy of growth in the green garden. But scientific testing may breed out inefficiency.
The scientific method cannot guarantee to breed out inefficiency but it is the only method known to work on occasion. Nor is science bound to breeding out inefficiency only in housing or transportation or education. Science can also breed out inefficiency in weaponry and war. Perhaps what remains of value in Fuller’s design science is Fuller’s claim that scientists can elect to apply their skills and resources to peaceful ends. This claim does not make design science exempt from criticism, or resolve its contradictions, or distinguish it from ‘non-design science’ science. But science applied to peaceful ends is a laudable goal and in that Fuller is to be commended.
- Trevor Blake
Trevor Blake is the author of the Buckminster Fuller Bibliography, available at synchronofile.com
Fuller, R. Buckminster: Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. Macmillan: New York 1975.
Fuller, R. Buckminster: Synergetics 2: Further Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. Macmillan: New York 1979.
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