Cybernetics, Biological

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cybernetics, Biological


biocybernetics, the scientific approach that has introduced the ideas, methods, and technology of cybernetics into biology.

The birth and development of biological cybernetics are tied to the evolution of the concept of feedback in the living system and attempts to simulate the features of the system’s structure and function (P. K. Anokhin, N. A. Bernshtein). The effectiveness of the mathematical and systems approaches to the study of living things has also been demonstrated by many works of general biology (J. Haldane, E. S. Bauer, R. Fisher, I. I. Shmal’-gauzen). The “cyberneticization” of biology is being carried out on both the theoretical and applied levels. The chief theoretical task of biological cybernetics is the study of the general patterns of the regulation, storage, processing, and transmission of information in living systems.

Any organism is a system capable of self-development and of regulation of both the internal relations between organs and functions and of relations with environmental factors. Striving to understand the nature of the living thing, scientists have often tried to find in the organism those elements that could be studied in isolation. The goal of biological cybernetics is to study the organism while taking into account its fundamental interrelationships, from the cellular, tissual, and organic levels to the level of the whole organism. A living system is characterized not only by the exchange of matter and energy but also by an exchange of information; it is from the point of view of information theory that biological cybernetics approaches the interaction of biological systems with the environment.

One of the most important methods of biological cybernetics is modeling the structure and regular patterns of behavior of the living system. Model-building involves the construction of artificial systems to reproduce certain aspects of the activity of organisms and their internal links and relationships. Biological cybernetics views the living organism as a multipurpose “hierarchical” system of control, which carries out its integrative activity on the basis of the functional unification of separate subsystems, each performing its own local task. Characteristic of the organism as a complex, dynamic system is the unity of centralized and autonomous control. Self-regulation, which is typical for all levels of control in the living system, is maintained by autonomous mechanisms until disturbances arise that demand the intervention of centralized control mechanisms.

Recently the attention of biologists has been drawn increasingly to the functional characteristics of biological systems of control that are determined by periodic (rhythmic, cyclical) processes. Living organisms are capable of “measuring” time with a high degree of precision (“biological clocks”). This phenomenon is expressed in periodic changes in respiration, body temperature, and other vital processes. The nature of biological rhythms is still largely unclear, but there is every reason to assume that periodicity is a fundamental characteristic of the functioning and control processes of the biological system. The processes occurring at each of the levels of the living system are characterized by specific periodicity, which is determined by both external and internal factors. There are definite phase shifts (in time) between the periodic activity of individual levels in the normally functioning organism; these shifts are caused by the specific organization of control at each level. Disruption of these normal phase shifts may impair the operation of all or part of the system. This leads to breakdowns in the control system and to an accumulation of errors. This can be described as “noise.” The correction of malfunctions requires either the internal readjustment of the system (its algorithm) or the adjustment of external controlling influences by engaging control mechanisms at a higher level.

Living beings are joined in systems of different orders (populations, biocenoses, and so forth), forming a unique hierarchy. In all of these supraorganismic systems, just as in the life of the cell, the development of the organism, and the evolution of the organic world as a whole, there are internal regulating mechanisms to whose study the principles and methods of biological cybernetics are applicable.

Control mechanisms determine the course of vital processes not only in the norm but also in pathology. The latter is a question of medical cybernetics.

The cell is a complex, self-regulating system. It has many regulatory mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is variation in structure, which is related to the activity of mitochondria and coincides with variations in oxidation-reduction processes. Protein synthesis in the cell is controlled by genetically determined mechanisms related to the processes of storing, processing, and transmitting genetic information.

Biological cybernetics has been most productive in studying the vital activity and various functions of the organism as a whole and the mechanisms controlling the work of particular organs and systems. This has given rise to new, independent areas of study—physiological cybernetics and neurocybernetics — which investigate the mechanisms by which homeostasis is maintained, the principles of autoregulation and the transitional processes of the organism’s functions, the rules of nervous and humoral regulation in unity and interaction, the principles of the organization and functioning of neurons and neural networks, and the mechanisms of execution of behavior.

By studying the rules of operation of the human brain, based on a set of algorithms (that is, rules of information conversion), biological cybernetics makes it possible to simulate (including the use of the computer) the different forms of the brain’s activity and identify new rules describing it. For example, computer programs have been developed that make it possible to learn, play chess, prove theorems, and so on. In the developing area of heuristic programming, the rules of information processing in the brain during certain creative processes are studied and simulated.

Analysis of the mechanisms of individual development and of the control processes of populations and communities, including the storage, processing, and transmission of information from one individual to another, is also in the sphere of research of biological cybernetics. On the biogeocenotic level, which includes the biosphere as a whole, biological cybernetics is attempting to use simulation for the purpose of optimizing the biosphere (in particular, to determine the ways in which man can intervene most rationally in nature).

Questions of evolution were first considered from the bio-cybernetic viewpoint by I. I. Shmal’gauzen, who noted the hierarchical nature of control, identified the principal channels of communication between individuals, the population, and the biocenosis, established the possibility of information loss and distortion, and described the evolutionary process in terms of information theory. The mechanisms of various forms of selection are investigated from this point of view.

An example of applied biocybernetics is the development of devices for the automatic regulation of biological functions (bioprostheses) and for the evaluation of a person’s condition during labor, athletic activity, or creative work and in subextremal and extremal conditions.

The use of the methods and instruments of cybernetics in collecting, storing, and processing the data obtained by biological research makes it possible to reveal new quantitative and qualitative rules describing the processes and phenomena under study.

Conferences, meetings, and symposia on the biological aspects of cybernetics, on bioelectric regulation, and on neurocybernetics have played a large part in the development of biological cybernetics in the USSR. There are a number of Soviet and foreign journals devoted to the questions of biological cybernetics.


Anokhin, P. K. “Fiziologiia i kibernetika.” In Filosofskie voprosy kibernetiki. Moscow, 1961.
Biologicheskie aspekty kibernetiki: Sb. rabot. Moscow, 1962.
Ashby, W. R. Konstruktsiia mozga. Moscow, 1962. (Translated from English.)
George, F. Mozg kak vychislitel’naia mashina. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English.)
Wiener, N. Kibernetika, Hi Upravlenie i sviaz’ v zhivotnom i mashine. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from English.)
Bernshtein, N. A. Ocherki po fiziologii dvizhenii i fiziologii aktivnosti. Moscow, 1966.
Anokhin, P. K. [et al.]. “Biologicheskaia i meditsinskaia kibernetika.” In Kibernetikuna sluzhbu kommunizmu, vol. 5. Moscow, 1967.
Braines, S. N., and V. B. Svechinskii. Problemy neirokibernetiki i neirobioniki. Moscow, 1968.
Shmal’gauzen, I. I. Kiberneticheskie voprosy biologii. Novosibirsk, 1968.
Parin, V. V., R. M. Baevskii, and E. S. Geller. “Protsessy upravleniia v zhivom organizme.” In Filosofskie voprosy biokibernetiki. Moscow, 1969.
Apter, M. Kibernetika i razvitie. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from English.)
Hassenstein, B. Biologische Kybernetik. Heidelberg, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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