Books Philosophy Reviews

Book Review: The Systems View of Life

thesystemsviewoflifeThe Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi is an interdisciplinary book which presents ”a unified systemic vision that includes and integrates life’s” different dimensions (p.xii). All living systems are ”highly nonlinear” networks where there are ”countless interconnections” (p.xii). Here is a summary of the book together with some conclusions.

Introduction (pp.1–16)
The systems view of life is ”a change from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network” (p.4). Greek philosophy, in the sixth century BC, ”understood the order of the cosmos to be that of a living organism” (p.5). The shift from an organic to a mechanistic worldview ”was initiated by … René Descartes (1596-1650)” who is ”regarded as the founder of modern philosophy” (p.8).

A living system is “an integrated whole whose … properties cannot be reduced to its parts” (p.10). These properties “arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts” (p.10). Outlines of a “coherent theory of living systems … are now emerging” (p.12). This is the subject of the book.

We need to “question … the old paradigm” (p.12). The “paradigm shift also involves … changes of values” (p.13). There is a “striking connection between changes of thinking and of values” (p.13). The “connection between an ecological perception of the world and corresponding behavior is not a logical but a psychological connection” (p.14). “Logic does not lead us from the fact that we are an integral part of the web of life to certain norms of how we should live (p.14). However, if we have a “deep ecological experience of being part of the web of life, then we will … be inclined to care for all living nature” (p.15). “The paradigm shift … at its deepest level, involves a perceptual shift” (p.15).

The mechanistic worldview (pp.17–60)
As the organic view of nature was replaced by the metaphor of the world as a machine, “the goal of science became … to dominate and control nature” (p.21). All “scientific theories are reductionist in the sense that they need to reduce the phenomena described to a … number of characteristics” (p.24). Scientists “in treating living organisms as machines, tended to believe that they are nothing but machines” (p.26). The adverse consequences of this “have become especially apparent in medicine” (p.26). “Economists [also] generally fail to recognize that the economy is merely one aspect of the whole ecological and social fabric” (p.56). Unlimited growth “on a finite planet can only lead to disaster” (p.56).

As the “metaphor of organizations as machines” has taking hold, it has generated “mechanistic theories of management” with “clearly defined lines of command and communication” (p.58). During the Industrial Revolution “efficient operation of the new machines required major changes in the organization of the workforce” (p.58). The workforce was disciplined “to accept the rigorous routines [required] by factory production” (p.58).

Interestingly, Max Weber (1864-1920) “was very critical of the development of mechanistic forms of organization” (p.58). Weber observed “the parallels between the machination of industry and bureaucratic forms of organization” (p.58). He was concerned about “the mechanization of human life, the erosion of human spirit, and the undermining of democracy” (p.58). Weber’s contemporary, Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), “perfected the engineering approach to management” (p.58). The organization’s “structure and goals are designed by management … and are imposed on the organization” with “top-down control” (p.59). The “design of formal structures, linked by clear lines of communication, coordination, and control, has become almost second nature” (p.59).

Transcending “the mechanistic conceptions of health, the economy, or biotechnology” and “the mechanistic view of organizations” is “critical for the survival of or human civilization (p.59).

The rise of systems thinking (pp.61–126)
“Throughout the living world, we find living systems nesting within other living systems” (p.65). Living systems act both as “parts and wholes” (p.65). There is both “an integrative” and “a self-assertive” tendency (p.65). The “essential properties” of living systems are “properties of the whole” (p.65). “The great chock of twentieth-century science has been that living systems cannot be understood by analysis” (p.66).

There are “three kinds of living systems – organisms, parts of organisms, and communities of organisms” (p.67). Living systems “at all levels are networks” and consists of “networks within networks” (p.68). “Whenever we look at life, we look at networks” (p.95). Nature shows us “a complex web of relationships between … parts of a unified whole” (p.68). “There is stability, but this stability is one of dynamic balance” (p.75). All living systems are “open systems” which need “a continual flux of matter and energy” (p.86).

Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) introduced the term “cybernetics,” from the Greek kybernetes (“steersman”), in the 1940s. Wiener defined cybernetics as the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine” (p.87). “All major achievements of cybernetics originated … in mechanistic models of living systems” (p.89). Interestingly, Norbert Wiener made “a clear distinction between a mechanistic model and the non-mechanistic living system it represents” (p.93). Ross Ashby (1903–1972), who was “the leading theorist of the cybernetics movement” in the 1950s and 1960s, had, on the other hand, a “strictly mechanistic outlook” (p.93). For Ashby, there was “no creativity, no development, no evolution” (p.97).

Even “the simplest living system … is a highly complex network” (p.98). “Nonlinear dynamics … represents a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to complexity and … systems thinking” (p.99). The systems view is a shift of perspective “from objects to relationships, from measuring to mapping, from quantity to quality” (p.99). Nonlinear phenomena are “an essential aspect of the network patterns of living systems” (p.105). Nonlinearity has brought about a “shift of emphasis from quantitative to qualitative analysis” (p.105).

The “spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability” is “one of the hallmarks of life” (p.116). The “understanding of pattern[s] is crucial to understand the living world” (p.126).

A new conception of life (pp. 127–339)
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela coined the term “autopoiesis”, which means “self-making”, in the 1970s (p.129). The main characteristic of life is “self-maintenance” (p.129). A living organism “does not need any information from the outside to be what it is, but it is … dependent on outside materials in order to survive” (p.134). Life can be seen as “a system of interlocked autopoietic systems” (p.135). “Autopoiesis is the particular self-organization of life” (p.135).

There is “a clear difference between the ways living and nonliving systems interact with their environments” (p.136). If you “kick a stone, it will react” (p.136). If you “kick a dog, it will respond” (p.136). “The interaction with the environment … is determined by the internal organization of the living organism” (p.141). A living organism is “capable of cognition (the process of knowing)” (p.142). The “living organism and the environment become one through cognitive interactions” (p.143). “A particular combination of self-organization and emergence gives rise to self-reproduction” (p.145).

Dynamic systems “generally operate far from equilibrium, and yet are … stable, self-organizing structures” (p.158). In static systems, “self-organization and the resulting emergent properties are relatively simple concepts” (p.180). In dynamic systems, however, “self-organization and emergence are subtle and complex” (p.180). “New structures … and forms of organization may arise … in situations of instability, chaos, or crisis” (p.180).

The “appropriate way of approaching nature … is not through domination and control but through respect, cooperation, and dialogue” (p.180). In the living world, “history plays an important role” and “the future is uncertain” (p.180). “Life … cannot be explained in reductionistic terms” (p.181). All living forms “are linked together to each other by a network of parenthood” (p.182). “Cooperation is clearly visible … at many levels of living organisms” (p.202). “The planetary network of bacteria,” for example, “has been the main source of evolutionary creativity” (p.192). Another example is “symbiosis, the tendency of different organisms to live in close association with one another” (p.202).

In living organisms, “there is no easy way to separate instructions from the way they are carried out, to distinguish plan from execution” (p.206). The “principle of structural determinism, … implies that only those changes can be accepted that are consistent with the existing inner structure and organization of the living organism” (p.214). The change must also be consistent with the organism’s “self-maintenance” (p.214). Evolution is “complex, highly ordered, and ultimately cognitive” (p.215). It is “an integral part of life’s self-organization” (p.215).

One important implication of “the new systemic understanding of life” is a new understanding of “the nature of mind and consciousness” (p.252). The “phenomenon of mind” is connected with the “phenomenon of life” (p.253). In other words, “cognition is the very process of life” (p.254). “The organizing activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity” (p.254). “Mind – or, more accurately, mental activity – is immanent in matter at all levels of life” (p.254).

“Every living organism continually renews itself” while maintaining “its overall identity or pattern of organization” (p.255). Living organisms create “new structures – new connections in the network” (p.255). “Living systems are autonomous” (p.255). Living organisms respond “to environmental changes,” and “these changes” alter future responses. This “modification of behavior on the basis of previous experience” is learning (p.255). Continuing “adaptation, learning, and development” are key characteristics of all living beings (p.255). “We can never direct a living system; we can only disturb it” (p.256). A living system has the “autonomy to decide what to notice and what will disturb it” (p.256).

“Describing cognition as the breath of life seems to be a perfect metaphor” (p.256). Mind is “the process of cognition, which is identified with the process of life” (p.257). At all levels of life, “mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected” (p.257). Consciousness “emerges when cognition reaches a certain level of complexity” (p.257). Consciousness is “a cognitive process” (p.260) which “involves self-awareness” (p.258). Conscious experience is “an expression of life, emerging from complex neural activity” (p.265). Mind and body “are two complementary aspects of life” (p.273). Primary, or core, consciousness “provides the organism with a transient sense of self (the core self) in the act of perception” (p.274), while “reflective consciousness” is “the process of cognition … we experience as thought” (p.274).

The “pattern of organization of any system … is the configuration of relationships among the system’s components” (p.301). This “configuration of relationships” gives the system “its essential characteristics” (p.301). The “structure of a system” is its “physical embodiment of its pattern of organization” (p.302). The “process of life” is the “continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization” (p.302). These are three perspectives on life: “organization, structure, and process” (p.302). This is the “trilogy of life” (p.303).

The trilogy of life can, in more general terms, be expressed as “form (or pattern of organization), … matter (or material structure), and … process” (p.304). Meaning is added to “the other three perspectives” in order to “extend the systemic understanding of life to the social domain” (p.304). Meaning is “a shorthand notation for the inner world of reflective consciousness, which contains a multitude of interrelated characteristics” (p.304). Human action “flows from the meaning that we attribute to our surroundings” (p.304). Human language “involves the communication of meaning” (p.304).

Living systems “exhibit similar patterns of organization” (p.305). “The network pattern, in particular, is … very basic” (p.305). “All living systems are … networks within networks” (p.306). “A social network, too, is a nonlinear pattern of organization” (p.306). However, “organisms and human societies are very different types of living systems” (p.307). “Human beings can choose whether and how to obey a social rule; molecules cannot choose” (p.307). “Meaning is essential to human beings” (p.309). In “acting with intention and purpose … we experience human freedom” (p.309). The “behavior is constrained but not determined by outside forces” (p.309). As human beings, “we experience this … as the freedom to act according to our own choices and decisions” (p.309).

“Bringing life into human organizations … increases their flexibility, creativity, and learning potential” (p.320). People need to “feel that they are supported … and do not have to sacrifice their integrity to meet the goals of the organization” (p.320). However, the economic environment today “is not life-enhancing but increasingly life-destroying” (p.320). We need to “change our economic system so that it becomes life-enhancing rather than life-destroying (p.321). This change will “be imperative not only for the well-being of human organizations but also for the survival … of humanity as a whole” (p.321). The “new unifying vision of life … has important implication for almost every field of study and every human endeavor” (p.322).

“From a systems point of view, … illness results from patterns of disorder” (p.327). Health is “a multidimensional and multileveled phenomenon” (p.327). “Lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress” (p.356). “Loss of flexibility means loss of health” (p.328). From a systems view of life “the current health revolution can be seen as part of a global movement dedicated to creating a sustainable world” (p.338).

Sustaining the web of life (pp. 339–452)
There are different meanings of “self-organization” (p.346). “To cyberneticists … self-organization meant the … emergence of order in machines featuring feedback loops” (p.346). In complexity theory self-organization is the “emergence of new order … governed by nonlinear dynamics” (p.346). And, in ecosystems self-organization is understood as “dissipative structures operating far from equilibrium” (p.346). There is, however, “almost total silence on the question of autopoiesis in ecosystems” (p.347). We need to “understand the principles of [self-]organization that ecosystems have evolved” (p.353). Ecology is of “paramount practical importance” (p.361).

The “major problems of our time … cannot be understood in isolation” (p.362). The fundamental dilemma is “the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet” (p.363). “Social and environmental costs” are not included in economic activities (p.363). There is “a widening gap between the rich and the poor” (p.363). All “ethical dimensions are excluded” (p.378). “Global capitalism … exacerbates” poverty and social exclusion (pp. 384–385). There are also “actively misleading” campaigns that “systematically create doubt and confusion … concerning the threat of global warming” (p.388). “This is why the systems view of life” is very important and “has tremendous practical relevance” (p.392). There are “hundreds of systemic solutions being developed all over the world” (p.393).

It seems as a “more fluid system of global governance would be more appropriate for today’s world,” where power is increasingly shifted “to regional and local levels” (p.398). This includes the “shift from governments serving corporations to governments serving people and communities,” as well as respect for “core labor, social and other human rights” (p.397).

The most important reformation of “the corporation will be to expose the core myth that shareholder returns must be maximized at the expense of human and ecological communities” (p.400). This means “reviving the traditional purpose of the corporation to serve the public good” (p.400). A “fundamental issue … is ownership” (p.401). “Conventional corporate ownership” is an example of “extractive ownership” (p.401). A new “generative ownership” is needed, which “generates well-being and real, living wealth” (p.401).

“Unfortunately, … systemic thinking is still very rare among … corporate and political leaders” (p.407). The “world has to act now or face devastating … consequences,” but there is “lack of political will” (p.411). There is an “erroneous belief that nature can be subjected to human control” (p.437). We “need to honor, respect, and cooperate with nature” (p.442). And “we can learn valuable lessons from nature’s ecosystems” (p.442). “We have the knowledge and the technologies to build a sustainable world” (p.452). What is needed is “political will and leadership” (p.452). “Major breakthroughs” are needed “to turn the tide” (p.452).

Fritjof Capra och Pier Luigi Luisi’s book is truly impressive! The amount of materials covered is broad indeed. The Systems View of Life: A Unified Vision is an attempt to integrate life’s biological, cognitive, and social dimensions in a unified systems view of life. In a way, I think Capra and Luisi are brave in taking such a broad sweep across so many different areas. Even if you take a broad sweep, it will still be too narrow. And what you gain in breadth, you risk losing in depth. Overall, I think Capra and Luisi have succeeded in integrating many different perspectives. The book certainly broadened my own perspectives. The main value of the book is the integration of the different ideas, models, and theories into a single framework.

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Analysis of the systems view of life

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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