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A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems
By Fritjof Capra
New York: Anchor Books, 1996

As the bestselling author of The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point, physicist Fritjof Capra has made a name for himself mapping the breakdown of mechanistic science and the emergence of new models and metaphors for understanding the physical universe. In The Web of Life, Capra looks at the shift from linear thinking to systems thinking in science, showing how recent advances in a wide range of fields, from evolutionary biology and chaos theory to quantum physics and computer science, signal an emergent paradigm that differs radically from the clockwork model of classical science. He compares this shift to the Copernican revolution suggesting that the new perception of reality has profound implications not only for science and philosophy but also for business, politics, health care, education, and everyday life. "The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview," he writes, "seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view, if the term ‘ecological' is used in a much broader and deeper sense than usual. Deep ecological awareness recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature.”

Capra begins with a discussion of the cultural context in which this scientific revolution is unfolding. As a culture, he says, we are discovering that we cannot understand the major problems of our time in isolation. They are systemic problems; they are by nature interconnected and interdependent. Population growth is tied to poverty, for example, and the extinction of plant and animal species is inextricably linked to third world debt. "Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.”

Against this backdrop, he traces the rise of systems thinking — the sort of thinking that emphasizes the whole rather than the parts. While classical science insists that the behavior of a complex system can be best analyzed in terms of the properties of the parts, systems thinking reverses the equation by showing that the properties of the parts are not intrinsic but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole. In this sense, systems thinking means thinking in context. "Ultimately — as quantum physics [has] showed so dramatically — there are no parts at all. What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships."

The main characteristics of systems thinking emerged simultaneously in several disciplines during the first half of the 20th century, Capra explains. It was pioneered by biologists who stressed that living organisms are best understood as integrated wholes. It was further enriched by Gestalt psychology and the new science of ecology. And it had perhaps the most dramatic effects in quantum physics which showed that at the subatomic level there are no parts at all, that what we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships.

The rise of a new scientific paradigm owes much to the pioneering work of the early systems theorists, but two recent developments have been decisive in this transition: the discovery of the new mathematics of complexity and the formulation of the concept of self-organization. While the systems approaches developed during the first half of the 20th century did not result in a formal mathematical theory, Capra says, they created a certain way of thinking, a new language, new concepts, and an intellectual climate that set the stage for what was to follow.

In the 1970s, thanks in large part to new computer technologies that allowed scientists to model dynamic living systems (which revealed surprising patterns beneath the seemingly chaotic behavior of nonlinear structures), the outlines of a coherent theory of living systems, coupled with the proper mathematical language, finally began to emerge. Capra reviews the work of a wide range of scientists who have been instrumental to this shift, including from Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, Chilean neuroscientist Humberto Maturana, fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, and geochemist James Lovelock.

The second half of The Web of Life is given to formulating a coherent conceptual framework for understanding the new theories and breakthroughs in science. Capra believes that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two approaches that have been in competition since the dawn of scientific thought: the study of pattern (or form, order, quality) and the study of structure (or substance, matter, quantity). The structure approach attempts to understand the properties that make up the object of study, while the pattern approach seeks to understand the relationships between its constituent parts.

When these two approaches are combined with the central insight of living systems theory — that of the ceaseless flux of matter — it offers a radically new way of conceiving reality, according to Capra. Pattern, structure, and process are three different but inseparable perspectives of the phenomenon of life. In effect, this means that to understand any living system, one must answer three questions: what is its structure? What is its pattern of organization? And what is the process of life? In Capra's view, this new approach overcomes two conceptual problems that have plagued science for centuries. First, the interdependence of pattern and structure overcomes the traditional division between the organic and the inorganic, between the living and the nonliving. And second, the interdependence of process and structure overcomes the Cartesian split between mind and matter.

Capra concludes the book with some reflections on "ecological literacy." From his perspective, the emerging paradigm in science has profound ecological consequences. An understanding of reality based on the essential interdependence and interconnectedness at the heart of things restores our human connection to the entire web of life. "The theory of living systems discussed in this book provides a conceptual framework for the link between ecological communities and human communities," he says. "Both are living systems that exhibit the same basic principles of organization. They are networks that are organizationally closed, but open to the flows of energy and resources; their structures are determined by their histories of structural changes; they are intelligent because of the cognitive dimensions inherent in the processes of life. We need to revitalize our communities — including out educational communities, business communities, and political communities — so that the principles of ecology become manifest in them as principles of education, management, and politics."