The Systems View Of Life: A Unifying Vision
The essay is excerpted from The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014, Cambridge University Press). The book integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework, exploring its implications for a broad range of endeavors, from economics and politics to medicine, psychology, and law.
The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision
From Quantitative to Qualitative GrowthIt seems, then, that our key challenge is to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. From the perspective of the systems view of life, "no growth" cannot be the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life. A society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components, which become resources for new growth.
This primary insight looks quite innocuous in the written word, and it may be that people, in our highly-networked world, may wonder what the fuss is about. The shift becomes more pronounced when understood in terms of autopoiesis, one of the major foundations of the systems view of life, developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s.
One recurrent theme discussed by systems practitioners though is the question of why it is so difficult to help people make the jump from a mechanistic world view to a networked world view. In this new systems view of life, we have to change our understanding of living systems as machines to a view where cognition plays a role in dynamic and autopoietic processes:
During the past 30 years, the strong interest in complex, nonlinear phenomena has generated a whole series of new and powerful theories that have dramatically increased our understanding of many key characteristics of life. Our synthesis of these theories, which takes up the central part of our book, is what we refer to as the systems view of life. In this article, we can present only a few highlights.
One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
The Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: process and structure. At all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected.
The Systems View of Life explores the world we are part of, and our role within it, both as a means of understanding the systems that comprise and sustain the Earth, and of offering solutions to many of the issues facing the world today through a paradigm shift to a systemic point of view.
If we take the systems view of life, we see that human organisations have a dual nature. So in asking Capra if an organization is a living system, his answer is both yes and no: Organisations can be said to be alive in that they are communities of people with meaningful work, but they also have a non-living aspect in that they are business entities with formal structures.
We can now see an organisation as having both formal structures, i.e. sets of rules that establish boundaries, and informal structures that are fluid and flowing networks of communication. There is continual interplay between these formal structures and informal networks. So if we take the systems view of life as our guiding principle for leadership, what lessons can managers and leaders learn?
So when we adopt the systems view of life we really have to live our values, and then we will discover that our organisations will shift from being dead to alive, and thriving in a world where people and planet matter.
Capra advocates that Western culture abandon conventional linear thought and the mechanistic views of Descartes. Critiquing the reductionistic Cartesian view that everything can be studied in parts to understand the whole, he encourages a holistic approach. In The Web of Life, Capra focuses on systemic information generated by the relationships among all parts as a significant additional factor in understanding the character of the whole, emphasizing the web-like structure of all systems and the interconnectedness of all parts.
Hi Silash, good review. I won't read this book because I don't think I'll get it - the quotation mentioning "zeitgeist...paradigms...metaphors & networks..." reads to me like a load of old cobblers; it should put most clear thinkers off. On the other hand, I don't have much grasp of the physics stuff and never got to grips with discussions with my old man who knew Feynman. I'm interested though in the question "where are we at" - I look at it more through my prism of potential conflict/power systems. Whereas I think we 'have the technology' I worry the old problem of nutters getting to power will outweigh the solutions and lead to mass destruction.
If you want systems thinking distilled to a level kids understand, this is the book for you. It contains 30 gaming exercises that are designed to teach the nuances of systems thinking to younger audiences. The games are classified by learning areas like team learning and shared vision. Many K-12 teachers have found this playbook and the accompanying DVD successfully introduces systems thinking to their students.
This book uses the field of systems biology to explore the basics of systems thinking and complexity. Building on the idea that life is a self-regulating network of emergence, Capra and Luisi construct an integrated, systemic worldview of life on earth. Throughout the book they provide a useful history of systems thinking in science, as well commentary on the implications for social systems such as healthcare and business.
The Capra Course is based on the book The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. It consists of twelve video lectures delivered weekly and supplemented by a discussion forum which is as wide-ranging as it can get. Each of the course lectures are profound and serve as dot connectors to a larger view consisting of the biological, cognitive, social and ecological dimensions of life. In doing so, Capra weaves a vision of unity and attempts this at three levels a) for the individual, the oneness of body, mind and spirit, b) unity between human and human and c) harmony between humanity and nature.
On the biological dimension of life, Capra explains the difference between living and non-living systems and presents an insightful view of what constitutes life and a contemporary view of evolution. Describing the cognitive dimension of life, Capra demonstrates how the human body, mind and spirit are one composite. He elaborates on the distinction between mind and consciousness and why consciousness is a biological, cognitive and social phenomenon. He presents how quantum physics and mysticism converge and that science and spirituality can be partners. He then goes onto describe the social dimension of life, and builds a narrative around social networks and the similarities and differences with biological networks. Covering the ecological dimension of life, he narrates how our planet got recognition of being akin to a self-regulating, living organism and how the Deep Ecology movement came about and its implications for our planet.
In a systems view, transformation processes are understood to be shaped by changing relationship patterns across systems and different leverage points for systemic change. Here, mental models, i.e., values, paradigms and belief systems, are considered as so-called deep-leverage points (Meadows, 1997; Abson et al., 2017).
One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs (i.e. networks of organisms); organisms are networks of cells, organs and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules. The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigm from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphor: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
One of the most important, and most radical, philosophical implications of the systems view of life is a new conception of the nature of mind and consciousness, which finally overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter that has haunted philosophers and scientists for centuries.