The Web of Life

by Fritjof Capra

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What I am offering in my book, and what I would like to present to you today, is a new conceptual framework for the scientific understanding of life. This framework is the result of more than ten years of research and of numerous discussions and dialogues I had with leading scientists.

During the past 25 years, a new language for understanding the complexity of living systems - that is, of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems - has been developed at the forefront of science. You may have heard about some of the key concepts of this new way of understanding complex systems - chaos, attractors, fractals, dissipative structures, self-organization, autopoietic networks.

In the early eighties, I conceived a synthesis of these new discoveries. I developed and refined it for ten years, discussed it with numerous scientists, and now I have published it in The Web of Life.

The intellectual tradition of systems thinking, and the models of living systems developed during the early decades of the century, form the conceptual and historical roots of the new scientific framework that I am going to present to you. In fact, my synthesis of current models and theories may be seen as an outline of an emerging theory of living systems. What is now emerging at the forefront of science is a coherent scientific theory that offers, for the first time, a unified view of mind, matter, and life.

Since industrial society has been dominated by the Cartesian split between mind and matter and by the ensuing mechanistic paradigm for the past three hundred years, this new vision that finally overcomes the Cartesian split will have not only important scientific and philosophical consequences, but will also have tremendous practical implications. It will change the way we relate to each other and to our living natural environment, the way we deal with our health, the way we perceive our business organizations, our educational systems, and many other social and political institutions.

In particular, the new vision of life will help us build and nurture sustainable communities - the great challenge of our time - because it will help us understand how nature's communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms - the ecosystems - have organized themselves so as so maximize their ecological sustainability. We have much to learn from this wisdom of nature, and to do so we need to become ecologically literate. We need to understand the basic principles of ecology, the language of nature. The new framework I present in my book shows that these principles of ecology are also the basic principles of organization of all living systems. I believe therefore that The Web of Life provides a solid basis for ecological thought and practice.

Let me give you a brief historical perspective on the tradition of systems thinking. It emerged during the 1920s simultaneously in three different fields: organismic biology, gestalt psychology, and ecology. In all these fields scientists explored living systems, i.e. integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Living systems include individual organisms, parts of organisms, and communities of organisms, such as social systems and ecosystems. Living systems span a very broad range, and systems thinking is therefore by its very nature an interdisciplinary, or better still, "transdisciplinary" approach.

The science of ecology, which began during the 1920s, enriched the systems view of life by introducing a very important new concept, the concept of the network. From the beginning of ecology, ecological communities have been seen as consisting of organisms linked together in network fashion through feeding relations. At first, ecologists formulated the concepts of food chains and food cycles, and these were soon expanded to the contemporary concept of the food web.

As the network concept became more and more prominent in ecology, systems thinkers began to use network models at all systems levels, viewing organisms as networks of organs and cells, just as ecosystems are understood as networks of individual organisms. This led to the key insight that the network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks.

So, this new way of thinking about living systems emerged during the 1920s and 1930s. The 1940s, then, saw the formulation of actual systems theories. This means that systems concepts were integrated into coherent theoretical frameworks describing the principles of organization of living systems. These theories, which I call the "classical systems theories," include general systems theory and cybernetics.

And now I come to the most important point of my brief historical review. There is a watershed in systems thinking between the classical systems theories of the 1940s and the theories of living systems developed during the past 25 years. The distinctive feature of the new theories is a new mathematical language that allowed scientists for the first time to handle the enormous complexity of living systems mathematically.

We need to realize that even the simplest living system, a bacterial cell, is a highly complex network involving literally thousands of interdependent chemical reactions. During the 1970s, a new set of concepts and techniques for dealing with that enormous complexity was developed, which is beginning to form a coherent mathematical framework. Chaos theory and fractal geometry are important branches of this new mathematics of complexity.

The crucial characteristic of the new mathematics is that it is a nonlinear mathematics. In science, until recently, we were always taught to avoid nonlinear equations, because they are very difficult to solve. For example, the smooth flow of water in a river, in which there are no obstacles, is described by a linear equation. But when there is a rock in the river the water begins to swirl; it becomes turbulent. There are eddies; there are all kinds of vortices; and this complex motion is described by nonlinear equations. The movement of water becomes so complicated that it seems quite chaotic.

In the 1970s, scientists for the first time had powerful high-speed computers that could help them tackle and solve nonlinear equations. In doing so, they devised a number of techniques, a new kind of mathematical language that revealed very surprising patterns underneath the seemingly chaotic behavior of nonlinear systems, an underlying order beneath the seeming chaos. Indeed, chaos theory is really a theory of order, but of a new kind of order that is revealed by this new mathematics.

This is very important for a theory of living systems, because the networks that are the basic pattern of all living systems are also very complex. To describe these networks mathematically, you need nonlinear equations and techniques, and since the 1970s we have these techniques at our disposal. During the the 1970s, the strong interest in nonlinear phenomena generated a whole series of new and powerful theories that describe various aspects of living systems. These theories, which I discuss in some detail in the book, form the components of my own synthesis of the new conception of life.

I have come to believe that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two approaches that have been in competition throughout our scientific history - the study of pattern (or form, order, quality) and the study of structure (or substance, matter, quantity). The structure approach asks, "What is it made of? What are the fundamental constituents?" The pattern approach asks, "What is its pattern?" These are two very different lines of investigation that have been in competition with one another throughout our scientific and philosophical tradition.

To show you how the pattern approach and the structure approach can be integrated, let me now define these two terms more precisely. The pattern of organization of any system, living or nonliving, is the configuration of relationships among the system's components that determines the system's essential characteristics. In other words, certain relationships must be present for something to be recognized as - say - a chair, a bicycle, or a tree. That configuration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics is what I mean by its pattern of organization. The structure of a system is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization. Whereas the description of the pattern of organization involves an abstract mapping of relationships, the description of the structure involves describing the system's actual physical components - their shapes, chemical compositions, and so on.

Now, in a living system, there is a ceaseless flux of matter; there is growth, development, and evolution. From the very beginning of biology, the understanding of living structure has been inseparable from the understanding of metabolic and developmental processes.

This striking property of living systems suggests process as a third criterion for a comprehensive description of the nature of life. The process of life is the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system's pattern of organization. Thus the process criterion is the link between pattern and structure.

The process criterion completes the conceptual framework of my synthesis of the emerging theory of living systems. All three criteria are totally interdependent. The pattern of organization can only be recognized if it is embodied in a physical structure, and in living systems this embodiment is an ongoing process. One could say that the three criteria - pattern, structure, and process - are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon of life. They form the three conceptual dimensions of my synthesis. What this means is that, in order to define a living system, we have to answer three questions: What is its structure? What is its pattern of organization? What is the process of life? Let me now answer these questions in that order.

The structure of a living system has been described in detail by Ilya Prigogine in his theory of dissipative structures. Prigogine recognized that living systems are able to maintain their life processes under conditions of non-equilibrium. A living organism is characterized by continual flow and change in its metabolism, involving thousands of chemical reactions. Chemical and thermal equilibrium exists when all these processes come to a halt. In other words, an organism in equilibrium is a dead organism. Living organisms continually maintain themselves in a state far from equilibrium, which is the state of life. Although very different from equilibrium, this state is nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of the ongoing flow and change of components. Prigogine called these systems "dissipative structures" to emphasize the close interplay between structure on the one hand, and flow and change (or dissipation) on the other.

According to Prigogine's theory, dissipative structures not only maintain themselves in a stable state far from equilibrium, but may even evolve. When the flow of energy and matter through them increases, they may go through points of instability and transform themselves into new structures of increased complexity. This spontaneous emergence of new structures and new forms of behavior, which has become known as self-organization, is the basis of the phenomena of learning, development, and evolution.

Let me now turn to the second perspective on the nature of life, the pattern perspective. The pattern of organization of a living system is a network of relationships in which the function of each component is to transform and replace other components of the network. This pattern has been called "autopoiesis" by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. "Auto", of course, means "self", and "poiesis" - which has the same Greek root as the word "poetry" - means "making". So autopoiesis means "seelf-making." The network continually "makes itself." It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components.

The understanding of the process aspect of living systems is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the emerging new theory, as it implies a new conception of mind, or cognition. This new conception was proposed by Gregory Bateson and elaborated more completely by Maturana and Varela, and it is known as the Santiago theory of cognition.

The central insight of the Santiago theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life. Cognition, according to Maturana and Varela, is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of autopoietic networks. In other words, cognition is the very process of life.

It is obvious that we are dealing here with a radical expansion of the concept of cognition and, implicitly, the concept of mind. In this new view, cognition involves the entire process of life - including perception, emotion, and behavior - and does not necessarily require a brain and a nervous system.

The Santiago theory of cognition, I believe, is the first scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter, and will thus have the most far-reaching implications. 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 - the process aspect and the structure aspect. At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected. Mind is immanent in living matter as the process of self-organization. For the first time, we have a scientific theory that unifies mind, matter and life.

Copyright 1996 by Fritjof Capra

The Web of Life and other books by Fritjof Capra, can be purchased at the Bookstore.


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