Chapter 8 of The Turning Point - Fritjof Capra (1982)
Part 1 of 4 Parts
Web Publication by
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - the Southern Winter of 1996
The Systems View of Life
Machines are constructed by assembling a well-defined number of parts in a precise and pre-established way. Organisms, on the other hand, show a high degree of internal flexibility and plasticity. The shape of their components may vary within certain limits and no two organisms will have identical parts. Although the organism as a whole exhibits well-defined regularities and behaviour patterns, the relationships between its parts are not rigidly determined. As Weiss has shown with many impressive examples, the behaviour of the individual parts can, in fact, be so unique and irregular that it bears no sign of relevance to the order or the whole system. This order is achieved by co-ordinating activities that do not rigidly constrain the parts but leave room for variation and flexibility, and it is this flexibility that enables living organisms to adapt to new circumstances.
Machines function according to linear chains of cause and effect, and when they break down a single cause for the breakdown can usually identified. In contrast, the functioning of organisms is guided by cyclical patterns of information flow known as feedback loops. For example, component A may affect component B; B may affect C; and C may "feed back" the influence to A and thus close the loop. When such a system breaks down, the breakdown is usually caused by multiple factors that may amplify each other through interdependent feedback loops. Which of these factors that may amplify each other through interdependent feedback loops. Which of these factors was the initial cause of the breakdown is often irrelevant.
This nonlinear interconnectedness of living organisms indicates that the conventional attempts of biomedical science to associate diseases with single causes are highly problematic. Moreover, it shows the fallacy of "genetic determinism," the belief that various physical or mental features of an individual organism are "controlled" or "dictated" by its genetic makeup. The systems view makes it clear that genes do not uniquely determine the functioning of an organism as cogs and wheels determine the working of a clock. Rather, genes are integral parts of an ordered whole and thus conform to its systemic organisation.
The internal plasticity and flexibility of living systems, whose functioning is controlled by dynamic relations rather that rigid mechanical structures, gives rise to a number of characteristic properties that can be seen as different aspects of the same dynamic principle-the principle of self-organisation. A living organism is a self- organising system, which means that its order in structure and function is not imposed by the environment but is established by the system itself. Self-organising systems exhibit a certain degree of autonomy; for example, they tend to establish their size according to internal principles of organisation, independent of environmental influences. This does not mean that living systems are isolated from their environment; on the contrary, they interact with it continually, but this interaction does not determine their organisation. The two principal dynamic phenomena of self-organisation are self- renewal-the ability of living systems continuously to renew and recycle their components while maintaining the integrity of their overall structure-and self- transcendence-the ability to reach out creatively beyond physical and mental boundaries in the processes of learning, development, and evolution.
The relative autonomy of self-organising systems sheds new light on the age-old philosophical question of free will. From the systems point of view, both determinism and freedom are relative concepts. To the extent that it depends on it through continuous interaction its activity will be shaped by environmental influences. The relative autonomy of organisms usually increases with their complexity, and it reaches its culmination in human beings.
This relative concept of free will seems to be consistent with the views of mystical traditions that exhort their followers to transcend the notion of an isolated self and become aware that we are inseparable parts of the cosmos in which we are embedded. The goal of these traditions is to shed all ego sensations completely and, in mystical experience, merge with the totality of the cosmos. Once such a state is reached, the question of free will seems to lose its meaning. If I am the universe, there can be no "outside" influences and all my actions will be spontaneous and free. From the point of view of mystics, therefore, the notion of free will is relative, limited and - as they would say - illusory, like all other concepts we use in our rational descriptions of reality.
To maintain their self-organizaation living organism have to remain in a special state that is not easy to describe in conventional terms. The comparison with machines will again be helpful. A clockwork, for example, is a relatively isolated system that needs energy to run but does not necessarily need to interact with its environment to keep functioning. Like all isolated systems it will proceed according to the second law of thermodynamics, from order to disorder, until it has reached a state of equilibrium in which all processes - motion, heat exchanged, and so on - have come to a standstill. Living organisms function quite differently. They are open systems, which means that they have to maintain a continuous exchange of energy and matter with their environment to stay alive. This exchange involves taking in ordered structures, such as food, breaking them down and using some of their components to maintain or even increase the order of the organism. This process is known as metabolism. It allows the system to remain in a state or nonequilibrium, in which it is always "at work." A high degree of nonequilibrium is absolutely necessary for self-organisation; living organisms are open systems that continually operate far from equilibrium.
At the same time these self-organising systems have a high degree of stability, and this is where we run into difficulties with conventional language. The dictionary meanings of the word "stable" include "fixed", "not fluctuating", "unvarying," and "steady," all of which are inaccurate to describe organisms. The stability of self- organising systems is utterly dynamic and must not be confused with equilibrium. It consists in maintaining the overall structure in spite of ongoing changes and replacements of its components. A cell, for example, according to Weiss, "retains its identity far more conservatively and remains far more similar to itself from moment to moment, as well as to any other cell of the same strain, than one could ever predict from knowing only about its inventory of molecules, macromolecules, and organelles which is subject to incessant change, reshuffling, and smiling of its population." The same is true for human organisms. We replace all our cells, except for those in the brain, within a few years, yet we have no trouble recognising our friends even after long periods of separation. Such is the dynamic stability of self-organising systems.
The phenomenon of self-organisation is not limited to living matter but occurs also in certain chemical systems, which have been studied extensively by the physical chemist and Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, who developed a detailed dynamic theory to described their behaviour. Prigogine has called these systems "dissipative structures" to express the fact that they maintain and develop structure by breaking down other structures in the process of metabolism, thus creating entropy - disorder - which is subsequently dissipated in the form of degraded waste products. Dissipative chemical structures display the dynamics of self-organisation in its simplest form, exhibiting most of the phenomena characteristic of life - self-renewal, adaptation, evolution, and even primitive forms of "mental" processes. The only reason why they are not considered alive is that they do not reproduce or form cells. These intriguing systems thus represent a link between animate and inanimate matter. Whether they are called living organisms or not is, ultimately, a matter of convention.
Self-renewal is an essential aspect of self-organising systems. Whereas a machine is constructed to produce a specific product or to carry out a specific task intended by its designer, an organism is primarily engaged in renewing itself; cells are breaking down and building up structures, tissues and organs are replacing their cells in continual cycles. Thus the pancreas replaces most if its cells every twenty-four hours, the stomach lining every three days; our white blood cells are renewed in ten days and 98 percent of the protein in the brain is turned over in less than one month. All these processes are regulated in such a way that the overall pattern of the organism is preserved, and this remarkable ability of self-maintenance persists under a variety of circumstances, including changing environmental conditions and many kinds of interference. A machine will fail if its parts do not work in the rigorously predetermined manner, but an organism will maintain its functioning in a changing environment, keeping itself in running condition and repairing itself through healing and regeneration. The power of regenerating organic structures diminishes with increasing complexity of the organism. Flatworms, polyps, and starfish can regenerate almost their entire body from a small fraction; lizards, salamanders, crabs, lobsters, and many insects are able to renew a lost organ or limb; and higher animals, including humans, can renew tissues and thus heal their injuries.
Even though they are capable of maintaining and repairing themselves, no complex organisms can function indefinitely. They gradually deteriorate in the process of ageing and, eventually, succumb to exhaustion even when relatively undamaged. To survive, these species have developed a form of "super-repair." Instead of replacing the damaged or worn-out parts they replace the whole organism. This, or course, is the phenomenon of reproduction, which is characteristic of all life.
Fluctuations play a central role in the dynamics of self-maintenance. Any living system can be described in terms of interdependent variables, each of which can vary over a wide range between an upper and a lower limit. All variables oscillate between these limits, so that the system is in a state of continual fluctuation, even when there is no disturbance. Such a state is known as homeostasis. It is a state of dynamic, transactional balance in which there is great flexibility; in other words, the system has a large number of options for interacting with its environment. When there is some disturbance, the organism tends to return to its original state, and it does so by adapting in various ways to environmental changes. Feedback mechanisms come into play and tend to reduce any deviation from the balanced state. Because of these regulatory mechanisms, also known as negative feedback, the body temperature, blood pressure, and many other important conditions of higher organisms remain relatively constant even when the environment changes considerably. However, negative feedback is only one aspect of self-organisation through fluctuations. The other aspect is positive feedback, which consists in amplifying certain deviations rather than damping them. We shall see that this phenomenon plays a crucial role in the processes of development, learning, and evolution.
The ability to adapt to a changing environment is an essential characteristic of living organisms and of social systems. Higher organisms are usually capable of three kinds of adaptation, which come into play successively during prolonged environmental changes. A person who goes from sea level to a high altitude may begin to pant and her heart may race. These changes are swiftly reversible; descending the same day will make them disappear immediately. Adaptive changes of this kind are part of the phenomenon of stress, which consists of pushing one or several variables of the organism to their extreme values. As a consequence the system as a whole will be rigid with respect to these variables and thus unable to adapt to further stress, which consists of pushing one or several variables of the organism to their extreme values. As a consequence the system as a whole will be rigid with respect to these variables and thus unable to adapt to further stress. For example, the person at high altitude will not be able to run up a staircase. Furthermore, since all variables in the system are interlinked, a rigidity in one will also affect the others, and the loss of flexibility will spread through the system.
If the environmental change persists, the organism will go through a further process of adaptation. Complex physiological changes take place among the more stable components of the system to absorb the environmental impact and restore flexibility. Thus the person at high altitude will be able to breathe normally again after a certain period of time and to use her panting mechanism for adjusting to other emergencies that might otherwise be lethal. This form of adaptation is known as somatic change. Acclimization, habit-forming, and addiction are special cases of this process.
Through somatic change the organism recaptures some of its flexibility by substituting a deeper and more enduring change for a more superficial and reversible one. Such an adaptation will be achieved comparatively slowly and will be slower to reverse. Yet somatic changes are still reversible. This means that various circuits of the biological system must be available for such a reversal for the entire time during which the change is maintained. Such a prolonged loading of circuits will limit the organism's freedom to control other functions and thus seduce its flexibility. Although the system is more flexible after the somatic change than it was before, when it was under stress, it is still less flexible than it was before the original stress occurred. Somatic change, then, internalises stress, and the accumulation of such internalised stress may, eventually, lead to illness.
The third kind of adaptation available to living organisms is the adaptation of the species in the process of evolution. The changes brought about by mutation, also known as genotypic changes, are totally different from somatic changes. Through genotypic change a species adapts to the environment by shifting the range of some of its variables, and notably of those which result in the most economical changes. For example, when the climate gets colder an animal will grow thicker fur rather than just running around more to keep warm. Genotypic change provides more flexibility than somatic change. since every cell contains a copy of the new genetic information, it will behave in the changed manner without needing any messages from surrounding tissues and organs. Thus more circuits of the system will remain open and the overall flexibility is increased. On the other hand, genotypic change is irreversible within the lifetime of an individual.
The three modes of adaptation are characterised by increasing flexibility and decreasing reversibility. The quickly reversible stress reaction will be replaced by somatic change in order to increase flexibility under continuing stress, and evolutionary adaptation will be induced to further increase flexibility when the organism has accumulated so many somatic changes that it becomes too rigid for survival. Thus successive modes of adaptation restore as much as possible the flexibility that the organism has lost under environmental stress. The flexibility of an individual organism will depend on how many of its variables are kept fluctuating within their tolerance limits; the more fluctuations, the greater the stability of the organism. For populations of organisms the criterion corresponding to flexibility is variability. Maximum genetic variation within a population provides the maximum number of possibilities for evolutionary adaptation.
The ability of species to adapt to environmental changes through genetic mutations has been studied extensively and very successfully in our century, together with the mechanisms of reproduction and heredity. However, these aspects represent only one side of the phenomenon of evolution. The other side is the creative development of new structures and functions without any environmental pressure, which is inherent in all living organisms. The Darwinian concepts, therefore, express only one of two complementary views that are both necessary in understanding evolution. Discussion of the view of evolution as an essential manifestation of self- organising systems will be easier if we first take a closer look at the relation between organisms and their environment.
The Systems View of Life
Chapter 8 of The Turning Point
by Fritjof Capra (1982)
Web Publication by
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - the Southern Winter of 1996