of Life

Chapter 8 of The Turning Point - Fritjof Capra (1982)

Part 3 of 4 Parts

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - the Southern Winter of 1996

The Systems View of Life

Chapter 8 of the Turning Point - Fritjof Capra

Part 3 of 4

The systems view of living organisms is difficult to grasp from the perspective of classical science because it requires significant modifications of many classical concepts and ideas. The situation is not unlike the one encountered by physicists during the first three decades of this century, when they were forced to adopt drastic revisions of their basic concepts of reality to understand atomic phenomena. This parallel is further enforced by the fact that the notion of complementarity, which was so crucial in the development of atomic physics, also seems to play an important role in the new systems biology.

Besides the complementarity of self-assertive and integrative tendencies, which can be observed at all levels of nature's stratified systems, living organisms display another pair of complementary dynamic phenomena that are essential aspects of self- organization. One of them, which may be described loosely as self-maintenance, includes the processes of self-renewal, healing, homeostasis, and adaptation. The other, which seems to represent an opposing but complementary tendency, is that of self- transformation and self-transcendence, a phenomenon that expresses itself in the processes of learning, development, and evolution. Living organisms have an inherent potential for reaching out beyond themselves to create new structures and new patterns of behaviour. This creative reaching our into novelty, which in time leads to an ordered unfolding of complexity, seems to be fundamental property of life, a basic characteristic of the universe which is not - at least for the time being -amenable to further explanation. We can, however, explore the dynamics and mechanisms of self- transcendence in the evolution of individuals, species, ecosystems, societies, and cultures.

The two complementary tendancies of self-organising systems are in continual dynamic interplay, and both of them contribute to the phenomenon of evolutionary adaption. To understand this phenomenon, therefore, two complementary descriptions will be needed. One will have to include many aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, such as mutation, the structure of DNA, and the mechanisms of reproduction and heredity. The other description must not deal with the genetic mechanisms but with the underlying dynamics of evolution, whose central characteristic is not adaption but creativity. If adaption alone were the core of evolution, it would be hard to explain why living forms ever evolved beyond the blue-green algae, which are perfectly adapted to their environment, unsurpassed in their reproductive capacities, and have proved their fitness for survival over billions of years.

The creative unfolding of life toward forms of ever increasing complexity remained an unsolved mystery for more than a century after Darwin, but recent study has outlines the contours of a theory of evolution that promises to shed light on this striking characteristics of living organisms. This is a systems theory that focuses on the dynamics of self-transcendance and is based on the work of a number of scientists from various disciplines. Among the main contributors are the chemist Ilya Prigogine and Manfred Eigen, the biologists Conrad Waddington and Paul Weiss, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and the systems theorists Erich Jantsch and Ervin Laszlo. A comprehensive synthesis of the theory has recently been published by Erich Jantsch, who regards evolution as an essential aspect of the dynamics of self-organisation. This view makes it possible to begin to understand biological, social, cultural and cosmic evolution in terms of the same pattern of systems dynamics, even though the different kinds of evolution involve very different mechanisms. A basic complementarity of descriptions, which is still far from being understood, is manifest throughout the theory, examples being the interplay between between adaption and creation, the simultaneaous action of chance and necessity, and the subtle interaction between macro- and micro-evolution.

The basic dynamics of evolution, according to the new systems view, begins with a system in homeostasis - a state of dynamic balance characterised by multiple, interdependent fluctuations. When the system is being disturbed it has the tendency to maintain its stability by means of negative feedback mechanisms, which tend to reduce the deviation from the balanced state. However, this is not the only possibility. Deviations may also be reinforced internally through positive feedback, either in response to environmental changes or spontaneously without any external influence. The stability of a living system is continually tested by its fluctuations, and at certain moments one or several of them may become so strong that they drive the system over an instability into an entirely new structure, which we again be fluctuating and relatively stable. The stability of living systems is never absolute. It will persist as long as the fluctuations remain below a critical size, but any system is always ready to transform itself, always ready to evolve. This basic model of evolution, worked out for chemical dissipative structures by Progogine and his collaborators, has since been applied successfully to describe the evolution of various biological, social, and ecological systems.

There are a number of fundamental differences between the new systems theory of evolution and the classical neo-Darwinian theory. The classical theory sees evolution as moving toward an equilibrium state, with organisms adapting themselves ever more perfectly to their environment. According to the systems view, evolution operates far from equilibrium and unfolds through an interplay of adaption and creation. Moreover, the systems theory takes into account that the environment is, itself, a living system capable of adaption and evolution. Thus the focus shifts from the evolution of an organism to the coevolution of organism plus environment. The consideration of such mutual adaption and coevolution was neglected in the classical view, which has tended to concentrate on linear, sequential processes and to ignore transaction phenomena that are mutually conditioning and going on simultaneously.

Jacques Monad saw evolution as a strict sequence of chance and necessity, the chance of random mutations and the necessity of survival. Chance and necessity are also aspects of the new theory, but their roles are quite different. The internal reinforcement of fluctuations and the way the system reaches a critical point may occur at random and are unpredictable, but once such a critical point has been reached the system is forced to evolve into a new structure. Thus chance and necessity come into play simultaneously and act as complementary principles. Moreover, the unpredictabilty of the whole process is not limited to the origin of the instability. When a system becomes unstable, there are always at least two new possible structures into which it can evolve. The further the system has moved from equilibrium, the more options will be available. Which of these options is chosen is impossible to predict; there is true freedom of choice. As the system approaches the critical point, it "decided" itself which way to go, and this decision will determine its evolution. The totality of possible evolutionary pathways must be imagined as a multiforked graph with free decisions at each branching point.

The picture shows that the evolution is basically open and indeterminate. There is no gaol in it, or purpose, and yet there is a recognisable pattern of development. The details of this pattern are unpredictable because of the autonomy living systems possess in their evolution as in other aspects of their organisation. In the systems view the process of evolution is not dominated by "blind chance" but represents an unfolding of order and complexity that can be seen as a kind of learning process, involving autonomy and freedom of choice.

Since the days of Darwin, scientific and religious views about evolution have often been in opposition, the latter assuming that there was some general blueprint designed by a divine creator, the former reducing evolution to a cosmic game of dice. The new systems theory accepts neither of these views. Although it does not deny spirituality and can even be used to formulate the concept of a deity, as we shall see below, it does not allow for a pre-established evolutionary plan. Evolution is an ongoing and open adventure that continually creates its own purpose in a process whose detailed outcome is inherently unpredictable. Nevertheless, the general pattern of evolution can be recognised and is quite comprehensible. Its characteristics include the progressive increase of complexity, coordination, and interdependence; the integration of individuals into multileveled systems; and the continual refinement of certain functions and patterns of behaviour. As Ervin Laszlo sums it up, "There is a progression from multiplicity and chaos to oneness and order."

In classical science nature was seen as a mechanical system composed of basic building blocks. In accordance with this view, Darwin proposed a theory of evolution in which the unit of survival was the species, the subspecies, or some other building block of the biological world. But a century later it has become quite clear that the unit of survival is not any of these entities. What survives is the organism-in-its-environment. An organism that thinks only in themes of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself. From the systems point of view the unit of survival is not at entity at all, but rather a pattern of organisation adopted by an organism in its interactions with its environment; or, as neurologist Robert Livingston has expressed it, the evolutionary selection process acts on the basis of behaviour.

In the history of life on earth, the coevolution of , microcosm and macrocosm is of particular importance. Conventional accounts of the origin of life usually describe the build-up of higher life forms in microevolution and neglect the macroevolutionary aspects. But these two are complementary aspects of the same evolutionary process, as Jantsch has emphasised. From one perspective microscopic life creates the macroscopic conditions for its further evolution; from the other perspective the macroscopic biosphere creates its own microscopic life. The unfolding of complexity arises not from adaptation of organisms to a given environment but rather from the coevolution of organism and environment at all systems levels.

When the earliest life forms appeared on earth around four billion years ago-half a billion years after the formation of the planet-they were single-celled organisms without a cell nucleus that looked rather like some of today's bacteria. These so-called prokaryotes lived without oxygen, since there was little or no free oxygen in the atmosphere. But almost as soon as the microorganisms originated they began to modify their environment and create the macroscopic conditions for the further evolution of life. For the next two billion years some prokaryotes produced oxygen through photosynthesis, until it reached its present levels of concentration in the earth's atmosphere. Thus the stage was set for the emergence of more complex, oxygen-breathing cells that would be capable of forming cell tissues and multicellular organisms.

The next important evolutionary step was the emergence of eukaryotes, single-celled organisms with a nucleus contained the organism's genetic material in its chromosomes. It was these cells that later on formed multicellular organisms. According to Lynn Margulis, co-author of the Gaia hypothesis, eukaryotic cells originated in a symbiosis between several prokaryotes that continued to live on as organelles within the new type of cell. We have mentioned the two kinds of organelles - mitochondria and chloroplasts-that regulate the complementary respiration requirements of animals and plants. These are nothing but the former prokaryotes, which still continue to manage the energy household of the planetary Gaia system, as they have done for the past four billion years.

In the further evolution of life, two steps enormously accelerated the evolutionary process and produced an abundance of new forms. The first was the development of sexual reproduction, which introduced extraordinary genetic variety. The second step was the emergence of consciousness, which made it possible to replace the genetic mechanisms of evolution with more efficient social mechanisms, based upon conceptual thought and symbolic language.

To extend our systems view of life to a description of social and cultural evolution, we will deal first with the phenomena of mind and consciousness. Gregory Bateson proposed to define mind as a systems phenomenon characteristic of living organisms, societies, and ecosystems, and he listed a set of criteria which systems have to satisfy for mind to occur. Any system that satisfies those criteria will be able to process information and develop the phenomena we associate with mind thinking, learning, memory, for example. In Bateson's view, mind is a necessary and inevitable consequence of a certain complexity which begins long before organisms develop a brain and a higher nervous system.

Bateson's criteria for mind turn out to be closely related to those characteristics of self-organizing systems which I have listed above as the critical differences between machines and living organisms. Indeed, mind is an essential property of living systems. As Bateson said, "Mind is the essence of being alive." From the systems point of view, life is not a substance or a force, and mind is not an entity interacting with matter. Both life and mind are manifestations of the same set of systemic properties, a set of processes that represent the dynamics of self-organization. This new concept will be of tremendous value in our attempts to overcome the Cartesian division. The description of mind as a pattern of organization, or a set of dynamic relationships, is related to the description of matter in modern physics. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two fundamentally separate categories, as Descartes believed, but can be seen to represent merely different aspects of the same universal process.

Bateson's concept of mind will be useful throughout our discussion, but to remain closer to conventional language I shall reserve the term "mind" for organisms of high complexity and will use "mentation," a term meaning mental activity, to describe the dynamics of self-organization at lower levels. This terminology was suggested some years ago by the biologist George Coghill, who developed a beautiful systemic view of living organisms and of mind well before the advent of systems theory. Coghill distinguished three essential and closely interrelated patterns of organization in living organisms: structure, function, and mentation. He saw structure as organization in space, function as organization in time, and mentation as a kind of organization which is intimately interwoven with structure and function at low levels of complexity but goes beyond space and time at higher levels. From the modern systems perspective, we can say that mentation, being the dynamics of self-organization, represents the organization of all functions and is thus a meta-function. At lower levels it will often look like behavior, which can be defined as the totality of all functions, and thus the behaviorist approach is often successful at these levels. But at higher levels of complexity mentation can no longer be limited to behaviour, as it takes on the distinctive nonspatial and nontemporal quality that we associate with mind.

In the systems concept of kind, mentation is characteristic not only of individual organisms but also of social and ecological systems. As Bateson has emphasized, mind is immanent not only in the body but also in the pathways and messages outside the body. There are larger manifestations of mind of which our individaul minds are only substyems. This recognition has very radical implications for our interactions with the natural environment. If we separate mental phenomena from the larger systems in which they are immanent and confine them to human individuals, we will see the environment as mindless and will tend to exploit it. Our attitudes will be very different when we realize that the environment is not only alive but also mindful, like ourselves.

The fact that the living world is organized in multileveled structure means that there are also levels of mind. In the organism, for example there are various levels of "metabolic" mentation involving cells, tissues, and organs, and then there is the "neural" mentation of the brain, which itself consists of multiple levels corresponding to different stages of human evolution. The totality of these mentations constitutes what we would call the human mind. Such a notion of mind as a multileveled phenomenon, of which we re only partly aware in ordinary states of consciousness, is widesperead in many non-Western cultures and has recently been studied extensively by some Western psychologists.

In the stratified order of nature, individual human minds are embedded in the larger minds of social and ecological systems, and these are integrated into the planetary mental system - the mind of Gaia-which in turn must participate in some kind of universal or cosmic mind. The conceptual framework of the new systems approach is in no way restricted by associating this cosmic mind with the traditional idea of God. In the words of Jantsch, "God is not the creator, but the mind of the universe." In this view the deity is, of course, neither male or female, nor manifest in any personal form, but represents nothing less than the self-organizing dynamics of the entire cosmos.

The organ of neural mentation - the brain and its nervous system - is a highly complex, mulitleveled, and multidimensional living system that has remained deeply mysterious in may of its aspects in spite of several decades of intensive research in neuroscience. The human brain is a living system par excellence. After the first year of growth no new neurons are produced, yet plastci changes will go on for the rest of its life. As the environment changes, the brain models itself in response to these changes, and any time it is injured the system makes very rapid adjustments. You can never wear it out; on the contrary, the more you use it the more powerful it becomes.

The major function of neurons is to communicate with one another by receiving and transmitting electrical and chemical impulses. To do so, each neuron has developed numerous fine filaments that branch out to make connection with other cells, thus establishing a vast and intricate network of communication which interweaves tightly with the muscular and skeletal systems. Most neurons are engaged in continual spontaneous activity, sending out a few pulses per second and modulating the patterns of their activity in various ways to transmit information. The entire brain is always active and alive, with billions of nervous impulses flashing through its pathways every second.

The nervous systems of higher animals and humans are so complex and display such a rich variety of phenomena that any attempt to understand their functioning in purely reductionistic terms seems quite hopeless. Indeed, neuroscientists have been able to map out the structure of the brain in some detail and have clarified many of its electrochemical processes, but they have remained almost completely ignorant about its integrative activities. As in the case of evolution, it would seem that two complementary approaches are needed: a reductionist approach to understand the detailed neural mechanisms, and a holistic approach to understand the integration of these mechanisms into the functioning of the entire system. So far there have been very few attempts to apply the dynamics of self-organizing systems to neural phenomena, but those currently undertaken have brought some encouraging results. In particular, the significance of regular fluctuations in the process of perception, in the form os frequency patterns, has received considerable attention.

Another interesting development is the discovery that the two complementary modes of description which seem to be required to understand the nature of living systems are reflected in the very structure and functioning of our brains. Research over the last twenty years [to the mid '80's] has shown consistently that the two hemispheres of the brain tend to be involved in opposite but complementary functions. The left hemisphere, which controls the right side of the body, seems to be more specialised in analytic, linear thinking, which involves processing information sequentially; the right side hemisphere, contolling the left side of the body, seems to fuction predominantly in a holistic mode that is appropriate for synthesis and tends to process information more diffusely and simultaneously.

The complementary modes of functioning have been demostrated dramatically in a number of "split-brain" experiments involving epileptic patients whose corpus caloosum, the band of fibres that normally connects the two hemispheres, had been cut. These patients showed some striking anomolies. For example, with closed eyes they could describe an object they were holding in their right hand but could only make a guess if the object was held in the left hand. Similarly, the right hand could still write but could no longer draw pictures, whereas the opposite was the case for the left. Other experiments indicated that the different specialisations of the two sides of the brain represented preferences rather than absolute distinctions, but the general picture was confirmed.

In the past, brain researchers often referred to the left hemisphere as the major, and to the right as the minor hemisphere, thus expressing our culture's Cartesian bias in favour of rational thought, quantification, and analysis. Actually the preference for the "left-brain" of "right-hand" values is much older than the Cartesian worldview. In most European languages the right side is associated with the good, the just, and the virtuous, the left side with evil, danger, and suspicion. The very word "right" also means "correct", "appropriate", "just", whereas "sinister", which is the Latin word for "left", conveys the idea of something evil and threatening. The German for "law" is Recht, and the French droit, both of which also mean "right". Examples of this kind can be found in virtually all Western languages and probably in others as well. The deep-rooted preference for the right side - the one controlled by the left brain - in so many cultures makes one wonder whether it may not be rr\elated to the patriarchal value system. Whatever its origins may be, there have recently been attempts to promote more balanced views of brain functioning and to develop methods for increasing one's mental faculties by stimulating and integrating the functioning of both sides of the brain.

Conclusion of Part 3 of 4
The Systems View of Life
Chapter 8 of the "Turning Point"
Fritjof Capra - 1982
Intro Part1 Part2 Part3 Part4 Index

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