The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

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Cambridge University Press, Apr 10, 2014 - Business & Economics - 510 pages
3 Reviews
Over the past thirty years, a new systemic conception of life has emerged at the forefront of science. New emphasis has been given to complexity, networks, and patterns of organisation, leading to a novel kind of 'systemic' thinking. This volume integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework. Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, the authors examine the appearance of key concepts such as autopoiesis, dissipative structures, social networks, and a systemic understanding of evolution. The implications of the systems view of life for health care, management, and our global ecological and economic crises are also discussed. Written primarily for undergraduates, it is also essential reading for graduate students and researchers interested in understanding the new systemic conception of life and its implications for a broad range of professions - from economics and politics to medicine, psychology and law.

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Very ambitious. I didn't know what to make of it when I first heard about Fritjof Capra's work. He and his co author are attempting to not only understand the systematic nature of everything, and I mean everything, they are also trying to find a way to harvest what they learn from how systems work so they can make suggestions about how to make life on Earth more sustainable.
While I enjoyed their explanation of systems in the emergence of organisms, I didn't really enjoy the sections on consciousness, I really appreciate what they are trying to do. However, I think they muddy the waters in trying to have a philosophy of mind debate. They would stand firmly with the Churchland's, who believe that all consciousness is material. And maybe I would be interested in reading about that. But IMO, that is for another book. I would be happy to hear opposing views. Cognitive neuroscience is one of my favorite subjects, and I would love it if someone who understood systems thinking more than I do could shed light on where Fritjof Capra and co-author are going with this.
Their discussion of the systems approach to evolution was fantastic! That alone makes this book worth reading. So much research coming from systems folks, thermodynamics folks (i.e.., Jeremy England), and others are demonstrating that gene centered evolutionary theory is outdated. A new paradigm is afoot that adds 3 very important aspects to the theory; 1) emergence, 2) horizontal gene transfer as a greater focus, 3) endosymbiosis.
Once we view evotdluion from this perspective, we see that the inclusion of the aforementioned additions to evolutionary process means that the behaviors that arise are less random than once thought. At the end of the day, genes are less the driver of evolution and physical forces, which result in the emergence of complexity are the main driver. He is firmly in the camp that under the right conditions, life will self-organize.
The authors then go on to show that social networks emerge and operate on the same principles. They are self generating. From this, they look at the systemic nature of social issues and try to understand what steps can be taken, once you have taken the steps to understand the systems nature of the problem, to live in a more sustainable manner.

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My one-liner: Astounding breadth of coverage of philosophical, scientific and economic systems and processes guiding humanity towards a more sustainable existence.
“[T]he Zeitgeist (“spirit of the
age”) of the early twenty-first century is being shaped by a profound change of paradigms, characterized by a shift of metaphors from the world as a machine to the world as a network. The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts”
The Systems View of Life - A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi) is the kind of book I wish I could write. As the industrial age, which began in the period of the European Enlightenment, draws to maturity through the end of the 20th century and beyond, its very fruits have given humanity the tools to move beyond the industrial and mechanical, and into a higher conception of the nature of existence.
Thus we have the insights of quantum physics and fractal mathematics which were only made possible by going through the Newtonian / Cartesian phase. Or the interconnected, networked world that is forming today, that came about through incremental phases of industrial, machine-based progress. The recent giant leaps in computing power that today enables us to study and model complexity and chaos, leave us perhaps with more questions than answers, but evolved through essentially linear statistical methods over the preceding 200-years.
Where Capra and Luisi take us therefore, is into a place that we I think, already know to be instinctively know we need to be. Namely that as a society we are perhaps grown up enough to be able to once again emphasise the qualitative over the quantitative, the observation over the explanation, the process rather than the outcome. The prize, they argue, is a great one:
“As we move further into the twenty-first century, transcending the mechanistic view of organizations will be as critical for the survival of human civilization as transcending the mechanistic conceptions of health, the economy, or biotechnology. All these issues are linked, ultimately, to the profound scientific, social, and cultural transformation that is now under way with the emergence of the new systemic conception of life.”
Personally I would add a caveat to this: the developed or industrialised world in primed for this transition; the developing world is still undergoing its industrialisation phase through which many hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of food poverty. Capra and Luisi hint that this can be short-circuited (“The root causes of hunger around the world are unrelated to food production. They are poverty, inequality, and lack of access to food and land”) – my view is that they need to take their time to evolve societally, having now moved away from a land / organic-based existence – they will not need 500 years like we did, but they will need decades. This is important, because the transitions implied in the book will likely remain imperceptible at the level of all humanity for rest of the century.
Moving back to the book itself, the authors do well to delve into science well enough to give the reader a sense of rigour, without crossing the line into incomprehensibility for the layman. A consistent theme is the rationalist, and currently prevailing tendency to break down our existence into building blocks and compartments, whether that be measurements of economic growth, medical diagnosis, legal systems, industrial production. But modern physicists have taught us that at that quantum level “matter” (in the non-technical sense) is fundamentally interconnected and cannot be reduced to infinitesimally small building blocks:
“An electron is neither a particle nor a wave, but it may show particle-like aspects in some situations and wave-like aspects in others. While it acts like a particle, it is capable of developing its wave nature at the expense of its particle nature, and vice versa, thus undergoing continual


The Newtonian worldmachine
The mechanistic view of life
Mechanistic social thought
From the parts to the whole
Classical systems theories
Complexity theory
What is life?
The human adventure
Mind and consciousness
Science and spirituality
Life mind and society
The systems view of health
The ecological dimension of life
systems thinking and the state of the world
Systemic solutions

Order and complexity in the living world
Darwin and biological evolution
The quest for the origin of life on Earth

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About the author (2014)

Fritjof Capra is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, and serves on the faculty of Schumacher College, Devon. He is a physicist and systems theorist, and has been engaged in a systematic examination of the philosophical and social implications of contemporary science for the past 35 years.

Pier Luigi Luisi is Professor in Biochemistry at the University of Rome 3. He started his career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) where he became full professor in Chemistry and initiated the interdisciplinary Cortona Weeks. His main research focuses on the experimental, theoretical and philosophical aspects of the origin of life and self-organisation of synthetic and natural systems.