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Book Review: The Systems View of Life

:
Part One – An Exploration of Themes

I am sure Fritjof will need no introduction for the vast majority of you, as he is one of the world‟s
leading thinkers in systems theory, and the author of so many influential books such as The Tao of
Physics, The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, The Turning Point: Science, Society
and the Rising Culture, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living and Learning from
Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius.
Fritjof has described The Systems View of Life as “the realisation of a dream” and it has been written
with his friend and long-time collaborator Pier Luigi Luisi who is one of the world‟s leading authorities
on the origin of life and self-organisation of synthetic and natural systems. The result is a text-book
which presents, for the first time, a coherent systemic framework which integrates four dimensions of
life – biological, cognitive, social and ecological. It then discusses the profound philosophical, social
and political implications of this new paradigm. It is a hugely ambitious work which for me will
require a number of articles to fully explore, including an analysis of how it connects with our own
recently published book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.
If we begin with some basics, this is first and foremost a textbook written in an academic style with
numbered sections for easy cross-referencing, and is therefore targeted at undergraduate and post-
graduate university students. It will of course also be of interest to researchers, practitioners and
enquiring readers who are interested in discovering more about the profound shift in the scientific
conception of living systems, the primary insight of which is the move from the machine metaphor of
life to one where life is perceived as a network of inseparable relationships.
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.
In this view, living systems continually recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their
components. They go through structural changes while preserving their web-like pattern of
organisation. Hence there is both stability and change – a key characteristic of life. Instead of thinking
of “mind” we change to a conception of the process of cognition. This has developed into a rich field
known as cognitive science which transcends the traditional frameworks of biology, neuroscience,
psychology, epistemology etc.

In his recent presentation of The Systems View of Life at Schumacher College last week, Fritjof
explained the importance of understanding this new multidisciplinary approach:
The central insight is the identification of cognition (the process of knowing) with the process of life.
Cognition is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks. The
interactions of a living organisation with their environment are cognitive actions. Cognition is
immanent in matter at all levels of life.
The brain is not the only structure through which the process of cognition operates, the entire structure
of the organism participates in the process of cognition. The first scientific theory which overcomes the
Cartesian split of mind and matter which are now seen as two complementary aspects of life which are
inseparably connected.
See: Fritjof Capra discusses the Systems View of Life
Part I of the book examines the mechanistic worldview, not only providing a much-needed historical
perspective on science, from antiquity to our modern era. Right from the start, the authors note that:
Physics, together with chemistry, is essential to understand the behaviour of the molecules in living
cells, but it is not sufficient to describe their self-organising patterns and processes. At the level of
living systems, physics has thus lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description
of reality. This is still not generally recognised today.
Part II develops within the reader an appreciation of the systems view at a biological level, which form
part of the earlier sections of the book on the origins of life on Earth. The reader is then guided into an
intuitive understanding of autopoiesis, which entails the re-conceptualisation of “cognition”. This
explanation unfolds across a number of chapters into the cognitive domain, and are both articulate and
well-structured.
To read The Systems View of Life is to journey through a study of order and complexity in the living
world, understanding the shift from a mechanistic world view where quantification is primary, to
understanding the behavioural qualities of complex and chaotic systems, arriving at the understanding
the patterns of organisation and processes of living systems. In systems thinking therefore,
“organization, structure and process are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon
of life.” The problem though, for many scientists, and also people who are involved in modeling
complex systems, is that they do not give these three perspectives equal importance “because of the
persistent influence of our Cartesian heritage.”

The Four Perspectives of Life. Credit: Fritjof Capra (2002)
There is a fourth perspective which is added to these three domains, and that is the domain of meaning.
Social networks are “first and foremost networks of communication involving symbolic language,
cultural constraints, relationships of power and so on.” In adding this domain, the systems view of life
in extended into an analysis of power, social structures, leadership, communities and the concept of the
living organisation.
Part IV of The Systems View of Life examines the ecological dimension, and this includes a look at how
sustainability is defined and taught, the manner in which global problems are interconnected, the
fallacy of unlimited economic growth, global finance, as well as offering a number of systemic
solutions to the problems of energy, climate change, industrial agriculture and biomimicry and
ecodesign. As the authors note, many of these solutions are technically and financially viable, the
impediments are political will and the lobbying power of the US fossil-fuel industry.
Here in Brazil, where Maria and I live, a country which Fritjof has visited for many years, and where
his many books are extremely popular and much-quoted, there are currently a myriad of problems
relating to corruption, transport, education, health, income inequality, as well of course as the urgent
need to preserve not only the Amazon but also the many other biodiverse regions such as the Pantanal.
The unified approach of The Systems of View of Life can contribute greatly to an analysis of the
interrelations, especially as it has at a fundamental level both cognition and consciousness, a dimension
which is vital in understanding the growing unrest and popular protests which are now emerging across
this vast country to give just one example.
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:
Cognition, then, is not a representation of an independent existing world, but rather a continual
bringing forth of a world through the process of living. p256
The notion of “bringing forth a world” can be compared with the way in which Maria and I describe
what we call holonomic thinking:


The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision is a book which it is hard to do justice to. For those
already acquainted with a systems thinking background, there is much to contemplate, and there is of
course plenty of reference material to explore in further detail for future study. For students the book
provides an indispensable and I feel unequalled introduction to contemporary systems theory, a
university textbook I did not have access to but would have loved to have had in the late 80s and early
90s.
While taking a multidisciplinary approach to complex problems is of course not new, the huge
achievement of Fritjof and Pier has been both to construct a unified systemic framework, and to make
it comprehensible to scientists, researchers, practitioners and those with a philosophical interest in the
origins and workings of living systems. While the authors do of course acknowledge that there is still
much work to be done in understanding complex living systems, as they show in their many examples
of systemic solutions, with collaboration across governments, businesses and civil society, we can
make the transition to a sustainable future, one which embraces “qualitative growth” enriching
humanity and the environment with prosperity and a higher level of conscientiousness, one that truly
understand the rich web of life.

Book Review: The Systems View of

In Part I, Fritjof and Pier trace the development of science throughout history, in order that we can
arrive at an understanding of how modern thinking, and of nature, came to be dominated by the
mechanistic paradigm. Examining the contributions of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon,
René Descartes and Isaac Newton, we see how the scientific world view was one in which “the world
was believed to be a mechanical system that could be described objectively, without ever mentioning
the human observer.”
After then exploring the limitations of the Newtonian model, through the conception of fields in
electromagnetism, and the concepts of energy and entropy in thermodynamics, the authors note that
“there existed alternative, holistic views of reality during that era, those of the Renaissance and the
Romantic movement being perhaps the most powerful ones.” The holistic vision of the Romantic
movement, and particularly that of Goethe is where Holonomics derives the „holos‟ from in our
conception of wholeness, a dynamic understanding of wholeness which can also be found in the
twentieth century movements of phenomenology and also hermeneutics. The Systems View of Life
arrives at the same point, via the conception of embodied cognition, highlighting the work of Francisco
Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch (The Embodied Mind, 1991), a work heavily inspired by
the phenomenological works of Heidegger, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.
In Part One of my review of The Systems View of Life I mentioned this conceptualisation of what Maria
and I call „holonomic thinking‟. This figure above should not be understood in a linear manner, where
you start with mechanistic thinking, and then move through systems thinking to holonomic thinking. In
solving complex problems, we do not lose mechanistic thinking, and neither do we “demote” systems
thinking. We absolutely need systemic thinking to solve our global issues, but in order to do so, we
need a higher level of consciousness in which to comprehend systems as authentic wholes. In our
diagram we have a line which represents a point of liminality. This is the conceptual change of
perspective which some systems thinkers are not able to make. Hence the criticism that some
conceptions of systems are in fact “counterfeit”, i.e. only a mechanistic mindset is being used in the
construction of systems models.
There is a really interesting example of this in The Systems View of Life, in chapter 12 which looks at
the new systemic understanding of mind and consciousness.
Gregory Bateson introduced his new concept of mental processes for the first time in 1969 in Hawaii
… Bateson‟s whole thinking was in terms of patterns and relationships. Bateson developed his criteria
of mental processes intuitively from his keen observation of the living world. When he looked at the
living world, he saw its organizing activity as being essentially mental. It was clear to him that the
phenomenon of mind was inseparably connected with the phenomenon of life.
The Systems View of Life does not lay out the new conceptualisation of cognition in a self-contained
part. This new conception emerges as you read through the book as a whole, for this is a vastly
expanded conceptualisation of cognition that takes us into the biological domain in a manner which
cognitive psychology does not. Cognitive psychology aims to understanding the ways in which we
humans (and other animals) process information by developing information processing models. The
Systems View of Life counters this paradigm by exploring the nature of conscious experience, noting
that “in addition to complexity theory, scientists will need to accept another new paradigm: the
recognition that the analysis of lived experience – that is, of subjective phenomena – has to be an
integral part of any science of consciousness.”
The Systems View of Life provides a fascinating insight into the systematic observations of nature of
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), insights which Fritjof has written about in two books: The Science of
Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance (2008) and Learning from
Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius (2014). The science of another great artist and poet,
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) does get a brief mention, with the authors noting that
Goethe:
Was among the first to use the term “morphology” for the study of biological form from a dynamic,
developmental point of view. He conceived of form as a pattern of relationships within an organised
whole – a conception which is at the forefront of systems thinking today. p9
This is where we meet the natural intersection of The Systems View of Life and Holonomics. We coined
the word „holonomics‟ to mean the combination of „the whole‟ (holos‟ and „economics‟). Our dynamic
conception of wholeness comes from the phenomenological scientific method pioneered by Goethe, in
which the whole can be seen as being expressed in the parts. Half of Holonomics (Part One: The
Dynamics of Seeing) was written to take readers into this phenomenological way of encountering
wholeness in systems.
We cover systems theory and complexity science in the two chapters of Part Two (The Dynamics of
Nature) – feedback, autopoiesis, emergence, bifurcation, evolution, self-organisation and Gaia
Theory. So for readers of The Systems View of Life who wish to then dive into a phenomenological way
of understanding complexity, one which is focussed on lived experience and the coming-into-being of
the meaning of phenomena, our book would make a good first destination. Likewise, for those readers
of Holonomics who wish to then take a deep dive into systems thinking, The Systems View of Life is by
far one of the very best places to start.

When you study the history of science (and The Systems View of Life provides an excellent overview),
you begin to realise that things are not so black and white. You have to contend with people‟s
misconceptions about scientists, and also the fact that science could have evolved in quite different
ways, had the science of Leonardo and Goethe been understood and appreciated in their lifetimes. But
through a study of the dynamic way of seeing as described in Holonomics, Maria and I hope that we
will lead readers across the point of liminality (as previously discussed), into an intuitive understanding
and appreciation of systems. Once this line is crossed, it then becomes possible to read The Systems
View of Life with new eyes, and a higher level of consciousness. It is this higher level of consciousness
where the ethics and spirituality of systems thinking are comprehended, as Fritjof and Pier write about,
and this level of cognition can only be achieved without ego, where there is a letting go of an
attachment to seeing mechanistically, seeing reality only as consisting of separation and fragmented
finished-objects.
The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision is a quite remarkable book, and represents an important
advance in the conception, articulation and teaching of systems thinking. What I hope I have shown in
this article is just how profound many of the insights are, how broad and wide-ranging the book is, and
also how it is complementary to the dynamic conception of wholeness we articulate in Holonomics.