An Outline of General System Theory (1950

ívarig rov ßertatavff,
1 Parallel Evolution in Science
As we sur·ey the e·olution oí modern science, we íind the remarkable phenomenon that similar general
conceptions and ·iewpoints ha·e e·ol·ed independently in the ·arious branches oí science, and to begin with
these may be indicated as íollows: in the past centuries, science tried to explain phenomena by reducing them to
an interplay oí elementary units which could be in·estigated independently oí each other. In contemporary
modern science, we íind in all íields conceptions oí what is rather ·aguely termed wholeness.`
It was the aim oí classical physics e·entually to resol·e all natural phenomena into a play oí elementary
units, the characteristics oí which remain unaltered whether they are in·estigated in isolation or in a complex.
1he expression oí this conception is the ideal oí the Laplacean spirit, which resol·es the world into an aimless
play oí atoms, go·erned by the laws oí nature. 1his conception was not changed but rather strengthened when
deterministic laws were replaced by statistical laws in Boltzmann`s deri·ation oí the second principle oí
thermodynamics. Physical laws appeared to be essentially laws oí disorder,` a statistical result oí unordered and
íortuitous e·ents. In contrast, the basic problems in modern physics are problems oí organisation.
Problems oí this kind present themsel·es in atomic physics, in structural chemistry, in crystallography, and
so íorth. In microphysics, it becomes impossible to resol·e phenomena into local e·ents, as is shown by the
leisenberg relation and in quantum mechanics.
Corresponding to the procedure in physics, the attempt has been made in biology to resol·e the
phenomena oí liíe into parts and processes which could be in·estigated in isolation. 1his procedure is
essentially the same in the ·arious branches oí biology. 1he organism is considered to be an aggregate oí
cells as elementary liíe-units, its acti·ities are resol·ed into íunctions oí isolated organs and íinally
physico-chemical processes, its beha·iour into reílexes, the material substratum oí heredity into genes,
acting independently oí each other, phylogenetic e·olution into single íortuitous mutations, and so on. As
opposed to the analytical, summati·e and machine |135|theoretical ·iewpoints, organismic conceptions
e·ol·ed in all branches oí modern biology which assert the necessity oí in·estigating not only parts but also
relations oí organisation resulting írom a dynamic interaction and maniíesting themsel·es by the diííerence in
beha·iour oí parts in isolation and in the whole organism.
1he de·elopment in medicine íollows a similar pattern.
Virchow`s programme oí cellular pathology,`
claiming to resol·e disease into íunctional disturbances oí cells, is to be supplemented by the consideration oí
the organism-as-a-whole, as it appears clearly in such íields as theory oí human constitutions, endocrinology,
physical medicine and psychotherapy.
Again we íind the same trend in psychology. Classical association psychology tried to resol·e mental
phenomena into elementary units, sensations and the like, psychological atoms, as it were. Ce.tatt psychology
has demonstrated the existence and primacy oí psychological entities, which are not a simple summation oí
elementary units, and are go·erned by dynamical laws.

L. ·on Bertalanííy, Da. biotogi.cbe !ettbita, Band I. Die Stellung des Lebens in Natur und \issenschaít, Bern, 1949
L. ·on Bertalanííy, ßiotogie vva Meai¸iv, \ien, 1946
Corresponding de·elopments are íound in the social sciences. In classical economic doctrine, society
was considered as a sum oí human indi·iduals as social atoms.  present there is a tendency to consider a
society, an economy, or a nation, as a whole which is superordinated to its parts. 1his conception is at the basis
oí all the ·arious íorms oí collecti·ism, the consequences oí which are oíten disastrous íor the indi·idual
and, in the history oí our times, proíoundly iníluence our li·es.
Ci·ilisations appear, ií not as
superorganisms, as was maintained by Spengler, at least as superindi·idual units or systems, as expressed in
1oynbee`s conception oí history.
In philosophy, the same general trend is maniíest in systems so radically diííerent as Nicolai lartmann`s
theory oí categories, the doctrine oí emergent e·olution, \hitehead`s organic mechanism,` and dialectic
materialism, all these are systems which are diametrically opposed in their scientiíic, metaphysical and social
backgrounds, but agree in maintaining that principles oí dynamic wholeness are basic in the modern
conception oí the world.
1hus, similar íundamental conceptions appear in all branches oí science, irrespecti·e oí whether
inanimate things, li·ing organisms, |136|or social phenomena are the objects oí study. 1his
correspondence is the more striking because these de·elopments are mutually independent, largely unaware
oí each other, and based upon totally diííerent íacts and contradicting philosophies. 1hey open new
perspecti·es in science and liíe, but also in·ol·e serious danger.
1hus it appears that there is a general change in the scientiíic attitude and conceptions, and the question
arises: what is the origin oí these correspondences·
2 Isomorphic Laws in Science
Not only are general aspects and ·iewpoints alike in diííerent íields oí science, we íind also íormally
identical or isomorphic laws in completely diííerent íields. 1his is a well-known íact in physics where the
same diííerential equations apply, íor example, to the ílow oí liquids, oí heat, and oí electric currents in a
wire. But it appears that the signiíicance oí this íact, and the possibilities it opens in íields outside physics,
ha·e hardly been considered.
lor example, the exponential law or law oí compound interest applies, with a negati·e exponent, to the
decay oí radium, the mono-molecular reaction, the killing oí bacteria by light or disiníectants, the loss oí body
substance in a star·ing animal, and to the decrease oí a population where the death rate is higher than the birth
rate. Similarly, with a positi·e exponent, this law applies to the indi·idual growth oí certain micro-organisms,
the unlimited Malthusian growth oí bacterial, animal, or human populations, the growth cur·e oí human
knowledge ,as measured by the number oí pages de·oted to scientiíic disco·eries in a textbook on the
history oí science,, and the number oí publications on Dro.o¡bita.
1he entities concerned-atoms, molecules,
bacteria, animals, human beings, or books-are widely diííerent, and so are the causal mechanisms in·ol·ed.
Ne·ertheless, the mathematical law is the same. Another equation, the logistic law oí Verhulst, is, in
physical chemistry, the equation oí autocatalytic reaction, and in biology, it describes certain cases oí
organic growth. It was íirst stated in demography to describe the growth oí human populations in a limited
space oí li·ing. It go·erns also the ad·ancement oí technical in·entions, such as the growth oí the railway
system in the United States during the last century, or oí the number oí wireless sets in |13¯|operation. \hat

l. A. layek, 1be Roaa to ´erfaov, Chicago, 1944
A. l. lersh, Drosophila and the Course oí Research,` Obio ]. of ´cievce, 1942, , 198-200
is known in national economy as Pareto`s law
1 5
oí the distribution oí income within a nation, represents, in
biology, the law oí allometric growth, describing the relati·e increase oí organs, chemical compounds, or
physiological acti·ities with respect to body size. Volterra
has de·eloped a population dynamics, comparable to
mechanical dynamics, working with homologous concepts such as demographic energy and potential, liíe
action, etc., and leading to a principle oí minimum ·ital action, corresponding to the principle oí minimum
action in mechanics. Actually, principles oí minimum action appear in widely diííerent íields besides
mechanics, íor example, in physical chemistry as the principle oí Le Chatelier and in electrodynamics
as Lenz` rule. Again, the principle oí relaxation oscillations go·erns the neon lamp, but also important
phenomena in ner·e physiology and certain phenomena oí biocoenoses or organic communities.
1he same is true íor phenomena where the general principles can be described in ordinary language
though they cannot be íormulated in mathematical terms. lor instance, there are hardly processes more
unlike phenomenologically and in their intrinsic mechanisms, than the íormation oí a whole animal out oí a
di·ided sea-urchin or newt germ, the re-establishment oí normal íunction in the central ner·ous system aíter
remo·al or injury to some oí its parts, and ge.tatt perception in psychology. Ne·ertheless, the principles
go·erning these diííerent phenomena show striking similarities.
Again we ask: what is the origin oí these isomorphisms·
1here are three ob·ious reasons. 1he íirst is in the tri·ial íact that while it is easy to write down any
complicated diííerential equation yet e·en innocent-looking expressions may be hard to sol·e, or gi·e, at
least, cumbersome solutions. 1he number oí simple diííerential equations which are a·ailable and which will be
preíerably applied to describe natural phenomena is limited. So it is no wonder that laws identical in structure
will appear in intrinsically diííerent íields. A similar consideration holds íor statements íormulated not in
mathematical but in ordinary language: the number oí intellectual schemes a·ailable is rather restricted, and
they will be applied in quite diííerent realms.
lowe·er, these laws and schemes would be oí little help ií the world ,i.e. the totality oí obser·able
e·ents, was not such that they |138|could be applied to it. \e can imagine a chaotic world or a world which is
too complicated to allow the application oí the relati·ely simple schemes which we are able to construct
with our limited intellect. lortunately, the actual world is not oí this sort, and does allow the application
oí our intellectual constructions.
But there is yet a third reason íor the isomorphism oí natural laws and this is most important íor
our present purpose. Laws oí the kind considered are characterised by the íact that they hold generally
íor certain classes oí complexes or systems, irrespecti·e oí the special kind oí entities in·ol·ed. lor
instance, the exponential law states that, gi·en a complex oí a number oí entities, a constant
percentage oí these elements decay or multiply per unit time. 1hereíore this law will apply to the
pounds in a banking account as well as to radium atoms, molecules, bacteria, or indi·iduals in a population.
1he logistic law says that the increase, originally exponential, is limited by some restricting conditions. 1hus in
autocatalytic reactions, a compound íormed catalyses its own íormation, but since the number oí molecules
is íinite in a closed reaction ·essel, the reaction must stop when all molecules are transíormed, and must
thereíore approach a limiting ·alue. A population increases exponentially with the increasing number oí
indi·iduals, but ií space and íood are limited, the amount oí íood a·ailable per indi·idual decreases, thereíore
the increase in number cannot be unlimited, but must approach a steady state deíined as the maximum

\. Pareto, Covr. ae t`ícovovie Potitiqve, 189¯
V. Volterra, íecov. .vr ta 1beorie Matbevatiqve ae ta ívtte ¡ovr ta 1ie, Paris, 1921
population compatible with resources a·ailable. Railway lines which already exist in a country lead to the
intensiíication oí traííic and industry which, in turn, make necessary a denser railway network, till a state
oí saturation is e·entually reached, thus, railways beha·e like autocatalysers accelerating their own increase,
and their growth íollows the autocatalytic cur·e. 1he parabolic law is an expression íor competition within
a system, each element taking its share according to its capacity as expressed by a speciíic constant. 1hereíore
the law is oí the same íorm whether it applies to the competition oí indi·iduals in an economic system,
íollowing Pareto`s law, or to organs competing within an organism íor nutriti·e material and showing
allometric growth.
1here exist thereíore geverat .,.tev tar. which apply to any system oí a certain type, irrespecti·e oí the
particular properties oí the system or the elements in·ol·ed. \e may say also that there is a structural
correspondence or logical homology oí systems in which the entities |139|concerned are oí a wholly diííerent
nature. 1his is the reason why we íind isomorphic laws in diííerent íields.
1he need íor a general superstructure oí science, de·eloping principles and models that are common to
diííerent íields, has oíten been emphasised in recent years, íor instance, by the Cybernetics group oí N.
\iener, by the General Semantics oí Count Korzybski
in the claim íor Scientiíic Generalists` as recently
ad·anced by Bode and others
and in many other publications. But a clear statement oí the problem and a
systematic elaboration has apparently ne·er been made.
3. General System Theory
Such considerations lead us to postulate a ver ba.ic .cievtific¡tive which we call Ceverat ´,.tev
It is a logico-mathematical íield, the subject matter oí which is the íormulation and deduction oí
those principles which are ·alid íor systems` in general. 1here are principles which apply to systems in
general, whate·er the nature oí their component elements or the relations or íorces` between them. 1he
íact that all sciences mentioned abo·e are concerned with systems, leads to a íormal correspondence or logical
homology in their general principles, and e·en in their special laws ií the conditions oí the systems
correspond in the phenomena under consideration.
General System 1heory is a logico-mathematical discipline, which is in itselí purely íormal, but is
applicable to all sciences concerned with systems. Its position is similar to that, íor example, oí probability
theory, which is in itselí a íormal mathematical doctrine but which can be applied to ·ery diííerent
íields, such as thermodynamics, biological and medical experimentation, genetics, liíe insurance statistics, etc.
1he signiíicance oí the General System 1heory may be characterised in diííerent ways.
So íar, exact science, meaning a mathematical hypothetico-deducti·e system, has been almost identical
with theoretical physics, and the only systematic scientiíic laws that ha·e been acknowledged |140|uni·ersally
and without restriction ha·e been the laws oí physics and chemistry. 1o be sure, there are rudiments oí
systems oí laws, i.e. hypothetico-deducti·e systems, also in other realms such as national economy,
demography, and certain íields oí biology. lor example, reíerences are oíten made to biological or

A. Korzybski, ´cievce ava ´avit,, 2nd ed. New \ork, 1941
l. Bode, et at., 1he Lducation oí a Scientiíic Generalist,` ´cievce, 1949, 553
L. ·on Bertalanííy, Zu einer allgemeinen Systemlehre,` ßtatter f. at.cbe Pbito.., 1945, No. 3,4. ,Not known ií published., Zu einer
allgemeinen Systemlehre,` ßiotogia Ceverati., 1949, 114-129.
economical equilibria.`
But it remains somewhat obscure what the concept oí equilibrium` means, ií
applied outside the íields oí physical magnitudes, and so conceptions oí this and similar kinds ha·e remained
little more than loose, ií ingenious, metaphors. lew attempts to state exact laws in non-physical íields ha·e
gained uni·ersal recognition, they lack the consistency oí the system oí physics, and their methodological
background remains obscure.
In consequence oí the predominant de·elopment oí the physical sciences, it was thought that, in order to
state exact laws íor any íield, and to render it an exact science, it had to be reduced to physics and chemistry.
1his is, oí course, the methodological principle oí the so-called mechanistic ·iew.
Quite apart írom the question whether the mechanistic principle is justiíied in the last resort and íor
some remote íuture, it appears, howe·er, that it does not in íact work in wide íields oí science. lor example,
we can isolate processes occurring in the li·ing organism and describe them in the terms and laws oí
physico-chemistry. 1his is done, with enormous success, in modern biophysics and biochemistry. But when it
comes to the properly ·ital` íeatures, it is íound that they are essentially problems oí organisation,
orderliness, and regulation, resulting írom the interaction oí an enormous number oí highly complicated
physico-chemical e·ents. 1o grasp in detail the physico-chemical organisation oí e·en the simplest cell is íar
beyond our capacity. So we come to the conclusion that it is not possible to state exact laws íor the basic
biological phenomena, such as selí-regulation in metabolism, growth, morphogenesis, beha·iour, etc., because
they are much too complicated to allow a thorough understanding and an analysis oí all the processes
in·ol·ed. 1his is, in íact, the common opinion in present biology. 1he same applies, oí course, e·en more
to sociological phenomena, because oí their e·en higher complexity and the impossibility oí resol·ing them
into physico-chemical e·ents.
|141| 1hus it seems necessary to expand our conceptual schemes ií we wish to deal with these complex
realms, and to make it possible íor them to be included in the exact sciences, to establish systems oí exact
laws also in those íields where an application oí the laws oí physics or chemistry is not suííicient or e·en
possible. L·en physical concepts need to, and in íact do undergo expansion and íar-reaching modiíications when
applied to new realms, as we shall see when considering the recent extension oí kinetics and
thermodynamics to open systems.
As opposed to the mechanistic conception, we are led to a diííerent ·iew. 1he task oí science is to state
laws íor the diííerent strata oí reality. L·en in physics, quantum statistics, molecular statistics, and
macrophysical laws represent diííerent strata. Similarly, we may apply statistical ·alues and laws on any le·el,
ií this gi·es results consistent with experience and within a theoretical system. Ií you cannot run aíter each
molecule and describe the state oí a gas in a Laplacean íormula, take, with Boltzmann, a statistical law
describing the a·erage result oí the beha·iour oí a great many indi·idual molecules. Ií you cannot íollow the
enormous number oí processes in intermediary metabolism, use a·erage ·alues such as total metabolism
quotients oí anabolism and catabolism, representing the outcome oí all these processes, and you may be
able to state exact laws íor phenomena such as metabolism, growth, and morphogenesis oí the organism as a
whole, without the hopeless undertaking to press all indi·idual physico-chemical processes into a gigantic
íormula. \ou cannot resol·e the indi·iduals within a biocoenosis or a social unit into cells and íinally into
physico-chemical processes. Very well, take the indi·iduals as units, and e·entually you will get a system oí

l. Dotterweich, Da. biotogi.cbe Cteicbgericbt vva .eive ßeaevtvvg fvr aie íav¡t·¡robteve aer ßiotogie, Jena, 1940
J. Dumontier, íqvitibre Pb,.iqve, íqvitibre ßiotogiqve, íqvitibre ícovoviqve, Paris, 1949.
laws which is not physics but is oí the same íorm as exact physical science, that is a mathematical
hypothetico-deducti·e system.
lowe·er, to apply the procedure consistently, it seems necessary to establish the principles which apply
to those entities which are called systems,` and oí which physical systems are only a subclass. 1hus, we are
led again to the conception oí a General System 1heory, as a doctrine which is generalised with respect to
physics. Kinetics` and dynamics` ha·e been, as yet, branches oí physics concerned with entities such as
molecules, energy, and the like. \e ask íor a generalised kinetics and dynamics, where the entities concerned
can be interpreted as any entities that present themsel·es in diííerent íields.
|142| General System 1heory is not a mere catalogue oí well-known diííerential equations and their
solutions. On the contrary, the general system conception raises new and well-deíined problems which
do not appear in physics, because they are not met with in its usual problems, but which are oí basic
importance in non-physical íields. Just because the phenomena concerned are not dealt with in ordinary
physics, these problems ha·e oíten appeared as metaphysical or ·italistic. It will be an important task to
generalise physical principles such as those oí minimum action, oí Le Chatelier, or the conditions oí the
existence oí stationary and periodic solutions and oí steady states, etc., in such a way that they apply to systems in
general. Problems and concepts such as progressi·e mechanisation, centralisation, indi·iduality, leading part,
competition, etc., are uníamiliar to the physicist, but they are basic in the biological and sociological realms,
and require exact treatment.
Moreo·er, General System 1heory should be an important regulati·e de·ice in science. 1he existence
oí laws oí similar structure in diííerent íields enables the use oí systems which are simpler or better known as
models íor more complicated and less manageable ones. 1hereíore General System 1heory should be,
methodologically, an important means oí controlling and instigating the transíer oí principles írom
one íield to another, and it will no longer be necessary to duplicate or triplicate the disco·ery oí the same principles
in diííerent íields isolated írom each other. At the same time, by íormulating exact criteria, General System
1heory will guard against superíicial analogies which are useless in science and harmíul in their practical
1he central position oí the concept oí wholeness in biology, psychology, sociology and other sciences is
generally acknowledged. \hat is meant by this concept is indicated by expressions such as system,` ge.tatt,`
organism,` interaction,` the whole is more than the sum oí its parts` and the like. lowe·er, these
concepts ha·e oíten been misused, and they are oí a ·ague and somewhat mystical character. 1he exact
scientist thereíore is inclined to look at these conceptions with justiíied mistrust. 1hus it seems necessary to
íormulate these conceptions in an exact language. General System 1heory is a new scientiíic doctrine oí
wholeness`-a notion which has been hitherto considered ·ague, muddled and metaphysical.
Considered írom the ·iewpoint oí philosophy, General System 1heory is to replace that íield which is
known as theory oí |143|categories`

by an exact system oí logico-mathematical laws. 1hose general notions,
which as yet ha·e been íormulated only in common language, will acquire, by the General System 1heory, that
unambiguous and exact expression which is possible only in mathematical language.

|Sections 4 - ¯ omitted. lor íull text, see here.|

N. lartmann, Neue \ege der Ontologie,` in ´,.tevati.cbe Pbito.o¡bie, ed. N. lartmann, Stuttgart and Berlin, 1942.
8 Closed and Open Systems
\e now come to a consideration which leads to important problems and disco·eries in physics, biology
and other íields.
It is the basic characteristic oí e·ery organic system that it maintains itselí in a state oí perpetual change
oí its components. 1his we íind at all le·els oí biological organisation. In the cell there is a perpetual
destruction oí its building materials through which it endures as a whole. Recent research, the
in·estigations with isotope-tracers, ha·e shown that this exchange oí building materials goes on at a
rate much higher than was íormerly supposed. In the multicellular organism, cells are dying and are replaced by
new ones, but it maintains itselí as a whole. In the biocoenosis and the species, indi·iduals die and others are
born. 1hus e·ery organic system appears stationary ií considered írom a certain point oí ·iew. But what
seems to be a persistent entity on a certain le·el, is maintained, in íact, by a perpetual change, building up and
breaking down oí systems oí the next lower order: oí chemical compounds in the cell, oí cells in the multicellular
organism, oí indi·iduals in ecological systems.
1he characteristic state oí the li·ing organism is that oí an open system. \e call a system closed ií no
materials enter or lea·e it. It is open ií there is inílow and outílow, and thereíore change oí the component
So íar, physics and physical chemistry ha·e been almost exclusi·ely concerned with closed systems.
lowe·er, the consideration oí organisms and other li·ing systems makes necessary an extension and
generalisation oí theory. 1he kinetics and thermodynamics oí open systems ha·e been de·eloped in recent
years. 1he present writer has ad·anced since 1932 the conception oí the organism as an open system
and has stated general kinetic principles and their biological |156|implications.
Similar in·estigations ha·e
been made by Burton,
Dehlinger and \ertz,
Reiner and Spiegelman,

and others.
1he thermodynamic oí open systems has been de·eloped by Prigogine,
and Prigogine and \iame.
a sur·ey oí the theory oí open systems has been gi·en recently
we mention here only a íew points oí
general and philosophical signiíicance.
1he consideration oí open systems is more general in comparison with that oí closed systems, íor it is
always possible to come írom open to closed systems by equating the transport terms to zero, but not uícc
uc¡su. In physics, the theory oí open systems leads to basically new, and partly re·olutionary, consequences
and principles. In biology it accounts, íirst, íor many characteristics oí li·ing systems which ha·e appeared to
be in contradiction with the laws oí physics, and ha·e been considered hitherto as ·italistic íeatures.

L. ·on Bertalanííy, 1beoreti.cbe ßiotogie, Band II
L. ·on Bertalanííy, Der Organismus als physikalisches System betrachtet,` ^atvrri..ev.cbaftev, 1940, 28, 521-531
A. C. Burton. 1he Properties oí the Steady State as Compared to those oí Lquilibrium as Shown in Characteristic Biological
Beha·ior,` ]. cett. cov¡. Pb,.iot., 1939, J4, 32¯
U. Dehlinger and L. \ertz, Biologische Grundíragen in physikalischer Betrachtung,` ^atvrri..ev.cbaftev, 1942, 30, 250
A. Skrabal, Das Reaktionsschema der \aldenschen Umkehrung. III,` Oe.terr. Cbevi/er Ztg., 194¯, 48, 158-163

J. M. Reiner and S. Spiegelman, 1he Lnergetics oí 1ransient and Steady States,` ]. ¡b,.. Cbev., 1945, 49, 81

K. G. Denbigh, et at. 1he Kinetics oí Open Reaction Systems,` 1rav.. íaraaa, ´oc., 1948, 44, 4¯9-494
I. Prigogine, ítvae 1bervoa,vaviqve ae. ¡bevoveve. irrerer.ibte., Paris, 194¯
I. Prigogine and J. M. \iame, Biologie et 1hermodynamique des phénomenes irré·ersibles,` í·¡erievtia ,Basel,, 1946, 2, 450-451
L. ·on Bertalanííy, 1he 1heory oí Open Systems in Physics and Biology,` ´cievce, 1950, 3, 23-29
Secondly, the consideration oí organisms as open systems yields quantitati·e laws oí basic biological
phenomena, such as metabolism and growth, íorm de·elopment, excitation, etc.
In the case in which the ·ariations in time disappear, systems become stationary. Closed systems thus
attain a time-independent state oí equilibrium where the composition remains constant. In íact, closed
systems e·entually reach a state oí equilibrium, according to the second law oí thermodynamics. Open
systems pro·ided certain conditions are gi·en, attain a stationary state. 1hen |15¯|the system appears
also to be constant, though this constancy is maintained in a continuous change, inílow and outílow oí
materials. 1his is called a .teaa, state. Since there is no equi·alent íor this expression in German, the term
ítie..gteicbgericbt was introduced by the author. Steady states can be realised in certain physico-chemical
arrangements and are, in íact, widely used in technological chemistry. Li·ing systems are the most important
examples oí open systems and steady states.
9 Equifinality
A proíound diííerence between most inanimate and li·ing systems can be expressed by the concept oí
eqvifivatit,. In most physical systems the íinal state is determined by the initial conditions. 1ake, íor instance,
the motion in a planetary system where the positions at a time t are determined by those oí a time to, or a
chemical equilibrium where the íinal concentrations depend on the initial ones. Ií either the initial conditions
or the process is modiíied, the íinal state is changed.
Vital phenomena show a diííerent beha·iour. lere, to a wide extent, the íinal state may be reached
írom diííerent initial conditions and in diííerent ways. Such beha·iour we call equiíinal. 1hus, íor instance, the
same íinal result, namely a typical lar·a, is achie·ed by a complete normal germ oí the sea urchin, by a halí
germ aíter experimental separation oí the cells, by two germs aíter íusion, or aíter translocations oí the cells. It
is well-known that it was just this experiment which was considered, by Driesch, the main prooí oí ·italism.
According to Driesch, such beha·iour is inexplicable in physico-chemical terms. lor a physico-chemical
system cannot achie·e the same períormance, in this case the production oí a whole organism, ií di·ided or
injured. 1his extraordinary períormance can be accomplished only by the action oí a ·italistic íactor,
entelechy, essentially diííerent írom physico-chemical íorces and go·erning the processes in íoresight oí the
goal to be reached. It is thereíore a question oí basic importance whether equiíinality is a prooí oí ·italism.
1he answer is that it is not.
Analysis shows that closed systems cannot beha·e equiíinally. 1his is the reason why equiíinality is
íound in inanimate nature only in exceptional cases. lowe·er, in open systems, which are exchanging materials
with the en·ironment, in so íar as they attain a steady state, the latter is independent oí the initial conditions,
or is equiíinal. 1hus, in an open kinetic system, irrespecti·e oí the content in the beginning |158|or any other
time, the steady state ·alues will always be the same because they are determined only by the constants oí
reaction and oí inílow and outílow. Steady state systems show equiíinality, in sharp contrast to closed systems
in equilibrium where the íinal state depends on the components gi·en at the beginning oí the process.
Lquiíinality can be íormulated quantitati·ely in certain biological cases. 1hus growth is equiíinal: the
same íinal size which is characteristic íor the species can be reached írom diííerent initial sizes ,e.g. in litters
oí diííerent numbers oí indi·iduals, or aíter a temporary suppression oí growth ,e.g. by a diet insuííicient in
quantity or in ·itamins,. According to the quantitati·e theory ad·anced by the author
growth can be

L. ·on Bertalanííy, Das organische \achstum und seine Gesetzmässigkeiten,` í·¡erievtia ,Basel,, 1948, , 255-269
L. ·on Bertalanííy, Problems oí Organic Growth,` ^atvre, London, 1949, 156-158
considered the result oí a counteraction oí the anabolism and catabolism oí building materials. Since
in the most common type oí growth, anabolism is a íunction oí suríace, catabolism oí body mass, the
suríace-·olume ratio is shiíted in disía·our oí suríace with increasing size. 1hereíore a balance between
anabolism and catabolism will e·entually be reached which is independent oí the initial size and depends
only on the species-speciíic ratio oí the metabolic constants. It is thereíore equiíinal.
Lquiíinality is at the basis oí organic regulations. \e íind it e·erywhere where biological e·ents are
determined by the dynamic interactions oí parts, it becomes progressi·ely restricted and íinally impossible
when the originally unitary system segregates into separate causal chains determined by íixed structures, that is
to say, with progressi·e segregation. 1here are two general restrictions oí regulation. 1he íirst is the
incompleteness oí the open-system-character oí the organism. lor instance, the growth regulations
mentioned will not be possible ií insuííicient diet has caused lasting irre·ersible disturbances, íor example, in the
ossiíication oí bones. 1he second limitation oí regulation lies in the hierarchical order, namely, in the
progressi·e segregation oí the organism into subordinate systems which gain a certain independence oí each
other. 1he extreme case is a tumour which beha·es as ií it were an independent organism, and thus destroys
the whole oí which it is a part.
1hus the in·estigation oí open systems leads to a conclusion which is ·ery remarkable íor the
philosophy oí science. 1he equiíinal íorm |159|oí directi·eness which is so characteristic íor biological
phenomena that it has been considered the ·italistic essence oí liíe is, in íact, a necessary consequence oí the
steady state in organisms.
10 Types of Finality
Since it is not possible to enter here into a detailed discussion oí the problem oí íinality, we are merely
enumerating the diííerent types íound in experience. 1hus we can distinguish:
I. Static teleology or íitness, meaning that an arrangement seems to be useíul íor a certain purpose.`
1hus a íur coat is íit to keep the body warm, and so are hairs, íeathers, or layers oí íat in animals. 1horns
may protect plants against grazing cattle, or imitati·e colourations and mimicries may be ad·antageous to
protect animals against enemies.
II. Dynamic teleology, meaning a directi·eness oí processes. lere diííerent phenomena can be
distinguished which are oíten coníused:
,i, Direction oí e·ents towards a íinal state which can be expressed as ií the present beha·iour were
dependent on that íinal state. L·ery system which attains a time-independent condition beha·es in this way
,ii, Directi·eness based upon structure, meaning that an arrangement oí structures leads the process in
such a way that a certain result is achie·ed. 1his is true, oí course, oí the íunction oí man-made
machines yielding products or períormances as desired. In li·ing nature we íind a structural order oí
processes that in its complication widely surpasses all man-made machines. Such order is íound írom
the íunction oí macroscopic organs, such as the eye as a sort oí camera, or the heart as a pump, to the
microscopic cell structures responsible íor metabolism, secretion, excitability, heredity and so íorth. \hilst
man-made machines work in such a way as to yield certain products and períormances, íor example,
íabrication oí airplanes or mo·ing a railway train, the order oí process in li·ing systems is such as to
maintain the system itselí. An important part oí these processes is represented by homeostasis ,Canon,,
i.e. those processes through which the material and energetical situation oí the organism is maintained
constant. Lxamples are the mechanisms oí thermoregulation, oí maintenance oí osmotic pressure, oí pl, oí
salt concentration, the regulation oí posture and so íorth. 1hese regulations are go·erned, in a wide
extent, by íeed-back mechanisms. leed-back means that |160|írom the output oí a machine a certain
amount is monitored back, as iníormation,` to the input so as to regulate the latter and thus to
stabilise or direct the action oí the machine. Mechanisms oí this kind are well known in technology, as,
íor instance, the go·ernor oí the steam-engine, selí-steering missiles and other ser·omechanisms.` leed-back
mechanisms appear to be responsible íor a large part oí the organic regulations and phenomena oí homeostasis,
as recently emphasised by Cybernetics.

,iii, 1here is, howe·er, yet another basis íor organic regulations. 1his is equiíinality, i.e. the íact that the
same íinal state can be reached írom diííerent initial conditions and in diííerent ways. 1his is íound to be
the case in open systems, in so íar as they attain a steady state. It appears that equiíinality is responsible íor
the primary regulability oí organic systems, i.e. íor all those regulations which cannot be based upon
predetermined structures or mechanisms but, on the contrary, exclude such mechanisms and were regarded
thereíore as arguments íor ·italism.
,i·, linally, there is true íinality or purposi·eness, meaning that the actual beha·iour is determined by
the íoresight oí the goal. 1his is the original Aristotelian concept. It presupposes that the íuture goal is
already present in thought, and directs the present action. 1rue purposi·eness is characteristic oí human
beha·iour, and it is connected with the e·olution oí the symbolism oí language and concepts.

1he coníusion oí these diííerent types oí íinality is one oí the íactors responsible íor the coníusion
occurring in epistemology and theoretical biology. In the íield oí man-made things, íitness ,I, and
teleological working oí machines ,II, ii, are, oí course, due to a planning intelligence ,II, i·,. litness in
organic structures ,I, can probably be explained by the causal play oí random mutations and natural
selection. 1his explanation is, howe·er, much less plausible íor the origin oí the ·ery complicated organic
mechanisms and íeedback systems ,II, ii,. Vitalism is essentially the attempt to explain organic directi·eness
,II, ii and iii, by means oí intelligence in íoresight oí the goal ,II, i·,. 1his leads, methodologically, beyond
the limits oí natural science, and is empirically unjustiíied, since we ha·e, e·en |161|in the most astonishing
phenomena oí regulation or instinct, no justiíication íor, but most deíinite reasons against, the assumption
that, íor example, an embryo or an insect is endowed with superhuman intelligence. A most important part oí
those phenomena which ha·e been ad·anced as prooís oí ·italism,` such as equiíinality and anamorphosis ,see
below,, are consequences oí the characteristic state oí the organism as an open system, and thus accessible to
scientiíic interpretation and theory.
11 Catamorphosis and Anamorphosis
According to deíinition, the second law oí thermodynamics applies only to closed systems, it does
not deíine the steady state.`
1he expansion oí thermodynamics to include open systems was elaborated
by Prigogine

and has led to most important results oí which we shall discuss only a íew oí íar-reaching
1he direction oí happenings in closed systems is towards states oí maximum entropy since, according to
the second law, entropy must increase in all irre·ersible processes. But this is not true in open systems. In

L. K. lrank, et at. 1eleological Mechanisms,` .vv. ^.Y. .caa. ´ci., 1948, 50 N. \iener, C,bervetic., New \ork and Paris, 1948
L. ·on Bertalanííy, Das \eltbild der Biologie,` in !ettbita ava Mev.cbevbita, III. Internat. lochschulwochen. des Oesterr. College,
Salzburg, 1948, pp. 251-2¯4
L. ·on Bertalanííy, 1beoreti.cbe ßiotogie, Band II
I. Prigogine, ítvae 1bervoa,vaviqve ae. ¡bevoveve. irrerer.ibte.
an open system, and especially in a li·ing organism, there is not only a production oí entropy due to
irre·ersible processes, but the organism íeeds,` to use an expression oí Schrodinger`s, írom negati·e
entropy.` It imports complex organic molecules, uses their energy, and renders back the simpler end-products
to the en·ironment. 1hereíore the total change oí entropy can be negati·e as well as positi·e. 1hough the
second law is not ·iolated, more strictly speaking, though it holds íor the system plus its en·ironment,
it does not hold íor the open system itself. Lntropy may decrease in such systems, and their steady
states are not deíined by maximum entropy but, as demonstrated by Prigogine, by minimum entropy
As is well known, the signiíicance oí the second law can be expressed also in another way. It states that
the general tendency oí e·ents is towards a state oí maximum disorder. According to the second law,
higher íorms oí energy such as mechanical energy, light, electricity and so íorth, are continually and irre·ersibly
degraded to undirected heat mo·ement. leat gradients, in turn, are gradually le·elled down, and so the
Uni·erse approaches entropy death as its irre·ocable íate when all energy is con·erted into heat oí low
|162|temperature, and the world process comes to a stop. 1here may be exceptions to the second law in
microphysical dimensions since in the interior oí stars, under ·ery high temperatures, higher atoms are built
up írom simpler ones, especially helium írom hydrogen. 1hese processes are the source oí sun radiation and
are the basis oí the hydrogen bomb. But on the macrophysical le·el, the second law seems essentially to
command a transition toward maximum disorder and degradation.
But here a striking contrast between inanimate and animate nature seems to exist. According to the
second law, physical e·ents are directed towards a le·elling down oí diííerences and states oí maximum
disorder. In organic de·elopment and e·olution, a transition towards states oí higher order and
diííerentiation seems to occur. It has oíten been assumed thereíore that a tendency toward increasing
complication is a primary characteristic oí the li·ing, in contrast to inanimate nature. 1his was called
anamorphosis by \oltereck.

1hese problems gain new aspects ií we pass írom closed systems, which alone are taken into account
by classical thermodynamics, to open systems. Lntropy may decrease in the e·olution oí such systems,
in other words, such systems may spontaneously de·elop towards greater heterogeneity and complexity.
Probably it is just this thermodynamical characteristic oí organisms as open systems which is at the basis oí
the apparent contrast oí catamorphosis in inorganic, and anamorphosis in li·ing nature. 1his is ob·iously
so in the transition towards higher complexity in organic de·elopment which is possible only at the expense
oí energies yielded by oxidation and other energy-yielding processes. 1he transition toward higher complexity
is connected with the splitting up oí a primary unitary system into partial systems. 1his seems to be the
reason why we íind what we ha·e called progressi·e segregation only in the organic realm. \ith respect to
e·olution, these considerations show that the supposed ·iolation oí physical laws does not exist, or more
strictly speaking, that it disappears by the extension oí physical theory.
It is outside our present task to discuss the application oí the theory oí open systems to special
problems in physics and biology.
But it may be emphasised that just the peculiar and supposedly
·italistic |163|characteristics oí ·ital phenomena take on a new appearance in the theory oí open systems.
Lquiíinality, which was brought íorward by Driesch as the íirst prooí` oí ·italism, is a consequence oí

R. \oltereck, Ovtotogie ae. íebevaigev, Stuttgart, 1939
L. ·on Bertalanííy, 1he 1heory oí Open Systems in Physics and Biology.` 1beoreti.cbe ßiotogie, Band II
I. Prigogine, ítvae 1bervoa,vaviqve ae. ¡bevoveve. irrerer.ibte.
steady state conditions. Similarly, selí-regulation in metabolism was considered as explicable only by a
go·erning entelechy, but its general characteristics íollow írom the laws oí steady states. Anamorphosis
conílicts with classical thermodynamics, but is in accordance with thermodynamics oí open systems. Selí-
multiplication oí biological elementary units, such as genes and chromosomes, was oííered by Driesch as a
second prooí` oí ·italism. Ií a hypothesis, ad·anced by the author
should pro·e to be correct, it would
also be a consequence oí the íact that these units are metabolising systems. I think thereíore that we do not
go íar astray ií we suppose that the principles oí open systems are near the ·ery root oí the central biological
12 The Unity of Science
\e may summarise the main results oí this presentation as íollows:
,i, 1he analysis oí general system principles shows that many concepts which ha·e oíten been
considered as anthropomorphic, metaphysical, or ·italistic, are accessible to exact íormulation. 1hey are
consequences oí the deíinition oí systems or oí certain system conditions.
,ii, Such in·estigation is a useíul prerequisite with respect to concrete problems in science. In particular,
it leads to the elucidation oí problems which, in the usual schematisms and pigeonholes oí the specialised
íields, are not en·isaged. 1hus system theory should pro·e an important means in the process oí
de·eloping new branches oí knowledge into exact science, i.e. into systems oí mathematical laws.
,iii, 1his in·estigation is equally important to Philosophy oí Science, major problems oí which gain new
and oíten surprising aspects.
,ir, 1he íact that certain principles apply to systems in general, irrespecti·e oí the nature oí the systems and
oí the entities concerned, explains that corresponding conceptions and laws appear independently in diííerent
íields oí science, causing the remarkable parallelism in their |164|modern de·elopment. 1hus, concepts such as
wholeness and sum, mechanisation, centralisation, hierarchical order, stationary and steady states, equiíinality,
etc., are íound in diííerent íields oí natural sciences, as well as in psychology and sociology.
1hese considerations ha·e a deíinite bearing on the question oí the Unity oí Science. 1he current
opinion has been well represented by Carnap.
As he states, Unity oí Science is granted by the íact that all
statements in science can ultimately be expressed in physical language, i.e. in the íorm oí statements that
attach quantitati·e ·alues to deíinite positions in a space-time system oí co-ordinates. In this sense, all
seemingly non-physical covce¡t., íor instance speciíically biological notions such as species,` organism,`
íertilisation,` and so íorth, are deíined by means oí certain perceptible criteria, i.e. qualitati·e determinations
capable oí being physicalised. 1he physical language is thereíore the uni·ersal language oí science. 1he
question whether biological tar. can be reduced to physical ones, i.e. whether the natural laws suííicient to
explain all inorganic phenomena are also suííicient to explain biological phenomena, is leít open by Carnap,
though with preíerence gi·en to an answer in the aííirmati·e.
lrom our point oí ·iew Unity oí Science wins a much more concrete and, at the same time,
proíounder aspect. \e too lea·e open the question oí the ultimate reduction` oí the laws oí biology ,and
the other non-physical realms, to physics, i.e. the question whether a hypothetico-deducti·e system
embracing all sciences írom physics to biology and sociology may e·er be established. But we are certainly
able to establish scientiíic laws íor the diííerent le·els or strata oí reality. And here we íind, speaking in

L. ·on Bertalanííy. Bemerkungen zum Modell der biologischen Llementareinheiten,` ^atvrri..ev.cbaftev, 1944, 26-32
R. Camap, 1be |vit, of ´cievce, London, 1934
the íormal mode` ,Carnap,, a correspondence or isomorphy oí laws and conceptual schemes in diííerent
íields, granting the Unity oí Science. Speaking in material` language, this means that the world ,i.e. the total oí
obser·able phenomena, shows a structural uniíormity, maniíesting itselí by isomorphic traces oí order in its
diííerent le·els or realms.
Reality, in the modern conception, appears as a tremendous hierarchical order oí organised entities,
leading, in a superposition oí many le·els, írom physical and chemical to biological and sociological
systems. Unity oí Science it granted, not by a utopian reduction oí all sciences to physics and chemistry,
but by the structural uniíormities oí the diííerent le·els oí reality.
Lspecially the gap between natural and social sciences or, to use |165|the more expressi·e German terms,
oí ^atvr· vva Cei.te.ri..ev.cbafiev is widely diminished, not in the sense oí a reduction oí the latter to biological
conceptions but in the sense oí structural similarities. 1his is the cause oí the appearance oí corresponding
general ·iewpoints and notions in both íields, and may e·entually lead to the establishment oí a system oí
laws in the latter.
1he mechanistic world-·iew íound its ideal in the Laplacean spirit, i.e. in the conception that all
phenomena are ultimately aggregates oí íortuitous actions oí elementary physical units. 1heoretically, this
conception did not lead to exact sciences outside the íield oí physics, i.e. to laws oí the higher le·els oí
reality, the biological, psychological and sociological. Practically, its consequences ha·e been íatal íor our
ci·ilisation. 1he attitude that considers physical phenomena as the sole standard-measure oí reality, has lead
to the mechanisation oí mankind and to the de·aluation oí higher ·alues. 1he unregulated domination oí
physical technology íinally ushered the world into the catastrophical crises oí our time. Aíter ha·ing
o·erthrown the mechanistic ·iew, we are careíul not to slide into biologism,` that is, into considering
mental, sociological and cultural phenomena írom a merely biological standpoint. As physicalism considered
the li·ing organism as a strange combination oí physico-chemical e·ents or machines, biologism considers
man as a curious zoological species, human society as a bee-hi·e or a stud-íarm. Biologism has, theoretically,
not pro·ed its theoretical merits, and has pro·ed íatal in its practical consequences. 1he organismic
conception does not mean a unilateral dominance oí biological conceptions. \hen emphasising general
structural isomorphies oí diííerent le·els, it asserts, at the same time, their autonomy and possession oí
speciíic laws.
\e belie·e that the íuture elaboration oí General System 1heory will pro·e to be a major step towards
the uniíication oí science. It may be destined, in the science oí the íuture, to play a role similar to that oí
Aristotelian logic in the science oí antiquity. 1he Greek conception oí the world was static, things being
considered to be a mirroring oí eternal archetypes or ideas. 1hereíore classiíication was the central problem in
science, the íundamental organon oí which is the deíinition oí subordination and superordination oí
concepts. In modern science, dynamic interaction appears to be the central problem in all íields oí
reality. Its general principles are to be deíined by System 1heory.

Ludwig ·on Bertalanííy, An Outline oí General System 1heory,` 1be ßriti.b ]ovrvat for tbe Pbito.o¡b, of ´cievce,
Vol. 1, No. 2 ,Aug., 1950,, pp. 134-165.

Digitized by the Institute íor the Study oí Nature, 2009

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