Theory of Living Systems

Hello! Do you remember ever having seen before the following expression?
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Well, this is the basic notion of systems theory, which is currently opposing the mechanistic paradigm for the ecological (systemic) one. To better understand, let’s talk a little bit of history (based on the book “The Web of Life” by Fritjop Capra).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with new discoveries in physics, astronomy and mathematics, a medieval world view based on the philosophy of Aristotle and Christian theology, has changed completely. The vision of an organic world, living and spiritual was replaced by the notion of the world as a machine. 

So, at that time Galileo Galilei restricted science to the study of phenomena that could be measured and quantified and Rene Descartes created the method of analytical thinking, which is to break complex phenomena into pieces in order to understand the behavior of the whole from the properties of its parts. The material universe, including living organisms, for Descartes was a machine, and could in principle be fully understood by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts. Then Isaac Newton, with its Newtonian mechanics, completed the concepts of Descartes and Galileo, i.e., the world as a perfect machine governed by exact mathematical laws.

All this was very important for that epoch and allowed many advances in science, but cannot explain everything; after all “we are not machines.” As William Blake wrote in a funny way: “May God protect us from the single vision and sleep of Newton.” And as Goethe wrote in a philosophical way: “Every creature is just a standardized grading of a great harmonious whole.”

But speaking more scientifically, according to the systemic view, the essential properties of an organism or living system are the property of the whole, which neither party has. They arise from the interactions and relations between the parties. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. A very interesting example is the taste of sugar, which is not present in the atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are its components.

See the following video with an interview with Capra about this subject:

Below is a video (part of the film “Mindwalk”) that exemplifies these concepts didactically:

In the next post we’ll see how this system theory can be used to build a sustainable society. See you soon!

About Ana Marques

Woman, scientist, consultant. But above all, a common human being, willing to help, share, transform!
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3 Responses to Theory of Living Systems

  1. Hi Ana,

    Your sugar-example is a good one. I have another one for you, that is more visual. First you show people a pie-chart, divided into six or seven rainbow colours. Say they represent target areas, or company divisions, or whatever. They are parts. Then subtly ask people what colour they would get, if they would bring all the colours together. In my experience, 90% of the people will say something like black, grey or brown. This reveals their habitus, their ecology of thought, which is fragmented. What I then do, is have people make a simple spin, for which I supply the materials. Basically, you’ll need some office supplies, and ideally some lego-parts, namely axis and wheels. You have them make a spin out of a sturdy paper circle (diameter 8cm), which is coloured like a classic pie-chart, with the colours of the rainbow. This is a fun assignment. See what happens, when they put the spin in motion, and they see that all the colours together, turn completely white! They are restoring the property of the whole! If you try it, let me know how it goes!

  2. Johan Burger says:

    Hi Ana

    As someone very interested in systems thinking, thanks for the info. I am fond of the Biomatrix approach to systems thinking, which basically upholds the same principles as those that you espouse.

    I also like your sugar example. I refer to it as emergence, when new properties arise that are absent in the composite parts, or the subsystems.

    Still need to read Part 2.

    All the best for 2011.

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