The Systems View of Life

Fritjof Capra account during his book presentation

5 AUGUST 2014
Our Earth (Gaia)
Our Earth (Gaia)

Fritjof gives us a beautiful account of the general relevance of systems thinking in sociology, emphasizing in particular the fields of ecology, economy, and politics. Those are the domains of social sciences where in fact the systems thinking acquires its social importance for the world of today.

I am an academic chemist turned into a biologist, made my professional career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and since many years, my main research question has become “what is life?”. This question presents at least three different dimensions: first of all for the scientific one (how do you define life from a chemical point of view?); then the philosophical dimension (what is living, what is the dividing line between life and non-life); and finally a spiritual one ( who am I, why am I living?).

At the level of biological life, the notion of systems thinking comes out in all its clarity and importance. Consider a simple bacterium, the simplest form of life on Earth, and look into its metabolism, where you see part of the metabolic chart of Escherichia Coli - and try to ask the question: where is life in this case localized?

It is obvious that life cannot be localized, life is the entire collection of interacting elements, each reaction is linked to all other ones: life is a global property which cannot be reduced to any single point or component. And when we ask our students-here another example of our book to compare a living human body with one which just died. This latter has all DNA and proteins and blood and organs of the living one, then why is this man dead? The answer comes immediately: the living one is a dynamic network of integrated organs and functions, while in the dead one the integration is interrupted, the organs are only fragments which do not talk with each other. Life is then as a dynamic integrated complexity. In our book, we emphasize repeatedly and at several levels this notion of a collective network without a center of localization.

This dynamic systems view is not in contradiction with one main characteristic of living organisms, the individuality and/or biological autonomy. At this level, in the book and in our personal conferences, we present Maturana and Varela’ ideas of autopoiesis, centered on the phenomenology of the biological cell. Accordingly, the E. Coli cell can and should be seen as a system which is self-maintaining thanks to an internal network of reactions which regenerate all components - a system, in other words, which regenerates itself from within. This is valid for any biological cell, but also for an elephant, a plant, any human being. The living is a system which is busy in keeping and defending its own identity, thanks to an internal organization of interacting processes. And the main product of this life process is the production of its own organization- this is the meaning of the word autopoiesis, self-production. You see here how the systems view-the network of linked reactions-and the individuality coexists. We can give even a definition, or better, an operational description of life.

Life, in its structural implementation, is also a process of biological organization- It is based on large, organized structures, such as ribosomes, DNA-protein complexes, organelles, then tissues, organs… We hexamine in the book the factors which are at the basis of this biological organization, and we describe the two major concepts in the field, that of self-organization (the increase of complexity due to the organized self-assembly of smaller parts); and the concept of emergence, or emergent properties, those new properties which arise when smaller parts come together to build a large hierarchic structure-new because they are not present in the constituents parts. Thus, the arising of structural complexity is attended by the arising of new functionalities- see the case of the large hemoglobin, formed by four chains, vis a vis the case of the single chain myoglobin- till we reach the level of cellular self-reproduction. The notion of emergence, which considers the effect of all interacting parts, is a typical systems thinking notion-and as such is opposed to the viewpoint of reductionism. Life, as we have seen, is an emergent property, as the constituents per se-sugars, proteins, nucleic acids, etc, - are not living per se, life arises only when they are together in a particular context.

However no living organism –be bacteria or fish or flowers or mammals- can exist without the interaction with the environment. And it is also obvious that each living species has its own way to interact with the environment- each species does so, on the basis of the sensorial tools provided by evolution.

Following Maturana and Varela, we state in the book that each organism is a cognitive being, that namely the process of interacting with the environment corresponds to an act of cognition. Life is cognition. And just like autopoiesis is the structural basis of all living, thus cognition is the general pattern for all forms of life. The detailed mechanisms of cognition are different in fish, butterfly, warms, but the general pattern is quite general one. At this level, the notion of systems thinking is apparent when we consider that the cognitive interaction encompasses also all level of social life, as well as the interaction with nature-ecology. Here then we find again all the concepts developed previously by Fritjof-including the unity between body and mind, as the act of cognition is embodied, is intrinsically connected to the body. This overcomes the old Cartesian division between body and mind.

The notion of cognition has significant implications. By using an expression often used by Maturana and Varela, the cognitive interaction brings forth a world- in the sense that the world perceived by each living organism is a function of his/her cognitive sensorial apparatus. Certainly the world of a bat is different from the world of a fish or of a butterfly. This action of bringing forth the own world is actually an act of co-emergence: something comes out from the interaction between living organism and environment, that is new- the classic notion of emergence. Each act of co-emergence corresponds to a different world. Clearly then the autopoietic structure alone is not enough, we need also the notion of cognition-as there is no life without cognition. And cognition is based on the interaction with the environment. Thus, for a more complete picture of “what is life?”, we present in the book the “trilogy of life”. With the important addition that in humans, cognition may take the form of mind.

Now, this can be extrapolated to the human: each of us has his/her own mind, his/her own past experiences, his/her own physical abilities- and then each of us experience his own world, which is in principle somewhat different from that of all others. Mind for us is intended as a process. Thus, there are as many “worlds” as there many minds. This view, at least in principle, has as consequence the disappearance of the notion of objectivity- and the introduction of the personal experience into the view of the world.

This in turn is related to the general issue of epistemology, the way of interpreting the reality. We discuss in detail in the book the question of “what is science today?” – elaborating on the limits of the notion of objectivity, emphasizing the importance of the “first person experience” and more in general pointing out that science should be seen anyway as a descriptive method which is approximate.

Mind is the basis of another important notion: consciousness. In the book, we go at length to explore the various aspects of the relation brain—mind—consciousness. We tackle the problem of consciousness, a problem which is still much debated in current literature, both at the level of philosophy and at the level of neurobiology. We describe a very complex picture indeed, and we make the point that much of the confusion is due to the poor understanding of the discrimination between cognition and consciousness. Cognition is the general substrate; consciousness is as particular aspect of that, most clearly in humans, perhaps in some form in other animals as well. We also emphasize that when talking about consciousness, is important to make clear of which kind of consciousness we are referring to: consciousness has always a content- be conscious of something-and this can be the object of some sensorial organ (seeing, hearing, touching..); but this content can also be the internal subjective experience-in particular and very importantly, the feeling of self, the knowing that I know, the consciousness that I am conscious- and this becomes then the reflexive or auto-reflexive type of consciousness. The origin of this second aspect –the subjective experience-is particularly controversial in the modern literature, and is considered by some as the “hard problem” of consciousness. We present and discuss in the book the view of the main schools of thought on this theme and show how for most of the researchers involved in the field consciousness is seen as an emergent property of the brain, although the actual mechanisms and details are still far to be clarified.

The concept of consciousness in mankind is associated to that of spirituality- this meant in first approximation as the internal desire to elevate oneself and to be in touch with the ominous. In the book, we use an image which is somewhat poetic: the idea that when Homo Erectus begun to walk straight, he could watch the phenomena of the sky-the moving moon, the sunset, the stars, the lightening- with feelings of fear, and the “consciousness” that there were powers larger than himself, to whom one should bow and pay honors- thus, the simultaneous arising of consciousness and spirituality.

We spend several pages in our book clarifying the difference between religion and spirituality- stating that most of the literature problems on the opposition between science and religion, arise from the poor understanding of the difference between spirituality and religion. We make the point that spirituality, being the general human principle of elevation of the human spirit, and love and respect for all other people and for nature, cannot be in contrast with science-on the contrary. Religion, being often the dogmatization in rigid forms of original spiritual ideas, is something different-see Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and the present anti-scientific creationism, also in the form of the so-called intelligent design.

We take this chapter on spirituality and religion to redraw the analogy and similarity between modern science and classic oriental thinking, Taoism and Buddhism in particular, as emphasized by Fritjof Capra in his famous classic book “The Tao of physics”. We make the point, for example, that Buddhism is completely in agreement with the systems view of life in science- the main predicament of philosophical Buddhism is the causality law: “there is this, because there is that”, in a continuous, multidimensional network of causalities, but without a “prima causa”, without a God or without an act of creation.

And talking about common ground of our scientific world, we devote space to Darwinism and evolution-up to the origin and development of human kind. Darwin did not know about genes, but in fact all genetic science after him –even in the molecular terms of molecular biology- has confirmed his basic ideas. Genetics, and the notion of gene in general, became very important in our generation, we are indeed immersed in the “century of the gene”, as the author Fox-Keller aptly labeled our time. In fact, the notion of gene has been dominating our science, the mass media, and our own fantasy. This is also due to the important enterprise of the human genome; and also due to authors like Dawkins, with his notion of egoistic gene. Particularly in the mass media and in certain more superficial forms of science, this DNA-centered view has taken the form of a new kind of reductionism, with the erroneous idea that a given sickness is due to a given gene; and the propagation of ideas such as the gene of longevity, the gene of memory, the gene of obesity. And in the field of the origin of life, and more generally in the field “what is life?” this kind of people pose the equation DNA = life. And at the level of human life, they pose the equation human genome= book of life.

Our systems thinking is diametrically opposite to this. We make the obvious point that the equation one gene-one behavior is invalid, as each sickness (with the exception perhaps of a couple of them) is due to a network of genes, which are determined by a network of proteins, in turn determined by another net of genes---is always a network of networks of networks. We make also the point that the equation DNA= life is actually detrimental to the understanding of the question “what is life”-as life is a system process, is not a molecule. And furthermore, as clearly formulated by the British scientist Denis Noble in his book”The music of life”, not even in the production of a single protein is never the single gene in an bottom-up process which “thinks” or “determines”, but is always a downward –top down-process, taken from his book and used also in our book. For example the synthesis of new hemoglobin in my body- is not coming from the gene, but from the whole organism-which a complex network of interactions, release of ions and activators, and is the effect of this network which finally activates the specific gene to do something: we are again witnessing a top down, systemic mechanism-just the contrary of a reductionist view.

In the book we consider also in detail the old question of the origin of life. We review the various hypotheses, starting from the main assumption that life on earth derives from the inanimate matter. We discuss why this question is still unanswered, trying to shed light also on the philosophical aspects, an event which is often seen in the literature in terms of determinism: the origin of life as an obligatory design-the so-called gospel of inevitability, as advocated by the Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve. We accept instead the notion of contingency: Contingency recites in general that all events of evolution, molecular evolution or, later, biological evolution, could have been different, and a given outcome might even not have occurred at all. Mankind, as the product of contingency, might have not come out at all. This is not a negative kind of thinking, it is in fact a view which respects the creativity and freedom of evolution. And consider that as a consequence of this kind of thinking, human mind, and consciousness, are also the products of evolution- the mind and its self-generated values, such as morality, spirituality itself, even the idea of God.

This is all in keeping with the general Darwinian design, and let me say at this regard that Darwinism is the most convincing, also the most beautiful case for system thinking. Accordingly, all living species are related to each other, as we all come from the same original common ancestor: we are all relative to each other, also with all other animals and plants and microorganisms. Not only- but we are genetically linked to all living organisms which existed before us-as to those which will come after us. A great picture of brotherhood.

And this is something that creationists and ID-people, in their blind opposition to Darwinism, have failed to see and understand. They are also saying that a world without the prima causa, God, would not be worthwhile living, as without God there would be no finality in the human race. We maintain, on the contrary, that to believe in the beauty and value of life as self-generated values is at a higher ethical stand, than when such values are given from above. That life is worthwhile just because is a creation of mankind itself-and as such must be honored. In that, we believe.

Related links:

Systems view life unifying vision - Cambridge
Vita e Natura. Una visione sistemica - Aboca Edizioni