The Web of Life
Dublin, September 9th 1997
In February 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum theory, gave a series of three lectures at Trinity College in Dublin with the title “What is Life?”. These lectures changed the course of the life sciences. In the lectures, and in the subsequent book with the same title, Schrödinger advanced clear and compelling hypotheses about the molecular structure of genes, which stimulated biologists to think about genetics in a novel way, and in so doing opened a new frontier of science, molecular biology.
During subsequent decades, this new field generated a series of triumphant discoveries, culminating in the unraveling of the genetic code. However, these spectacular advances did not bring biologists any closer to answering the question posed by Schrödinger: What is Life? Nor were they able to answer the many associated questions that have puzzled scientists and philosophers for hundreds of years: How did complex structures evolve out of a random collection of molecules? What is the relationship between mind and brain? What is consciousness?
biologists have discovered the fundamental building blocks of life, but this has
not helped them to understand the vital integrative actions of living organisms.
Twenty-five years ago, one of the leading molecular biologists, Sidney Brenner,
made the following reflective comments:
In one way, you could say all the genetic and molecular biological work of the last sixty years could be considered a long interlude… Now that that program has been completed, we have come full circle Ñ back to the problems left behind unsolved. How does a wounded organism regenerate to exactly the same structure it had before? How does the egg form the organism?… I think in the next twenty-five years we are going to have to teach biologists another language… I don’t know what it’s called yet; nobody knows… It may be wrong to believe that all the logic is at the molecular level. We may need to get beyond the clock mechanisms.
Since the time
Brenner made these comments, a new language for understanding the complexity of
living systems—that is, of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems—has
indeed emerged. You may have heard about some of the key concepts of this new
way of understanding complex systems Ñ—chaos, attractors, fractals,
dissipative structures, self-organization, and so on.
In the early
eighties, I conceived a synthesis of these new discoveries, a new conceptual
framework for the scientific understanding of life. I developed and refined my
synthesis for ten years, discussed it with numerous scientists, and have
recently published it in my new book, The Web of Life.
tradition of systems thinking, and the models of living systems developed during
the early decades of the century, form the conceptual and historical roots of
the new scientific framework that I want to present to you. In fact, my
synthesis of current models and theories may be seen as an outline of an
emerging new theory of living systems. What is now emerging at the forefront of
science is a coherent scientific theory that offers, for the first time, a
unified view of mind, matter, and life.
society has been dominated by the Cartesian split between mind and matter and by
the ensuing mechanistic paradigm for the past three hundred years, this new
vision that finally overcomes the Cartesian split will have not only important
scientific and philosophical consequences, but will also have tremendous
practical implications. It will change the way we relate to each other and to
our living natural environment, the way we deal with our health, the way we
perceive our business organizations, our educational systems, and many other
social and political institutions.
In particular, the
new vision of life will help us build and nurture sustainable communities—the
great challenge of our time—because it will help us understand how nature’s
communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms—the ecosystems—have
organized themselves so as to maximize their ecological sustainability. We have
much to learn from this wisdom of nature, and to do so we need to become
ecologically literate. We need to understand the basic principles of ecology,
the language of nature. The new framework I present in my book shows that these
principles of ecology are also the basic principles of organization of all
living systems. I believe therefore that The Web of Life provides a solid
basis for ecological thought and practice.
Emergence of systems thinking
Let me begin my
outline of the new understanding of life with a brief historical perspective on
the tradition of systems thinking. Systems thinking emerged during the 1920s
simultaneously in three different fields: organismic biology, gestalt
psychology, and ecology. In all these fields scientists explored living systems,
i.e., integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of
smaller parts. Living systems include individual organisms, parts of organisms,
and communities of organisms, such as social systems and ecosystems. Living
systems span a very broad range, and systems thinking is therefore, by its very
nature, an interdisciplinary, or better still, “transdisciplinary” approach.
From the beginning
of biology, philosophers and scientists had realized that the form of a living
organism is more than shape, more than a static configuration of components in a
whole. The first systems thinkers expressed this realization in the famous
phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
decades, biologists and psychologists struggled with the question: in what sense
exactly is the whole more than the sum of its parts? At that time, there was a
fierce debate between two schools of thought, known as mechanism and vitalism.
The mechanists said: “The whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. All
biological phenomena can be explained in terms of the laws of physics and
chemistry.” The vitalists disagreed and maintained that a nonphysical entity
Ñ, a vital force or field Ñ, must be added to the laws of physics
and chemistry to explain biological phenomena.
The school of
organismic biology emerged as a third way out of this debate. Organismic
biologists opposed both mechanists and vitalists. They agreed that something
must be added to the laws of physics and chemistry to understand life, but that
something, in their view, was not a new entity. It was the knowledge of the
living system’s organization, or, as they put it, of its “organizing
The systems view
of life was formulated first by the organismic biologists. It holds that the
essential properties of a living system are properties of the whole, which none
of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships between
the parts. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either
physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. Although we can discern
individual parts in any system, these parts are not isolated, and the nature of
the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts. It took many years
to formulate this insight clearly, and several key concepts of systems thinking
were developed during that period.
The new science of
ecology, which began during the 1920s, enriched the emerging systemic way of
thinking by introducing a very important concept, the concept of the network.
From the beginning of ecology, ecological communities have been seen as
consisting of organisms linked together in network fashion through feeding
relations. At first, ecologists formulated the concepts of food chains and food
cycles, and these were soon expanded to the contemporary concept of the food
The “Web of
Life” is, of course, an ancient idea, which has been used by poets,
philosophers, and mystics throughout the ages to convey their sense of the
interwovenness and interdependence of all phenomena. As the network concept
became more and more prominent in ecology, systems thinkers began to use network
models at all systems levels, viewing organisms as networks of organs and cells,
just as ecosystems are understood as networks of individual organisms. This led
to the key insight that the network is a pattern that is common to all life.
Wherever we see life, we see networks.
Characteristics of systems thinking
Let me now
summarize some of the key characteristics of systems thinking. Living systems
are integrated wholes, and thus systems thinking implies a shift of perspective
from the parts to the whole. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and
what is more, is relationships. So systems thinking is thinking in terms
of relationships. The shift from the parts to the whole requires another shift
of focus, from objects to relationships.
relationships is not easy for us, because it is something that goes counter to
the traditional scientific enterprise in Western culture. In science, we have
been told, things need to be measured and weighed. But relationships cannot be
measured and weighed; relationships need to be mapped. So here is another shift:
from measuring to mapping.
When you map
relationships, you will find certain configurations that occur repeatedly. This
is what we call a pattern. Patterns are configurations of relationships
that appear again and again. The study of relationships, then, leads to the
study of patterns. Systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from
contents to patterns.
relationships and studying patterns is not a quantitative but a qualitative
approach. Indeed, in the new mathematics of complexity “qualitative
analysis” is now used as a technical term. So systems thinking implies a shift
from quantity to quality.
Finally, the study
of relationships concerns not only the relationships among the system’s
components, but also those between the system as a whole and surrounding larger
systems. Those relationships between the system and its environment are what we
mean by context. The word “context,” from the Latin contexere—“to
weave together,” also implies the idea of the web and is perhaps the most
appropriate to characterize systems thinking as a whole. Systems thinking is
There is another
important strand of systems thinking, to which I shall return later. It is
thinking in terms of processes, which historically emerged somewhat later. So
systems thinking means both contextual thinking and process thinking.
Classical systems theories
The key concepts
of systems thinking were developed during the 1920s and 1930s. The 1940s, then,
saw the formulation of actual systems theories. This means that systems
concepts were integrated into coherent theoretical frameworks describing the
principles of organization of living systems. These theories, which I call the
“classical systems theories,” include general systems theory and
theory was formulated in the 1940s by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, an Austrian
biologist who set out to replace the mechanistic foundations of science with a
holistic vision. Like other organismic biologists, Bertalanffy believed that
biological phenomena required a new way of thinking. His goal was to construct a
“general science of wholeness” as a formal mathematical discipline.
greatest contribution, in my view, was the concept of an “open system” as a
key distinction between biological and physical phenomena. Living systems, he
recognized, are open systems, which means that they need to feed on a continual
flux of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive.
These open systems
maintain themselves in a balanced state far from equilibrium, characterized by
continual flow and change. Bertalanffy coined the German term Fliessgleichgewicht
(“flowing balance”) to describe such a state of dynamic balance. He
recognized that such open systems cannot be described by classical
thermodynamics, which was the theory of complex systems available at his time,
and he postulated that a new thermodynamics of open systems was needed to
describe living systems.
Bertalanffy’s concepts of an open system and of a general systems theory
established systems thinking as a major scientific movement. In addition, his
emphasis on flow and flowing balance introduced process thinking as a new and
important aspect of systemic thought. He was not able to write down the new
thermodynamics of open systems he was looking for, because he lacked the
appropriate mathematics for that purpose. Thirty years later, Ilya Prigogine
accomplished this feat, using a mathematics of complexity that had been
formulated in the meantime.
other classical systems theory, was formulated by an inter-disciplinary group of
scientists, including the mathematicians Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann,
the neuroscientist Warren McCulloch, and the social scientists Gregory Bateson
and Margaret Mead.
became a powerful intellectual movement, which developed independently of
organismic biology and general systems theory. The central focus of the
cyberneticists was the attention to patterns of organization. In particular,
they were concerned with patterns of communication, especially in closed loops
and networks. Their investigations led them to the concepts of feedback and
self-regulation, and then, later on, to self-organization.
The concept of feedback,
one of the greatest achievements of cybernetics, is intimately connected with
the network pattern. In a network, you have cycles and closed loops; and these
loops can become feedback loops. A feedback loop is a circular arrangement of
causally connected elements, in which an initial cause propagates around the
links of the loop, so that each element has an effect on the next, until the
last “feeds back” the effect into the first element of the cycle.
phenomenon is extremely important for living systems. Because of feedback,
living networks can regulate themselves and can organize themselves. A
community, for example, can regulate itself. It can learn from its mistakes,
because the mistakes will travel and come back along these feedback loops. So,
the community can organize itself and can learn. Because of feedback, a
community has its own intelligence, its own learning capacity.
feedback, and self-organization are closely linked concepts. Living systems are
networks capable of self-organization.
The new mathematics of complexity
And now I come to
the most important point of my brief historical review. There is a watershed in
systems thinking between the classical systems theories of the 1940s and the
theories of living systems developed during the past 25 years. The distinctive
feature of the new theories is a new mathematical language that allowed
scientists for the first time to handle the enormous complexity of living
We need to realize
that even the simplest living system, a bacterial cell, is a highly complex
network involving literally thousands of interdependent chemical reactions. A
new set of concepts and techniques for dealing with that enormous complexity has
now emerged, which is beginning to form a coherent mathematical framework. Chaos
theory and fractal geometry are important branches of this new mathematics of
characteristic of the new mathematics is that it is a nonlinear
mathematics. In science, until recently, we were always taught to avoid
nonlinear equations, because they are very difficult to solve. For example, the
smooth flow of water in a river, in which there are no obstacles, is described
by a linear equation. But when there is a rock in the river the water begins to
swirl; it becomes turbulent. There are eddies; there are all kinds of vortices;
and this complex motion is described by nonlinear equations. The movement of
water becomes so complicated that it seems quite chaotic.
In the 1970s,
scientists for the first time had powerful high-speed computers that could help
them tackle and solve nonlinear equations. In doing so, they devised a number of
techniques, a new kind of mathematical language that revealed very surprising
patterns underneath the seemingly chaotic behavior of nonlinear systems, an
underlying order beneath the seeming chaos. Indeed, chaos theory is really a
theory of order, but of a new kind of order that is not visible to the naked eye
but is revealed by this new mathematics.
When you solve a
nonlinear equation with these new techniques, the result is not a formula but a
visual shape, a pattern traced by the computer. So, the new mathematics is a
mathematics of patterns, of relationships. The so-called “attractors” are
examples of these mathematical patterns. They picture the dynamics of a
particular system in terms of visual shapes.
During the 1970s,
the strong interest in nonlinear phenomena generated a whole series of new and
powerful theories that describe various aspects of living systems. These
theories, which I discuss in some detail in the book, form the components of my
own synthesis of the new conception of life.
A new synthesis
I have come to
believe that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the
synthesis of two approaches to our understanding of nature that have been in
competition throughout our scientific history—the study of pattern (or
relationships, order, quality) and the study of structure (or constituents,
The emergence and
refinement of the concept of “pattern of organization” has been a central
theme in systems thinking. The early systems thinkers defined pattern as a
configuration of relationships. The ecologists recognized the network as the
general pattern of life. The cyberneticists identified feedback as a circular
pattern of causal links; and the new mathematics of complexity is a mathematics
of visual patterns.
understanding of pattern is of crucial importance to the scientific
understanding of life. But that is not enough. We also need to understand the
system’s structure. To show you how the pattern approach and the structure
approach can be integrated, let me now define these two terms more precisely.
The pattern of
organization of any system, living or nonliving, is the configuration of
relationships among the system’s components that determines the system’s
essential characteristics. In other words, certain relationships must be present
for something to be recognized as—say—a chair, a bicycle, or a tree. That
configuration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics
is what I mean by its pattern of organization.
Let me illustrate
this with a bicycle, because it is easier with a nonliving system. If I took all
the parts of a bicycle—the saddle, the handle bars, the frame, the wheels, and
so on—and put them here in front of you in a heap, you would all say: This is
not a bicycle; these are the parts of a bicycle. How do I turn them into a
bicycle? By putting them together in a certain order! This order, this
configuration of relationships among the parts, is what I call the pattern of
To describe the
bicycle’s pattern of organization, I can use an abstract language of
relationships. I don’t need to tell you whether the frame is made of heavy
iron or light aluminium, what kind of rubber went into the tires, and so on. In
other words, the physical materials are not part of the description of the
pattern of organization. They are part of the description of the structure,
which I define as the material embodiment of the system’s pattern of
description of the pattern of organization involves an abstract mapping of
relationships, the description of the structure involves describing the
system’s actual physical components—their shapes, chemical compositions, and
Well, this is all
quite simple with a bicycle. You can visualize its pattern of organization, you
can draw a sketch of it, you can get the actual materials and build the bicycle
according to your design sketch, and then the bicycle will just stand there and
will not do much on its own.
With a living system, the situation is very different. Every living system, as I mentioned before, involves thousands of interlinked chemical processes. In a living system, there is a ceaseless flux of matter; there is growth, development, and evolution. From the very beginning of biology, the understanding of living structure has been inseparable from the understanding of metabolic and developmental processes.
property of living systems suggests process as a third criterion for a
comprehensive description of the nature of life. The process of life is the
activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of
organization. Thus the process criterion is the link between pattern and
criterion completes the conceptual framework of my synthesis. All three criteria
are totally interdependent. The pattern of organization can only be recognized
if it is embodied in a physical structure, and in living systems this embodiment
is an ongoing process. One could say that the three criteria—pattern,
structure, and process—are three different but inseparable perspectives on the
phenomenon of life. They form the three conceptual dimensions of my synthesis.
What this means is
that, in order to define a living system—in other words, to answer Schrödinger’s
question, “What is Life?”—we have to really answer three questions: What
is the structure of a living system? What is its pattern of organization? What
is the process of its life? Let me now answer these questions in that order.
The structure of a
living system has been described in detail by Ilya Prigogine in his theory of
dissipative structures. Like Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Prigogine recognized that
living systems are open systems that are able to maintain their life processes
under conditions of non-equilibrium. A living organism is characterized by
continual flow and change in its metabolism, involving thousands of chemical
reactions. Chemical and thermal equilibrium exists when all these processes come
to a halt. In other words, an organism in equilibrium is a dead organism. Living
organisms continually maintain themselves in a state far from equilibrium, which
is the state of life. Although very different from equilibrium, this state is
nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of the
ongoing flow and change of components.
the open systems described by his theory “dissipative structures” to
emphasize this close interplay between structure on the one hand, and flow and
change (or dissipation) on the other.
Prigogine’s theory, dissipative structures not only maintain themselves in a
stable state far from equilibrium, but may even evolve. When the flow of energy
and matter through them increases, they may go through points of instability and
transform themselves into new structures of increased complexity. This
phenomenon—the spontaneous emergence of order—is also known as self-organization.
It is the basis of development, learning, and evolution.
Let me now turn to
the second perspective on the nature of life, the pattern perspective. The
pattern of organization of a living system is a network of relationships in
which the function of each component is to transform and replace other
components of the network. This pattern has been called “autopoiesis” by
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. “Auto”, of course, means “self,”
and “poiesis”—which is the same Greek root as in the word
“poetry”—means “making.” So autopoiesis means “self-making.” The
network continually “makes itself.” It is produced by its components and in
turn produces those components.
Cognition—the process of life
Let me now turn to
the third conceptual dimension of my synthesis, the process aspect. The
understanding of the life process is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of
the emerging theory of living systems, as it implies a new conception of mind,
or cognition. This new conception was proposed by Gregory Bateson and
elaborated more completely by Maturana and Varela, and it is known as the
Santiago theory of cognition.
insight of the Santiago theory is the identification of cognition, the process
of knowing, with the process of life. Cognition, according to Maturana, is the
activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living
networks. In other words, cognition is the very process of life. “Living
systems are cognitive systems,” writes Maturana, “and living as a process is
a process of cognition.”
It is obvious that
we are dealing here with a radical expansion of the concept of cognition and,
implicitly, the concept of mind. In this new view, cognition involves the entire
process of life—including perception, emotion, and behavior—and does not
necessarily require a brain and a nervous system. In the human realm, cognition
includes language, conceptual thought, self-awareness, and all the other
attributes of human consciousness.
theory of cognition, I believe, is the first scientific theory that overcomes
the Cartesian division of mind and matter, and will thus have the most
far-reaching implications. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two
separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects
of the phenomenon of life—the process aspect and the structure aspect. At all
levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and
structure, are inseparably connected. Mind is immanent in living matter as the
process of self-organization. For the first time, we have a scientific theory
that unifies mind, matter and life.
Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director
of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. He is the author of
three international bestsellers, The Tao of Physics, The Turning
Point, and Uncommon Wisdom. His new book, The Web of Life,
was published in October 1996.