The Rise of Systems Thinking
Introduction: The Paradigm Shift
My main interest in my life
as a physicist has been in the dramatic change of concepts and ideas that
occurred in physics during the first three decades of the twentieth century and
is still being elaborated in our current theories of matter. The new concepts in
physics have brought about a profound change in our worldview; from the
mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic, ecological view.
The new view of reality was
by no means easy to accept for physicists at the beginning of the twentieth
century. The exploration of the atomic and subatomic world brought them in
contact with a strange and unexpected reality. In their struggle to grasp this
new reality, scientists became painfully aware that their basic concepts, their
language, and their whole way of thinking were inadequate to describe atomic
phenomena. Their problems were not merely intellectual but amounted to an
intense emotional and, one could say, even existential crisis. It took them a
long time to overcome this crisis, but in the end they were rewarded with deep
insights into the nature of matter and its relation to the human mind.
The dramatic changes of
thinking that happened in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century have
been widely discussed by physicists and philosophers for more than fifty years.
They led Thomas Kuhn to the notion of a scientific “paradigm,” defined as
“a constellation of achievements—concepts, values, techniques, etc.—shared
by a scientific community and used by that community to define legitimate
problems and solutions.”
Changes of paradigms, according to Kuhn, occur in discontinuous, revolutionary
breaks called “paradigm shifts.”
Today, twenty-five years
after Kuhn’s analysis, we recognize the paradigm shift in physics as an
integral part of a much larger cultural transformation. The intellectual crisis
of the quantum physicists in the 1920s is mirrored today by a similar but much
broader cultural crisis. Accordingly, what we are seeing is a shift of paradigms
not only within science, but also in the larger social arena.
To analyze that cultural transformation I have generalized
Kuhn’s definition of a
scientific paradigm to that of a social paradigm, which I define as “a
constellation of concepts, values, perceptions, and practices shared by a
community, which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the
way the community organizes itself.”
The paradigm that is now
receding has dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it
has shaped our modern Western society and has significantly influenced the rest
of the world. This paradigm consists of a number of entrenched ideas and values,
among them the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of
elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of
life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited
material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth,
and—last, but not least—the belief that a society in which the female is
everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature.
All of these assumptions have been fatefully challenged by recent events. And,
indeed, a radical revision of them is now occurring.
The new paradigm may be
called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than
a dissociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view, if
the term “ecological” is used in a much broader and deeper sense than usual.
Deep ecological awareness recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all
phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded
in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature.
The two terms “holistic”
and “ecological” differ slightly in their meanings, and it seems that
“holistic” is somewhat less appropriate to describe the new paradigm. A
holistic view of, say, a bicycle means to see the bicycle as a functional whole
and to understand the interdependence of its parts accordingly. An ecological
view of the bicycle includes that, but it adds to it the perception of how the
bicycle is embedded in its natural and social environment—where the raw
materials that went into it came from, how it was manufactured, how its use
affects the natural environment and the community by which it is used, and so
on. This distinction between “holistic” and “ecological” is even more
important when we talk about living systems, for which the connections with the
environment are much more vital.
The sense in which I use the
term “ecological” is associated with a specific philosophical school and,
moreover, with a global grass-roots movement known as “deep ecology,” which
is rapidly gaining prominence.
The philosophical school was founded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne
Naess in the early 1970s with his distinction between “shallow” and
“deep” ecology. This distinction is now widely accepted as a very useful
term for referring to a major division within contemporary environmental
Shallow ecology is
anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of
nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or
“use,” value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans—or anything
else—from natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of
isolated objects, but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally
interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value
of all living beings and views humans as one particular strand in the web of
Ultimately, deep ecological
awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human
spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels
a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes
clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence. It is,
therefore, not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality based on deep
ecological awareness is consistent with the so-called perennial philosophy of
spiritual traditions, whether we talk about the spirituality of Christian
mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy and cosmology underlying the
Native American traditions.
There is another way in
which Arne Naess has characterized deep ecology. “The essence of deep
ecology,” he says, “is to ask deeper questions.”
This is also the essence of a paradigm shift. We need to be prepared to question
every single aspect of the old paradigm. Eventually we will not need to throw
everything away, but before we know that we need to be willing to question
everything. So deep ecology asks profound questions about the very foundations
of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview
and way of life. It questions this entire paradigm from an ecological
perspective: from the perspective of our relationships to one another, to future
generations, and to the web of life of which we are part.
From the Parts to the Whole
During the twentieth century
the change from the mechanistic to the ecological paradigm has proceeded in
different forms and at different speeds in the various scientific fields. It is
not a steady change. It involves scientific revolutions, backlashes, and
pendulum swings. A chaotic pendulum in the sense of chaos theory—oscillations
that almost repeat themselves, but not quite, seemingly random and yet forming a
complex, highly organized pattern—would perhaps be the most appropriate
The basic tension is one
between the parts and the whole. The emphasis on the parts has been called
mechanistic, reductionist, or atomistic; the emphasis on the whole holistic,
organismic, or ecological. In twentieth-century science the holistic perspective
has become known as “systemic” and the way of thinking it implies as
“systems thinking.” In this book I shall use “ecological” and
“systemic” synonymously, “systemic” being merely the more technical,
The main characteristics of
systems thinking emerged simultaneously in several disciplines during the first
half of the twentieth century, especially during the 1920s. Systems thinking was
pioneered by biologists, who emphasized the view of living organisms as integrated
wholes. It was further enriched by Gestalt psychology and the new science of
ecology, and it had perhaps the most dramatic effects in quantum physics. Since
the central idea of the new paradigm concerns the nature of life, let us first
turn to biology.
Substance and Form
The tension between
mechanism and holism has been a recurring theme throughout the history of
biology. It is an inevitable consequence of the ancient dichotomy between
substance (matter, structure, quantity) and form (pattern, order, quality).
Biological form is more than shape, more than a static configuration of
components in a whole. There is a continual flux of matter through a living
organism, while its form is maintained. There is development, and there is
evolution. Thus the understanding of biological form is inextricably linked to
the understanding of metabolic and developmental processes.
At the dawn of Western
philosophy and science, the Pythagoreans distinguished “number,” or pattern,
from substance, or matter, viewing it as something that limits matter and gives
it shape. As Gregory Bateson put it:
The argument took the shape
of “Do you ask what it’s made of— earth, fire, water, etc.?” Or do you
ask, “What is its pattern?”
Pythagoreans stood for inquiring into pattern rather than inquiring into
Aristotle, the first
biologist in the Western tradition, also distinguished between matter and form
but at the same time linked the two through a process of development.
In contrast with Plato, Aristotle believed that form had no separate
existence but was immanent in matter. Nor could matter exist separately from
form. Matter, according to Aristotle, contains the essential nature of all
things, but only as potentiality. By means of form this essence becomes real, or
actual. The process of the self-realization of the essence in the actual
phenomena is by Aristotle called entelechy
(“self-completion”). It is a process of development, a thrust toward
full self-realization. Matter and form are the two sides of this process,
separable only through abstraction.
Aristotle created a formal
system of logic and a set of unifying concepts, which he applied to the main
disciplines of his time— biology, physics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics.
His philosophy and science dominated Western thought for two thousand years
after his death, during which his authority became almost as unquestioned as
that of the church.
In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries the medieval world-view, based on Aristotelian philosophy
and Christian theology, changed radically. The notion of an organic, living, and
spiritual universe was replaced by that of the world as a machine, and the world
machine became the dominant metaphor of the modern era. This radical change was
brought about by the new discoveries in physics, astronomy, and mathematics
known as the Scientific Revolution and associated with the names of Copernicus,
Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, and Newton.
Galileo Galilei banned
quality from science, restricting it to the study of phenomena that could be
measured and quantified. This has been a very successful strategy throughout
modern science, but our obsession with quantification and measurement has also
exacted a heavy toll. As the psychiatrist R. D. Laing put it emphatically:
Galileo’s program offers us a dead world: Out go sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, and along with them have since gone esthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit. Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse. Hardly anything has changed our world more during the past four hundred years than Galileo’s audacious program. We had to destroy the world in theory before we could destroy it in practice.
René Descartes created the
method of analytic thinking, which consists in breaking up complex phenomena
into pieces to understand the behavior of the whole from the properties of its
parts. Descartes based his view of nature on the fundamental division between
two independent and separate realms—that of mind and that of matter. The
material universe, including living organisms, was a machine for Descartes,
which could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of
its smallest parts.
The conceptual framework
created by Galileo and Descartes—the world as a perfect machine governed by
exact mathematical laws—was completed triumphantly by Isaac Newton, whose
grand synthesis, Newtonian mechanics, was the crowning achievement of
seventeenth-century science. In biology the greatest success of Descartes’s
mechanistic model was its application to the phenomenon of blood circulation by
William Harvey. Inspired by Harvey’s success, the physiologists of his time
tried to apply the mechanistic method to describe other bodily functions, such
as digestion and metabolism. These attempts were dismal failures, however,
because the phenomena the physiologists tried to explain involved chemical
processes that were unknown at the time and could not be described in mechanical
terms. The situation changed significantly in the eighteenth century, when
Antoine Lavoisier, the “father of modern chemistry,” demonstrated that
respiration is a special form of oxidation and thus confirmed the relevance of
chemical processes to the functioning of living organisms.
In the light of the new
science of chemistry, the simplistic mechanical models of living organisms were
largely abandoned, but the essence of the Cartesian idea survived. Animals were
still machines, although they were much more complicated than mechanical
clockworks, involving complex chemical processes. Accordingly, Cartesian
mechanism was expressed in the dogma that the laws of biology can ultimately be
reduced to those of physics and chemistry. At the same time, the rigidly
mechanistic physiology found its most forceful and elaborate expression in a
polemic treatise Man a Machine, by
Julien de La Mettrie, which remained famous well beyond the eighteenth century
and generated many debates and controversies, some of which reached even into
the twentieth century.
The Romantic Movement
The first strong opposition
to the mechanistic Cartesian paradigm came from the Romantic movement in art,
literature, and philosophy in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
William Blake, the great mystical poet and painter who exerted a strong
influence on English Romanticism, was a passionate critic of Newton. He
summarized his critique in these celebrated lines:
God us keep
single vision and Newton’s sleep.
The German Romantic poets
and philosophers returned to the Aristotelian tradition by concentrating on the
nature of organic form. Goethe, the central figure in this movement, was among
the first to use the term “morphology” for the study of biological form from
a dynamic, developmental point of view. He admired nature’s “moving order”
(bewegliche Ordnung) and conceived of form as a pattern of relationships within an organized
whole—a conception that is at the forefront of contemporary systems thinking.
“Each creature,” wrote Goethe, “is but a patterned gradation (Schattierung) of one great harmonious whole.”
The Romantic artists were concerned mainly with a qualitative understanding of
patterns, and therefore they placed great emphasis on explaining the basic
properties of life in terms of visualized forms. Goethe, in particular, felt
that visual perception was the door to understanding organic form.
The understanding of organic
form also played an important role in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who is
often considered the greatest of the modern philosophers. An idealist, Kant
separated the phenomenal world from a world of “things-in-themselves.” He
believed that science could offer only mechanical explanations, but he affirmed
that in areas where such explanations were inadequate, scientific knowledge
needed to be supplemented by considering nature as being purposeful. The most
important of these areas, according to Kant, is the understanding of life.
In his Critique of Judgment Kant discussed the nature of living organisms.
He argued that organisms, in contrast with machines, are self-reproducing,
self-organizing wholes. In a machine, according to Kant, the parts only exist for each other, in the sense of supporting each other within a
functional whole. In an organism the parts also exist by means of each other, in the sense of producing one another.
“We must think of each part as an organ,” wrote Kant, “that produces the
other parts (so that each reciprocally produces the other)… Because of this,
[the organism] will be both an organized and self-organizing being.”
With this statement Kant became not only the first to use the term “self-organization”
to define the nature of living organisms, he also used it in a way that is
remarkably similar to some contemporary conceptions.
The Romantic view of nature
as “one great harmonious whole,” as Goethe put it, led some scientists of
that period to extend their search for wholeness to the entire planet and see
the Earth as an integrated whole, a living being. The view of the Earth as being
alive, of course, has a long tradition. Mythical images of the Earth Mother are
among the oldest in human religious history. Gaia, the Earth Goddess, was
revered as the supreme deity in early, pre-Hellenic Greece.
Earlier still, from the Neolithic through the Bronze Ages, the societies of
“Old Europe” worshiped numerous female deities as incarnations of Mother
The idea of the Earth as a
living, spiritual being continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance, until the whole medieval outlook was replaced by the Cartesian
image of the world as a machine. So when scientists in the eighteenth century
began to visualize the Earth as a living being, they revived an ancient
tradition that had been dormant for only a relatively brief period.
More recently, the idea of a
living planet was formulated in modern scientific language as the so-called Gaia
hypothesis, and it is interesting that the views of the living Earth developed
by eighteenth-century scientists contain some key elements of our contemporary
theory. The Scottish geologist James Hutton maintained that geological and
biological processes are all interlinked and compared the Earth’s waters to
the circulatory system of animal. The German naturalist and explorer Alexander
von Humboldt, one of the greatest unifying thinkers of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, took this idea even further. His “habit of viewing the
Globe as a great whole” led Humboldt to identifying climate as a unifying
global force and to recognizing the coevolution of living organisms, climate,
and Earth crust, which almost encapsulates the contemporary Gaia hypothesis.
At the end of the eighteenth
and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries the influence of the Romantic
movement was so strong that the primary concern of biologists was the problem of
biological form, and questions of material composition were secondary. This was
especially true for the great French schools of comparative anatomy, or
“morphology,” pioneered by Georges Cuvier, who created a system of
zoological classification based on similarities of structural relations.
During the second half of
the nineteenth century the pendulum swung back to mechanism, when the newly
perfected microscope led to many remarkable advances in biology.
The nineteenth century is best known for the establishment of evolutionary
thought, but it also saw the formulation of cell theory, the beginning of modern
embryology, the rise of microbiology, and the discovery of the laws of heredity.
These new discoveries grounded biology firmly in physics and chemistry, and
scientists renewed their efforts to search for physico-chemical explanations of
When Rudolf Virchow
formulated cell theory in its modern form, the focus of biologists shifted from
organisms to cells. Biological functions, rather than reflecting the
organization of the organism as a whole, were now seen as the results of
interactions among the cellular building blocks.
Research in microbiology—a
new field that revealed an unsuspected richness and complexity of microscopic
living organisms—was dominated by the genius of Louis Pasteur, whose
penetrating insights and clear formulations made a lasting impact in chemistry,
biology, and medicine. Pasteur was able to establish the role of bacteria in
certain chemical processes, thus laying the foundations of the new science of
biochemistry, and he demonstrated that there is a definite correlation between
“germs” (microorganisms) and disease.
Pasteur’s discoveries led
to a simplistic “germ theory of disease,” in which bacteria were seen as the
only cause of disease. This reductionist view eclipsed an alternative theory
that had been taught a few years earlier by Claude Bernard, the founder of
modern experimental medicine. Bernard insisted on the close and intimate
relation between an organism and its environment and was the first to point out
that each organism also has an internal environment, in which its organs and
tissues live. Bernard observed that in a healthy organism this internal
environment remains essentially constant, even when the external environment
fluctuates considerably. His concept of the constancy of the internal
environment foreshadowed the important notion of homeostasis, developed by
Walter Cannon in the 1920s.
The new science of
biochemistry progressed steadily and established the firm belief among
biologists that all properties and functions of living organisms would
eventually be explained in terms of chemical and physical laws. This belief was
most clearly expressed by Jacques Loeb in The
Mechanistic Conception of Life,
which had a tremendous influence on the biological thinking of its time.
The triumphs of
nineteenth-century biology—cell theory, embryology, and
microbiology—established the mechanistic conception of life as a firm dogma
among biologists. Yet they carried within themselves the seeds of the next wave
of opposition, the school known as organismic biology, or “organicism.”
While cell biology made enormous progress in understanding the structures and
functions of many of the cell’s subunits, it remained largely ignorant of the
coordinating activities that integrate those operations into the functioning of
the cell as a whole.
The limitations of the
reductionist model were shown even more dramatically by the problems of cell
development and differentiation. In the very early stages of the development of
higher organisms, the number of their cells increases from one to two, to four,
and so forth, doubling at each step. Since the genetic information is identical
in each cell, how can these cells specialize in different ways, becoming muscle
cells, blood cells, bone cells, nerve cells, and so on? This basic problem of
development, which appears in many variations throughout biology, clearly flies
in the face of the mechanistic view of life.
Before organicism was born,
many outstanding biologists went through a phase of vitalism, and for many years
the debate between mechanism and holism was framed as one between mechanism and
A clear understanding of the vitalist idea is very useful, since it stands in
sharp contrast with the systems view of life that was to emerge from organismic
biology in the twentieth century.
Vitalism and organicism are
both opposed to the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry. Both schools
maintain that although the laws of physics and chemistry are applicable to
organisms, they are insufficient to fully understand the phenomenon of life. The
behavior of a living organism as an integrated whole cannot be understood from
the study of its parts alone. As the systems theorists would put it several
decades later, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Vitalists and organismic
biologists differ sharply in their answers to the question: “In what sense
exactly is the whole more than the sum of its parts?” Vitalists assert that
some nonphysical entity, force, or field must be added to the laws of physics
and chemistry to understand life. Organismic biologists maintain that the
additional ingredient is the understanding of “organization,” or
Since these organizing
relations are patterns of relationships immanent in the physical structure of
the organism, organismic biologists assert that no separate, nonphysical entity
is required for the understanding of life. We shall see later on that the
concept of organization has been refined to that of “self-organization” in
contemporary theories of living systems and that understanding the pattern of
self-organization is the key to understanding the essential nature of life.
biologists challenged the Cartesian machine analogy by trying to understand
biological form in terms of a wider meaning of organization, vitalists did not
really go beyond the Cartesian paradigm. Their language was limited by the same
images and metaphors; they merely added a nonphysical entity as the designer or
director of the organizing processes that defy mechanistic explanations. Thus
the Cartesian split of mind and body led to both mechanism and vitalism. When
Descartes’s followers banned the mind from biology and conceived the body as a
machine, the “ghost in the machine”—to use Arthur Koestler’s phrase—reappeared
in vitalist theories.
The German embryologist Hans
Driesch initiated the opposition to mechanistic biology at the turn of the
twentieth century with his pioneering experiments on sea urchin eggs, which led
him to formulate the first theory of vitalism. When Driesch destroyed one of the
cells of an embryo at the very early two-celled stage, the remaining cell
developed not into half a sea urchin, but into a complete but smaller organism.
Similarly, complete smaller organisms developed after the destruction of two or
three cells in four-celled embryos. Driesch realized that his sea urchin eggs
had done what a machine could never do: they had regenerated wholes from some of
To explain this phenomenon
of self-regulation, Driesch seems to have looked strenuously for the missing
pattern of organization.
But instead of turning to the concept of pattern, he postulated a causal factor,
for which he chose the Aristotelian term entelechy. However, whereas Aristotle’s entelechy is a process of self-realization that unifies matter and
form, the entelechy postulated by
Driesch is a separate entity, acting on the physical system without being part
The vitalist idea has been
revived recently in much more sophisticated form by Rupert Sheldrake, who
postulates the existence of nonphysical morphogenetic
(“form-generating”) fields as causal agents of the development and
maintenance of biological form.
During the early twentieth
century organismic biologists, opposing both mechanism and vitalism, took up the
problem of biological form with new enthusiasm, elaborating and refining many of
the key insights of Aristotle, Goethe, Kant, and Cuvier. Some of main
characteristics of what we now call systems thinking emerged from their
Ross Harrison, one of the
early exponents of the organismic school, explored the concept of organization,
which had gradually come to replace the old notion of function in physiology.
This shift from function to organization represents a shift from mechanistic to
systemic thinking, because function is essentially a mechanistic concept.
Harrison identified configuration and relationship as two important aspects of
organization, which were subsequently unified in the concept of pattern as a
configuration of ordered relationships.
The biochemist Lawrence
Henderson was influential through his early use of the term “system” to
denote both living organisms and social systems.
From that time on, a system has come to mean an integrated whole whose essential
properties arise from relationships between its parts, and “systems
thinking” the understanding of a phenomenon within the context of a larger
whole. This is, in fact, the root meaning of the word “system,” which
derives from the Greek synhistanai (“to
place together”). To understand things systemically literally means to put
them into a context, to establish the nature of their relationships.
The biologist Joseph Woodger
asserted that organisms could be described completely in terms of their chemical
elements, “plus organizing relations.” This formulation had considerable
influence on Joseph Needham, who maintained that the publication of Woodger’s Biological
Principles in 1936 marked the end of the debate between mechanists and
Needham, whose early work was on problems in the biochemistry of development,
was always deeply interested in the philosophical and historical dimensions of
science. He wrote many essays in defense of the mechanistic paradigm but
subsequently came to embrace the organismic outlook. “A logical analysis of
the concept of organism,” he wrote in 1935, “leads us to look for organizing
relations at all levels, higher and lower, coarse and fine, of the living
structure.” Later on Needham left
biology to become one of the leading historians of Chinese science and, as such,
an ardent advocate of the organismic worldview that is the basis of Chinese
Woodger and many others
emphasized that one of the key characteristics of the organization of living
organisms was its hierarchical nature. Indeed, an outstanding property of all
life is the tendency to form multileveled structures of systems within systems.
Each of these forms a whole with respect to its parts while at the same time
being a part of a larger whole. Thus cells combine to form tissues, tissues to
form organs, and organs to form organisms. These in turn exist within social
systems and ecosystems. Throughout the living world we find living systems
nesting within other living systems.
Since the early days of
organismic biology these multileveled structures have been called hierarchies.
However, this term can be rather misleading, since it is derived from human
hierarchies, which are fairly rigid structures of domination and control, quite
unlike the multileveled order found in nature. We shall see that the important
concept of the network—the web of life—provides a new perspective on the
so-called hierarchies of nature.
What the early systems
thinkers recognized very clearly is the existence of different levels of
complexity with different kinds of laws operating at each level. Indeed, the
concept of “organized complexity” became the very subject of the systems
approach. At each level of
complexity the observed phenomena exhibit properties that do not exist at the
lower level. For example, the concept of temperature, which is central to
thermodynamics, is meaningless at the level of individual atoms, where the laws
of quantum theory operate. Similarly, the taste of sugar is not present in the
carbon, hydrogen, arid oxygen atoms that constitute its components. In the early
1920s the philosopher C. D. Broad coined the term “emergent properties” for
those properties that emerge at a certain level of complexity but do not exist
at lower levels.
The ideas set forth by
organismic biologists during the first half of the twentieth century helped to
give birth to a new way of thinking—“systems thinking”—in terms of
connectedness, relationships, context. According to the systems view, the
essential properties of an organism, or living system, are properties of the
whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and
relationships among 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. The
systems view of life is illustrated beautifully and abundantly in the writings
of Paul Weiss, who brought systems concepts to the life sciences from his
earlier studies of engineering and spent his whole life exploring and advocating
a full organismic conception of biology.
The emergence of systems
thinking was a profound revolution in the history of Western scientific thought.
The belief that in very complex system the behavior of the whole can be
understood entirely from the properties of its parts is central to the Cartesian
paradigm. This was Descartes’s celebrated method of analytic thinking, which
has been an essential characteristic of modern scientific thought. In the
analytic, or reductionist, approach, the parts themselves cannot be analyzed any
further, except by reducing them to still smaller parts. Indeed, Western science
has been progressing in that way, and at each step there has been a level of
fundamental constituents that could not be analyzed any further.
The great shock of
twentieth-century science has been that systems cannot be understood by
analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties but can be
understood only within the context of the larger whole. Thus the relationship
between the parts and the whole has been reversed. In the systems approach the
properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the
whole. Accordingly, systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks,
but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is “contextual,”
which is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something
apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the
context of a larger whole.
The realization that systems
are integrated wholes that cannot be understood by analysis was even more
shocking in physics than in biology. Ever since Newton, physicists had believed
that all physical phenomena could be reduced to the properties of hard and solid
material particles. In the 1920s, however, quantum theory forced them to accept
the fact that the solid material objects of classical physics dissolve at the
subatomic level into wavelike patterns of probabilities. These patterns,
moreover, do not represent probabilities of things, but rather probabilities of
interconnections. The subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities
but can be understood only as interconnections, or correlations, among various
processes of observation and measurement. In other words, subatomic particles
are not “things” but interconnections among things, and these, in turn, are
interconnections among other things, and so on. In quantum theory we never end
up with any “things”; we always deal with interconnections.
This is how quantum physics
shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing elementary
units. As we shift our attention from macroscopic objects to atoms and subatomic
particles, nature does not show us any isolated building blocks, but rather
appears as a complex web of relationships among the various parts of a unified
whole. As Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum theory, put it,
“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which
connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby
determine the texture of the whole.”
Molecules and atoms—the
structures described by quantum physics—consist of components. However, these
components, the subatomic particles, cannot be understood as isolated entities
but must be defined through their interrelations. In the words of Henry Stapp,
“An elementary particle is not an independently existing unanalyzable entity.
It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things.”
In the formalism of quantum
theory these relationships are expressed in terms of probabilities, and the
probabilities are determined by the dynamics of the whole system. Whereas in
classical mechanics the properties and behavior of the parts determine those of
the whole, the situation is reversed in quantum mechanics: it is the whole that
determines the behavior of the parts.
During the 1920s the quantum
physicists struggled with the same conceptual shift from the parts to the whole
that gave rise to the school of organismic biology. In fact, the biologists
would probably have found it much harder to overcome Cartesian mechanism had it
not broken down in such a spectacular fashion in physics, which had been the
great triumph of the Cartesian paradigm for three centuries. Heisenberg saw the
shift from the parts to the whole as the central aspect of that conceptual
revolution, and he was so impressed by it that he titled his scientific autobiography
Teil und das Ganze (The Part and the
When the first organismic
biologists grappled with the problem of organic form and debated the relative
merits of mechanism and vitalism, German psychologists contributed to that
dialogue from the very beginning.
The German word for organic form is Gestalt
(as distinct from Form, which
denotes inanimate form), and the much-discussed problem of organic form was
known as the Gestaltproblem
in those days. At the turn of the
twentieth century, the philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels was the first to use Gestalt
in the sense of an irreducible perceptual pattern, which sparked the school
of Gestalt psychology. Ehrenfels characterized a gestalt by asserting that the
whole is more than the sum of its parts, which would become the key formula of
systems thinkers later on.
Gestalt psychologists, led
by Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Köhler, saw the existence of irreducible
wholes as a key aspect of perception. Living organisms, they asserted, perceive
things not in terms of isolated elements, but as integrated perceptual
patterns— meaningful organized wholes, which exhibit qualities that are absent
in their parts. The notion of pattern was always implicit in the writings of the
Gestalt psychologists, who often used the analogy of a musical theme that can be
played in different keys without losing its essential features.
Like the organismic
biologists, Gestalt psychologists saw their school of thought as a third way
beyond mechanism and vitalism. The Gestalt school made substantial contributions
to psychology, especially in the study of learning and the nature of
associations. Several decades later, during the 1960s, the holistic approach to
psychology gave rise to a corresponding school of psychotherapy known as Gestalt
therapy, which emphasizes the integration of personal experiences into
In the Germany of the l920s,
the Weimar Republic, both organismic biology and Gestalt psychology were part
of a larger intellectual trend that saw itself as a protest movement against the
increasing fragmentation and alienation of human nature. The entire Weimar
culture was characterized by an antimechanistic outlook, a “hunger for
wholeness.” Organismic biology,
Gestalt psychology, ecology, and, later on, general systems theory all grew out
of this holistic zeitgeist.
While organismic biologists
encountered irreducible wholeness in organisms, quantum physicists in atomic
phenomena, and Gestalt psychologists in perception, ecologists encountered it in
their studies of animal and plant communities. The new science of ecology
emerged out of the organismic school of biology during the nineteenth century,
when biologists began to study communities of organisms.
Ecology—from the Greek oikos
(“household”)—is the study of the Earth Household. More precisely it
is the study of the relationships that interlink all members of the Earth
Household. The term was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel,
who defined it as “the science of relations between the organism and the
surrounding outer world.”
In 1909 the word Umwelt
(“environment”) was used for the
first time by the Baltic biologist and ecological pioneer Jakob von Uexküll.
In the 1920s ecologists focused on functional relationships within animal and
In his pioneering book, Animal Ecology,
Charles Elton introduced the concepts of food chains and food cycles,
viewing the feeding relationships within biological communities as their central
Since the language of the
early ecologists was very close to that of organismic biology, it is not
surprising that they compared biological communities to organisms. For example,
Frederic Clements, an American plant ecologist and pioneer in the study of
succession, viewed plant communities as “superorganisms.” This concept
sparked a lively debate, which went on for more than a decade until the British
plant ecologist A. G. Tansley rejected the notion of superorganisms and coined
the term “ecosystem” to characterize animal and plant communities. The
ecosystem concept—defined today as “a community of organisms and their
physical environment interacting as an ecological unit”—shaped
all subsequent ecological thinking and, by its very name, fostered a systems
approach to ecology.
The term “biosphere” was
first used in the late nineteenth century by the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess
to describe the layer of life surrounding the Earth. A few decades later the
Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky developed the concept into a full-fledged
theory in his pioneering book, Biosphere.
Building on the ideas of Goethe, Humboldt, and Suess, Vernadsky saw life
as a “geological force” that partly creates and partly controls the
planetary environment. Among all the early theories of the living Earth,
Bernadsky’s comes closest to the contemporary Gaia theory developed by James
Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.
The new science of ecology
enriched the emerging systemic way of thinking by introducing two new
concepts—community and network. By viewing an ecological community as an
assemblage of organisms, bound into a functional whole by their mutual
relationships, ecologists facilitated the change of focus from organisms to
communities and back, applying the same kinds of concepts to different systems
Today we know that most
organisms are not only members of ecological communities but are also complex
ecosystems themselves, containing a host of smaller organisms that have
considerable autonomy and yet are integrated harmoniously into the functioning
of the whole. So there are three kinds of living systems—organisms, parts of
organisms, and communities of organisms—all of which are integrated wholes
whose essential properties arise from the interactions and interdependence of
Over billions of years of
evolution many species have formed such tightly knit communities that the whole
system resembles a large, multicreatured organism.
Bees and ants, for example, are unable to survive in isolation, but in great
numbers they act almost like the cells of a complex organism with a collective
intelligence and capabilities for adaptation far superior to those of its
individual members. Similar close coordination of activities exists also among
different species, where it is known as symbiosis, and again the resulting
living systems have the characteristics of single organisms.
From the beginning of
ecology, ecological communities have been seen as consisting of organisms linked
together in network fashion through feeding relations. This idea is found
repeatedly in the writings of nineteenth-century naturalists, and when food
chains and food cycles began to be studied in the 1920s, these concepts were
soon expanded to the contemporary concept of food webs.
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. One of the most beautiful expressions is found
in the celebrated speech attributed to Chief Seattle:
things are connected
unites one family…
befalls the earth,
the sons and daughters of the earth.
did not weave the web of life;
is merely a strand in it.
he does to the web,
does to himself.
As the network concept
became more and more prominent in ecology, systemic thinkers began to use
network models at all systems levels, viewing organisms as networks of cells,
organs, and organ systems, just as ecosystems are understood as networks of
individual organisms. Correspondingly, the flows of matter and energy through
ecosystems were perceived as the continuation of the metabolic pathways through
The view of living systems
as networks provides a novel perspective on the so-called hierarchies of nature.
Since living systems at all levels are networks, we must visualize the web of
life as living systems (networks) interacting in network fashion with other
systems (networks). For example, we can picture an ecosystem schematically as a
network with a few nodes. Each node represents an organism, which means that
each node, when magnified, appears itself as a network. Each node in the new
network may represent an organ, which in turn will appear as a network when
magnified, and so on.
In other words, the web of
life consists of networks within networks. At each scale, under closer scrutiny,
the nodes of the network reveal themselves as smaller networks. We tend to
arrange these systems, all nesting within larger systems, in a hierarchical
scheme by placing the larger systems above the smaller ones in pyramid fashion.
But this is a human projection. In nature there is no “above” or
“below,” and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting
within other networks.
During the last few decades
the network perspective has become more and more central to ecology. As the
ecologist Bernard Patten put it in his concluding remarks to a recent conference
on ecological networks: “Ecology is networks…
To understand ecosystems ultimately will be to understand networks.” Indeed, during the second
half of the twentieth century the network concept has been the key to the recent
advances in the scientific understanding not only of ecosystems but of the very
nature of life.
© Capra Fritjof, The Web
of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Anchor Books, New
York, 1996. pp. 5-8, 17-35.
Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics, Shambhala, Boston, 1975; 3rd
updated ed., 1991.
Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University
of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.
See Capra, Fritjof, The Turning Point, Simon & Schuster, New
Capra, Fritjof, “The Concept of Paradigm and Paradigm Shift,” Re-Vision,
vol. 9, no. 1, p. 3, 1986.
See Devall, Bill, and George Sessions, Deep Ecology, Peregrine Smith,
Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985.
See Capra, Fritjof and David Steindle-Rast, with Thomas Matus, Belonging
to the Universe, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1991.
Arne Naess, quoted in Devall and Sessions, op. cit., p. 74.
Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, Ballantine, New
York, 1972, p. 449.
See Windelband, Wilhelm, A History of Philosophy, Macmillan, New
York, 1901, pp. 139ff.
See Capra, The Turning Point, op. cit., pp. 53ff.
R. D. Laing, quoted in Capra, Fritjof, Uncommon Wisdom, Simon &
Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 133.
See Capra, The Turning Point, op. cit., pp. 107-8.
Blake, William, letter to Thomas Butts, 22 November 1802; in Alicia Ostriker
(ed.), William Blake: The Complete Poems, Penguin, New York, 1977.
See Capra, Fritjof, Wendezeit
(German edition of the Turning Point), Scherz,
1983, p. 6.
See Haraway, Donna Jeanne, Crystals, Fabrics and Fields: Metaphors of
Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology, Yale University
Press, New Haven, 1976, pp. 40-2.
See Windelband, op. cit., p. 565.
See Webster, G., and B. C. Goodwin, “The Origin of Species: A
Structuralist Approach,” Journal of Social and Biological Structures,
vol. 5, pp. 15-47, 1982.
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgment, 1790; trans., Werer S. Pluhar,
Hackett, Indianapolis, Ind., 1987, p. 253.
See Spretnak, Charlene, Lost Godesses of Early Greece, Beacon Press,
Boston, 1981, pp. 30ff.
See Gimbutas, Marija, “Women and Culture in Goddess-Oriented Old
Europe,” in Charlene Spretnak (ed.), The Politics of Women’s
Spirituality, Anchor, New York, 1982.
See Sachs, Aaron, “Humboldt’s Legacy and the Restoration of Science,” World
Watch, March/April 1995.
See Webster and Goodwin, ibid.
See Capra, The Turning Point, 1975, pp. 108ff.
See Haraway, op. cit., pp. 22ff.
Koestler, Arthur, The Ghost in the Machine, Hutchinson, London, 1967.
See Driesch, Hans, The Science and Philosophy of the Organism,
Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, 1908, pp. 76ff.
Sheldrake, Rupert, A New Science of Life, Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1981.
See Haraway, op. cit., pp. 33ff.
See Lilienfeld, Robert, The Rise of Systems Theory, John Wiley, New
York, 1978, p. 14.
I am grateful to Heinz von Foerster for this observation.
See Haraway, op. cit., pp. 131 and 194.
Quoted ibid., p. 139.
See Checkland, Peter, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, John Wiley,
New York, 1981, p. 78.
See Haraway, op. cit., pp. 147ff.
Quoted in Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975, p. 264.
Quoted ibid., p. 139.
Unfortunately Heisenberg’s British and American publishers did not realize
the significance of this title and retitled the book Physics and Beyond;
See Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Beyond, harper & Row, New
See Lilienfeld, The Rise of Systems Theory, pp. 227ff.
Christian von Ehrenfels, “Über ‘Gestaltqualitäten,’”
1890; reprinted in Weinhandl,
Ferdinand (ed.), Gestalthaftes Sehen, Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1960.
See Capra, The Turning Point, p. 427.
See Heims, Steve J., The Cybernetics Group, MIT Press, Cambridge,
Mass., 1991, p. 209.
Ernst Haeckel, quoted in Maren-Grisebach,
Manon, Philosophie der Grünen, Olzog, München, 1982, p. 30.
Uexküll, Jakob von, Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere,
Springer, Berlin, 1909.
See Ricklefs, Robert E., Ecology, 3rd ed., Freeman, New
York, 1990, pp. 174ff.
See Lincoln, R. J., et al., A Dictionary of Ecology, Cambridge
University Press, New York, 1982.
Vernadsky, Vladimir, The Biosphere, published originally in 1926;
reprinted U.S. edition by synergetic Press, Oracle, Ariz., 1986; see also
Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan, What is Life? Simon & Schuster,
New York, 1995, pp. 44ff.
See Thomas, Lewis, The Lives of a Cell, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp.
Ted Perry, inspired by chief Seattle.
See Burns, T. P., B. C. Patten, and M. Higashi, “Hierarchical Evolution in
Ecological Networks,” in Higashi, M., and T. P. Burns, Theoretical
Studies of Ecosystems: The Network Perspective, Cambridge University
Press, New York, 1991.
 Patten, B. C., “Network Ecology,” in Higashi and Burns, ibid.