The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Review by Robert M. Ellis
This book is extraordinarily stimulating and useful. Systems theory is an approach to a wide variety of topics with a great many interactions with the Middle Way. For a while I have been looking for a good book on systems theory in general that is not just about systems theory in one area: but now I have found it. This is not just an introduction, but a compendious overarching textbook explaining systems theory both in general and in particular: in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, sociology, economics, ecology, management, linguistics, religion, health and politics. It really has to be about all of these, because the whole point of systems theory is to see everything in relation to everything else. In that respect, this book practices what it preaches.
Very few people are likely to be expert in all these areas, so it can be a challenging read in those areas that one is less familiar with (for me, that was the natural sciences and the maths), but at the same time well worth the effort, because by the end you really will have an overview. Systems theory is like an infinite set of Russian dolls, drawing your attention to the way in which every system has many other systems within it, and is in turn part of greater systems, all interacting in complex ways. We are part of the system of Gaia, who has many ecosystems within her, but we are also part of human social and cultural systems within those ecosystems. An individual human body is a system, but we are made up of cells, each of which is a system in itself. So we could continue, upwards or downwards or sideways, finding more and more interlocking systems and ever more complexity.
The book is called ‘The Systems View of Life‘ because life is basically systemic in ways that non-organic substances rarely are (though with some exceptions). Whilst non-organic things tend towards entropy, dispersing their energy, living things instead defy entropy, at least for a while, and respond to new conditions with ever-greater degrees of complexity. A living system has a huge network of parts, with every single part being adjusted to every other part, making the whole ‘more than the sum of its parts’. To understand living systems, then, we have to think in systemic ways: that is, in terms of constantly adjusting complex relationships rather than just in terms of linear processes. Every belief about a linear process, especially about a living system, misses too much out by not taking into account all the rest of the network.
It is in that respect that systems theory interacts with the Middle Way (though this book does not explicitly mention the Middle Way). The Middle Way involves the avoidance of absolutes, which is another way of talking about linear beliefs that ignore their context. To think provisionally, as I think is a central part of the Middle Way, is to think systemically, taking into account the complexity of the network and the ways that our linear thinking will always be inadequate. Scepticism is also an implication of systems theory because we, the thinkers or knowers, are part of the system and subject to its adjustments, not separate observers looking on from a neutral space. We are thus subject to basic uncertainty simply due to being embodied systems.
The vast majority of this book is thus highly compatible with the Middle Way, and offers enormous riches in terms of new ways to think about it. The book does acknowledge that uncertainty, but I also felt that it could have explored its implications rather more. At times it is rather prone to just asserting a big-picture holistic ‘truths’ in ways that I felt were inconsistent with that standpoint, and about the only disappointing section I found in the book was the one about religion and spirituality, prone to saying things like “spirituality is a way of being grounded in a certain experience of reality”. In contrast to the carefully argued and evidenced sections on the sciences, there was no attempt to justify this view of religion or compare it with alternatives, and the conventional equation of religious experience with ‘reality’ that is employed seems to me glaringly inconsistent with the systemic perspective expressed in the rest of the book. This is the only section where I was reminded that (a much younger) Fritjof Capra was the author of ‘The Tao of Physics’ – a book I read at least thirty years ago, but still remember being marred by this kind of naïve metaphysical holism. At times a residual determinism also puts in an appearance.
But there is so much else of value in this book that it would be churlish to dwell too long on such complaints. I’m not going to even attempt to summarise all the material on all the topics that are covered here. I learnt a great deal that was new to me, for instance, about the difference between linear and non-linear equations in maths, and the ways in which non-linear equations can be understood as ‘strange attractors’ or visualised as fractals. I also learnt something about the ways in which health can be understood systemically as dynamic balance within an organism, with illness as a response to excessive stress disturbing that balance. From a systemic standpoint, there is no clear boundary between health and the process of integration, and indeed the practice of ethics.
Perhaps the most inspiring section of all, though, is the final one, which draws together an overview of a wide range of systemic actions that are underway to try to address the urgent threats to our planet. The earth is a self-correcting system only up to the point where we knock its ecosystems too far off their dynamic balance through too much relentless linear thinking and narrow goal-driven activity. The familiar problems, like global warming, mass extinction and resource depletion, are given a new, richer context here, and one finishes the book with a much wider sense both of what can be done and what is being done already to address all these problems. Crucial to the recognition here is that the solutions must be systemic. We cannot simply take one problem at a time and engineer our ‘solution’ to it whilst ignoring all the other conditions that the ‘solution’ is upsetting. For example, more systemic awareness in individual humans needs to relate to an economy based on qualitative rather than quantitative growth. Social equality is inseparable from sustainability. New technology, and renewable forms of energy, need to be used to empower individuals across a network rather than being imposed from above.
It’s all a tall order, of course. One point the book could have made more of here is that progress will require a good deal of tolerance of imperfection. Even when we begin trying to think systemically and all see the value of it, we won’t manage to address every condition fully. But on the other hand we’ll be doing so much better than we are at present, where narrow linear thinking continues to dominate the majority of people and institutions.
There are probably easier books you can read about how to save the world, but none as widely adequate and comprehensive as this one. I really recommend it. If you’re not up to reading it all, dip into it and savour a few sections. It’s an amazing compendium of some of the most helpful understanding we need today.