Modern Science is Realising the World is a Living Network
One Earth, One Humanity, One Future, is a concept that has been conveyed by poets, philosophers and spiritual teachers throughout the ages. One of its most beautiful expressions is found in the celebrated speech attributed to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes of what is now the state of Washington in the north-west of the USA:
This we know:
all things are connected
like the blood
that unites one family…
Whatever befalls the earth,
befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
he does to himself. – Chief Seattle
Web of Life
The same idea is at the very core of the Earth Charter, that remarkable declaration of 16 fundamental principles to build a just, sustainable and peaceful world. The Preamble of the Earth Charter states:
We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future…We must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.
The time-honoured notions of the web of life and the Earth community, or community of life, are fully consistent with a new conception of life that has emerged in science over the last 30 years.
A New Conception
The systems view of life is a new understanding about life on earth that is emerging at the forefront of contemporary science. The universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. It is a conception of life based on systemic thinking and some of the new concepts and mathematical techniques of complexity theory.
It allows us for the first time to integrate the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life. We have discovered that the material world is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.
The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.
The Systems View
Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organisation, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.
I call this new science “the systems view of life” because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns and context.
I call this new science “the systems view of life” because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as “systems thinking”, or “systemic thinking”. Thinking in terms of relationships is crucial for ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “household” – is the science of the relationships among various members of the Earth Household.
One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs (i.e. networks of organisms); organisms are networks of cells, organs and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules.
The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigm from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphor: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
Closer examination of these living networks has shown that their key characteristic is that they are self-generating. In a cell, for example, all the biological structures – the proteins, the enzymes, the DNA, the cell membrane, and so on – are continually produced, repaired and regenerated by the cellular network. Similarly, at the level of a multicellular organism, the bodily cells are continually regenerated and recycled by the organism’s metabolic network.
Living networks continually create or recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. In this way they undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web-like patterns of organisation. This coexistence of stability and change is indeed one of the key characteristics of life.
Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself.
Life in the social realm can also be understood in terms of networks, but here we are not dealing with chemical processes: we are dealing with processes of communication. Social networks, as you know, are networks of communications. Like biological networks, they are self-generating, but what they generate is mostly non-material. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself.
Mind and Consciousness
One of the most important, and most radical, philosophical implications of the systems view of life is a new conception of the nature of mind and consciousness, which finally overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter that has haunted philosophers and scientists for centuries.
In the 17th century, René Descartes based his view on the fundamental division between two independent and separate realms – that of mind, which he called the “thinking thing” (res cogitans), and that of matter, the “extended thing” (res extensa).
Following Descartes, scientists and philosophers continued to think of the mind as some intangible entity and were unable to imagine how this “thinking thing” is related to the body. The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a “thing”, and to realise that mind and consciousness are not things, but processes.
The Process of Knowing
This novel concept of mind was developed during the 1960s by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who used the term ‘mental process’, and independently by the biologist Humberto Maturana. Their central insight 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. The self-organising activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity. The interactions of a living organism – plant, animal or human – with its environment are cognitive interactions. Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected.
Mind – or, more accurately, mental activity – is immanent in matter at all levels of life. For the first time, we have a scientific theory that unifies mind, matter and life.
Systemic Problems – Systemic Solutions
I want to emphasise that my synthesis of the systems view of life is not only theory, but that it has very concrete applications. We can use the systems view of life for dealing with the problems of our multifaceted global crisis.
Today, it is becoming more and more evident that none of these problems – energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war – can be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. As Pope Francis puts it in his remarkable encyclical Laudato si’:
Our common home is falling into serious disrepair… [This is] evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation… It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.
These systemic problems require corresponding systemic solutions – solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation, but deal with it within the context of other related problems. Systemic solutions, therefore, tend to solve several problems simultaneously, whereas systemic problems have harmful consequences in several different areas.
Let me take agriculture as an example. If we changed from our chemical, large-scale industrial agriculture to organic, community-oriented, sustainable farming, this would contribute significantly to solving three of our biggest problems:
- It would greatly reduce our energy dependence, because we are now using one fifth of our fossil fuels to grow and process food.
- The healthy, organically grown food would hugely improve public health, because many chronic diseases – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and so on – are linked to our diet.
- Organic farming would contribute significantly to alleviating climate change, because an organic soil is a carbon-rich soil, which means that it draws CO2 from the atmosphere and locks it up in organic matter.
Where to Now
This is just one example of a systemic solution. Over the last few decades, the research institutes and centres of learning of the global civil society have developed and proposed hundreds of such systemic solutions all over the world.
Resurgence has been at the forefront of documenting and discussing these solutions for the last 50 years with the unique blend of science, art, philosophy, spirituality and activism that has become its hallmark.
By Fritjof Capra on Sunday February 5th, 2017