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 The Turning Point:

A Science of Living Systems


Fritjof Capra*

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, atomic and subatomic physics led to a dramatic revision of many basic concepts and ideas about reality, which brought about a profound change in our world-view: from the mechanistic world-view of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view; a view that turns out to be very similar to the views of sages and mystics of all ages and traditions.

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; but in the end they were rewarded with deep insights into the nature of matter and its relation to the human mind.

I have come to believe that today our society as a whole finds itself in a similar crisis. We can read about its numerous manifestations every day in the newspapers. We have high inflation and unemployment, we have an energy crisis, we have a crisis in health care, pollution and other environmental disasters, a rising wave of violence and crime, and so on. I believe that these are all different facets of one and the same crisis, and that this is essentially a crisis of perception. Like the crisis in physics in the 1920s, it derives from the fact that we are trying to apply the concepts of an outdated world-viewthe mechanistic world-view of Cartesian-Newtonian scienceto a reality which can no longer be understood in terms of these concepts. We live today in a globally interconnected world, in which biological, psychological, social, and environmental phenomena are all interdependent. To describe this world appropriately we need a holistic, ecological perspective, which the Cartesian world-view does not offer.

What we need, then, is a new paradigma new vision of reality, a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and values. The beginnings of this change, of the shift from the mechanistic to the holistic conception of reality, are already visible in all fields and are likely to dominate the entire new century. The gravity and global extent of our crisis indicate that the current changes are likely to result in a transformation of unprecedented dimensions, a turning point for the planet as a whole.

To discuss the various aspects and implications of the current paradigm shift, I shall first describe the old paradigm, the Cartesian world-view, and its influence on science and society, and shall then discuss the new holistic and ecological world-view and its implications.

The Mechanistic Cartesian World-view

The mechanistic view of the world was developed in the seventeenth century by Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others. Descartes based his view of nature on a fundamental division into two separate and independent realms: that of mind and that of matter. The material universe was a machine and nothing but a machine. Nature worked according to mechanical laws, and everything in the material world could be explained in terms of the arrangement and movement of its parts. Descartes extended this mechanistic view of matter to living organisms. Plants and animals were considered simply machines; human beings were inhabited by a rational soul, but the human body was indistinguishable from an animal-machine.

The essence of Descartes approach to knowledge was his analytic method of reasoning. It consists in breaking up thoughts and problems into pieces and arranging these in their logical order. This approach has become an essential characteristic of modern scientific thought and has proved extremely useful in the development of scientific theories and the realization of complex technological projects. On the other hand, overemphasis on the Cartesian method has led to the fragmentation that is characteristic of both our general thinking and our academic disciplines and to the widespread attitude of reductionism in sciencethe belief that all aspects of complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their constituent parts.

While Descartes postulated the fundamental division between mind and matter and outlined his mechanistic vision of reality, Galileo was the first to combine scientific experimentation with the use of mathematical language. In order to make it possible for scientists to describe nature mathematically, Galileo postulated that science should restrict itself to studying the essential properties of material bodiesshapes, numbers and movementwhich could be measured and quantified. Other properties, like color, sound, taste, or smell, were merely subjective mental projections which should be excluded from the domain of science. This strategy has proved extremely successful throughout modern science, but it has also exacted a heavy toll. A science concerned only with quantity and based exclusively on measurement is inherently unable to deal with experience, quality, or values. Indeed, ever since Galileo, scientists have evaded all ethical and moral issues, and this attitude is now generating disastrous consequences.

The conceptual framework created by Galileo and Descartes was completed triumphantly by Newton, who developed a consistent mathematical formulation of the mechanistic view of nature. From the second half of the seventeen century to the end of the nineteenth, the mechanistic Newtonian model of the universe dominated all scientific thought. The natural sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences, all accepted the mechanistic view of classical physics as the correct description of reality and modeled their own theories accordingly. Whenever psychologists, sociologists, or economists wanted to be scientific, they naturally turned toward the basic concepts of Newtonian physics, and many of them hold on to these concepts even now that physicists have gone far beyond them.

Influence of Cartesian-Newtonian Thought

In biology the Cartesian view of living organisms as machines, constructed from separate parts, still provides the dominant conceptual framework. Although Descartes simple mechanistic biology could not be carried very far and had to be modified considerably during the subsequent three hundred years, the belief that all aspects of living organisms can be understood by reducing them to their smallest constituents, and by studying the mechanisms through which these interact, lies at the very basis of most contemporary biological thinking.

The influence of the reductionist biology on medical thought resulted in the so-called biomedical model, which constitutes the conceptual foundation of modern scientific medicine. The human body is regarded as a machine that can be analyzed in terms of its parts; disease is seen as the malfunctioning of biological mechanisms which are studied from the point of view of cellular and molecular biology; the doctors role is to intervene, either physically or chemically, to correct the malfunctioning of a specific mechanism, different parts of the body being treated by different specialists.

To associate a particular illness with a definite part of the body is, of course, very useful in many cases. But modern scientific medicine has overemphasized the reductionist approach and has developed its specialized disciplines to a point where doctors are often no longer able to view illness as a disturbance of the whole organism, nor to treat it as such. What they tend to do is to treat a particular organ or tissue; and this is generally done without taking the rest of the body into account, let alone considering the psychological and social aspects of the patients illness.

Like biology and medicine, the science of psychology has been shaped by the Cartesian paradigm. Psychologists, following Descartes, adopted a strict division between mind and matter. Based on this division, two approaches were developed for the study of the human psyche, thus creating two major schools of psychology. The structuralists studied the mind through introspection and tried to analyze consciousness into its basic elements, while behaviorists concentrated exclusively on the study of behavior and so were led to ignore or deny the existence of mind altogether. Both these schools emerged at a time when scientific thought was dominated by the Newtonian model of reality. Accordingly, they both modeled themselves after classical physics, incorporating the basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics into their theoretical frameworks.

Meanwhile, working in the clinic and the consulting room rather than the laboratory, Sigmund Freud used the method of free association to develop psychoanalysis. Although this was a very different, revolutionary theory of the human mind, its basic concepts were again Newtonian in nature. Thus the three main currents of psychological thinking in the first decades of the twentieth centurytwo in the academy and one in the clinicwere based not only on the Cartesian paradigm but also on specifically Newtonian concepts of reality.

To conclude on this brief survey of the influences of Cartesian-Newtonian thought, I shall now turn to the social sciences and, in particular, to economics. Present-day economics, like most social sciences, is fragmentary and reductionist. It fails to recognize that the economy is merely one aspect of a whole ecological and social fabric. Economists tend to dissociate the economy from this fabric, in which it is embedded, and to describe it in terms of simplistic and highly unrealistic theoretical models. Most of their basic conceptsefficiency, productivity, GNP, etc.have been narrowly defined and are used without their wider social and ecological context. In particular, the social and environmental costs generated by all economic activity are generally neglected. Consequently, the current economic concepts and models are no longer adequate to map economic phenomena in a fundamentally interdependent world, and hence economists have generally been unable to understand the major economic problems of our time.

Because of its narrow, reductionist framework, conventional economics is inherently anti-ecological. Whereas the surrounding ecosystems are organic wholes which are self-balancing and self-adjusting, our current economies and technologies recognize no self-limiting principle. Undifferentiated growtheconomic, technological and institutional growthis still regarded by most economists as the sign of a healthy economy, although it is now causing ecological disaster, widespread corporate crime, social disintegration, and ever-increasing likelihood of nuclear war.

The situation is further aggravated by the fact that most economists, in a misguided striving for scientific rigor, neglect to acknowledge explicitly the value system on which their models are based. In doing so, they tacitly accept the highly imbalanced set of values which dominates our culture and is embodied in our social institutions.

I have found the Chinese terminology of yin and yang very useful for describing this cultural imbalance. Together with the development of the mechanistic world-view, our culture has consistently favored yang values and has neglected their complementary, yin counterparts. We have favored self-assertion over integration, analysis over synthesis, rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, science over religion, competition over cooperation, expansion over conservation, and so on.

From the earliest times of Chinese culture, yin was also associated with the feminine and yang with the masculine; and in our time feminists have repeatedly pointed out that the values and attitudes favored by our society are those of patriarchal cultures. The Cartesian and the yang-oriented value system have thus been supported by patriarchy; but like the Cartesian paradigm, patriarchy is now in its decline, and the feminist perspective will be an essential aspect of the new vision of reality.

The New Paradigm

The new paradigm emerged in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century and is now emerging in various other fieldsbiology, medicine, psychology, economics, politics, etc. It consists not only of a new value system but is reflected in new forms of social organization and new institutions. It is being formulated largely outside our academic institutions, which remain too closely tied to the Cartesian framework to appreciate the new ideas. To describe the new paradigm, I shall begin with the view of matter that has emerged from modern physics, and I will then discuss the extension of this view to living organisms, mind, consciousness, and to social phenomena.

The material world, according to contemporary physics, is not a mechanical system made of separate objects, but rather appears as a complex web of relationships. Subatomic particles cannot be understood as isolated, separate entities, but have to be seen as interconnections, or correlations, in a network of events. The notion of separate objects is an idealization, which is often very useful, but has no fundamental validity. All such objects are patterns in an inseparable cosmic process, and these patterns are intrinsically dynamic. Subatomic particles are not made of any material substance. They have a certain mass, but this mass is a form of energy. Energy, however, is always associated with processes, with activity; it is a measure of activity. Subatomic particles, then, are bundles of energy, or patterns of activity.

The energy patterns of the subatomic world form stable atomic and molecular structures, which build up matter and give it its macroscopic solid appearance, thus making us believe that it is made up of some material substance. At the everyday, macroscopic level, the notion of a substance is quite useful, but at the atomic level it no longer makes sense. Atoms consist of particles and these particles are not made of any material stuff. When we observe them, we never see any substance; what we observe are dynamic patterns, continually changing into one anothera continuous dance of energy.

The Systems View of Life

The world-view of modern physics is holistic and ecological. It emphasizes the fundamental interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena, and also the intrinsically dynamic nature of physical reality. To extend this view to the description of living organisms we have to go beyond physics, and there is now a framework which seems to be a natural extension of the concepts of modern physics. This framework is known as systems theory, sometimes also called general systems theory. Actually, the term systems theory is somewhat misleading, since it is not a well-defined theory, like relativity theory or quantum theory. It is rather a particular approach, a language, a particular perspective.

The systems approach is concerned with the description of systems, which are integrated wholes that derive their essential properties from the interrelations between their parts. The systems approach, therefore, does not focus on the parts, but rather on the interrelations and interdependencies between the parts. Examples of systems can be found in the living and nonliving world, and I shall concentrate here on living systems.

Every living organism is a living systema single cell, a plant, an animal, or a human being. But living systems need not be individual organisms. There are social systems, such as family or a community, and then there are ecological systems, or ecosystems, in which networks of organisms are interlinked, together with various inanimate components, to form an intricate web of relations involving the exchange of matter and energy in continual cycles. All these are living systems which exhibit similar patterns of organization.

An important aspect of living systems is their tendency to form multileveled structures of systems within systems. For example, the human body consists of organs, each organ of tissue, and each tissue of cells. All these are living organisms, or living systems, which consist of smaller parts and, at the same time, act as parts of larger wholes. Living systems, then exhibit a stratified order, and there are interconnections and interdependencies between all system levels, each level interacting and communicating with its total environment.


What, then, are the patterns of organization that are characteristic of life? They include a variety of processes and phenomena, which can be seen as different aspects of the same dynamic principle, the principle of self-organization. A living organism is a self-organizing system, which means that its order in structure and function is not imposed by the environment but is established by the system itself. Self-organizing systems exhibit a certain degree of autonomy; for example, they tend to establish their size according to internal principles of organization, independent of environmental influences. This does not mean that living systems are isolated from their environment; on the contrary, they interact with it continually, but this interaction does not determine their organization.

The relative autonomy of self-organizing systems sheds new light on the age-old philosophical question of free will. From the systems point of view, both determinism and freedom are relative concepts. To the extent that a system is autonomous from its environment it is free; to the extent that it depends on its environment through continuous interaction and its activity will be shaped by environmental influences. The relative autonomy of organisms usually increases with their complexity, and it reaches its culmination in human beings.

This relative concept of free will seems to be consistent with the view of mystical traditions that exhort their followers to transcend the notion of an isolated self and become aware that we are inseparable parts of the Cosmos in which we are embedded. The goal of these traditions is to shed all ego sensations completely and, in mystical experience, merge with the totality of the Cosmos. Once such a state is reached, the question of free will seems to lose its meaning. If I am the universe, there can be no outside influences and all my actions will be spontaneous and free. From the point of view of mystics, therefore, the notion of free will is relative, limited, andas they would sayillusory, like all other concepts we use in our rational description of reality.

A theory of self-organizing systems has been worked out over the last quarter of the twentieth century in considerable detail by a number of researchers from various disciplines under the leadership of the Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine. One of the most important characteristics of self-organization is the fact that self-organizing systems are always at work. They have to maintain a continuous exchange of energy and matter with their environment to stay alive. This exchange involves taking in ordered structures, such as food, breaking them down and using some of the components to maintain or even increase the order of the organism. This process is known as metabolism.

Another important aspect of the continual activity of living systems is the process of self-renewal. Every living organism continually renews itself: cells breaking down and building up structures, tissues, and organs replacing their cells in continual cycles. In spite of this continual change, the organism maintains its overall structure and appearance. Its components are continually renewed and recycled, but the pattern of organization remains stable. Other aspects of self-organization, which are closely related to self-renewal, are the phenomena of self-healing, regeneration, and adaptation to environmental changes.

In all these processes, fluctuations play a very central role. A living system can be described in terms of interdependent variables which oscillate between certain limits, so that the system is in a state of continual fluctuation. Such a state is known as homeostasis. It is a state of dynamic balance which displays great flexibility. When there is some disturbance, the system tends to return to its original fluctuating state by adapting in various ways to the disturbance. Feedback mechanisms come into play, which tend to reduce any deviation from the balanced state.

The aspects of self-organization I have described so far can all be seen as processes of self-maintenance. What makes the understanding of living systems quite difficult is the fact that they have not only a tendency to maintain themselves in their dynamic state but, at the same time, also show a tendency to transcend themselves, to reach out creatively beyond their boundaries and limitations to generate new structures and new forms or organization. This principle of self-transcendence manifests itself in the processes of learning, development, and evolution.

According to the systems view, the Darwinian theory of evolution represents only one of two complementary views which are both necessary to understand the phenomenon of evolution. The other view sees evolution as an essential manifestation of self-organization, which leads over time to an ordered unfolding of complexity. The two complementary tendencies of self-organization systemsself-maintenance and self-transcendenceare in continual dynamic interplay, and both of them contribute to the phenomenon of evolutionary adaptation.

A New Concept of Mind

In order to apply the systems view of life to higher organisms and, in particular, to human beings, it is necessary to deal with the phenomenon of mind. Gregory Bateson has proposed to define mind as a systems phenomenon characteristic of living organisms, societies, and ecosystems. He has listed a set of criteria which systems have to satisfy for mind to occur. Any system that satisfies those criteria will be able to process information and develop various phenomena which we associate with mindthinking, learning, memory, etc. In Batesons view, mind is a necessary and inevitable consequence of a certain complexity, which begins long before organisms develop a brain and a higher nervous system.

Batesons criteria for mind turn out to be closely related to the characteristics of self-organizing systems. Indeed, mind is an essential property of living systems. As Bateson put it, Mind is the essence of being alive. From the systems point of view, life is not substance or force, and mind is not an entity interacting with matter. Both life and mind are manifestations of the same set of systemic properties; a set of processes which represent the dynamics of self-organization. This will be my definition of mind: the dynamics of self-organization.

The new concept of mind will be of tremendous value in our attempts to overcome the Cartesian division. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen to represent merely different aspects of the same phenomenon. For example, the relationship between mind and brain, which has confused countless scientists ever since Descartes, becomes now quite clear. Mind is the dynamics of self-organization, and the brain is the biological structure through which this dynamic is carried out.

I shall follow Bateson completely in his concept of mind, but shall use a slightly different language. In order to remain closer to conventional language, I shall reserve the term mind for organisms of high complexity and will use mentation, a term meaning mental activity, to describe the dynamics of self-organization at lower levels. Every living systema cell, a tissue, an organ, etc.is engaged in the process of mentation, but in higher organisms and inner world, which is characteristic of mind, it includes self-awareness, conscious experience, conceptual thought, symbolic language, etc. Most of these characteristics exist in rudimentary form in various animals, but they unfold fully in human beings.

The fact that the living world is organized in multileveled structures means that there also exist levels of mind. In the human organism, for example, there are various levels of metabolic mentation, involving cells, tissues, and organs; and then there is the neural mentation of the brain which, itself, consists of multiple levels corresponding to different stages of human evolution. The totality of these mentations constitutes what I would call the human mind, or psyche. In the stratified order of nature, individual human minds are embedded in the larger minds of social and ecological systems, and these are integrated into the planetary mental systems, which, in turn, must participate in some kind of universal or Cosmic Mind. The conceptual framework of the new systems approach is in no way restricted by associating this Cosmic Mind with the traditional idea of God. In this view the Deity is, of course, neither male nor female, not manifest in any personal form, but represents nothing less than the self-organizing dynamics of the entire Cosmos.

Science and Spirituality

The new vision of reality is an ecological vision in a sense which goes far beyond the immediate concerns with environmental protection. It is supported by modern science, and in particular by the new systems approach, but it is rooted in a perception of reality that goes beyond the scientific framework to an intuitive awareness of the oneness of all life, the interdependence of its multiple manifestations, and its cycles of change and transformation. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the Cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is truly spiritual. Indeed, the idea of the individual being linked to the Cosmos is expressed in the Latin root of the word religion, religare (to bind strongly), as well as in the Sanskrit yoga, which means union.

It is thus not surprising that the new vision of reality is consistent with many ideas in mystical traditions. The parallels between science and mysticism are not confined to modern physics but can now be extended, with equal justification, to the new systems biology. Two basic themes emerge again and again from the study of living and nonliving matter and are also repeatedly emphasized in the teachings of mysticsthe universal interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena, and the intrinsically dynamic nature of reality. We also find a number of ideas in mystical traditions that are less relevant, or not yet significant, to modern physics, but are crucial to the systems view of living organisms.

The concept of stratified order plays a prominent role in many traditions. As in modern science, it involves the notion of multiple levels of reality, which differ in their complexities and are mutually interacting and interdependent. These levels include, in particular, levels of mind, which are seen as different manifestations of Cosmic Consciousness. Although mystical views of consciousness go far beyond the framework of contemporary science, they are by no means inconsistent with the modern systems concepts of mind and matter. Similar considerations apply to the concept of free will, which is quite compatible with mystical views when associated with the relative autonomy of self-organizing systems.

The concepts of process, change, and fluctuation, which play such a crucial role in the systems view of living organisms, are emphasized in the Eastern mystical traditions, especially in Taoism. The idea of fluctuations as the basis of order, which Prigogine introduced into modern science, is one of the major themes in all Taoist texts. Because the Taoist sages recognized the importance of fluctuations in their observations of the living world, they also emphasized the oppositebut complementarytendencies that seem to be an essential aspect of life. Among the Eastern traditions, Taoism is the one with the most explicit ecological perspective; but the mutual interdependence of all aspects of reality and the nonlinear nature of its interconnections are emphasized throughout Eastern mysticism. For example, these are the ideas underlying the Indian concept of karma.

Social Implications

The systems view of life has many important consequences not only for science but also for society and everyday living. It will influence our ways of dealing with health and illness, our relation to the natural environment, and will change many of our political structures. All these changes are already taking place. The paradigm shift is not something that will happen some time in the future; it is happening right now.

Cultural historians have often pointed out that the evolution of cultures is characterized by a regular pattern of rise, culmination, decline, and disintegration. The decline will occur when a culture has become too rigidin its technologies, ideas, and/or social organizationto meet the challenge of changing conditions. This loss of flexibility is accompanied by a general loss of harmony, which inevitably leads to the outbreak of social discord and disruption. During this process of decline and disintegration, while the cultural mainstream has become petrified by clinging to fixed ideas and rigid patterns of behavior, creative minorities will appear on the scene and transform some of the old elements into new configurations which become the new rising culture.

While transformation is taking place, the declining culture refuses to change, clinging ever more rigidly to its outdated ideas; nor will the dominant social institutions hand over their leading roles to the new cultural forces. But they will inevitably go on to decline and disintegrate while the rising culture will continue to rise, and eventually will assume its leading role. As the turning point approaches, the realization that evolutionary changes of this magnitude cannot be prevented by short-term political activities provides our strongest hope for the future.

*** *** ***

* Fritjof Capra holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna and has held many research and teaching positions. He is the author of many books, including The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, The Web of Life, and Hidden Connections. He is a current leader in developing ecological literacy programs for public education. To read more about the author and living systems see: www.fritjofcapra.net.



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