10/10/14

A Review of Capra and Luisi's The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

As of 2014, there has been much written in the complexity sciences on the all-purpose topics of complex systems and networks and their related scientific methods – I am thinking here, for example, of Byrne and Callaghan’s excellent “Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences” or Mitchell’s “Complexity: A Guided Tour.”

What really hasn’t been written, however, is a cohesive or comprehensive review of the content (the actual empirical outcome) of this cutting-edge research – which, in almost every way imaginable, is creating an entirely new view of human life and the global ecosystem that sustains it.

Enter Capra and Luisi’s new textbook “The Systems View of Life.”

For those new to the complexity science literature (or professors thinking about adopting this book for class), one couldn’t ask for a better writing partnership.  Capra, a physicist by training, is world-renown for this twin books on systems and complexity science (“The Web of Life” and “The Hidden Connections”), as well as his provocative assessment – from a philosophy of science perspective – of the limits of conventional, mechanistic science and the need for a new, holistic, ecologically responsible systems science (“The Tao of Physics,” “The Turning Point” and “The Science of Leonardo”).  In turn, Luisi is an internationally recognized professor of biochemistry and complexity science, having done primary research into such core issues as cellular autopoiesis and synthetic biology.  He is also well known for his in-depth academic books, as well as his two popular works, “The Emergence of Life” and “Mind and Life.”

Divided into three parts, “The Systems View of Life” is a compendium of all-things systems thinking and complexity science:

Part 1 (sections 1 and 2) is devoted to the philosophy of science, focusing on the historical shift from mechanistic thinking (dominated by reductionism, Newtonian mechanics, social physics and a Cartesian view of life) to systems thinking (dominated by the holism, networks, nonlinear mechanics, global network society, and a complex systems view of life).  Capra and Luisi are clear: mechanistic thinking is a victim of its own success, as it was so powerful in solving so many issues over the last hundred or so years that (now) it is simply assumed, almost by definition, that it can solve all current problems, which is wrong, as the problems of today, as Warren Weaver pointed out all the way back in 1948 (Science and Complexity), are complex systems problems.

For professors thinking about this textbook, Part1 is an important addition to the literature – here I am thinking of Hammond’s “The Science of Synthesis” and Klir’s “Facets of Systems Science” – as Capra and Luisi's chapters provide the historical backdrop missing from most introductions to the complexity sciences, helping students, as I already alluded to, understand why the sciences are shifting.

In Part 2 (the third section of the book), Capra and Luisi venture into entirely new territory, doing something (as I have already suggested in my opening remarks) yet to be done in the literature, let alone a textbook: they synthesize the empirical insights of the systems and complexity sciences into a new and cohesive view of life.  As they state in their introduction, “We present a unified systemic vision that includes and integrates life’s biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions.”

The accomplishment of this task cannot be underestimated, as it is significant and should have a lasting impact, demonstrating just how visionary the complexity sciences can be – but only if time is given to their study (I am also thinking of students here) and to collecting and connecting up their insights.

Such a synthesis requires, however, a bit more effort than just connecting the dots – even though Capra and Luisi humbly suggest that this is all they are doing.  Instead, it requires a theoretical frame, which the individual empirical insights often lack.

For Capra and Luisi, the theoretical frame is a network-based view of life.  Networks provide, literally, the links from one topic to the next in their book, in a sort of “scale-free approach to knowledge,” where one moves freely from the human genome and human cognition to social organizations and cities to ecosystems and global society.

But, this is not where things end.  For Capra and Luisi, these links must extend beyond theory and empirical synthesis to application and policy – to helping the world become a better place, to the moral culpability of science and to doing the right thing!

While not by any means unanimously embraced, there is a global morality associated with a significant segment of the systems and complexity science community, which goes by a variety of names, from deep ecology and ecofeminism to post-humanism and global civil society.  Regardless of the term, the view is the same: we face, currently, as a global society, a significant number of complex systems problems, which can be better managed (or even solved) if the political, economic, scientific and public will to employ such a perspective exists!  If not, these problems will most likely be our doom – or, less dramatically, they will result in increased global disparity and inequality and, ecologically speaking, a significantly degraded and decompensated planet.

And so, in the final section of the book – Part 3 – Capra and Luisi employ the complex systems view of life to make sense of and, in turn, address the current list of global social problems we, as a global society, face: from population growth and climate change to economic sustainability and the development of a global civil society.

Again, for a science textbook, this is new territory.  Professors typically do not challenge students to think about the links between their science and the global world in which they live.  But that is, nonetheless, where our immediate future resides: we need our students, as the generation that will inherit all of these problems, to have the tools necessary to address them, and in a way that leads to a sustainable level of economic, political, cultural, and spiritual/existential wellbeing for the greatest number of people possible!  What more, in 500 pages or less, could a professor (or our students) want from a book devoted to making sense of the complex lives we currently live?   And so, whether you are teaching introduction to sociology or macroeconomics, cognitive psychology or cultural anthropology, microbiology or philosophy, it doesn’t matter; make this textbook part of your required reading list.

Our future depends upon it.