The Fritjof Caprarenowned author of The Tao of Physics weaves a yet broader tapestry of reality in The Web of Life. Capra’s readable survey goes beyond quantum physics and eastern mystics to encompass biology, consciousness, and the ecology of the entire earth. From chaos and complexity science, through Heidegger and the Systems Thinkers, right up to the Gaia Theory, Capra explains in fascinating detail the key ideas of twentieth-century philosophers and scientists whose insights may be propelling all of us into the post-modern era.

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The Web of Life:

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

by Fritoj Capra


Selected excerpts from the book. [My comments in brackets.]

p. 6 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.

p. 22 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.

p. 41 What makes it possible to turn the systems approach into a science is the discovery that there is approximate knowledge. … The old paradigm is based on the Cartesian belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge.

p. 42 In systems science every structure is seen as the manifestation of underlying processes. Systems thinking is always process thinking.

p. 52 “We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” Norbert Wiener, 1950 The Human Use of Human Beings p.96
p. 57 Wiener: “Feedback is the control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance.”

p. 59 Walter Cannon introduced the concept of homeostasis a decade earlier in his influential book The Wisdom of the Body. 1963

p. 70 The use of computers in schools is based on the now outdated view of human beings as information processors, which continually reinforces erroneous mechanistic concepts of thinking, knowledge, and communication. Information is presented as the basis of thinking, whereas in reality the human mind thinks with ideas, not with information. As Theodore Roszak shows in detail in The Cult of Information information does not create ideas; ideas create information. Ideas are integrating patterns that derive not from information but from experience.39

p. 85 During the seventies and eighties the key ideas of this early model were refined and elaborated by researchers in several countries who explored the phenomenon of self-organization in many different systems from the very small to the very large–Ilya Prigogine in Belgium, Hermann Haken and Manfred Eigen in Germany, James Lovelock in England, Lynn Margulis in the United States, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in Chile. The resulting models of self-organizing systems share certain key characteristics, which are the main ingredients of the emerging unified theory of living Systems to be discussed in this book.

The first important difference between the early concept of self organization in cybernetics and the more elaborate later models is that the latter include the creation of new structures and new modes of behavior in the self-organizing process. For Ashby all possible structural changes take place within a given “variety pool” of structures, and the survival chances of the system depend on the richness, or “requisite variety,” of that pool. There is no creativity, no development, no evolution. The later models, by contrast, include the creation of novel structures and modes of behavior in the processes of development, learning, and evolution.

A second common characteristic of these models of self-organization is that they all deal with open Systems operating far from equilibrium. A constant flow of energy and matter through the system is necessary for self-organization to take place. The striking emergence of new structures and new forms of behavior, which is the hallmark of self-organization, occurs only when the system is far from equilibrium.

The third characteristic of self-organization, common to all models, is the nonlinear interconnectedness of the system’s components. Physically this nonlinear pattern results in feedback loops; mathematically it is described in terms of nonlinear equations.

Summarizing those three characteristics of self-organizing systems, we can say that self-organization is the spontaneous emergence of new structures and new forms of behavior in open systems far from equilibrium, characterized by internal feedback loops and described mathematically by nonlinear equations.

p. 86 “I was very much interested in the problem of life … I thought always that the existence of life is telling us something very important about nature.” Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Laureate

The crucial breakthrough occurred for Prigogine during the early 1960s, when he realized that systems far from equilibrium must be described by nonlinear equations. The clear recognition of this link between “far from equilibrium” and “non-linearity” opened an avenue of research for Prigogine that would culminate a decade later in his theory of self-organization.See it at Amazon

p. 89 According to Prigogine’s theory, dissipative structures not only maintain themselves in a stable state far from equilibrium, but may even evolve. When the flow of energy and matter through them increases, they may go through new instabilities and transform themselves into new structures of increased complexity.

Prigogine’s detailed analysis of this striking phenomenon showed that while dissipative structures receive their energy from outside, the instabilities and jumps to new forms of organization are the result of fluctuations amplified by positive feedback loops. Thus amplifying “runaway” feedback, which had always been regarded as destructive in cybernetics, appears as a source of new order and complexity in the theory of dissipative structures.

As Maturana and Varela would say, the ways in which we can couple structurally to our environment, and thus the world we bring forth, depend on our own structure.

p. 135 The impossibility of predicting which point in phase space the trajectory of the Lorenz attractor will pass through at a certain time, even though the system is governed by deterministic equations, is a common feature of all chaotic systems. However, this does not mean that chaos theory is not capable of any predictions. We can still make very accurate predictions, but they concern the qualitative features of the system’s behavior rather than the precise values of its variables at a particular time. The new mathematics thus represents a shift from quantity to quality that is characteristic of systems thinking in general. Whereas conventional mathematics deals with quantities and formulas, dynamical systems theory deals with quality and pattern.

p. 158 I shall follow Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in their definitions of those two key criteria ofSee it at Amazon a living system–its pattern of organization and its structure. The pattern of organization of any system, living or nonliving, is the configuration of relationships among the system’s components that determines the system’s essential characteristics. In other words, certain relationships must be present for something to be recognized as,say, a chair, a bicycle, or a tree. That configuration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics is what we mean by its pattern of organization.

The structure of a system is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization. Whereas the description of the pattern of organization involves an abstract mapping of relationships, the description of the structure involves describing the system’s actual physical components.

p. 159 There is a ceaseless flux of matter through a living organism.

This striking property of living systems suggests process as a third criterion for a comprehensive description of the nature of life. The process of life is the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization.

p. 161 Key Criteria of a Living System

  • Pattern of Organization: The configuration of relationships that determines the system’s essential characteristics
  • Structure: The physical embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization
  • Life process: The activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization

p. 181 Living organisms continually maintain themselves in a state far from equilibrium, which is the state of life. Although very different from equilibrium, this state is nevertheless stable over long periods of time, which means that, as in a whirlpool, the same overall structure is maintained in spite of the ongoing flow and change of components.

p. 208 The biologist and philosopher Gail Fleischaker has summarized the properties of an autopoietic network in terms of three criteria: the system must be self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating. To be self-bounded means that the system’s extension is determined by a boundary that is an integral part of the network. To be self-generating means that all components, including those of the boundary, are produced by processes within the network. To be self-perpetuating means that the production processes continue over time, so that all components are continually replaced by the system ‘s processes of transformation.

p. 219 For example, our pancreas replaces most of its cells every twenty-four hours, the cells of our stomach lining are reproduced every three days, our white blood cells are renewed in ten days, and 98 percent of the protein in our brain is turned over in less than one month. Even more amazing, our skin replaces its cells at the rate of one hundred thousand cells per minute. In fact, most of the dust in our homes consists of dead skin cells.

p. 219 …a structurally coupled system is a learning system. As long as it remains alive, a living organism will couple structurally to its environment. Its continual structural changes in response to the environment–and consequently its continuing adaptation, learning, and development–are key characteristics of the behavior of living beings. Because of its structural coupling, we call the behavior of an animal intelligent but would not apply that term to the behavior of a rock. [Yet the future behaviors of a rock is also altered by such events, e.g. if a corner breaks off it may roll: new behavior. –APM]

p. 228 life’s inherent tendency to create novelty.

p. 232 Margulis & Sagan [widow and daughter of Carl Sagan] Microcosmos “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”

p. 240 Free oxygen is toxic because it reacts easily with organic matter, producing so-called free radicals that are extremely destructive to carbohydrates and other essential biochemical compounds. Oxygen also easily reacts easily with atmospheric gases and metals, triggering combustion and corrosion, the two most familiar forms of “oxidizing” (combining with oxygen).

p. 243 The recognition of symbiosis as a major evolutionary force has profound philosophical implications. All larger organisms, including ourselves, are living testimonies to the fact that destructive practices do not work in the long run. In the end the aggressors always destroy themselves, making way for others who know how to cooperate and get along. Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity. Indeed, since the creation of the first nucleated cells, evolution has proceeded through ever more intricate arrangements of cooperation and co-evolution.

p. 264 The words for soul in Sanskrit (atman), Greek (pneuma), and Latin (anima) all mean “breath.” The same is true of the word for “spirit” in Latin (spiritus), in Greek (psyche), and in Hebrew (ruah). These, too, mean, “breath.

p. 267 The Santiago Theory It couples to its environment structurally in other words, through the recurrent interactions, each of which triggers structural changes in the system. The living system is autonomous, however. The environment only triggers the structural changes; it does not specify them.
Now, the living system not only specifies these structural changes, it also specifies which perturbations from the environment trigger them. This is the key to the Santiago theory of cognition.

p. 270 The unique characteristic of the epistemology implied by the Santiago Theory is that it takes issue with an idea that is common to most epistemologies but is rarely mentioned explicitly~the idea that cognition is a representation of an independently existing world.

According to the Santiago Theory, cognition is not a representation of an independent, pre-given world, but rather a bringing forth of a world. What is brought forth by a particular organism in the process of living is not the world but a world, one that is always dependent upon the organism’s structure. Since individual organisms within a species have more or less the same structure, they bring forth similar worlds. We humans, moreover, share an abstract world of language and thought through which we bring forth our world together.

Maturana and Varela do not maintain that there is a void out there, out of which we create matter. There is a material world, but it does not have any predetermined features. The authors of the Santiago Theory do not assert that “nothing exists”; they assert that “no things exist” independent of the process of cognition. There are no objectively existing structures; there is no pre-given territory of which we can make a map~the map making itself brings forth the features of the territory.

p. 274 Computers Revisited

In the previous pages I have repeatedly emphasized the differences between the Santiago theory and the computational model of cognition developed in cybernetics. It might now be useful to take another look at computers in light of our new understanding of cognition, in order to dispel some of the confusion surrounding “computer intelligence.”

A computer processes information, which means that it manipulates symbols based on certain rules. The symbols are distinct elements fed into the computer from outside, and during the information processing there is no change in the structure of the machine. The physical structure of the computer is fixed, determined by its design and construction.

The nervous system of a living organism works very differently. As we have seen, it interacts with its environment by continually modulating its structure, so that at any moment its physical structure is a record of previous structural changes. The nervous system does not process information from the outside world but, on the contrary, brings forth [brings itself forth –APM] a world in the process of cognition. [See also Understanding Computers & Cognition.–APM]See it at Amazon

p. 274 [Common sense, APM speculates, is behavior emergent from a lifetime of a structural change brought about by successive (successful) structural couplings.–APM]

p. 282 The peptides, a family of sixty to seventy macromolecules, were originally studied in other contexts and were given different names-hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins, growth factors, and so on. It took many years to recognize that they are a single family of molecular messengers. These messengers are short chains of amino acids that attach themselves to specific receptors, which exist in abundance on the surfaces of all cells of the body.

p. 284 In other words, all our perceptions and thoughts are colored by emotions.

The discovery of this psychosomatic network implies that the nervous system is not hierarchically structured, as had been believed before.

p. 288 the process of “languaging,” as Maturana calls it, takes place when there is a coordination of coordinations of behavior.

p. 290 Film analyses have shown that every conversation involves a subtle and largely unconscious dance in which the detailed sequence of speech patterns is precisely synchronized not only with minute movements of the speaker’s body, but also with corresponding movements of the listener.

p. 294 The crucial role of the language in human evolution was not the ability to exchange ideas, but the increased ability to cooperate.

p. 295 To overcome our Cartesian anxiety, we need to think systemically, shifting our conceptual focus from objects to relationships.

p. 296 reconnecting, in Latin, religio.

The Web of Life:

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

by Fritoj Capra

See it at Amazon