Why Life Is Not a Machine But A Self-Organized Fractal
The mechanistic view of Nature
After the invention of the clock, Europeans became transfixed by a vision of Nature as an intricate clockwork designed by God. Since the Scientific Revolution, the view of Nature as a very complicated machine has spread worldwide. One of today’s most influential popularizers of science, Richard Dawkins, has devoted much of his career to disseminating this idea, which has shaped how many people in today’s world think about the underlying structure of nature.
With the advent of computers, the machine metaphor of nature has become even more intoxicating. Dawkins’ avowal that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” underlies much of how people understand our world. In biology, genes are commonly described like computer programmers that “code” for certain traits. In discussions of psychology, countless writers describe the mind as “software” and the body as “hardware” that is “wired” in a certain way.
A major reason for this pervasive view of Nature as a machine has been the spectacular success of scientific disciplines that used it as a model for research. Most science works through a reductionist approach: viewing the world as an assemblage of parts that can each be analyzed separately.
This method has led to enormous success in many fields, permitting the remarkable achievements of science and technology in creating our modern world. It has led to the increased specialization of science, causing researchers to spend their careers gaining detailed expertise in tightly constrained areas of knowledge. It has also, through its success, caused many scientists to conflate their powerful metaphor of nature as machine with a philosophical belief that Nature is in fact a deterministic machine.
Reductionism as an article of faith
The reductionist view has become, for many, an article of faith, causing them to claim that every aspect of our world, no matter how awe-inspiring, is “nothing but” the mechanical motion of particles acting predictably on each other. This view is summed up by Nobel laureate Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the DNA molecule:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
The findings of systems theory show this view to be misguided. In self-organized systems, the complex interaction of many connected elements causes emergent behavior that could never be predicted by a study of each part alone, no matter how detailed. The reductionist view of “nothing but” is analogous to someone observing that Shakespeare’s entire opus is nothing but an assembly of twenty-six letters repeated in different configurations. Whether we are evaluating tornadoes, Shakespeare or life itself, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves.
Why living things aren’t machines
This is especially true of living organisms. Because of the way a living system continually regenerates itself, the parts that constitute it are in fact perpetually being changed. It is the organism’s dynamic patterns that maintain its coherence. Every five days, a person gets a new stomach lining, and every two months a new liver. It is estimated that 98 percent of the atoms in a person’s body are replaced each year. And yet, we are all recognizably the same person that we were a couple of years ago. It is our self-organized patterns that give us our continued identity.
This new understanding of nature as a self-organized, self-regenerating system extends, like a fractal, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. The conventional view of nature as a machine has encouraged many in our culture to view the Earth as a material resource with no intrinsic value, available to be exploited purely for humanity’s needs.
However, in recent decades, the perception of the Earth itself as a self-organized entity has become increasingly influential. Scientist James Lovelock was the first to recognize how the different feedback cycles of the oceans, the atmosphere and the land caused a self-regulating effect responsible for the robust conditions for life to thrive on Earth through billions of years. Lovelock named the entire global system Gaia, after the Greek goddess that personified the Earth. While Gaia lacks some characteristics of a true organism, it has been shown to display the crucial quality of autopoiesis, sustaining itself as a living planet through its network of complex feedback loops.
What systems thinking offers humanity
The systems view offers humanity a new understanding of life, one that is scientifically rigorous while embracing a sense of quality. The systems view doesn’t replace the reductionist approach to science, but offers a new way of apprehending aspects of nature that reductionism is unable to explain. Some things can best be understood through a reductionist approach, breaking them down to their discrete elements and investigating each in turn. Other things – especially what is alive or composed of living entities such as organisms, ecosystems, human communities – can only be fully understood through a process of integration, through recognizing how each part relates to each other and the whole. That is where systems theory contributes to greater human understanding.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 19, "Something Far More Deeply Interfused": The Systems Worldview