Patterns in nature By the middle of the twentieth century, leading thinkers were developing the holistic way of thinking into a formal science of its own, which they called systems theory.
Austrian biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, was determined to place systems thinking on a firm mathematical foundation. His efforts were paralleled in the United States by Norbert Wiener and other researchers, who developed the science of cybernetics, an investigation of the dynamics of control and communication in both nature and machines. As he pursued this inquiry, Wiener became impressed by how patterns seemed to be a fundamental characteristic of reality, observing: “We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”
An idealized universe
The scientific community, however, had developed such impervious barriers between its various sub-disciplines that the majority of mainstream scientists still had very little understanding of the basic principles of systems thinking. In fact, they were conducting their research on a foundation that was incompatible with much of what systems theory proposed.
Newton’s laws, and the sciences they spawned, had been based on a conceptualization of an idealized universe that truly existed only in the mathematical abstractions they postulated. They worked so well because, in many cases, the messy complications of the real world had relatively little effect. They were superb at predicting the movements of planets in the vacuum of space, and almost as effective in determining where a cannonball would go, since the variable effects of such disturbances as wind were generally insignificant.
In pursuing their disciplines, scientists would often use the Latin phrase ceteribus paribus – “other things being equal” – to dismiss the random noise that didn’t fit into the theory. Now, in systems thinking, a new set of methods were emerging to investigate the unequal world of those other things.
Discovering principles of nature
A brilliant mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, developed a new branch of mathematics, called fractal geometry, to describe this non-Newtonian world. His book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, published in 1983, had a profound effect on the field of mathematics.
Mandelbrot explained in clear terms the limitations of classical theory:
Most of nature is very, very complicated. How could one describe a cloud? A cloud is not a sphere. . . . It is like a ball but very irregular. A mountain? A mountain is not a cone. . . . If you want to speak of clouds, of mountains, of rivers, of lightning, the geometric language of school is inadequate.
The fractal forms that Mandelbrot’s mathematical formulas create have a delicate grace that mirrors the beauty of nature itself. Fractal geometry helped instigate a deeper understanding of patterns in nature. One profound insight was that the same design tends to repeat itself at larger or smaller scales. Coastlines, cloudscapes, sand dunes, and rivers all demonstrate what is known as scale independency, creating similar patterns both close up or from a distance. Biologists began to recognize these fractal patterns in all kinds of living systems: leaf veins, tree branches, blood vessels, lung brachia, and neurons. Social scientists discovered similar fractal principles in all kinds of human constructions: cities, music, and stock market fluctuations.
A computer-generated fractal image of a fern
The enormous range of domains where fractals could be identified led to an even more profound realization: there seemed to be certain principles in nature itself that applied across a whole array of disciplines. The traditional approach to science, where specialists focused their lives on one tiny patch of knowledge, seemed incapable of recognizing these cross-disciplinary underlying structures in the nature of reality.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 19 | "Something Far More Deeply Interfused": The Systems Worldview
Selected references: Fritjof Capra, and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Nigel Goldenfeld, and Leo P. Kadanoff, "Simple Lessons from Complexity," Science 284, no. 2 (April 1999): 87–89.