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.
The systems perspective offers important insights into the nature of reality that upend many assumptions forming the basis of the predominant worldview. It tells us that the relationship between things is frequently more important than the things themselves. It emphasizes that everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and that biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we therefore need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.
These principles, it reveals, occur across widely different domains, from heart rhythms to climate variations and from lake ecologies to internet social media connections. It also shows how self-organized systems are fractally embedded within one another: a cell may be part of an organism, which is part of a community, which is nested within an ecosystem, which in turn is part of Gaia.
Transforming our understanding of the universe
The shift from a reductionist to a holistic frame carries major philosophical and ethical implications. In recent decades, physicist Fritjof Capra, along with other leading systems thinkers, has applied this new understanding to an extensive range of human activities, including such disparate fields as health, economics, human relationships, environmental sustainability, and spirituality.
The common theme linking all these domains is the recognition of the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, and the realization that humans are an integral part of the natural world. “We have to regain our experience of connectedness,” writes Capra, “with the entire web of life.”
The systems approach transforms the traditional view of how nature works. Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, it offers an understanding of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection.
It similarly recasts the conventional view of human nature. Instead of seeing each individual as selfish and competitive, seeking only personal advantage, it offers a more nuanced understanding of humanity as also cooperative and altruistic, embedded within larger social and natural networks.
What’s wrong with reductionism?
In some respects, the reductionist approach has never been more successful. By isolating nature’s building blocks and analyzing them to the utmost detail, scientists have been able to read and edit genomes, produce microchips with dazzling processing power, and change the molecular structure of materials through nanotechnology.
However, from another perspective, the current worldview appears to be propelling our global civilization to a precipice where even its continued existence may be in jeopardy. The approach to the natural world encouraged by reductionist thinking – conquering nature and nature as a machine – has created imbalances that are becoming increasingly unstable. As we peer into the future, the threat of uncontrolled climate change looms, in addition to other impending global crises such as deforestation, freshwater scarcity, and an accelerated extinction of species.
The systems approach offers a different way of making meaning from our world. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, it helps us realize our intrinsic connectedness with the natural world. The recognition that we are not separate from nature and we cannot, ultimately, control it, encourages a more participatory approach of trying to influence the complex systems around us for greater harmony.
In place of the metaphors of nature that have led humanity to this precipice, the systems worldview offers up a new metaphor of nature as a web of meaning, where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.
There are enormous stakes in the contest between these two worldviews. The new systems paradigm is already beginning to influence how people think about their relationship with each other and with the natural world. Our global community may indeed be transitioning from conquering nature to experiencing nature as a web of meaning, but is the shift rapid enough to change society’s trajectory?
The future course of humanity may, indeed, be determined by the answer to this question.
Selected references: Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor Books, 1996). Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Fritjof Capra, and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).