JustinMcGuinnessEnvironmentalScience12/3/17The Web of Life Book ReportFor my book report, I decided toread The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra.
One of the main focuses of this book ishow Capra describes the shift of linear thinking to systems thinking forstudying the environment. He dives in depth about the history and findings ofmathematical and scientific methods, and their evolution over time. He sees theworld as an integrated whole, rather than a collection of parts, and describesthis paradigm as a “holistic worldview.” According to this perception, not onlydoes it have profound implications for science and philosophy, but also forbusinesses, politics, healthcare, education, and everyday life.
Capra starts off the book by stating”the more we study the problems of our time, the more we come to realize thatthey cannot be understood in isolation. They are systematic problems…” One ofthe ways to combat this is by increasing deep ecological awareness whichrecognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings, and views people as only astrand in the web of life. As a society, people need to ask deeper questions,challenging old perspectives (anthropocentric) in order to fully understand theinterconnectedness of the world. Most of what scientists do is life destroying,not life-preserving, such as the development of weapons systems, releasing ofchemicals into the environment, and testing on animals. If everyone had deepecological awareness, then we would all be inclined to care for all of nature.He then goes on to talk about the development of systems thinking throughouthistory. Up until the Renaissance the view of the word as a living, spiritualbeing was replaced by Descartes view (Cartesian) of the world as a machine byusing analytic thinking, or reductionist methods. It wasn’t until recently thatthis viewpoint changed again back to the world as a living system, with theintroduction of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis.
“…Systems cannot beunderstood by analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsicproperties but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.”This reverses the relationship between the part and whole. In order to properlyunderstand an ecosystem, the networks within must be understood.
Although itmust be noted that science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding.No matter how many connections are taken into account, we will always be forcedto leave some out. Later on, Capra discusses thefounding of cybernetics, which is the control and communication in the animaland machine. The study of it is primarily concerned with patterns ofcommunications, especially in closed loops and networks. They would try tounderstand the brain as a neural network and create specialized mathematicaltechniques to analyze its patterns.
This helped lead to the development ofartificial intelligence and modern computers, which are used to computeincredibly large formulas in seconds and simulate what can happen in the realenvironment. It also contributed to the concept of self-organization.Cyberneticists distinguished two different types of feedback which wereself-balancing, and self-reinforcing feedback.
Self-balancing feedback, alsoknown as negative feedback, is where a change in A produces a change in B inthe same direction. Self-reinforcing feedback, also known as positive feedback,is where a change in a produces a change in B in the opposite direction. Thesetypes of feedback loops allow living organisms to maintain homeostasis, whichis the stable condition of an organism and its internal environment. Capra thentalks about how there are two approaches to living systems theory, the study ofstructure which can be weighed and measured, and the study of pattern which hasto be mapped. The study of pattern is a very important element of understandingliving systems because systems arise from ordered relationships, which areproperties of pattern.
“The pattern of life, we might say, is a network patterncapable of self-organization.” Self-organization is the spontaneous emergenceof new structures and forms of behavior in open systems far from equilibrium,distinguished by internal feedback loops and described by nonlinearmathematical equations. Using this idea, James Lovelock developed Gaia, theidea that planet earth itself is an entire living, self-organizing system. Herecognized Earth’s atmosphere as an open system operating far from equilibrium,characterized by a constant flow of energy and matter. This identifies thefeatures of life. Capra then explains how the development of modern computersplays a role in dynamical systems theory, which is a mathematical theory whoseconcepts are applied to a wide range of phenomena and trace out solutions ascurves or graphs.
It is the first type of mathematics that allows scientists todeal with the full complexity of nonlinear phenomena, which includes most ofthe real world. Capra goes on to talk about some of the histories of geometry,algebra, calculus, and their applications to deal with dynamical systems. In the second half of the book,Capra starts with his central question – what is life? He explains he believesthat the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesisof two approaches: the study of pattern and the study of structure. Thepatterns of living systems are the configurations of relationships among thesystems components that determines its characteristics.
The structure of asystem is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization, or describingthe systems physical components. Although, Capra notes there are three key criteriafor a living system: the pattern of organization, structure, and lifeprocesses. The life processes are the activities involved in the continualembodiment of the systems pattern of organization. The pattern of organizationof a living system is always a network pattern. One of the key characteristicsof a living network is that it continually produces itself, like cells forexample.
Living systems interact with the environment through a continualexchange of energy and matter, although this interaction does not determinetheir organization since they are self-organizing. Also, according to thetheory of living systems, mind is the very process of life. Capra then talksabout recycling being a key principle of ecology. In open systems, there is nowaste. When a living organism produces waste, what is considered waste for thatspecies is food for another, so that it is recycled and the ecosystem remainswaste free. A living organism is characterized by a continual flow and changein its metabolism, which involves thousands of chemical reactions far fromequilibrium. When an organism is in chemical equilibrium it is considered dead.He mentions Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures, which demonstratesthat irreversible processes play an indispensable role.
The theory shows thatcatalytic loops that are essential to organisms lead to instabilities throughrepeated self-amplifying feedback, and how new structures of increasingcomplexity emerge at successive bifurcation points. “Irreversibility is the mechanismthat brings order out of chaos. Bifurcation points are thresholds of stabilityat which the dissipative structure may break down or break through to one ofseveral new states of order.
At bifurcation points, dissipative structures showextraordinary sensitivity to small fluctuations in their environment. Smallrandom fluctuations called noise, chooses the path it goes. Because livingsystems exist in continually fluctuating environments, we never know whenfluctuations will happen at bifurcation points, so we can never predict thefuture path of the system. It turns out nature is more like human nature thanit is a machine; it’s unpredictable, sensitive to the surrounding world, andinfluenced by small fluctuations.
Capra goes on to talk about the worksof Maturana and Valera, and how they realized that since the pattern ofautopoiesis is the defining characteristic of a living system, there is noautopoietic system in nature simpler than a cell. Autopoiesis is a networkpattern in which the function of each component is to participate in theproduction or transformation of other components. He then shifts to the worksof Stuart Kauffman and his colleagues, and their use of binary networks tomodel extremely complex systems, such as chemical and biological networkscontaining thousands of coupled variables that could never be described bydifferential equations.
A binary network is made up of nodes capable of twodistinct values, labeled ON and OFF. The value of each node is determined bythe prior values of neighboring nodes according to a switching rule. Eventually, the network or system must returnto a state it has already encountered, determining its behavior. It will passthrough the same cycles. A wide variety of living systems can be represented bybinary networks, such as immune systems, organ systems, and ecosystems. Aftergoing into more detail about binary networks, Capra mentions Gail Fleischakerwho summarized the properties of an autopoietic network into three criteria:the system must be self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating. “To beself-bounded means that the systems extension is determined by a boundary thatis an integral part of the network.
To be self-generating means that allcomponents, including those of the boundary, are produced by processes withinthe network. To be self-perpetuating means that the production processescontinue over time, so that all components are continually replaced by thesystems process of transformation.” There hasn’t been much work done on studyingthe autopoiesis of multicellular organisms, ecosystems, and social systemssurprisingly. All living systems are networks of smaller parts, and the web oflife is a multilayered structure of living systems nesting within other livingsystems – networks within networks. In all of these networks, the smallestliving components are cells, which would make all living systems autopoietic.Surprisingly, there might be more evidence for the autopoietic nature of Gaiathan for ecosystems.
Gaia is self-bounded by the atmosphere, self-generating byconverting inorganic substances into organic living batter and back into soil,oceans, and air, and Gaia is self-perpetuating by components of the oceans,soil, and air, as well as organisms being continually replaced by the processesof production and transformation. Capra then talks about the unfolding of lifeand reviews the history of evolutionary thought including Darwinism andNeo-Darwinism, systems view, and evolution through symbiosis. There were threebroad ages in evolution called the prebiotic, age of the microcosm, and themacrocosm. The prebiotic age is where the conditions for the emergence of lifewere formed. It lasted around 1 billion years, from the formation of the earthto the creation of the first cells, beginning life around 3.
5 billion yearsago. The age of microcosm lasted for 2 billion years, in which bacteria andother microorganisms invented all the basic processes of life and establishedthe global feedback loops necessary for the self-regulation of Gaia. The age ofthe macrocosm was started around 1.5 billion years ago, where the atmospherewas largely established and the evolution of life takes place. There are sixmain chemical ingredients for life: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur,and Phosphorus. These elements are present in all living organisms. The firstcells on Earth had to develop a variety of metabolic pathways for extractingfood and energy from the environment.
Some of the ways this was accomplished isby fermentation and photosynthesis. Fermentation is the breaking down of sugarsand conversion into ATP molecules, which fuels all cellular processes. Earlyfermenting bacteria lived off chemicals in the earth, in the mud and waterprotected by harsh UV rays. Photosynthesis is the conversion of sunlight, CO2,and water into energy which fuels cellular processes. Although, early bacteriaphotosynthesized using hydrogen sulfide instead of water, and combined it withsunlight and CO2 to form organic compounds, and did not produce oxygen untillater on.
Capra then continues to talk about the evolution of bacteria, plants,animals, and the evolution of humans. In Chapter 11, Capra says that mindis not a thing, but a process. The process of knowing is cognition andidentifies itself with the process of life. The interactions of a living systemwith its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of livingitself is a process of cognition.
As Maturana and Varela put it, “To live is toknow.” According to the Santiago theory, cognition is not a representation ofan independent, pre-given word, but rather a bringing forth of a world.Individual species have more or less the same structure, so they bring forthsimilar worlds. Humans share an abstract world of language and symbols in whichwe bring forth our world.
Capra then discusses some of the works of Maturanaand Bateson and their ideas of cognition and goes on to talk about the nervoussystem, immune system, and endocrine system interconnecting into one network.In Chapter 12, he starts off by talking about self-awareness and that as far aswe know, is only manifest in higher animals and fully unfolds in the humanmind. Self-awareness is unexplainable in terms of physics and chemistry, andcan’t even be understood through the biology or psychology of a singleorganism. He goes into language and communication and says that mutualcoordination of behavior is the key characteristic of communication for allliving organisms. He notes that our ego does not have any independent existencebut is a result of our internal structural coupling.
At the end of the book,Capra says that the power of abstract thinking has led us to treat the naturalenvironment as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by differentinterest groups and that we have extended this view into our society – dividinginto different nations, religious, and political groups. He finishes chapter 12by saying “The belief that all these fragments – in ourselves, in ourenvironment, and in our society – are really separate has alienated us fromnature and from our fellow human beings and thus has diminished us. To regainour full humanity, we have to regain our experience of connectedness with theweb of life. This reconnecting, religio in Latin, is the very essence of thespiritual grounding of deep ecology.” In the epilogue, Capra emphasizesecological literacy, which means understanding the principles of organizationof ecological communities and using those principles for creating sustainablehuman communities. Since the basic pattern of life is a network pattern, therelationships among the members of an ecological community are nonlinear andinvolve multiple feedback loops. In this fashion, nature is cyclical, whereasbusiness is linear. An ecosystems feedback loops allow for the continualrecycling of nutrients, which leaves them without waste.
Businesses, on theother hand, take resources, turn them into products and waste, sell them toconsumers who consume the product and in turn generate more waste. In order tomake businesses more cyclical like nature, we need to fundamentally redesignthem. The start of that is to move toward solar, wind, and hydropower sincethey are economically renewable sources of energy. Another way is to have anecological tax reform, and shift the burden of income taxes to “eco-taxes”,which would apply full cost pricing to products.
Capra also notes thatecological literacy includes the knowledge that both sides of a conflict can beimportant, depending on the context, and that the contradictions within acommunity are signs of its diversity and vitality, contributing to theviability of the system. The more complex the network is, the more complex itspattern of interconnections are, the more resilient it will be. A diversecommunity is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations.However, if the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals,diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction.
Although if acommunity is aware of the interdependence of its members, diversity will enrichall relationships and the community. Capra ends the book by stating thesurvival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy, our ability tounderstand principles of ecology and try to live accordingly.