Fritjof Capra: The Theory of Living Systems.

Part 1

By James deSantis
a paper for a Political Science class at Athabasca University, Alberta.
March 6, 1999


In 1995, my father introduced me to the book "The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practise of the Learning Organization" by Dr. Peter Senge. Senge describes the Learning Organization as made up of the following disciplines: personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, team learning and systems thinking. Systems thinking is the most important as it underlies and links all the other disciplines. Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static "snapshots"(1). It identifies all phenomena in terms of its integrated whole rather than each of its parts. I was extremely interested in this concept and as I did more research I came across the works of Fritjof Capra. While Senge's systems thinking concepts developed from his interests in engineering and management science, Capra's systems thinking evolved from his relentless search for a new philosophy of life which could be explained scientifically and which was ingrained in the larger human context of Deep Ecology where humans are not separated from Nature and where humans are just a particular strand of the web of life(2) .
  Brief Biography of Fritjof Capra
  Fritjof Capra was born in Vienna, Austria on February 1, 1939. He attended the University of Vienna where he studied with Werner Heisenberg and later acquired his Ph.D. in 1966. He taught and researched theoretical high-energy physics at Orsay in Paris from 1966-1968, the University of California in Santa Cruz from 1968-1970, Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, and at the Imperial College in London. He has published many technical papers and lectured extensively on the philosophical implications of modern science. His most notable works include The Tao of Physics (1975), The Turning Point (1982), screenwriter for the movie MINDWALK (1991), and his most recent book The Web of Life (1997). Capra is also a visiting lecturer at Schumacher College in England. He is currently a Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which is dedicated to nurturing new ecological visions and applying them to current social, economic and environmental problems.
  From Modern Science to System Theory of Life
  According to Capra, early modern science began with the development of

Galileo Galilei

Rene Descartes

Isaac Newton

philosophical thought which led to a split between spirit and matter, and between mind and body. This split can be traced to the 17th century during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, particularly with the works of Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. The modern scientific revolution started with Galileo Galilei when he restricted the role of science to any phenomena which could be measured. The conceptualization of a rational and measurable world continued with Rene' Descartes with the creation of analytical thinking whereby the behaviour of complex phenomena were studied by analysing the properties of their parts. Finally, the world was reduced to a perfect machine governed by exact mathematical formulae when Newton discovered the gravitational law(3). The mechanistic worldview that followed has been credited for the tremendous technological advances in our social and economic system; however, the social consequences of such advancements have contributed to a further division between rich and poor and caused an environment in which life has become physically and mentally unhealthy: polluted air, irritating noise, traffic congestion, chemical contaminants, radiation hazards, and many other sources of physical and mental distress(4). With the rejection of the world machine, Capra went back to the notion of an organic, living, and spiritual universe. He contends that society is moving toward a new paradigm based on awareness of the essential relatedness and interdependence of all phenomena - physical, biological, psychological, societal and cultural(5). This new paradigm starts with a new understanding of living systems whereby organisms have the intrinsic abilities to self regulate and create new complex structure while in a continuous state of chaos(6). This explains how cells combine to form tissues, tissues to form organs, organs to form organisms, and organisms to form social systems(7). This natural ability of organisms to create new structures, materializes through a patterned and continuous exchange of energy and matter within the organism and between the organism and the external living environment. From a sociological point of view, the continuous exchange of energy and matter between organisms has the same conceptual understanding of the continuous exchange of information - conversation and dialogue - which occurs between people in societies(8).


The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practise of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge, Currency Doubleday, page 69 (1990)


The Web of Life, by Fritjof Capra, Anchor Books, pages 6 - 7 (1996)


Order Out of Chaos, by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Bantam Books, page 2 (1984)


The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, Bantam New Age Books, page 235 (1982)


The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, Bantam New Age Books, page 265 (1982)


Among the main contributors to this theory are the chemists Ilya Prigogine and Manfred Eigen; the biologists Conrad Waddington, Paul Weiss, Lynn Margulis, and James Lovelock; writer Dorion Sagan; the anthropologist Gregory Bateson; the neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; the systems theorists Erich Jantsch and Ervin Laszlo.


The Web of Life, by Fritjof Capra, Anchor Books, page 28 (1996)


Need of Transformational Changes in Saskatchewan: The Learning Organization, and Knowledge Economy,by Mario deSantis, September 20, 1998