Biologists were among the first to recognize that classical science could not explain how life behaves. Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy said that the “then prevalent mechanistic approach… appeared to neglect or actively deny just what is essential in the phenomena of life” (as cited by Joanna Macy in her 1991 book). Systems theorists across many disciplines have now developed a widely respected view of reality as a self-organizing system. Buddhist scholar and wisdom society visionary Joanna Macy (Coming Back to Life, Practices to Reconnect our lives, our world: 1998 book) provides a clear, succinct definition of the key tenets of living system theory:
- Each system, from atom to galaxy, is a whole. That means that is not reducible to its components. Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the interactive relationships between its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating “emergent properties” and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts—just as the wetness of water could not be predicted from oxygen and hydrogen before they combined, or just as the tensile strength of steel far exceeds the combined strengths of iron and nickel. This property of open systems challenges the universal applicability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that cornerstone of classical science on which rest notions of entropy, the running down of all life.
- . . . . Open systems are able to maintain their balance; they self-stabilize. By virtue of . . . flux-equilibrium, systems can self-regulate to compensate for changing conditions in their environment. This homeostatic function is performed by registering/monitoring the effects of their own behavior and matching it with their norms, like a thermostat . . . (via) negative feedback . . . . This is how we maintain our body temperature, heal from a cut, or ride a bicycle.
- Open systems not only maintain their balance amidst the flux, but also evolve in complexity. When challenges from their environment persist, they can fall apart or adapt by reorganizing themselves around new, more responsive norms (via) positive feedback . . . . It is how we learn and how we evolved from the amoeba. But if our changing behaviors are not compatible with the challenges we face, and do not achieve a new balance with them, the positive feedback loop gets out of control and goes into “runaway,” leading eventually to systems breakdown.
- Every system is a “holon”—that is, it is both a whole in its own right, comprised of subsystems, and simultaneously an integral part of a larger system. Thus holons form “nested hierarchies,” systems within systems, circuits within circuits, fields within fields. Each new holonic level—say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family—generates emergent properties that are nonreducible to the capacities of the separate components. Far different than the hierarchies of control familiar to societies where rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holonarchies) order tends to arise from the bottom up . . . . Order and differentiation go hand and hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.
We also recommend Ken Wilber’s systems theory summary in Chapter 2 of Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality (1995) and Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life (1996).