The Web Of Life

The Web of Life:A New Understanding of Living Systems

By Fritjof Capra

Overview:Fritjof Capra wrote this book for the general reader keeping most the language nontechnical and defining all technical terms.Chapters 5, 6 and 9 do get technical and he states that the reader can skim these chapters and not lose the overall meaning of the book. The book is basically about “a new scientific understanding of life at all levels of living systems – organisms, social systems, and ecosystems.”  Capra argues that we need to become ecologically literate (i.e. understand the principles of organization of ecological communities and use those principles to create sustainable human communities) so that we may reconnect with the web of life. This book is a conceptual bridge between ecological communities and human communities.

This summary covers Chapters 1, parts of 2, 3, part of 4, 7, parts of 9, parts of 10.Sorry but I didn’t have enough time to write up a good summary for Chapter 12 and the Epilogue but they are rich so worth your time.Combined they consist of 17 pages.

Chapter 1Deep Ecology – A New Paradigm

In this chapter Fritjof defines some of the ways that people have tried to explain life.

Deep Ecology:Considers the world an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts.Recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena.

Holistic View:Looks at the functional whole and acknowledges the interdependence of the parts.

Ecological View:Agrees with the Holistic View but ADDS that the whole is embedded in social and natural context.

For example:A Holistic View of a bicycle sees the bicycle as a functional whole that works because of the interdependence of its parts.An Ecological View adds that the context of all this is essential to understand the bicycle.The Ecological View looks at where the raw materials to build the bike came from, how it was manufactured, how its use affects the environment and the community, etc.

 Shallow and Deep Ecology

Shallow Ecology – anthropocentric (separates humans as outside of nature) and gives instrumental or “use” value to nature.

Deep Ecology – acknowledges the intrinsic value of all beings/life.Acknowledges the world as a network.

Arne Naess founded Deep Ecology as a philosophy in the early 1970s with this distinction between shallow and deep.The distinction is now widely accepted as a way of referring to a major division between current environmental thought.

 Social Ecology – There are many different schools of Social Ecology (Marxist, anarchist, etc who use their own concepts to analyze different patterns of social domination).Social Ecologists recognize the fundamentally antiecological nature of many of our technologies, processes and social and economic structures.

Ecofeminism – Could be viewed as a school of Social Ecology because it addresses this same issue but it does so within the context of patriarchy.Ecofeminism says that the patriarchal domination of women by men is the prototype of all domination.Exploitation of nature goes hand in hand due to the natural kinship between feminism and ecology.

 So…this is all told to us as an explanation of who is questioning current paradigms (economic, growth, political, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, racism) and how these paradigms are being approached.

 Chapter 2The Rise of Systems Thinking 

This chapter gives the history of dominant paradigms that have come and gone and how Systems Theory was born.I’ve pulled a few of the main points out of it – but the summary of this chapter is incomplete.

 Cartesian Mechanics – This school of thought says that the laws of biology can be reduced to physics and chemistry.The world is basically a machine and we can understand the world by breaking things down and looking at the parts.This worldview was brought about by discoveries made in the fields of physics; astronomy and mathematics known as the Scientific Revolution and is often associated with the following names.Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon and Newton.

 Descartes created a method of analytic thinking, which consists of breaking up complex phenomena into pieces to understand the behavior of the whole from the properties of its parts.He divided the world into mind and matter and said that exact mathematical laws governed the matter (including living beings).

 The Romantic Movement – This is in direct opposition to the Cartesian paradigm.Goethe talked/wrote about “Each creature (being) patterned gradations of one great harmonious whole.”He was the first to use the term “morphology” for the study of biological form from a dynamic, developmental point of view.He was concerned with a qualitative understanding of patterns.

 Kant believed that science could only offer a mechanical view of the world and that this wasn’t sufficient so there was a need to supplement scientific knowledge with the idea that nature is purposeful.

 This Romantic view of nature led some scientists to view the entire planet as a whole, integrated living being.GAIA Hypothesis.The Gaia Hypothesis has a long tradition through history.It would be worth it to go to the index and read about it in the various places it is found in the book.

 19th Century Mechanism – The pendulum swings back with the newly perfected microscope.Many new discoveries such as those listed below caused biology to become grounded once again in chemistry and physics.

 Evolution Theory (establishment of)

Cell Theory (formulation of)

Modern Embryology (beginning of)

Microbiology (rise of)

Laws of Heredity (discovery of)

 Vitalism and Organicism – say that life can’t be explained that way.Both are opposed to the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry and maintain that though applicable, they are insufficient to fully understand the phenomenon of life.Vitalists and Organismic biologists differ sharply in their explanation of HOW the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

 Vitalism – Vitalists say that in order to understand the parts of life (physical and chemistry) some nonphysical entity, force or field must be added to the laws of physics and chemistry.This doesn’t really challenge Cartesian Mechanics – rather it just adds a nonphysical entity as the designer or director of the organizing processes that defy mechanistic explanation.

 Organismic biologists say that what needs to be added is an understanding of “organization” or “organizing relationships.”


 System – the word derives from the Greek word synhistanai (to place together) – to understand things systemically literally means to put them into a context – to establish the nature of their relationships.

 Quantum Physics – Quantum theory says that material objects dissolve at the subatomic into wavelike patterns of probability.These subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities.(For example the taste of sugar is not present in the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms that constitute its components.)SO…now physicists were saying that relationship and organization of parts were important.

 Classical mechanics – properties and behavior of parts = whole

Quantum mechanics – the whole determines the behavior of the parts.

 Gestalt Psychology – Gestalt means “organic form” in German, which is very specifically different from the word that means “form.”Gestalt asserts that pattern is central and that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.This is key to systems thinkers.Gestalt therapy emphasizes the integration of personal experience into meaningful wholes.

 Ecology – From the Greek word “oikos” meaning household.This is the study of the relationships that interlink all members of the Earth Household.Term was first coined in 1866 by German biologist Ernst Haeckel.Defines as the science of relations between the organism and the surrounding outer world.

 Chapter 3Systems Theories

 Key criteria for SYSTEMS THINKING formulated by organismic biologists, Gestalt psychologists and ecologists.

  • Shift from parts to whole (systemic properties are destroyed when a system is dissected into isolated elements)
  • The ability to shift one’s attention back and forth between systems levels.The systemic properties of a particular level are “emergent” properties since they emerge at that particular level.
  • Contextual and environmental thinking – understanding the properties of the parts can only be done in context.
  • Shift from objects to relationships.
  • Network thinking – this is replacing the metaphor of knowledge as a building.
  • Every structure is seen as the manifestation of underlying processes.Systems thinking is always process thinking.

 The Bootstrap Philosophy – accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever.No constants, no laws, no equations.The material universe is seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events.This philosophy says that the phenomena of physics are no more fundamental than those of biology or psychology – they are just different levels.

 Tektology – the first attempt in the history of science to arrive at a systematic formulation of the principles of organization operating in living and non-living systems.(Read more if you want on page 43)

 General Systems Theory – Became a major scientific movement and influenced numerous new methodologies and application (e.g. systems engineering, systems analysis, etc.)It is a new science of “wholeness.”(Read about this on page 46 – there are only a few pages but it’s packed with stuff and I’m finding it hard to summarize.)

Chapter 4 – The Logic of The Mind

  The Cyberneticists – The were not biologists nor ecologists – they were mathematicians, neuroscientists, social scientists and engineers who were concerned with patterns of communication, especially in closed loops and networks.

 Feedback Loop – a circular arrangement of causally connected elements, in which an initial cause propagates around the links of the loop so that each element has an effect on the next, until the last “feeds back” the effect into the first element of the cycle (see figure 4-1 on page 56)

 Cyberneticists distinguished 2 kinds of feedback.(See page 60 for good example)

Self-balancing (negative) – If a change in A produces a change in B in the opposite direction.

Self-reinforcing (positive) – If a change in A produces a change in B in the same direction then it’s positive.

 Chapter 7 – A New Synthesis

 Capra restates the central question of the book as, “What is life?”His thesis has been that “a theory of living systems consistent with the philosophical framework of deep ecology, including an appropriate mathematical language and implying a nonmechanistic, post-Cartesian understanding of life, is now emerging.”“Patterns of organization” has been a crucial element in the development of this new thinking.Understanding pattern is crucial to understanding living form.

 Alexander Bogdanov was the first to attempt integration of the concepts of organization, pattern and complexity into coherent systems theory.

 Capra proposes to understand autopoiesis as defined by Maturana and Varela as the pattern of life (the pattern of organization of living systems), dissipative structure as defined by Prigogine, as the structure of living systems and cognition, as defined initially by Gregory Bateson and more fully by Maturana and Varela as the process of life.

(On page 162 there is a few pages written about autopoiesis – I suggest you read that yourself.)

To understand a living system, pattern isn’t enough.We need to understand a system’s structure.The three key criteria of a living system:(using a bicycle as an example)

Pattern of organization – the configuration of relationships that determines the systems essential characteristics.(design sketches that are used to build the bike)

Structure – the physical embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization (the physical bike itself)

Life process – the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization. (the link between pattern and structure is in the mind of the designer – cognition)

 In the case of a living organism, however, the pattern of organization is always embodied in the organism’s structure, and the link between pattern and structure lies in the process of continual embodiment.

 Capra goes on to say that autopoiesis and cognition are 2 aspects of the same phenomenon of life.All living systems are cognitive systems and cognition always implies existence of an autopoietic network.

 All components in an autopoietic network are produced by other components – the entire system is organizationally closed even though it is open with regard to the flow of energy and matter.Organizational closure implies self-organization in the sense that behavior and order are established by the system rather than by the environment.The system is autonomous but not isolated in other words – on the contrary – there is consistent interaction with the environment it’s just that the interaction doesn’t determine the system’s organization.So…living systems are structurally open but organizationally closed.

 Dissipative Structures – Ilya Prigogine describes the structure of a living system as a dissipative structure.This highlights the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of change and stability.The key to understanding dissipative structures is to realize that they maintain themselves in a stable state far from equilibrium.This is so different from the phenomena described by classical science that conventional language doesn’t work.“Stable” in the dictionary gets defined as “fixed,” “not fluctuating” and “unvarying”…all of which inaccurately describe dissipative structures…which are stable.(Chapter 8 is all about dissipative structures…it’s interesting reading)

 Simple non-living example of a dissipative structure is a vortex in flowing water.(like the drain in a bathtub)Water continuously flows through but the structure and shape remain the same.Cells as well work that way…there is input and output, but the structure and organization remains.

 Cognition – the process of knowing.This is much broader than just thinking.It involves perception, emotion and action – the entire process of life.In the human realm it includes language, conceptual thinking and more.According to the theory of living system, mind is not a thing but a process…the process of life.The interactions of a living organism (plant or animal) with its environment are cognitive or mental interactions.

 The Santiago Theory – Central insight is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing with the process of life.  The brain is not necessary for the mind to exist.Bacteria has mind. In this theory, self-awareness is viewed as being tied closely to language (See Chapter 12 for more on Knowing That We Know)

 Mind – the process of cognition. The brain is a specific structure through which this process operates – relationship between brain and mind is the relationship between process and structure.


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