The Web of Life, a Review

December 5, 2004

In The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra attempts to present a synthesis of systems models as a new (and improved) way of looking at life. While scientists will often speak of paradigm shifts within a field — for instance from Newtonian to relativistic physics, or Lamarckian evolution to the Darwinian kind — it is rare that they attempt to link these individual shifts to a wider movement. It is probably rarer still that they attempt to create the overarching paradigm, as opposed to simply documenting it.

Capra begins by acknowledging the countless problems plaguing humanity today. Taking a deep ecological approach, he sees the problems of hunger, climate change, education, conflict, and so on as being integrated and systemic. If humanity understands the magnitude of these calamities, then it is clear that we are not currently capable of dealing with them. Capra's belief is that we must refocus the way we look at the world — we must put on green-tinted glasses with a worldview rooted in sustainability. He speaks of the need to understand the interdependence of humanity and nature; he speaks of shifting from self-assertion to integration, from power to balance, and from hierarchies to networks.

One of the delightful aspects of Capra's writing is that he leaves room for you to connect many of the dots, yet weaves key concepts in repeated mantras. If you don't quite see the connection, he'll make it clear in a reference somewhere in the next chapter. Thus it is as he steps away from the normative social science for most of the book, wrapping things up nicely at the end.

In parts two and three he describes systems thinking and key systems theories. Of systems thinking in general Capra writes, "[the] essential properties of an organism… are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have," and, "systems cannot be understood by analysis."

Four criteria of systems thinking are laid out:

  1. holistic, systemic properties emerge as "organizing relations of the parts"
  2. different properties emerge at each "level" of a system
  3. knowledge as a network, not an edifice
  4. must explicitly describe epistemology

Dr. Capra, a particle physicist by training, has a true gift for translating abstract scientific concepts into intelligible English. This gift is used well in describing an array of theories and showing the similarities of worldview that they imply. Of traditional physics he speaks little, only alluding to ideas drawn out in full in The Tao of Physics. In fact, his work now revolves around the idea of life being at the center of our quest for knowledge, instead of pure structure. Theories so richly described include cybernetics, dissipative structures and mathematical complexity (chaos), laser theory, hypercycles, autopoeisis, Gaia theory, and symbiogenesis.

Much of the synthesis throughout and following these theories grows from the work of Humberto Maturela and Francisco Varela (the Santiago theory of cognition). As he moves from the primarily physical theories into the realm of humanity, he focuses on the place of consciousness, rational and intuitive knowledge, and language in the human condition as we know it.

In an epilogue titled "Ecoliteracy," Capra gives a taste of things to come by extending the discussion of the human condition and the deep ecological view of sustainability. The potential impact of the "web of life" paradigm on the functioning of society at large is fully explored in his recent follow-up book, The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability.

I find the Web of Life to be an engaging, educational, coherent, and most important of all, extremely relevant view of the world in which we presently find ourselves. It is an important addition to the field of knowledge, and I hope that it may affect some shift in both the filters we see the world through and the policies we create in their context.