How Life Self-Organizes

February 26, 2019

By Joanna Macy and Molly Brown

Living Systems Theory

Modern science and the Industrial Growth Society grew up together. With the help of René Descartes and Francis Bacon, classical science veered away from a holistic, organic view of the world to an analytical and mechanical one. The machines we made to extend our senses and capacities became our model for the universe. Separating mechanism from operator, object from observer, this view of reality assumed that everything could be described objectively and controlled externally. It has permitted extraordinary technological gains and fueled the engines of industrial progress. But, as 20th-century biologists realized with increasing frustration, it cannot explain the self-renewing processes of life.

Instead of looking for basic building blocks, these scientists took a new tack: they began to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. They discovered that these wholes — be they cells, bodies, ecosystems, even the planet itself — are not just an assemblage of parts. Rather they are dynamically organized and intricately balanced systems. These scientists saw each element as part of a vaster pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles. The discernment of these principles gave rise to General Systems Theory.

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, known as the father of general systems theory, called it “a way of seeing.”[1] And while its insights have spread throughout the natural and social sciences, the systems perspective has remained just that: a way of seeing. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called it “the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years.”[2]

How Life Self-Organizes

By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scientists made an amazing discovery — amazing at least to the mainstream western mind. They discovered that nature is self-organizing. And they set about discerning the principles by which this self-organization occurs. They found these principles or systems properties to be awesomely elegant in their coherence and constancy throughout the observable universe, from sub-organic to biological and ecological systems, and mental and social systems as well. The properties of open systems permit the variety and intelligence of life-forms to arise from interactive currents of matter/energy and information. These properties or invariances are four in number:

1. Each system, from atom to galaxy, is a whole. That means that it is not reducible to its components. Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the dynamic relationships of its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating emergent properties and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts. For example, wetness could not be predicted from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen before it occurred. Nor can anyone can predict the creative solutions that may emerge when a group of people put their wits together.

2. Thanks to the continual flow-through of matter/energy and information, open systems are able to self-stabilize and maintain their balance in what von Bertalanffy called fliessgleichgewicht (flux-equilibrium). This homeostatic function enables systems to self-regulate amidst changing conditions in their environment. They do this by monitoring the effects of their own behavior and realigning their behavior with preestablished norms, like a thermostat. Feedback — in this case, negative or deviation-reducing feedback — is at work here. It is how we maintain body temperature, heal from a cut and ride a bicycle.

3. 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 functional norms. This is accomplished by feedback — in this case, positive or deviation — amplifying feedback. It is how systems learn and evolve. This feedback is blocked and ignored at the risk of system collapse.
When a system is unable to adapt its norms, perhaps because of the scale and speed of change, the positive feedback loop goes into overshoot and runaway. As ever-increasing oscillations upset the balance of its interrelated parts, the system loses coherence and complexity — and begins to unravel.

4. 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. Each new holonic level — say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family — generates new emergent properties that are not reducible to the properties of the separate. In contrast to hierarchies of control familiar to organizations in which rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holonarchies) order tends to arise from below, as well as be summoned or inspired by its larger context. The system self-generates from adaptive cooperation between its parts for mutual benefit. Order and differentiation go hand and hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.

Water, Fire, and Web

The mechanistic view of reality separated substance from process, self from other, mind from matter. In the systems perspective, these dichotomies no longer hold. What appeared to be separate and self-existent entities are now seen as interdependent and interwoven. What had appeared to be other can be equally construed as a concomitant of self, like a fellow-cell in the neural patterns of a larger body. What we had been taught to dismiss as mere feelings are responses to our world no less valid than rational constructs. Sensations, emotions, intuitions, concepts all condition each other, each a way of apprehending the relationships that weave our world.

As systems we participate by virtue of constant flow-through in the evolving web of life, giving and receiving the feedback necessary to the web’s integrity and balance. To convey this dynamic process, theorists have used a variety of images. Fire and water are prominent among them. “We are not stuff that abides,” said systems cybernetician Norbert Wiener, “We are patterns that perpetuate themselves; we are whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water.”[3]

Or we are like a flame, said several early systems thinkers. As a flame keeps its shape by transforming the stuff it burns, so does the open system. As the open system consumes the matter that passes through it, so does it also process information — ever breaking down and building up, renewed. Like fire, a system both transforms and is transformed by that on which it feeds.

Another frequent image is that of a neural net. By their interactions, nerve cells differentiate and create new neural assemblies at their holonic level within the larger body, enhancing diversity and therefore complexity. They generate intelligence as they weave ever more responsive nets. Systems political scientist Karl Deutsch took this image as a model for social systems, showing that free circulation of information is essential to healthy self-governance.

I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.
— Paul Stamets

Our emerging understanding of fungi provides another potent image for the connectivity of open systems. Microscopic cells called mycelia — the fruit of which are mushrooms — spread nearly invisibly underground to create a vast network that permeates the soil and fuses with the roots of plants and trees to share water, food and vital information.

Gaia Theory

Systems theory has transformed the way we see our planet home. In studying the chemical composition of our atmosphere, scientist James Lovelock discovered that the balance of its proportions, which stays within the narrow limits necessary for life, indicates self-regulating processes at work — the hallmark of a living system. In collaboration with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Lovelock developed a hypothesis that presents the entire biosphere of Earth as a self-organizing system.

For the first time in our history we can actually see our whole planet and recognize it as a living being — and we can understand that we are not its privileged rulers,… but only one part, and not even an indispensible part, of its body.
— Elizabet Sahtouris

Thankfully, Lovelock did not call this hypothesis, soon to become a theory (the “hypothesis of self-regulative processes of the biosphere” or another name respectable to his fellow scientists). Instead he listened to his friend, novelist William Golding, who suggested he call it Gaia for the early Greek goddess of Earth, thereby catching people’s poetic imagination. Like the Apollo photo of Earth from space, this name for Earth has transformed the way many of us now think of our planet home. We no longer see Earth as just a rock we live upon, but as a living process in which we participate. Earth takes on a presence in our consciousness as source of all we are and can become.

From Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects

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[1] von Bertalanffy, Ludwig . General Systems Theory. Braziller, 1968, p. 12.

[2] Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. 1987, reprint University of Chicago Press, 1999. p. 476.

[3] Wiener, Norbert . The Human Use of Human Beings. Avon, 1967, p. 130.

David McConville

David McConville is co-founder of Spherical.

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