Living Systems Thinking: Exploring the Integral Patterns of Life
By Samuel Wines
Understanding the natural world from a system-based perspective is equivalent to listening to a symphony played by a hundred-piece orchestra, compared to a solo instrumentalist. In this post, we’ll explore the principles of living systems thinking, inspired by Fritjof Capra’s work, which traces the transition from a parts-based worldview to a holistic perspective, from a segmented to an interconnected approach, and from strict measurement to meaningful mapping.
The Shift from Parts to Wholes
Systems thinking fundamentally alters our perspective, from focusing on individual components to appreciating the entire system. Living systems are not merely the sum of their parts but complex entities whose defining characteristics cannot be replicated by isolating components. Consider the Australian bush; its essence can’t be captured by observing a single eucalyptus tree or koala. The holistic interplay of flora, fauna, and environmental elements creates the unique Australian bush ecosystem.
It’s Inherently Transdisciplinarity
Living systems exist at every level and in every sphere, whether it’s a single organism, an organ within that organism, a community of organisms, or an ecosystem. Consequently, systems thinking is inherently transdisciplinary, capable of integrating and synthesising various academic fields and recognising commonalities across a diverse range of phenomena. For instance, the principles that govern the functioning of a family unit might strikingly reflect those that define a business or, interestingly, that of an entire ecosystem. Check out this article for a deep dive into basing businesses on Nature’s organising principles.
The Shift from Objects to Relationships
Systems thinking requires a paradigm shift from seeing the world as a collection of discrete objects to a network of relationships. Instead of dividing the world into distinct parts, systems thinking recognises that what we call a ‘part’ is merely a pattern within an inseparable web of relationships. The relationships are primary, while the’ objects’ boundaries are secondary. This change in perception is akin to transitioning from a mechanistic view to a holistic perspective.
The Shift from Measuring to Mapping
Traditional scientific pursuits focus on measuring and weighing objects in the physical realm. However, systems thinking recognises that relationships cannot be measured but can be mapped. Studying these relationships’ repeated configurations, or patterns, reveals the inherent organisation in living systems. So, while science as we know it has traditionally prioritised quantification, systems thinking urges us to consider the qualitative aspect of mapping and understanding patterns.
The Sift from Quantities to Qualities
Systems thinking represents a shift from a strictly quantitative approach to a more qualitative one. Complexity theory epitomises this shift, using mathematics to analyse visual patterns qualitatively. Rather than focusing solely on quantities, systems thinking is about exploring qualities and mapping relationships.
The Shift from Structures to Processes
In traditional science, structures are seen as fundamental, and processes are viewed as their interactions. However, systems thinking flips this perspective, seeing every structure as a manifestation of underlying processes. Just as the Birrarung (Yarra River) is more than the water it contains, living structures are more than their visible forms; they encompass continual flows and transformation processes.
From Objective Science to Epistemic Science
Systems thinking challenges the idea of objective scientific knowledge, recognising that our understanding of natural phenomena is intrinsically linked to the process of knowing itself. Since we, as observers, play a critical role in defining the ‘objects’ within the complex network of relationships, subjectivity is embedded in the practice of science. This transition towards ‘epistemic’ science doesn’t compromise scientific rigour but includes epistemology as an integral part of scientific theory. In other words, science is a collaborative approach for humans to make sense of reality because it operates on shared methods, standards, and principles designed to be consistent across different observers or scientists.
Moving from Cartesian Certainty to Approximate Knowledge
Systems thinking acknowledges that our understanding of the natural world will always be limited and approximate. This acceptance doesn’t weaken the scientific endeavour but strengthens it, providing confidence that we can construct effective models and improve our approximations over time.
Living systems thinking helps us comprehend the beautiful complexity of the world. It opens our eyes to the intricate relationships that create the symphony of life. This dynamic way of seeing the world is transformative. It can radically reconceptualise how we understand and relate to the more-than-human world, from the tiniest single-celled organism to the vast, interconnected ecosystems that comprise our global biosphere. It’s a change of perspective that provides a broader, more nuanced view of life’s magnificent tapestry, of which we are a single thread.
A quick bonus caveat
It’s not that reductionism and quantitative science are bad per se. It’s more of an acknowledgement that there are multiple ways of knowing and being in the world, which help us uncover a richer, more vibrant and holistic way of understanding.
- Ways of Knowing: Separation and Participation
- Carl Jung pt. 5: Psychological Types
- Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system – Donella Meadows
- Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).