The following description is excerpted from Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects,  by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown (2014).

Living Systems Theory

Modern science and the Industrial Growth Society grew up together. With the help of Rene 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 twentieth century biologists realized with increasing frustration, it cannot explain the self-renewing processes of life.

Instead of looking for basic building blocks, these life 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, and even the planet itself–are not just a heap of disjunct parts, but dynamically organized and intricately balanced “systems,”  interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information. They saw that each element is part of a vaster pattern, a pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles.  The discernment of these principles gave rise to general living systems theory.

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, known as the father of general systems theory, called it a “way of seeing.” And while its insights have spread throughout the physical and social sciences, spawning groundbreaking derivative theories, the systems perspective has remained just that – a way of seeing. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called it “the biggest bite out of the Tree of Knowledge in two thousand years.”

If we could surrender to Earth’s intelligence,
     we would rise up rooted—like trees. ~ Rilke

How Life Self-organizes

By shifting their optic 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-organizing occurs. They found these principles or system properties to be awesomely elegant in their simplicity and constancy throughout the observable universe, from suborganic 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 and energy. 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 pre-established 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 components. In contrast to the hierarchies of control familiar to organizations in which rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holonarchies) order tends to arises from below, as well as 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.
(Click here for a longer article on this subject, describing these invariants in more detail, and exploring their implications for the global crises we face today.)
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 to be 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 which 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,” says systems cybernetician Norbert Wiener, “We are patterns that perpetuate themselves; we are whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water.”

Or we are like a flame, say 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, it 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.

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.

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.

[i] Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running, (Berkeley CA: Ten Speed Press, 2005), 2.

Systems Thinking Reading List

Macy, Joanna. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems.  SUNY, 1991.

An exploration of the convergent perspective on causality of Buddhist teachings and the systems view of reality, this book offers an introduction to both schools of thought and the context they provide for personal and social transformation.  Chapters 4 & 5 describe clearly and concisely the basic “invariants” of how living systems work.

Laszlo, Ervin.  Introduction to Systems Philosophy. Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought, New York: Gordon & Breach, 1972.

Laszlo is an influential pioneer in systems thinking and philosophy; this book remains one of the best primers in the basics.  See also his A Systems View of the World.

LaConte, Ellen.  Life Rules. New Society Publishers, 2012.

Ellen LaConte suggests great unravelings and great turnings have occurred several times in past millennia, many of them before humans appeared on Earth, which she calls “Critical Mass.” Each time Critical Mass has been reached, living systems have self-organized through trial and error to find new ways to function and survive.  Understanding those life lessons can guide us humans through our current “Critical Mass” crisis, brought on by the global capitalist economy gone viral.

Meadows, Donella.  Thinking in Systems. Diana Wright, editor.  Chelsea Green, 2008.

“Dana Meadows taught a generation of students, friends, and colleagues the art and science of thinking beyond conventional boundaries. For her systems thinking included the expected things like recognizing patterns, connections, leverage points, feedback loops and also the human qualities of judgment, foresight, and kindness. She was a teacher with insight and heart. This long anticipated book, the distillation of her life’s work, is a gem.”

—David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College

Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earthdance: Living Systems In Evolution., 2000.

A wonderfully fascinating journey through the history of EarthLife (biological evolution) and then through the history of humanity to see how we humans have seen ourselves in relation to our living planet and what that means for us now. Will we learn from Nature’s amazing four billion years of experience in creating healthy living systems to give ourselves the future of which we dream?

Sweeney, Linda Booth. Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems. Chelsea Green, 2008.

How do we learn to live sustainably – or within the means of nature? Through this book, readers aged 10 to 110 explore, through 12 timeless folktales and modern examples, how the laws that guide living systems can also guide how we live and learn. The book was designed by renowned graphic artist Milton Glaser, recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, and illustrated by award-winning artist Guy Billout.

Senge, Peter M.,  The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. Crown, 1994.

Senge introduced system thinking to the business world in his very succeessful, The Fifth Discipline. This is the more practical follow-up book that has many exercises, examples, and case studies.

Charlton, Noel G. Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty, and the Sacred Earth. SUNY, 2008.

“This is a publishing event of the first order: an incomparably lucid exploration of Bateson’s unique insights into the nature of mind and of the living Earth.  Charlton’s book, both elegant and accessible, sheds new light on Bateson’s revolutionary relevance to our time.” (Joanna Macy)

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistomology. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

This classic collection of Bateson’s brilliant essays is not for the faint of heart and is best consumed in small bites, preferably in a discussion group with other explorers.  It is rather like a sacred text for ecological understanding.  Although Bateson does not directly address systems thinking, his insights have many ramifications for the field.  See especially these chapters: “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism;” “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation;” “Form, Substance, and Difference;” “Pathologies of Epistemology;” “The Roots of Ecological Crisis.”

[Charlton’s book, listed above, provides an excellent introduction to and overview of Bateson’s work.]

Stonefield, Peter. “Integrating Systems Thinking and Psychosynthesis”, 2012

A very good paper on how systems thinking and psychosynthesis relate. Stonefield includes a general overview and a detailed explanation of the self-organizing principle within systems theory and how it manifests in the individual and larger systems. (Available in pdf on request–use contact form)


Other Resources

(Alphabetical by author)

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking.  MacMillan, 1975.  Available as a pdf on-line.

Goldsmith, Edward. The Way: An Ecological World View.   Boston: Shambala, 1993.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  A Wrinkle in Time.  New York: Dell, 1970.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  A Wind in the Door.  New York: Dell, 1973.

Lovelock, James.  Healing Gaia: Practical Medicine for the Planet.  Crown, 1991.

Olds, Linda.  Metaphors of Interrelatedness.  SUNY, 1992

von Bertalanffy, Ludwig. General System Theory.  New York: George Braziller, 1968.

Wheatley, Margaret J.  Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organizations from an Orderly Universe, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1

Click here for a paper on the relationships between psychosynthesis and systems theory presented at the AAP Conference, 2003.