Fritjof Capra: the hidden connections

Fritjof CapraIn this book I propose to extend the new understanding of life that has emerged from complexity theory to the social domain. To do so, I present a conceptual framework that integrates life’s biological , cognitive and social dimensions. My aim is not only to offer a unified view of life, mind and society, but also to develop a coherent, systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time. (xii)

I always worry about coherent systemic approaches to all things, just as I worry about the straightforward application of theories evolved through physical and life sciences to social science — they often throw up interesting things, as Emergence did, but still they remain problematic. Fritjof Capra does not escape my critique entirely, but his coherent, systematic approach is based upon an understanding of networks, of relationships between things being as fundamental as things themselves (how dialectical of him really, though there is not a ounce of dialectics otherwise), of constant change and never a full knowledge of the whole, of humility in scientific inquiry, of anti-capitalism in the sense that we must substitute new values for that of profit above all that exists now and has brought us almost to to the brink of destruction.

He is also rigorous and smart, and my critiques of the sections on social science are offset by my appreciation that he actually read and grappled with Manuel Castells’ three volumes on networks.

I also like that he tries to bring together the material and the social — the geographers are missing from his account, but I forgive him, as I too think this is key.

My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. this is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter…In the future, this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century — for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else — will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions — their material and social structures — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. (xv)

Clearly how we think about cities, housing, transportation, infrastructure and &c. are key to survival of ourselves as a species and the planet as we know it now. Of course, if we destroy ourselves, I have every confidence that life will continue to emerge and flourish. Life is pretty amazing.

The first section of this book is on life itself, with some thought-provoking concepts, like autopoiesis – ‘self-making’. Capra writes that on a cellular level, life is present where there is both physical boundary and a metabolic network. Living systems as autopoietic networks ‘means that the phenomenon of life has to be understood as a property of the system as a whole’. (9)

For a long while scientists thought genes fixed, determinative, this idea fitted so neatly into racist and classist and sexist ideas of place and station, our understandings of society. I love, love, how that has all been turned on its head, with little fixed at all:

A key insight of the new understanding of life has been that biological forms and functions are not simply determined by a genetic blueprint but are emergent properties of the entire epigenetic network. (10)

I love too, the idea of emergence, that things are created through a collective relationship, and often great than the whole:

This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life. It is technically known as self-organization and is often referred to simply as ’emergence’. (12)

He comes back to this, writing

The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops. (102)

He describes, for example, the crisis faced by quantum physicists in 1920s as their experiments and observations pushed the limits of our understandings of reality. It is something we know today, without being able to well conceive of what it must have felt like. Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book was this amazing quote from Werner Heisenberg, on the cost of emergence, and how it is in fact greater than any one man but emerges from collective work and thinking:

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? (103)

They did not stop the experiments but continued on, pushing against the certainties of our knowledge. Allowing that the world might be greater, wilder than we had ever imagined it. It is the findings of quantum physics, in some ways, that have opened up every other field. They have shown the world is not as we thought it was, that by the very act of studying it we enter into a relationship with it and thereby change or fix its behaviour.

In the very simplest of ways, biology reminds us that it is in the relationships between one thing and another that some of their properties are determined:

When carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms bond in a certain way to form sugar, the resulting compound has a sweet taste. The sweetness resides neither in the C, nor in the O, nor in the H, it resides in the patterns that emerges from their interaction. It is an emergent property. Moreover, strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds… (36)

He brings up Saussure here, as you would, the structuralist view that words obtain meaning only in relation to other words, to phrases. No Voloshinov though, to further complicate things with the ways that meanings are further contested.  Ah well.

I also like being reminded of the wonder and unimaginable timescale of our emergence.

memory became encoded in macromolecules, and ‘the membrane bounded chemical networks acquired all the essential characteristics of today’s bacterial cells. This major signpost in the origin of life established itself perhaps 3.8 billion years ago. (24)

So I suppose in the great scheme of things it is not so terrible that we have been stuck imagining things as static and fixed for some time, when in fact they are growing and learning.

The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realize that mind and consciousness are not things but processes. (29)

Being a social scientist (of a sort, I suppose), I found the sections on the social a little less interesting in terms of expanding my own thinking, but still quite interesting in thinking about how someone from the hard sciences approaches some of those topics we wrestle with. Power was the most interesting, so much has been written on power, Capra’s choices of definition and source are quite fascinating:

One of the most striking characteristics of social reality is the phenomenon of power. In the words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it…Power can be socially malign; it is also socially essential.’ The essential role of power in social organizations is linked to inevitable conflicts of interest. Because of our ability to affirm preferences and make choices accordingly, conflicts of interest will appear in any human community, and power is the means by which these conflicts are resolved. (76-77)

The origin of power, then, lies in culturally defined positions of authority on which the community relies for the resolution of conflicts and for decisions about how to act wisely and effectively. In other words, true authority consists in empowering others to act. (77)

That is an interesting definition, one with which many a social scientist might be happy to contest (or better said, complicate). No Foucault, no Lukes or Gaventa, no Guevara, no Agamben. There’s a key liberal in that list I am forgetting, but the list of people writing about power is in truth a very long one. Though few would deny the truth of this:

Thus, power plays a central role in the emergence of social structures. (78)

I like this boiling down of things to simple definitions. If only because I then want to complicate them anew.

Social systems produce nonmaterial as well as material structures. The processes that sustain a social network are processes of communication, which generate shared meaning and rules of behaviour (the network’s culture), as well as a shared body of knowledge. The rules of behaviour whether formal or informal, are called social structures. (79)

Back to dialectics

The biological structure of an organism corresponds to the material infrastructure of a society, which embodies the society’s culture. As the culture evolves, so does its infrastructure — they coevolve through continual mutual influences. (80)

There is a strange section about corporations, and management’s interest in his work as a way to repair these massive and ailing behemoths. I feel that management, like science, once held a very precise view of our ability to impose our will on the world which hasn’t quite shifted fully.

To run properly, a machine must be controlled by its operators, so that it will function according to their instructions. Accordingly, the whole thrust of classical management theory is to achieve efficient operations through top-down control. Living beings, on the other hand, act autonomously. They can never be controlled like machines. To try and do so is to deprive them of their aliveness. (91)

But there are some looking at how autonomous human beings create for themselves the networks and support they require. Capra cites Etienne Wenger, and his definition of ‘communities of practice’ as

self-generating social networks, referring to the common context of meaning rather than to the pattern of of organization through which the meaning is generated. (94)

A community of practice has three main features: ‘mutual engagement of its members, a joint enterprise and, over time, a shared repertoire of routines, tacit rules of conduct and knowledge. (95)

These are networks that emerge, take on lives and structures without (at least in the beginning) formal directives or top-down demands. They have the ability to be horizontal. Capra writes:

Although it may seem that in an ecosystem some species are more powerful than others, the concept of power is not appropriate, because non-human species (with the exception of some primates) do not force individuals to act in accordance with preconceived goals. There is dominance, but it is always acted out within a larger context of cooperation…The manifold species in an ecosystem do not form hierarchies, as is often erroneously stated, but exist in networks nested within networks. (133)

After this framing of the key nature of networks and relationships in both biology and social science, the book moves towards what sustainability should look like, how we can achieve it based on this new knowledge.

One of the subtitles is ‘Life as the Ultimate Commodity’ (174) — I had not realised in my youth that the Human Genome Project was actually a race against time, a social collective trying to map the genome for public knowledge before a consortium of corporations did it first so that they could patent it. They won, I had no idea of the drama of that victory, or how much was saved. Capra writes:

underlying all evaluations is the basic principle of unfettered capitalism: that money-making should always be valued higher than democracy, human rights, environmental protection or any other value. Changing the game means, first and foremost, changing this basic principle. (185)

In some ways, the new nature of genetics we are discovering is on our side in this, the patenting of genes doesn’t work very well given that there has been

A profound shift of emphasis, from the structure of genetic sequences to the organization of metabolic networks, from genetics to epigenetics is taking place. (143)

It doesn’t stop Monsanto and others from trying, however. Still, this is a call for a new kind of science, one that does not seek arrogant mastery but works with the concept of emergence:

We can imagine a radically different kind of biotechnology. It would start with the desire to learn from nature rather than control her, using nature as a mentor rather than merely as a source of raw materials. Instead of treating the web of life as a commodity, we would respect it as the context of our existence.

This is key to our survival, as is understanding sustainability:

The concept of sustainability was introduced in the early 1980s by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, who defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. (200)

Specifically, there are six principles of ecology that are critical to sustaining life: networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance. (201)

Above all, sustainability is achieved through a network of healthy interdependent relationships:

In order to combine respect for these human rights with the ethics of ecological sustainability, we need to realize that sustainability — in ecosystems as well as in human society — is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships: it involves a whole community. A sustainable human community interacts with other living systems — human and nonhuman — in ways that enable those systems to live and develop according to their nature. In the human realm sustainability is fully consistent with the respect of cultural integrity, cultural diversity and the basic right of communities to self-determination and self-organization. (188)

How do we get there? You know I liked this:

According to Sociologist Manuel Castells, social change in the society does not originate within the traditional institutions of civil society but develops from identities based on the rejection of society’s dominant values — patriarchy, the domination and control of nature, unlimited economic growth and material consumption, and so on. (191)

We build connections, networks, challenge capitalism and arrogance. We look to increase diversity, decrease consumption and above all increase our own ability to work together to increase our abilities to collectively change and shape our world.

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