Monday, August 25, 2008

Capra 2: The Web of Life

In my last post I talked about how Fritjof Capra moved from being the guru of new age physics to a more balanced viewpoint, much more based in biology than physics--which must have involved some growth for him, because Capra was trained as a physicist.

Fritjof Capra wrote the book The Web of Life in 1996. In it he explores the question of 'What is the nature of life?' To answer this, he looked at advances in understanding in the life sciences, but also explores and tries to integrate information from cybernetics, systems theory, and chaos and complexity theories. (See my 7/16/08 post on complexity.) I was delighted to see that he even brings in Gregory Bateson, a thinker that I have been very influenced by.

I only wish, in addition to covering Stuart Kauffman, Ilya Prigogine, and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, he also looked at the work of John Holland and of Christopher Langton, both of whom I thought did extremely useful work, some of which, I think, would support Capra's thesis. On the other hand, he includes the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (which I hadn't encountered before).

Maturana and Varela have come up with a major theory of self-organizing that they have named 'autopoesis' (literally 'self-making'). They also have an unusual take on cognition, referred to as the Santiago theory, where they see understanding as interaction which arises through interrelationship. Capra in several places contrasts the theories of Maturana and Varela with those of Gregory Bateson. He even provides an appendix comparing Bateson's criteria for mental processes with the Santiago theory of cognition.

What is the relevance of all this for social change? Mostly the stuff at the beginning and ending of this book. Capra begins by talking about a few 'holistic' worldviews: deep ecology, ecofeminism, and social ecology, and points out their challenges to systems of social domination such as "Patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism, and rascism". He ends with a chapter on 'Ecological Literacy' where he uses the ideas developed in the book as a 'conceptual framework' for understanding the relationships between ecosystems and 'human communities' and the difference between the 'economic' view of the world and the 'ecological' view. As he puts it:

"In ecosystems the complexity of the network is a consequence of biodiversity, and thus a diverse ecological community is a resilient community. In human communities ethnic and cultural diversity may play the same role. Diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community capable of adapting to changing situations.
"However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a truly vibrant community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. But if the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. In such a community information and ideas flow freely through the entire network, and the diversity of interpretations and learning styles--even the diversity of mistakes--will enrich the entire community."

But he saves his most comprehensive thinking for his next book...

Quote of the day: "Corporate economists treat as free commodities not only the air, water, and soil, but also the delicate web of social relations, which is severely affected by continuing economic expansion. Private profits are being made at public costs in the deterioration of the environment and the general quality of life, and at the expense of future generations. ... There is a lack of feedback, and basic ecological literacy tells us that such a system is not sustainable." - Fritjof Capra
Word (or phrase) of the day: Bonobo
Hero(es) of the day: Upton Sinclair

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