Reviewing The Systems View of Life

Zygote Quarterly has just published the review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, 2014) that I worked on as a co-author.  Like the other review authors, I think it is a useful and important book.  Capra and Luisi have attempted an integrated review of physical, biological, social and cognitive sciences, with some deep-ecology-inspired philosophy and spirituality thrown in for good measure.  It’s a big deal, and I’d recommend it to most readers.

I was very excited about participating in writing a review for the book, and co-authoring a review with a few other people was a very good process.  But there are things I had to say that couldn’t quite fit into the review we were writing together. Below are a few thoughts I had that were edited down or not included in the review.

Bad Anthropology

I did have some real problems with the book, in particular the chapter called “The human adventure.”  Some of these complaints and caveats were included in the review, but others were not, so I give them in more detail here.  Basically, I could have assigned Chapter 11 in an anthropology class as an exercise in looking for things that are either just plain wrong or open to different interpretations for my Intro to Biological Anthropology classes.

I was disappointed by the internal inconsistencies in Chapters 10 and 11 (“The quest for the origin of life on Earth” and “The human adventure”). As mentioned in the review they use some very linear, deterministic metaphors when talking about organismal evolution, despite their accurate and gratifying note in Chapter 9 that the process is NOT linear and deterministic.  For example,“The human evolutionary adventure is the most recent phase in the unfolding of life on Earth…” (p. 240) seems to imply that it was all leading up to us; “The first human species, Homo habilis, appears 4 minutes before midnight, evolves into Homo erectus half a minute later, and into the archaic forms of Homo sapiens 30 seconds before midnight,” (p. 241) ignores the many side branches of hominin relatives that were concurrent with these species.

This part of the book is further weakened by the fact that the authors chose to ignore many broader ecological contexts in which human evolution took place (not to mention all the other organisms evolving since the earliest eukaryotes). Their summary of human evolution also ignores changes to our scientific understanding of bipedalism and its context over the last decade (particularly in the last five years, including the important Ardipithecus ramidus finds).  Other research illuminating the extent of tool use and social learning in other species demonstrates that bipedalism and the “freeing of the hands” is not a pre-requisite for tool manufacture.  All great apes make tools, including the very arboreal orangutans.  Even species without hands, such as bottlenose dolphins and New Caledonian crows, make and use fairly sophisticated tools. (This was a big part of my 2004 dissertation: Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.)

Some other debates in evolutionary anthropology that are neglected include the notion of nuclear families and male provisioning in early hominins (p242-3; this has been contentious since the 1980s, and it’s not going away any time soon – I don’t think what they described as “widely accepted” is in fact widely accepted).  Also  on p243 they talk about Homo erectus as the first to leave Africa at 1MYA, but there is an interesting and more primitive hominin at Dmanisi, Georgia dated at about 1.8MYA that has been widely known by anthropologists since at least 2007 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/abs/nature06134.html).   Their depiction of European cave art as revealing a recent breakthrough in human cognition is also highly debatable; there is now evidence for other forms of art and similar cultural complexity that predate this in Africa, much closer to the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens (a good, accessible reference for this is Shea’s 2011 article in American Scientist www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.11845,y.2011,no.2,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

I went back and looked at a similar chapter that Capra had included in his 1996 book The Web of Life, and found that many of the examples in The Systems View of Life‘s Chapter 11 were taken directly from The Web of Life‘s Chapter 10, “The Unfolding of Life” in a sub-section also titled “The Human Adventure.”  A lot has changed in the field of anthropology in 18 years.  I’m disappointed that this wasn’t updated for the new book.

A Living Book-System?

One other thing that was not included in the final version of the book review was an admittedly half-baked notion of how to make something like a book into more of a living system.  This would have solved the problems, such as those with anthropology described above, by opening the writing up for input from scholars working in each field.

At this point the book itself is something of a dead organism, no longer able to dynamically respond to its surroundings (more like a stone than a dog – and can we please transform that otherwise useful distinction between reactions and responses on page 136 to something that doesn’t involve kicking dogs!).  Would this work embody the idea of a living system more readily as some kind of ongoing, tightly controlled wiki, with carefully managed permeability (like the crucial cell membrane), accepting certain incoming additions or replacements of information and rejecting others in order to maintain integrity and exhibit development through interactions with its environment? Such a work (no longer a book, but a kind of intellectual organism), if structured and nourished by careful systems thinkers, could prove even more useful than the book in its current form.

In other words, is there an transformation whereby a “book” can become more biomimetic, and operate in ways that reflect the cognitive and metabolic processes of living systems?

In the conclusion of our review in Zygote Quarterly, we do make a suggestion that readers find ways to engage with the work.  One option is online communities.  I set up a discussion group on Goodreads as one possible forum for this.

I met one of my dearest friends, the late Judy Bloomgardener, when I attended a talk that Fritjof Capra was giving at Bookshop Santa Cruz for the release of 2004’s The Hidden Connections. Judy was making her way through the rows of folding chairs, leaving fliers for starting a discussion group around the book.  I don’t think I actually talked to her then, but I did call the phone number on the flier and join the group.  We continued to discuss that book and many others, with groups as large as a dozen and as small as just the two of us.  These are some of my fondest memories, and I wish I had been able to talk with Judy about this book, too.  I encourage you to read it, and talk about it with your friends.

One response to “Reviewing The Systems View of Life

  1. Pingback: A New Type of Thinking | Ponderings of a Perplexed Primate

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