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The Web of Life Book Report

For my book report, I decided to
read The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra. One of the main focuses of this book is
how Capra describes the shift of linear thinking to systems thinking for
studying the environment. He dives in depth about the history and findings of
mathematical and scientific methods, and their evolution over time. He sees the
world as an integrated whole, rather than a collection of parts, and describes
this paradigm as a “holistic worldview.” According to this perception, not only
does it have profound implications for science and philosophy, but also for
businesses, politics, healthcare, education, and everyday life. 

Capra starts off the book by stating
“the more we study the problems of our time, the more we come to realize that
they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systematic problems…” One of
the ways to combat this is by increasing deep ecological awareness which
recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings, and views people as only a
strand in the web of life. As a society, people need to ask deeper questions,
challenging old perspectives (anthropocentric) in order to fully understand the
interconnectedness of the world. Most of what scientists do is life destroying,
not life-preserving, such as the development of weapons systems, releasing of
chemicals into the environment, and testing on animals. If everyone had deep
ecological awareness, then we would all be inclined to care for all of nature.
He then goes on to talk about the development of systems thinking throughout
history. Up until the Renaissance the view of the word as a living, spiritual
being was replaced by Descartes view (Cartesian) of the world as a machine by
using analytic thinking, or reductionist methods. It wasn’t until recently that
this viewpoint changed again back to the world as a living system, with the
introduction of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. “…Systems cannot be
understood by analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic
properties but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.”
This reverses the relationship between the part and whole. In order to properly
understand an ecosystem, the networks within must be understood. Although it
must be noted that science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding.
No matter how many connections are taken into account, we will always be forced
to leave some out.

Later on, Capra discusses the
founding of cybernetics, which is the control and communication in the animal
and machine. The study of it is primarily concerned with patterns of
communications, especially in closed loops and networks. They would try to
understand the brain as a neural network and create specialized mathematical
techniques to analyze its patterns. This helped lead to the development of
artificial intelligence and modern computers, which are used to compute
incredibly large formulas in seconds and simulate what can happen in the real
environment. It also contributed to the concept of self-organization.
Cyberneticists distinguished two different types of feedback which were
self-balancing, and self-reinforcing feedback. Self-balancing feedback, also
known as negative feedback, is where a change in A produces a change in B in
the same direction. Self-reinforcing feedback, also known as positive feedback,
is where a change in a produces a change in B in the opposite direction. These
types of feedback loops allow living organisms to maintain homeostasis, which
is the stable condition of an organism and its internal environment. Capra then
talks about how there are two approaches to living systems theory, the study of
structure which can be weighed and measured, and the study of pattern which has
to be mapped. The study of pattern is a very important element of understanding
living systems because systems arise from ordered relationships, which are
properties of pattern. “The pattern of life, we might say, is a network pattern
capable of self-organization.” Self-organization is the spontaneous emergence
of new structures and forms of behavior in open systems far from equilibrium,
distinguished by internal feedback loops and described by nonlinear
mathematical equations. Using this idea, James Lovelock developed Gaia, the
idea that planet earth itself is an entire living, self-organizing system. He
recognized Earth’s atmosphere as an open system operating far from equilibrium,
characterized by a constant flow of energy and matter. This identifies the
features of life. Capra then explains how the development of modern computers
plays a role in dynamical systems theory, which is a mathematical theory whose
concepts are applied to a wide range of phenomena and trace out solutions as
curves or graphs. It is the first type of mathematics that allows scientists to
deal with the full complexity of nonlinear phenomena, which includes most of
the real world. Capra goes on to talk about some of the histories of geometry,
algebra, calculus, and their applications to deal with dynamical systems.

In the second half of the book,
Capra starts with his central question – what is life? He explains he believes
that the key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis
of two approaches: the study of pattern and the study of structure. The
patterns of living systems are the configurations of relationships among the
systems components that determines its characteristics. The structure of a
system is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization, or describing
the systems physical components. Although, Capra notes there are three key criteria
for a living system: the pattern of organization, structure, and life
processes. The life processes are the activities involved in the continual
embodiment of the systems pattern of organization. The pattern of organization
of a living system is always a network pattern. One of the key characteristics
of a living network is that it continually produces itself, like cells for
example. Living systems interact with the environment through a continual
exchange of energy and matter, although this interaction does not determine
their organization since they are self-organizing. Also, according to the
theory of living systems, mind is the very process of life. Capra then talks
about recycling being a key principle of ecology. In open systems, there is no
waste. When a living organism produces waste, what is considered waste for that
species is food for another, so that it is recycled and the ecosystem remains
waste free. A living organism is characterized by a continual flow and change
in its metabolism, which involves thousands of chemical reactions far from
equilibrium. When an organism is in chemical equilibrium it is considered dead.
He mentions Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures, which demonstrates
that irreversible processes play an indispensable role. The theory shows that
catalytic loops that are essential to organisms lead to instabilities through
repeated self-amplifying feedback, and how new structures of increasing
complexity emerge at successive bifurcation points. “Irreversibility is the mechanism
that brings order out of chaos. Bifurcation points are thresholds of stability
at which the dissipative structure may break down or break through to one of
several new states of order. At bifurcation points, dissipative structures show
extraordinary sensitivity to small fluctuations in their environment. Small
random fluctuations called noise, chooses the path it goes. Because living
systems exist in continually fluctuating environments, we never know when
fluctuations will happen at bifurcation points, so we can never predict the
future path of the system. It turns out nature is more like human nature than
it is a machine; it’s unpredictable, sensitive to the surrounding world, and
influenced by small fluctuations.

Capra goes on to talk about the works
of Maturana and Valera, and how they realized that since the pattern of
autopoiesis is the defining characteristic of a living system, there is no
autopoietic system in nature simpler than a cell. Autopoiesis is a network
pattern in which the function of each component is to participate in the
production or transformation of other components. He then shifts to the works
of Stuart Kauffman and his colleagues, and their use of binary networks to
model extremely complex systems, such as chemical and biological networks
containing thousands of coupled variables that could never be described by
differential equations. A binary network is made up of nodes capable of two
distinct values, labeled ON and OFF. The value of each node is determined by
the prior values of neighboring nodes according to a switching rule.  Eventually, the network or system must return
to a state it has already encountered, determining its behavior. It will pass
through the same cycles. A wide variety of living systems can be represented by
binary networks, such as immune systems, organ systems, and ecosystems. After
going into more detail about binary networks, Capra mentions Gail Fleischaker
who summarized the properties of an autopoietic network into three criteria:
the system must be self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating. “To be
self-bounded means that the systems extension is determined by a boundary that
is an integral part of the network. To be self-generating means that all
components, including those of the boundary, are produced by processes within
the network. To be self-perpetuating means that the production processes
continue over time, so that all components are continually replaced by the
systems process of transformation.” There hasn’t been much work done on studying
the autopoiesis of multicellular organisms, ecosystems, and social systems
surprisingly. All living systems are networks of smaller parts, and the web of
life is a multilayered structure of living systems nesting within other living
systems – networks within networks. In all of these networks, the smallest
living components are cells, which would make all living systems autopoietic.
Surprisingly, there might be more evidence for the autopoietic nature of Gaia
than for ecosystems. Gaia is self-bounded by the atmosphere, self-generating by
converting inorganic substances into organic living batter and back into soil,
oceans, and air, and Gaia is self-perpetuating by components of the oceans,
soil, and air, as well as organisms being continually replaced by the processes
of production and transformation.

 Capra then talks about the unfolding of life
and reviews the history of evolutionary thought including Darwinism and
Neo-Darwinism, systems view, and evolution through symbiosis. There were three
broad ages in evolution called the prebiotic, age of the microcosm, and the
macrocosm. The prebiotic age is where the conditions for the emergence of life
were formed. It lasted around 1 billion years, from the formation of the earth
to the creation of the first cells, beginning life around 3.5 billion years
ago. The age of microcosm lasted for 2 billion years, in which bacteria and
other microorganisms invented all the basic processes of life and established
the global feedback loops necessary for the self-regulation of Gaia. The age of
the macrocosm was started around 1.5 billion years ago, where the atmosphere
was largely established and the evolution of life takes place. There are six
main chemical ingredients for life: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur,
and Phosphorus. These elements are present in all living organisms. The first
cells on Earth had to develop a variety of metabolic pathways for extracting
food and energy from the environment. Some of the ways this was accomplished is
by fermentation and photosynthesis. Fermentation is the breaking down of sugars
and conversion into ATP molecules, which fuels all cellular processes. Early
fermenting bacteria lived off chemicals in the earth, in the mud and water
protected by harsh UV rays. Photosynthesis is the conversion of sunlight, CO2,
and water into energy which fuels cellular processes. Although, early bacteria
photosynthesized using hydrogen sulfide instead of water, and combined it with
sunlight and CO2 to form organic compounds, and did not produce oxygen until
later on. Capra then continues to talk about the evolution of bacteria, plants,
animals, and the evolution of humans.

In Chapter 11, Capra says that mind
is not a thing, but a process. The process of knowing is cognition and
identifies itself with the process of life. The interactions of a living system
with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living
itself is a process of cognition. As Maturana and Varela put it, “To live is to
know.” According to the Santiago theory, cognition is not a representation of
an independent, pre-given word, but rather a bringing forth of a world.
Individual species have more or less the same structure, so they bring forth
similar worlds. Humans share an abstract world of language and symbols in which
we bring forth our world. Capra then discusses some of the works of Maturana
and Bateson and their ideas of cognition and goes on to talk about the nervous
system, immune system, and endocrine system interconnecting into one network.
In Chapter 12, he starts off by talking about self-awareness and that as far as
we know, is only manifest in higher animals and fully unfolds in the human
mind. Self-awareness is unexplainable in terms of physics and chemistry, and
can’t even be understood through the biology or psychology of a single
organism. He goes into language and communication and says that mutual
coordination of behavior is the key characteristic of communication for all
living organisms. He notes that our ego does not have any independent existence
but is a result of our internal structural coupling. At the end of the book,
Capra says that the power of abstract thinking has led us to treat the natural
environment as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different
interest groups and that we have extended this view into our society – dividing
into different nations, religious, and political groups. He finishes chapter 12
by saying “The belief that all these fragments – in ourselves, in our
environment, and in our society – are really separate has alienated us from
nature and from our fellow human beings and thus has diminished us. To regain
our full humanity, we have to regain our experience of connectedness with the
web of life. This reconnecting, religio in Latin, is the very essence of the
spiritual grounding of deep ecology.”

In the epilogue, Capra emphasizes
ecological literacy, which means understanding the principles of organization
of ecological communities and using those principles for creating sustainable
human communities. Since the basic pattern of life is a network pattern, the
relationships among the members of an ecological community are nonlinear and
involve multiple feedback loops. In this fashion, nature is cyclical, whereas
business is linear. An ecosystems feedback loops allow for the continual
recycling of nutrients, which leaves them without waste. Businesses, on the
other hand, take resources, turn them into products and waste, sell them to
consumers who consume the product and in turn generate more waste. In order to
make businesses more cyclical like nature, we need to fundamentally redesign
them. The start of that is to move toward solar, wind, and hydropower since
they are economically renewable sources of energy. Another way is to have an
ecological tax reform, and shift the burden of income taxes to “eco-taxes”,
which would apply full cost pricing to products. Capra also notes that
ecological literacy includes the knowledge that both sides of a conflict can be
important, depending on the context, and that the contradictions within a
community are signs of its diversity and vitality, contributing to the
viability of the system. The more complex the network is, the more complex its
pattern of interconnections are, the more resilient it will be. A diverse
community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations.
However, if the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals,
diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. Although if a
community is aware of the interdependence of its members, diversity will enrich
all relationships and the community. Capra ends the book by stating the
survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy, our ability to
understand principles of ecology and try to live accordingly.





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