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How Life Organizes

Drawn from Coming Back to 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, or even the planet itself--are not just a heap of disjunct parts, but are 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.

By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scien-tists made an amazing discovery--amazing at least to the mainstream western mind. They discovered that nature is self-organizing. Or rather, assuming that to be the case, 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 sub organic to biological and ecological systems, and mental and social systems, as well. The proper-ties of open systems which permit the variety and intelligence of life-forms to arise from interactive currents of matter and energy 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 interactive relationships between its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating "emergent properties" and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts--just as the wetness of water could not be predicted from oxygen and hydrogen before they combined, or just as the tensile strength of steel far exceeds the combined strengths of iron and nickel. This property of open systems challenges the universal applicability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that cornerstone of classical science on which rest notions of entropy, the running down of all life.

2. Despite continual flow-through of matter-energy and information, and indeed thanks to that flow-through, open systems are able to maintain their balance; they self-stabilize. By virtue of this capacity, which von Bertalanffy called fliessgleichgewicht (flux-equilibrium), systems can self-regulate to compensate for changing conditions in their environment. This homeostatic function is performed by registering /monitoring the effects of their own behavior and matching it with their norms, like a thermostat. It is understood as a function of feed-back--negative or deviation-reducing feedback, to be precise (also called "cybernetics one"). This is how we maintain our body tempera-ture, heal from a cut, or 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 responsive norms. This, too, is a function of feedback--positive or deviation-amplifying feedback (also called "cybernetics two"). It is how we learn and how we evolved from the amoeba. But if our changing behaviors are not compatible with the challenges we face, and do not achieve a new balance with them, the positive feedback loop gets out of control and goes into "runaway," leading eventually to systems breakdown.

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, fields within fields. Each new holonic level--say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family--generates emergent properties that are nonreducible to the capacities of the separate components. Far different than the hierarchies of control familiar to societies where rule is imposed from above, in nested hierarchies (sometimes called holonarchies) order tends to arise from the bottom up; the system self-generates from spontaneously adaptive cooperation between the parts, in mutual benefit. Order and differentiation go hand and hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.