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THE WEB OF LIFE: A NEW SYNTHESIS OF MIND AND MATTER· Fritjof Capra·Harper Collins·1996·Price Rs 1,008
the working of the human brain, the evolution of life from the primordial soup of chemicals and the unpredictability of weather are some well-known examples of complex systems. Most researchers in the field agree that a defining characteristic of a complex system is that it consists of a great many independent agents interacting in a myriad of ways, and has the property of adaptation. These agents could be molecules in the primeval soup of chemicals from which life is supposed to have evolved, or neurons (synapses) in the brain or even economic agents in a society. The richness of interactions between these agents results in a spontaneous self organisation of the system as a whole. Thus, the connections between the neurons in the human brain are constantly being updated and reorganised to enable learning, and organisms, because of their adaptation to the environment, spontaneously organise themselves into an elaborate and fine-tuned ecosystem.
An important distinction needs to be made between complex systems and systems which are complicated. The space shuttle is a complicated system but not a complex one. This is because the dynamics of the space shuttle can be understood by comprehending the working of each individual part. In the past few years, there has been a great amount of interest in chaotic systems. These are systems in which apparently simple rules governing the behaviour of the system give rise to an amazing canvass of intricate behaviour. A well-known example is the formation of eddies in the flow of a water stream, where each water particle follows simple equations of motion, while the behaviour of the whole is completely different. Com-plex systems are not quite in the chaotic regime but, instead, hover on the edge of chaos.
For centuries, we have been led to believe that the way to understanding complex systems is through the reductionist paradigm, that is, to break it up into small, manageable parts and understand the workings of each individual entity. This approach has yielded phenomenal dividends from the time of Newton and Descartes. Indeed, the whole edifice of contemporary science and technology is based on the foundations of the reductionist principle. Nevertheless, there are many complex systems and phenomena which have not yielded to the reductionist logic. A complex system is much more than a simple sum of its parts.
A particle physicist by training, Capra has over the last few years been interested in ecological debates and the Green movement. In the Web of Life , he proposes an overall synthesis that integrates the new discoveries in complex systems into a single context and thus allows lay readers to understand them in a coherent way.
It is Capra's contention that the new understanding of life is not merely a matter of details which need to be filled in the old, reductionist canvass, but is indeed the forefront of a change of paradigms from a reductionist to an ecological one. He is proposing "a synthesis of all the current theories as an outline for a unified view of mind, matter and life".
He starts with giving a broad overview of the cultural context in which his argument is situated. One of the most important influences in his thinking has been the philosophical idea of deep ecology founded by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, in the early '70s. Deep ecology looks at nature as a network of phenomenon which are interdependent and in which the whole natural environment is viewed as a single entity. In this sense, the world view is ecological rather than holistic. A holistic world view, though often used synonymously with ecology in some writings, is probably more apt in cases where the system boundaries are more or less clearly defined. For example, a holistic understanding of an automobile would look at the whole system, that is, the whole automobile, rather than break it up into its constituents, while an ecological understanding would integrate the effect of automobiles on the biosphere and look into the sociological dimensions.
There is another aspect of the new vision which makes it novel. It places life at its centre and implies a fundamental shift away from mechanistic metaphors in which physics stands at the heart of our understanding of nature. Capra claims that the paradigm has shifted to life sciences and it is in biology that the crux of understanding nature is to be found.
Lest one thinks that this is all philosophical verbal effusion, Capra tells us about the science of complexity and the new developments in emergent systems which allow one to understand complex systems such as the brain or the stock market. He has a chapter called 'Models of self organization' where the many systems like chemi-cal systems in the presence of certain catalysts, neural networks , strongly interacting particles, and even the Gaia theory, which considers the earth as a self-regulating system in which living matter collectively defines and maintains the conditions for the continuance of life, find a place. Unfortunately, the discussion on each one of them is too superficial to be of any use.
Another chapter called 'Mathematics of complexity' fares even worse. Instead of giving some insight into the revolution brought about by the new ways of looking at complex systems, what one gets is verbiage and mathema-tics at the level of high school algebra. The whole realm of nonlinear systems and other exciting topics is dealt with cursorily.
Most of the book is given to explaining the work of a few scientists like the Belgian chemist Ilya Prigogine, the Chilean biologist Francisco Varela and to some extent the Gaia pioneer, Lynn Margulis. While each of this work is very important , it is by no means uncontroversial. For in-stance, there are serious reservations among biologists about the details of Varela's 'autopoiesis', a term coined by Varela for self-organising systems, and his recent work on the immune system. But these minor details do not bother Capra who seems to have a single- minded agenda of promoting his new vision. Besides, apart from these few scientists, there are many more working on complex systems who have a different view point, that are not even referred to in the book. If the attempt is to present a grand overview of the subject, it is only fair to lay all the positions in the field on the table and let the reader decide.
There are other major problems with the book. Capra's predominant style of reasoning seems to be by analogy. Analogies may be wonderful devices for pedagogy or even thinking, but they are no substitutes for good old solid argumentation. This style of his has paid him rich dividends in his earlier bestseller, The Tao of Physics , where he seems to have seen amazing similarities between modern particle physics and Eastern mysticism.A particular Zen kaon, a kind of puzzle used in Zen teachings, has eight syllables and there is an eight-fold symmetry in certain elementary particles, ergo, the deep rooted connections between the two! This kind of writing, replete with names dropping and analogies will bring the author fame and fortune but will unfortunately leave the readers totally confused. The footnotes in the book are also self referential in that they refer to each other. This is extremely annoying and though Capra says in his preface that it is deliberate to emphasise the inter-connec-tedness, we can do without such complexity in literary style.
The book gives gene-ralised insights into this fascinating field, but not a deeper understanding of the subject.