Fritjof gives us a beautiful account of the general relevance of systems thinking in sociology, emphasizing in particular the fields of ecology, economy, and politics. Those are the domains of social sciences where in fact the systems thinking acquires its social importance for the world of today.
I am an academic chemist turned into a biologist, made my professional career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and since many years, my main research question has become “what is life?”. This question presents at least three different dimensions: first of all for the scientific one (how do you define life from a chemical point of view?); then the philosophical dimension (what is living, what is the dividing line between life and non-life); and finally a spiritual one ( who am I, why am I living?).
At the level of biological life, the notion of systems thinking comes out in all its clarity and importance. Consider a simple bacterium, the simplest form of life on Earth, and look into its metabolism, where you see part of the metabolic chart of Escherichia Coli - and try to ask the question: where is life in this case localized?
It is obvious that life cannot be localized, life is the entire collection of interacting elements, each reaction is linked to all other ones: life is a global property which cannot be reduced to any single point or component. And when we ask our students-here another example of our book to compare a living human body with one which just died. This latter has all DNA and proteins and blood and organs of the living one, then why is this man dead? The answer comes immediately: the living one is a dynamic network of integrated organs and functions, while in the dead one the integration is interrupted, the organs are only fragments which do not talk with each other. Life is then as a dynamic integrated complexity. In our book, we emphasize repeatedly and at several levels this notion of a collective network without a center of localization.
This dynamic systems view is not in contradiction with one main characteristic of living organisms, the individuality and/or biological autonomy. At this level, in the book and in our personal conferences, we present Maturana and Varela’ ideas of autopoiesis, centered on the phenomenology of the biological cell. Accordingly, the E. Coli cell can and should be seen as a system which is self-maintaining thanks to an internal network of reactions which regenerate all components - a system, in other words, which regenerates itself from within. This is valid for any biological cell, but also for an elephant, a plant, any human being. The living is a system which is busy in keeping and defending its own identity, thanks to an internal organization of interacting processes. And the main product of this life process is the production of its own organization- this is the meaning of the word autopoiesis, self-production. You see here how the systems view-the network of linked reactions-and the individuality coexists. We can give even a definition, or better, an operational description of life.