Rob: Well my pleasure. So, you start - I think what we need to do to really get this conversation started is to - please talk about systems theory and it differs from the older mechanistic, atomistic models of science. Give us a kind of a brief overview of that. You've got chapters on it, but let's start so that the listener has that under his belt, her belt.
FC: Yeah, well the - there is actually not a finished theory, you know? There is no such thing that you can call systems theory that can be comparable to say quantum theory or the theory of evolution or relativity theory, it's more a way of thinking. That's why I prefer to talk about systems thinking. And it is thinking as I said before, in terms of patterns, connectedness and relationships. And that has a fairly long history in Western Science, it emerged in the 1920s and 1930s and interestingly it emerged from a series of interdisciplinary dialogues in Europe when biologists engaged in discussions with psychologists and ecologists. And of course ecology was a very new science at that time. And they realized that in those three fields, biology, psychology, and ecology, they were all dealing with living systems that is with entities that cannot be explained - whose behavior and properties cannot be explained in terms of their constituents. And so they coined this now well-known phrase, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And they realized that when you ask, what does it actually mean? In what way exactly is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is relationships. A cell for example, in the book we talk a lot about cells because it's the simple biological system; the simplest biological organism. And so a cell, as everybody knows, consists of molecules, but it's not just a bag of molecules, it's molecules engaged in certain processes; the processes of life or metabolism and molecules that are in certain relationships. And if we don't understand those relationships, we cannot understand the functioning of a cell. So it's always thinking in terms of relationships and then you discover a certain relationship that you see repeatedly and that's what we call a pattern. A set of relationships and in particular, in living systems we talk about patterns of organization. So, it's an approach in terms of patterns and relationships. And then this, as I said, this emerged in the 1920s and 30s and then in the 1940s there were systems theories but which were ultimately not completely successful, one of them was called general systems theory and another one is called cybernetics [they contributed a lot to the systems view and then in the 1970s and 1980s, a tremendous development happened in systems thinking and that is a new mathematics was developed, a mathematics of complexity; technically known as nonlinear dynamics because people realized that these living systems being networks are highly nonlinear. And up to that time we couldn't really solve nonlinear equations, but from the late 1970s on, with powerful high speed computers, mathematicians and scientists could actually model these complex systems and solve the corresponding nonlinear equations. And so with that a whole new language, which is popularly known as complexity theory, was developed. And after that, there was a huge interest in nonlinear phenomena and many new insights into the very nature of life were discovered and our book is really a synthesis of these new insights. So that's sort of in a nutshell, the history of systems thinking. And this synthesis is what I call the systems view of life.
Rob: Okay, so what about before the systems view? Before that we had the mechanistic, atomistic models in science.
FC: Yes, I mean -
Rob: How are they different?
FC: You know, when you look back on science and especially on the life sciences, you see that there is a kind of a pendulum swing between mechanistic views and holistic views and this begins in antiquity with say you know, the early Greeks like Pythagoras and then Aristotle, they had a holistic view of the world. They saw the world as a what they call, a cosmos that is an ordered whole. And then there was Democritus. Democritus, an early Greek philosopher was said no, no it's all atoms and it's all these hard indivisible particles. But this view of Democritus was not very popular and was not really adopted by the other Greek philosophers. So the holistic view continued into the Middle Ages and then in the Middle Ages there was a holistic world view, but it was not scientific because science was not encouraged. The natural philosophy was dominated by the so-called scholastics who were theologians who saw everything in terms of creation and the glory of God. And they didn't do scientific experiments and didn't really observe nature very closely. So then came the scientific revolution and with that a decisive shift from the whole to the parts. And that's what we call the mechanistic view because Rene Descartes, the great French philosopher of the seventeenth century, put forth the hypothesis that the world is really a machine and can be understood in terms of mechanical laws. And Galileo contributed to that and then Isaac Newton completed this view with so-called Newtonian Mechanics where he actually wrote down mathematical equations for the motion of solid bodies in space and this mechanistic view, seeing the world as a machine then dominated science for the next three hundred years. And there were some counter movements, which we also describe in the book, but the decisive shift really is happening now. Just happened in the last thirty years or so, I mean beginning in the 1920s and 30s, but then again we had genetics which is more mechanistic. But in the last thirty years, this new systems view of life is emerging and the key idea is that living systems are networks; that wherever we see life, we see networks. The components of a living organism or a social system or an ecosystem organize themselves in networks. So that's the sort of guiding idea that runs through our book.
Rob: And in the beginning of your book, you actually point out how in early thinking
like in Taoist philosophy, that even inanimate objects were considered part of the living world.
FC: That's right. And you know, this is to some extent a confirmed also in our contemporary science because we see the planet as a whole, as a living system, that's the so-called Gaia Theory which we also discuss in the book. So the planet is - the biosphere contains a vast global network of bacteria that regulate the atmosphere, the composition of the atmosphere, the temperature, the salinity of the oceans, and so on. So this network of bacteria, and of course then the network of plants and animals of other living organisms, is a vast living system. And of course this living system also contains rocks, minerals, water, you know other parts that are not living. But they participate in the whole living Gaia system.
Rob: Okay, so you talk - you write and say the Cartesian view of the universe as a mechanical system provided a scientific sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature that became typical of modern civilization. Can you discuss further how the Cartesian Newtonian mechanistic approach to science has manifested culturally as you do in your chapter on mechanistic social thought? Which is an incredible chapter.
FC: Yes, well the mechanistic world view, in the so called scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, was developed by a whole number of scientists, so Descartes laid down the essential philosophy, the essential position that said the world can really be understood as a machine. And at that time, automata were very popular on the French, at the French court so people constructed you know little dancing ballerinas and singing birds and so on, that were machines. And so Descartes said there's no real difference between say the leaf of the tree and a machine they'd reconstruct, the parts of the leaf are just much smaller and we can't see them, but they're tiny machines. And so this mechanistic view then spread and another key figure contributing to that was Francis Bacon who was an attorney and a scientist in England in the seventeenth century and who promoted, very vigorously, the scientific method, the empirical method of science. But he not only said we need to observe nature very carefully, that's true of all science, but also he said we need to dominate it. And it makes sense if you consider the world a machine, then you know you want to dominate the machine, you want to control it. I mean if I drive my car, I need to control the car. I can't allow the car to do whatever it want's to do, I need to control it. So, control is an essential part of the mechanistic worldview but if we deal with living systems, with living beings, then control is not the best approach. Like, you know what we're doing right now is we are engaging in a dialogue. I don't search to control you, you don't search to control me. We cooperate and we engage in dialogue, and that's the appropriate approach to life, to find out the nature of life by communicating, by engaging in dialogue. And so this is a huge difference between the mechanistic and the systemic view. And so this mechanistic approach spread from Newtonian Physics, which was tremendously successful in explaining the motions of the solar system, the motions of the tide, in general the motions of solid bodies, but then also was extended to elastic bodies, to waves, and finally to thermodynamics when it was discovered that heat is the kinetic energy, the energy of motion of molecules of air or solid bodies. So all this was a tremendous success and then people extended it to the social domain with the emergence of sociology in the nineteenth century and the founder of sociology, a French social scientist called Auguste Comte, actually called this science Social Physics. He then coined the term sociology but his first term was social phsyics and they will see - sociologists will see society as being composed of independent individuals just as a gas was composed of molecules. And in physics, we have so called gas law that are statistical laws, and so they wanted to find social laws corresponding to the gas laws. The social physics corresponding to Newtonian physics. And that is still - we're still suffering from this mechanistic worldview. If you think for instance of business organizations, then there is still this Newtonian model of trying to design an organization either with the help of outside experts or you know from the top inside, and if the design doesn't work, then they talk about re-engineering the organization. So these are all very mechanistic terms. Also an organization, a business organization is owned by the shareholders and is really treated like an object that can be manipulated and designed and exploited. So these are - this is the legacy of the mechanistic worldview. And then of course, in the book, this historical presentation is just the first part of the book giving the context, and then we talk about the alternatives of seeing things in a holistic, systemic way.
Rob: Absolutely. I'm going to get into - now - you write about how individualism became a dominant value because of this mechanistic model. Can you discuss that?
FC: Well, it's really the - sorry - the same principles are reflected in society. If you think of Medieval society, then you have to think of a society that was dominated by the church, by nobility, where people lived in communities and the individual really had very little to say. The individual fate, the path of life, was thought as being determined by God and by the social order. And so then in the Renaissance we had the cultural movement and philosophical movement of humanism, which placed value in the individual. And so there was the emergence of individual consciousness. In art for example, paintings before, in the Medieval Era were religious paintings where people like you know, Madonnas and angels and saints were presented symbolically without too many individual traits. And then in the Renaissance, individuals were first represented. First the Monarchs, and rulers, the Popes and bishops, but then ordinary people and the artist himself or herself presented themselves in self-portraits. So the self was emerging, the individual was emerging and what happened then as a consequence of the mechanistic and individualistic worldview was that the community took a backseat and eventually you know, was forgotten. And this was strongest in American society where this very strong individualism is still with us today. But I'm mentioning the history because when we talk about individualism versus community, it's not an either or situation. Individualism is not a bad thing, it's just when it's exaggerated and gets out of balance, then we see the consequences. And of course now we see the consequences, for instance, when fossil fuel companies say we need to maximize our profits and we don't care about the consequences. And we actually can pay public relations companies to distort reality and to create a public opinion that says Global Warming is just a hoax, or it's just something made up. You know they have tried this now for a very long time. So individualism trumps responsibility toward community or toward the ecosystems of the earth.
Rob: Now, when I think of individualism at an extreme I think of Ayn Rand and this whole libertarian approach. Where does that fit in with this mechanistic model? How does the mechanistic model - is it used? I mean can you get into that a little more?
FC: Well I'm not familiar with Ayn Rand. I mean I've heard about her and read about her, but I have not read anything by her, so I cannot really comment on her. But basically what you can say is that seeing individuals as independent and not connected to anything else is really the dilemma because we are all embedded in social systems and in ecosystems and everything I do has an effect on the rest of society and has an effect on the ecosystems of the earth. I mean whether I go shopping in a car and put my, say, vegetables into plastic bags or whether I take a bicycle or walk and have my own cloth shopping bag, makes huge difference if everybody does either one or the other, the difference on the environment is huge. And the difference on society is huge too because when we walk to places, we meet other people. You know, I'm European, I'm Austrian and I still go to Innsbruck where I grew up in the Tyrolean Alps very often. And one of the things I notice when I go back home is that in Innsbruck, which is a town of about a hundred thousand inhabitants, I see people standing in the streets talking to each other all the time. You know they go to work or they go shopping or they meet friends, whatever they do when they go to town, they walk very often or the bicycle and they stop to talk to other people. And that of course creates a social cohesion and a feeling of community. It's a very different situation when you do your errands in cars and shop in a shopping mall; it's totally different. And it's again the isolated individual as compared to a community, which is a network of relationships.
Rob: Okay, great. Yeah, having read your book, I really feel that this mechanistic concept is an underlying element of so much of today's culture. You write about the machine metaphor today saying and I quote "as a machine must be controlled by its operators to function according to their instructions so the main thrust of management theory has been to achieve efficient operations through top down control" and you go on to say "this largely unconscious embrace of the mechanistic approach to management has now become one of the main obstacles to organizational change" and then you add "transcending the mechanistic view of organizations will be critical for the survival of human civilization as transcending the mechanistic conceptions of health, the economy, or biotechnology."