Systems View of Life: A Synthesis by Fritjof Capra

Systems View of Life: A Synthesis by Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley. Capra is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics (1975), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), The Science of Leonardo (2007), and Learning from Leonardo (2013). He is coauthor, with Pier Luigi Luisi, of the multidisciplinary textbook, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Over the last thirty years, a new systemic understanding of life has emerged at the forefront of science. It integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension. At the core of this new understanding we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. One of the most radical philosophical implications of the systems view of life is a new conception of mind and consciousness which, for the first time, overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter.


The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies respect, honour, and cooperate with Nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavour, naturally, must be to understand how Nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a whole new conception of life. Indeed, such a new conception has emerged over the last 30 years.

In our new book, The Systems View of Life, we integrate the ideas, models, and theories underlying this new understanding of life into a single coherent framework. We call it “the systems view of life” because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context – which is known as “systems thinking”, or “systemic thinking”. We offer a multidisciplinary textbook that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions; and we discuss the philosophical, social, and political implications of this unifying vision.

Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, beginning with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, we chronicle the evolution of Cartesian mechanism from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the rise of systems thinking in the 1930s and 1940s, the revolutionary paradigm shift in 20th-century physics, and the development of complexity theory (technically known as nonlinear dynamics), which raised systems thinking to an entirely new level.

During the past 30 years, the strong interest in complex, nonlinear phenomena has generated a whole series of new and powerful theories that have dramatically increased our understanding of many key characteristics of life. Our synthesis of these theories, which takes up the central part of our book, is what we refer to as the systems view of life. In this article, we can present only a few highlights.

One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.

Closer examination of these living networks has shown that their key characteristic is that they are self-generating. Technically, this is known as the theory of autopoiesis, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis means “self-making”. Living networks continually create, or recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. In this way they undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web-like patterns of organisation. This coexistence of stability and change is indeed one of the key characteristics of life.

In our synthesis, we extend the conception of living networks from biological to social networks, which are networks of communications; and we discuss the implications of the paradigm shift from the machine to the network for two specific fields: management and health care.

One of the most rewarding features of the systems view of life is the new understanding of evolution it implies. Rather than seeing evolution as the result of only random mutations and natural selection, we are beginning to recognise the creative unfolding of life in forms of ever-increasing diversity and complexity as an inherent characteristic of all living systems. We are also realising that the roots of biological life reach deep into the non-living world, into the physics and chemistry of membrane-bounded bubbles — proto cells that were involved in a process of “prebiotic” evolution until the first living cells emerged from them.

One of the most important philosophical implications of the new systemic understanding of life is a novel conception of mind and consciousness, which finally overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter. Following Descartes, scientists and philosophers for more than 300 years continued to think of the mind as an intangible entity (res cogitans) and were unable to imagine how this “thinking thing” is related to the body. The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realise that mind and consciousness are not things but processes.

This novel concept of mind is known today as the Santiago theory of cognition, also developed by Maturana and Varela at the University of Chile in Santiago. The central insight of the Santiago theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life. Cognition is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks. Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected. Cognition is immanent in matter at all levels of life.

The Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: process and structure. At all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected.

Cognition, as understood in the Santiago theory, is associated with all levels of life and is thus a much broader phenomenon than consciousness. Consciousness – that is, conscious, lived experience – is a special kind of cognitive process that unfolds at certain levels of cognitive complexity that require a brain and a higher nervous system. The central characteristic of this special cognitive process is self-awareness. In our book, we review several recent systemic theories of consciousness in some detail.

Our discussion also includes the spiritual dimension of consciousness. We find that the essence of spiritual experience is fully consistent with the systems view of life. When we look at the world around us, whether within the context of science or of spiritual practice, we find that we are not thrown into chaos and randomness but are part of a great order, a grand symphony of life. We share not only life’s molecules, but also its basic principles of organisation with the rest of the living world. Indeed, we belong to the universe, and this experience of belonging makes our lives profoundly meaningful.

In the last part of our book, titled Sustaining the Web of Life, we discuss the critical importance of the systems view of life for dealing with the problems of our multi-faceted global crisis. It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, environment, climate change, poverty – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent, and require corresponding systemic solutions.

We review a variety of already existing solutions, based on systems thinking and the principles of ecodesign. These solutions would solve not only the urgent problem of climate change, but also many of our other global problems – degradation of the environment, food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, and others. Together, these solutions present compelling evidence that the systemic understanding of life has already given us the knowledge and the technologies to build a sustainable future.



Key Sources of Research:



Fritjof Capra

Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 11, no. 2, 2015




3) The Systems View of Life – A Unifying Vision – An interview of Fritjof Capra


4) Personal Website of Fritjof Capra



5) Systems View of Life- Lecture Video 





Click to access 9781107011366_frontmatter.pdf

Milankovitch Cycles: Astronomical Theory of Climate Change and Ice Ages

Milankovitch Cycles: Astronomical Theory of Climate Change and Ice Ages


The following is an interview of George Kukla.

From An Unrepentant Prognosticator

GK: Well, I think that neither the “bad boys” nor the “good guys” know what is going on, and even worse, would be able to comprehend it. (This is not to claim that I am absolutely sure about it).

However, this is how I see it:

Yes, the globe is warming, so we do have “global warming” indeed! It proceeds in up and down cycles, but the general trend is up, no doubt about it.

What is happening is very similar to the time 115,000 years ago, when the last glaciation started. It is difficult to comprehend, but it is really so: The last glacial was accompanied by the increase of a really averaged global mean surface temperature, alias global warming.

What happened then was that the shifting sun warmed the tropics and cooled the Arctic and Antarctic. Because the tropics are so much larger than the poles, the area-weighted global mean temperature was increasing. But also increasing was the temperature difference between the oceans and the poles, the basic condition of polar ice growth. Believe it or not, the last glacial started with “global warming”!

The shifts of solar orbit today are about two to three times weaker than in the last glacial, or by the way, in the last 400,000 years. So, on that basis, we have little to worry. However, to expect today a possible complete melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets is entirely out of place.

So my advice: wait and see what happens! In no more than 50 years we’ll see who’s right.

GM: You said that “neither the “bad boys” nor the “good guys” know what is going on, and even worse, would be able to comprehend it.” Does that mean we shouldn’t worry about it? Why are all of these other scientists worried?

GK: The only thing to worry about is the damage that can be done by worrying. Why are some scientists worried? Perhaps because they feel that to stop worrying may mean to stop being paid.

GM: I’m afraid to ask this question: What do you think of the way the media has covered both “global cooling” and “global warming”?

GK: I just think that they need to make money and they seem to know best how to do it. You can’t blame them for that.

GM: In most cases, it seems like global warming and global cooling are separated by political lines. Are you surprised that the issue is so politicized?

GK: Am I surprised that global warming and cooling are separated by political lines? NOT at all. Especially if media seem to be helping a lot.

GM: What effects do carbon-dioxide emissions have on the cooling and warming cycles? Could they throw it out of balance, and what would that look like?

GK: Good question! The CO2 certainly has an influence. For instance, it appears that already now, with still relatively low concentrations, it may have a significant warming impact on the night [temperature] minima. And because the usual way to determine the daily mean is as the average of the daily minimum and maximum, here we go! But it is difficult to be sure: more clouds can do the same.

GM: In 2000, you told the Columbia University News that you believed that global warming was merely a blip before a coming ice age. Do you still agree with that?

GK: That article is principally still OK. Only then I didn’t know that the glacials, all glacials by the way, started by global warming. (Understood as area-weighted average global mean temperature, that is.) So the title of that Columbia article today would have been: “Evidence of approaching ice age is in accelerated global warming.” [Editor’s note: The current subtitle of the piece reads, “Sees Evidence of Approaching Ice Age Despite Global Warming”] Also, I didn’t stress the exceptional weakness of currently ongoing astronomic changes as compared to the last three glacial cycles. No doubt that we have about 10,000 or even possibly 20,000 years still ahead before the major ice advance can start. What we should watch now is the El Niño and La Niña. They can tell.

GM: There’s a general consensus among scientists (or at least scientific representation in the media) that man is responsible for global warming. What do you think about that? Do you agree?

GK: What I think is this: Man is responsible for a PART of global warming. MOST of it is still natural.


From Orbital forcing timescales: an introduction

A brief review is given of orbital patterns affecting the Earth which may be of use in establishing, for long or short periods, orbital forcing timescales (OFT). The metronomic variations of the Earth-Moon system and of the Earth-Sun orbital patterns produce gravitational and temperature effects which alter the physical environment on the Earth’s surface. These give an interpenetrating effect of forcing cycles ranging from twice daily tides, day-night alternations, various tidal patterns and the annual solar pattern. All of these have been used palaeontologically to give precision to short-term age determination in the past.

It is cycles of the Milankovitch band which are showing promise of enabling new practical timescales to be established for parts of geological time. These depend on changes in the Earth-Sun distance (perihelion and precession cycles of 19 and 23 ka at the present time), changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis with respect to the Earth’s orbit round the Sun (the obliquity cycles of 41 and 54 ka), and changes in the geometry of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (eccentricity cycles of 106 and 414 ka). Since the number of days in the year have changed through time; so have the periods of the perihelion and precession cycles. There is increasing evidence that small-scale sedimentary rhythmic couplets, often grouped into bundles, may represent the effect of some of these; often the precessional couplets are grouped into bundles of five or so with in the lower eccentricity period. The disentangling of the interpenetrating cycles to produce an OFT is an exciting problem and challenge for palaeobiology and sedimentology. These should enable numerical dates to be given to biostratigraphic and chronostratigraphic timescales and eventually enable many earth processes to be analysed in real time.

26 Ma oscillations related to the Cosmic Year (c. 260 Ma) have been invoked to explain periodic mass extinctions in the fossil record. But evidence is presented to suggest such extinctions are not, in fact, periodic.



Key Concepts:

  • 23000 yrs cycle – Earth’s Precessional
  • 41000 yrs cycle – Earth’s Obliquity
  • 100000 yrs cycle – Earth’s Eccentricity
  • Glacial-Interglacial Cycles
  • Abrupt Climate Change
  • Paleo Climate
  • Glacial Inception
  • Interglacial Termination
  • Ice Age
  • End of Holocene
  • Anthropocene
  • Periodicity


Key People:

  • Andre Berger
  • George Kukla
  • J. Imbrie
  • N J Shackleton
  • WS Broecker
  • ME Raymo
  • J A Rial
  • David Archer
  • J D Hays
  • Michel Crucifix
  • Chronis Tzedakis



Key Sources of Research:


Challenges for ice age dynamics: a dynamical systems perspective

Michel Crucifix Guillaume Lenoir1, and Takahito Mitsui1

December 14, 2015


Click to access 1512.03557.pdf



J.Imbrie,• E.A.Boyle,2 S.C.Clemens,•
A. Duffy, • W.R. Howard,s G. Kukla,s
J. Kutzbach,4 D. G. Martinson,s A. Mcintyre?5, A. C. Mix, 6 B. Molfino, s J.J. Morley, s
L. C. Peterson,? N.G. Pisias,6 W.L. Prell, • M.E. Raytoo,2 N.J. Shackletons, and
J. R. Toggweiler


Click to access Imbrie_etal_1992_Paleoc_Milankovitch_Linear.pdf



2. THE 100,000-YEAR CYCLE

J.Imbrie,• A. Berger, E.A. Boyle, S.C. Clemens•, A.Duffy,• W.R. Howard, G.Kukla, J.Kutzbach, D.G.Martinson , A.Mcintyre A.C. Mix,  B. Molfino, J.J.Morley, L.C.Peterson, N.G.Pisias, W.L.Prell, M.E.Raymo,N.J.Shackleto9n,andJ.R. Toggweile



Click to access Imbrie_etal_1993_Paleoc_Milankovitch_100K.pdf


The 100,000-Year Ice-Age Cycle Identified and Found to Lag Temperature, Carbon Dioxide, and Orbital Eccentricity

Nicholas J. Shackleton


Click to access shackleton-2000.pdf



A. Berger


Ice Age Terminations

Hai Cheng,1 R. Lawrence Edwards,1* Wallace S. Broecker,2 George H. Denton,3 Xinggong Kong,4 Yongjin Wang,4 Rong Zhang,5 Xianfeng Wang1

Click to access Cheng%20et%20al.%202009_terminations.pdf


Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the IceAges

J.D.Hays,John Imbrie, N.J.Shackleton



Click to access 573cca0c08ae9ace840fe240.pdf


An outsider’s review of the astronomical theory of the climate: is the eccentricity-driven insolation the main driver of the ice ages?

Maya Elkibbi), Jose ́ A. Rial


Click to access ESRreviewpaper.pdf


The 41 kyr world: Milankovitch’s other unsolved mystery

Maureen E. Raymo

Kerim Nisancioglu


Click to access raymo-2003.pdf


Pacemaking the Ice Ages by Frequency Modulation of Earth’s Orbital Eccentricity

J. A. Rial

Click to access Pacemaking.pdf


Earth’s orbital eccentricity and the rhythm of the Pleistocene ice ages: the concealed pacemaker

J.A. Rial

Click to access GPCiceages.pdf



Unlocking the mysteries of the ice ages

Maureen E. Raymo & Peter Huybers

Click to access 2008_Raymo+Huybers.pdf


Orbital forcing timescales: an introduction


Click to access 1.full.pdf


Links between eccentricity forcing and the 100,000-year glacial cycle


Lorraine E. Lisiecki

Click to access ngeo828.pdf


Understanding nonlinear responses of the climate system to orbital forcing

J.A. Rial, C.A. Anaclerio

Click to access Nonlinear.pdf


The Earth’s Orbit and the Ice Ages

Curt Covey


Click to access SciAm1984.EarthsOrbitIceAges.pdf


A Paleoclimate Model of Ice-Albedo Feedback Forced by Variations in Earth’s Orbit

Richard McGehee∗ Clarence Lehman


Click to access 001fcdb7a08c2e20e7ab44fc0bd1f11f70ea.pdf


In defense of Milankovitch

Gerard Roe

Click to access roe06grl_54724.pdf


The End of Present Interglacial – How and When

Wallace S Broecker

Click to access broecker.pdf


Timing and duration of Last Interglacial conditions in Europe: a chronicle of a changing chronology

Chronis Tzedakis

Click to access tzedakis.pdf


Last Interglacial Climates

George J. Kukla  et all



Theories and Modeling of Glacial–Interglacial Cycles and Glacial Inception

Alexandra Jahn


Click to access TheoriesLGI_Jahn.pdf


An Unrepentant Prognosticator

Climatologist George Kukla still believes an ice age is likely.



Can we predict the duration of an interglacial?

P. C. Tzedakis1, E. W. Wolff2, L. C. Skinner3, V. Brovkin4, D. A. Hodell3, J. F. McManus5, and D. Raynaud

Click to access cp-8-1473-2012.pdf


Is Nature Warning Us of a New Ice Age?

by Laurence Hecht


Click to access warning_ice_age.pdf


CO2: The Greatest Scientific Scandal Of Our Time

by Zbigniew Jaworowski


Click to access 20_1-2_CO2_Scandal.pdf


Where the Global Warming Hoax Was Born


by Marjorie Mazel Hecht


Click to access GWHoaxBorn.pdf


The Coming (or Present) Ice Age

A long-term perspective on the current global warming fad

by Laurence Hecht


Click to access ComingPresentIceAge.pdf