The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Fritjof Capra and

Pier Luigi Luisi

Cambridge University Press, 2014



reviewed by Johny Van Aerde, MD



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Capra’s latest book, co-authored with Luisi, is a masterpiece and an accumulation of his work published over the last three decades. While building on some of Capra’s previous publications, including The Turning Point, The Web of Life, and The Hidden Connections, this book adds an unbelievable amount of historical and new information in a nicely integrated manner. The Systems View of Life may well be the most comprehensive book on systems thinking, and it’s written as much for the newly interested as for the well-informed reader.


The 500-page publication is divided into four large sections. The first deals with the mechanistic worldview, that part of systems thinking that originated in the 17th century and still permeates the views of many today. The history and philosophy behind the world-as-machine is insightful: the authors describe not only the evolution of the scientific method, but also the shifting of social paradigms and the changing understanding of biology.


The second section starts with the emergence of systems thinking, the role of the new physics, and the concept of the observer as participant rather than as disconnected spectator in a system. In an organized and logical manner, Capra and Luisi take the reader through all the traditional aspects of systems theory, including cybernetics and its application to social systems and the self-organizing brain, non-linear mathematics, and non-linear dynamics, including the concepts of strange attractors and fractals.


Although the first two sections are of interest to those who want to apply complex systems theory to the human body or to the health system, the third and fourth sections are equally fascinating for philosopher, biologist, ecologist, physician, and everyone else interested in life. In these two sections, the authors look at life and its evolution with the lenses of biology, consciousness, spirituality, science, and eco-sustainability.


In the third section, “a new conception of life,” the authors start with the definition of life. Part of the answer is found in autopoiesis, one of the fundamental characteristics of molecular, living, and social complex systems. After an explanation of molecular self-organization of phospholipids and proteins, many examples from biology and sociology help with the understanding of the emergent properties of dynamic systems. Using complex systems thinking, the authors treat the reader to great writing on mind versus consciousness and science versus spirituality. Chapter 13 is a pure gem on this topic and includes systemic reflections on the origin of the conflict between science and religion.


After applying systems thinking to life, mind, and society, the authors progress to a systems view of health, integrating it into today’s crises in the health care system, into global system problems, and into the eco-sustainability of our web of life. Ecology and the interconnectedness of world networks and problems, global capitalism and limits to growth, and some solutions for the global society toward a design for sustainability of life and ecosystems are the content of the fourth and last section.


In short, this book is a must read for the physician leader who is interested in complex systems thinking, health, health (care) systems, and global eco-sustainability.