Book Review

By I. M. Oderberg
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1996; appendix, notes, index, illustrated, 368 pages, ISBN 0-385-47675-2, cloth $23.95.

This book concentrates on biological aspects of Capra's ongoing thesis of the interconnection of the earth with all its inhabitants, his earlier books having presented it in the fields of physics, philosophy, and society. Here he refers to a "new paradigm that may be called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view, if the term 'ecological' is used in a much broader sense than usual" (p. 6). Distinguishing between "shallow" and "deep" ecology, he describes shallow ecology as "human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental or 'use' value to nature." Deep ecology, on the other hand, does not separate humanity from nature: "It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects, but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent." It recognizes that all living beings have intrinsic value and views mankind "as just one particular strand in the web of life." Moreover, "Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness" (p. 7).

Capra goes on to assert that:

By calling the emerging new vision of reality "ecological" in the sense of deep ecology, we emphasize that life is at its very center. This is an important point for science, because in the old paradigm physics has been the model and source of metaphors for all other sciences. "All philosophy is like a tree," wrote Descartes. "The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches are all the other sciences."
Deep ecology has overcome this Cartesian metaphor. . . . physics has now lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description of reality. However, this is still not generally recognized today. . . . Today the paradigm shift in science, at its deepest level, implies a shift from physics to the life sciences. — pp. 12-13

Spectacular discoveries in astrophysics and the theories of some physicists suggesting the universality of consciousness would seem to counterpoise Capra's remarks. Moreover, there should not be competition between the various scientific disciplines. While the life sciences are certainly important, the physical sciences — and also nonscientific fields — have as much to contribute to human understanding.

Capra examines the views of scientists such as Maturana, Varela, Lovelock, Prigogine, Eigen, and Margulis. He considers various living systems — including rain forests and the human body with its cells — that scientists have tended to view as mere "mechanisms." But can we have an organism without an organizer of some kind to place function and collaboration within a larger picture? Each component should itself be considered as an organism. Nor can it be proved that an organism composed of many elements is the product of a chance assembly of units of a variety of kinds.

One implication of this book is nothing less than the overthrow of Descartes' dictum that mind is synonymous with reasoning. Capra asserts that in the emerging theory of living systems mind is not a thing, but a process. It is cognition, the process of knowing, and is identified with the process of life itself. Thus,

A bacterium, or a plant, has no brain but has a mind. The simplest organisms are capable of perception and thus of cognition. They do not see, but they nevertheless perceive changes in their environment — differences between light and shadow, hot and cold, higher and lower concentrations of some chemical, and the like. — pp. 174-5

The reactions Capra lists suggest an innate awareness to be found in all the children of nature whatever their stage of evolution.

Another approach to life and its processes worth consideration is that of Hindu thinkers millennia ago. They looked upon life (jiva) as an omnipresent universal expressed in particular units. They also recognized "essence of mind" as a universal, calling it mahat. They called the human manifestation of this universal mind manas, and held that the development of the human mind was the expression of its innate potential as an increasingly perfected aspect of universal mind.

The Web of Life summarizes recent biological thinking, contrasting it with mechanistic and Darwinian models; the author points out the strengths of these cutting-edge views in the life sciences, while readers must largely perceive their limitations for themselves.

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The great heresy and the only real heresy is the idea that anything is separate, distinct, and different essentially from other things. That is a wandering from natural fact and law, for nature is nothing but coordination, cooperation, mutual helpfulness; and the rule of fundamental unity is perfectly universal: everything in the universe lives for everything else. — G. de Purucker, Golden Precepts