Book Review

The Web of Life

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

By Frijtof Capra


Hardback—348 pages

1996, DOUBLEDAY (Anchor Books)
Dimensions (in inches): 1.25 x 8.5 x 5.75


by Philip S. Wenz, Editor/Publisher

The greatest triumph of reductionist biology was the discover, in 1953, of the double helical structure of the DNA molecule. The key to unlocking life's secretes, it was felt, had been found. DNA served as a template on which the cell built it's RNA which in turn built its proteins—and the proteins, which included enzymes, regulated all the functions of the cell. All we had to do to understand life was analyze each organism's DNA. In the late 1960's, a doctoral candidate in molecular biology told me that within ten to fifteen years we would have a complete model of a living cell, possibly even a fruit fly.

So molecular biology, and its offspring biotechnology rapidly became the new scientific orthodoxy. The prospect and promise of "completely understanding," and, shortly thereafter, completely manipulating life forms was just too tempting for the enthusiastic scientists, rapacious entrepreneurs and the governments and investors that financed them. So called "genetic determinism" became the dominant paradigm and a new era of what could best be described as "frantic searching" for genetic "secrets" was ushered in.

As well as promising a complete description of an organism, the genetic determinists also claimed to have solved the mystery of evolution. The educational establishment got right in line, and I was taught in high school biology class that evolution proceeded step by step as random mutations induced by radiation, exposure to certain substances and the like, prevented genes from accurately reproducing themselves. The mutated genes, of course, produced mutated organisms, most of which died but a few of which were better adapted to their environment than their "competitors" and thus survived giving rise to new forms.

Neat. Solved. Except for a little moping up operation of analyzing the genomes of the world's millions of organisms, or at least those that might make money for pharmaceutical companies, we had pretty much ended the need for new approaches to biology. Any phenomenon that was not already explained within the confines of genetic determinism would be revealed in due time when the detailed structures of enough molecules had been analyzed.

Needless to say, research funding and investment was heavily weighted toward the genetic determinists in universities and corporations. Entire industries sprung up, while areas of research that relied on a system's perspective of life—ecology and developmental biology among others—were significantly underfunded. Ecology is troublesome anyhow. It keeps turning up problems, most of which are created by the same institutions—government and big business — that provide research funding.

Despite it's dominance of the field, however, Genetic Determinism, like all scientific paradigms eventually do, was running into trouble. It was failing to explain a host of biological phenomena, failing to deliver on many of the promises of biotechnology, and, ultimately, failing to justify its relatively bloated research budgets.

Questions were arising all over the place. Since DNA cannot survive on its own, isn't it's function in the cell determined by the cell as a whole? How can random mutations to single genes give rise, incrementally, to complex structures such as the human eye and whole new orders of organisms throughout geological times? (Darwin himself asked this question using different terminology.) Is health and disease simply a matter of manipulating a few genes, or is the organism as a whole involved? Are there any down sides to genetic engineering? WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE PLANET?

Every dominant paradigm contains the seed of its own demise. Concurrent with the rise of Genetic Determinism was the quiet development of several parallel strains of thought that would eventually lead, in Capra's words, to "a new scientific understanding of living systems."

While mathematicians were developing theories to handle the behavior of complex systems such as weather patterns and economies, biologists were beginning to understand that living systems are self-organizing, "dissipative structures." That is, cells, organisms, ecosytems and the biosphere are energetically open systems that maintain their pattern of organization by a constant flow of energy, the remains of which are dissipated as entropy. Living systems are not only self maintaining, they are autopoetic, or self-creating—within certain constraints they build new levels of complexity on the fly, so to speak. And at the same time the systemic bioligists were at work, an inventor named James Lovelock proposed the radical notion that the entire biosphere was one large living organism, analogous to a cell in that the "metabolism" of its collective life forms regulated it's atmosphere and, therefore it's temperature, moisture and other factors that enabled life to exist. Lovelock named his newly identified "organism" Gaia, after the ancient goddess of the earth, and sparked an enormous scientific controversy.

Capra's brilliant achievement in the Web of Life is to connect all of these threads of thought into a unified theory of living systems. Further, he explains his synthesis and its underlying ideas so that the attentive lay person can understand them. Finally, he ties the entire work to the need for deep ecology and sustainable development, clearly demonstrating why the web of life must be maintained if life itself is to go on.

Understanding Capra's ideas and those of others that he so clearly elucidates will take some real effort on the part of those not initiated in the language of contemporary systems theory. Why should a designer undertake such a task?

To perform real ecological design, one needs to understand real living systems. It is not good enough to jump to a solution and, say, build a solar house, without understanding the underlying context of the operation of the web of life and where a particular solution fits in. In order to be ecological designers, we must first be ecologists, must gain an understanding of how the Web of Life organizes and maintains itself. There is no better overview of or introduction to that topic than Capra's.


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