Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Web of Life 11

Suspended wheel outside a tyre business near me.

Encountering Wholeness

Way back in 1994 as part of my S.T.L. degree I wrote a thesis on Faith and Theological Method in the Works of John Henry Newman Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was one of the foremost minds of nineteenth century England as well as being the greatest stylist of the period in the English language.  In short, he wrote angelic prose.  Anyway, in that thesis I adverted to Newman's obsession with wholeness or holism, somewhat way before holism was known as a way of perceiving things or of approaching problems.  Here, in summary, is what I wrote then:

From his experience of life Newman was deeply conscious that our permanent convictions and beliefs are reached, not by the intellect alone, but by the whole person functioning as a thinking, feeling and willing unity.  This he calls our 'compound nature.'  He found it simply impossible to be a reductionist, to think otherwise than in continual reference to the whole.  In all his writings Newman was continually aware of the partial character of his viewpoint on any specific subject... [In the Apologia] he insists that in any controversy in which he was involved that he had 'a great impatience, whatever was the subject, of not bringing out the whole of it, as clearly as I could'  Nowhere did he express this basic vision with greater force than in the following often-quoted passage from the same book: 'For myself it was not logic then that carried me on... It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years and I find myself in a new place; how? the whole man moves; paper logic is but a record of it.' (Tim Quinlan op.cit. supra, p. 41)
The Holism of Ecology

In summary, then, organismic biologists came across irreducible wholeness in organisms.  Thereafter, quantum physicists encountered it in atomic phenomena and Gestalt psychologists found it in perception itself.  Then, along came the ecologists and they encountered this thrust to wholeness in their studies of animal and plant communities.  As Dr Fritjof Capra puts it so succinctly: "The new science of ecology emerged out of the organismic school of biology during the nineteenth century, when biologists began to study communities of organisms." (The Web of Life, p. 33)  The German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) coined the term "ecology" in 1866 and defined it thus: 'the science of relations between the organism and the surrounding outer world.' (Ibid., p. 33)

The War of Terminologies

The word "Umwelt" or "environment" was used for the first time in 1909.  One Charles Elton (1900 – 1991) introduced the concepts of food chains and food cycles.  Another called Frederick Clements  (1874 - 1945), an American plant ecologist introduced the concept of viewing plant communities as 'super-organisms.'  A British plant ecologist, one A.G. Tansley (1871 - 1955)  countered this concept with the idea of the 'ecosystem.'  He maintained that his new term was more accurate and more precise than Clements' concept, and that it characterised both animal and plant communities. 

The term 'biosphere' was first used in the late nineteenth century by the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831–1914) to describe the layer of life surrounding the Earth.  A few decades later, the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863 – 1945) published a fully researched book called Biosphere.   Capra informs us that of all the early writing and research on the living Earth Vernadsky's comes closest to the contemporary Gaia theory advanced and developed by the modern scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Magulis in the 1970s.  I have written about the Gaia hypothesis before - see here and following posts.  James Lovelock's own web page can be accessed here - Lovelock )

Enriching Systems Thinking

Ecology enriched Systems Thinking with two other concepts - those of community and network.  Returning to Dr Capra's own words, we read:

Today we know that most organisms are not only members of ecological communities but are also complex ecosystems themselves, containing a host of smaller organisms that have considerable autonomy and yet are integrated harmoniously into the functioning of the whole... Over billions of years of evolution, many species have formed such tightly knit communities that the whole system resembles a large, multicreatured organism.  Bees and ants, for example, are unable to survive in isolation, but in great numbers they act almost like the cells of a complex organism with a collective intelligence and capabilities for adaptation far superior to those of its individual members.  Similar close coordination of activities exist also among different species, where it is known as symbiosis, and again the resulting living systems have the characteristics of single organisms. (Ibid., p. 34)
In brief, then, my argument here, drawing on Newman (theology) and modern science with Dr Fritjof Capra, is that the thrust to wholeness or unity is perennial with respect to the human quest for meaning.  On the one hand, those who want to figure out how things work are fundamentally concerned with parts and how these work, even with atomism, that is attempting to continually divide things to arrive at foundational bricks as it were.  On the other hand philosophers, literati and others are concerned with striving to see the whole picture in whatever they are investigating at a particular time.  In sum, then, I should like to finish with the words of one of my favourite Romantic poets and philosophers and critics, viz., S.T. Coleridge, words which get to the essence of my intentions in this post.   Coleridge once said that the human thrust to meaning could best be summed up in the words "to see the unity behind the multeity."

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