Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Web of Life 16

Systems Thinking 2


This is a totally new concept for the present writer.  However, it is always great to discover something new.  Alexander Bogdanov (1873 - 1928) was the inventor or originator of this interesting concept.  He was quite a polymath with a political interest as he was a Russian physician, a philosopher, an economist, a science fiction writer, and a revolutionary of Belarusian ethnicity.  As well as all that he was a key figure in the early history of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, being one of its co-founders and a rival to the main man Vladimir Lenin until being expelled in 1909.  This system of Bogdanov remains largely unknown outside Russia, according to Dr Capra.  This Russian polymath called his theory 'tektology', from the Greek "tekton" meaning "builder."  In other words, here we have a return to the epistemological theory of building as a metaphor.  Another way of putting this is to call tektology "the science of structures."  Once again, in keeping with the overall systems approach to knowledge in any field, Bogdanov's main goal was to clarify and generalize the principles of organization of all living and even nonliving structures.  In the apt and succinct summary which Dr Capra offers us we read:
Tektology was the first attempt in the history of science to arrive at a systematic formulation of the principles of organization operating in living and nonliving systems... (The Web of Life, p. 44)
In this he prefigured the systems theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901,Vienna – June 12, 1972, Buffalo, USA)  and even the cybernetics theory proposed by Norbert Wiener (1894, Columbia, Missouri – 1964, an American mathematician) and Ross Ashby (1903 – 1972, an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. That a mathematician and a psychiatrist could have put forward a similar theory is nothing short of extraordinary, and exciting indeed, given the disparity of the subject area pursued by both sciences.

Using the terms "complex" and "system" interchangeably, Bogdanov outlined three different kinds of system: (i) organized complexes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, (ii) disorganized complexes where the whole is smaller than the sum of the parts and (iii) neutral complexes where the organizing and disorganizing principles cancel each other out.  Now, the development of systems can be studied and understood, according to our Russian scholar, by examining two basic organizing mechanisms: (i) formation and (ii) regulation.

Bogdanov even allows for crises which, he believes, lead eventually to transformation into a more complex system.  Here, Dr Capra argues, that our Russian scholar anticipates the concept of catastrophe developed by the French mathematician René Thom (1923 –  2002).  Capra expresses considerable surprise that Ludwig von Bertalanffy who published his world-renowned General System Theory in 1968, and who was the leading scholar in his area should not have come across the ground-breaking work of Bogdanov called Tektology which was published in parts between 1912 and 1917.  Also, it is important to note that Marxist theorists of the day were hostile to Bogdanov's ideas.

Eventually over the decades of the twentieth century systems thinking became quite fashionable in scientific circles.  With the subsequent strong support from cybernetics, the concepts of systems thinking and systems theory became integral parts of the established scientific language.  Indeed there is talk today of systems engineering, systems analysis and systems dynamics and so on and so forth.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was a biologist with a strong interest in philosophy who belonged to the Vienna Circle . He believed strongly that biological phenomena required new ways of thinking.  He set out to replace the mechanistic image of the foundations of science with a holistic vision.  Indeed he stated that its nearest approximation in the science of the late twentieth century was that of the mathematical field of probability.

Now, Capra informs us, and as a non-scientist I am somewhat baffled here, that as the new theory of evolution entered into general science as such, there was need for a new way of thinking to incorporate this complex notion of change, development or evolution.  One new way of thinking that was invented, our learned author informs us, is the new science of complexity.  When this new science of complexity was invented two new laws were proposed therein: viz., The First Law of Thermodynamics: This law is an expression of the principle of conservation of energy.
The law states that energy can be transformed, i.e. changed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.  The Second Law is the law of the dissipation of energy was formulated first by the French physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796 – 1832) who stated, having observed and studied the technology of thermal engines, that there is a trend in physical phenomena from order to disorder.  To express this tendency to breakdown or disorder the physicists invented the new quantity of entropy.  In short, entropy is, then, a measure of disorder.  Let me here return to the succinct words of Dr Capra:
With the concept of entropy and the formulation of the second law, thermodynamics introduced the idea of irreversible processes, of an "arrow of time" into science.  According to the second law, some mechanical energy is always dissipated into heat that cannot be completely recovered.  Thus the entire world machine is running down and will eventually grind to a halt... At the end of the nineteenth century, then, Newtonian mechanics, the science of eternal, reversible trajectories, had been supplemented by two diametrically opposed views of evolutionary change - that of a living world unfolding towards increasing order and complexity, and that of an engine running down, a world of ever-increasing disorder.  Who was right, Darwin or Carnot?

To be continued.

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