In this episode I have the privilege of connecting with Dr. Pier Luigi Luisi who is Professor Emeritus at ETH-Zürich, working in the field of chemistry and life sciences. He is also the co-author of a recent book called The Systems View of Life – A Unified Vision (2014). In this groundbreaking book, together with his friend and colleague Fritjof Capra, he explores the historical foundations, basic tenets and possible applications for a comprehensive holistic view on life, a view that integrates the biological, social, cognitive and ecological dimensions of living systems. I read the book as part of the curriculum for a three year leadership training I’m currently taking part it, a program which is hosted by Michael Stubberup and Steen Hildebrandt from Denmark, together with Arawana Hayashi and Otto Scharmer who collaborate through Presencing Institute. The program aims to establish a coherent framework for consciousness-based action research, especially in relation to sustainable development, and in this regard systems thinking is an important perspective. Below you can read a summary of what we talked about and feel free to leave a comment below if you would like to join the exploration.
(2:55) Intended audience
In the first part of our conversation Luisi makes a comment about the intended audience for the book mentioned above, explaining how they hope to reach undergraduate students and people who have a general interest in understanding the phenomena of life through a holistic or systemic lens.
(4:20) The influence of Fransisco Varela and Mind & Life Institute
I then ask Luisi about his relationship to Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist that greatly influenced his work, but who sadly died in 2001. He explains that they first met during a famous meeting in Austria in 1982, where Fritjof Capra was also present, but their relationship evolved further when Varela later on established the Mind & Life Institute, a non-profit institution that wanted to converge the western “sciences of the mind” with the understandings and experiences found amongst eastern practitioners of various contemplative and meditative traditions. The first dialogue meeting was held in Dharamsala in 1987, together with the Dalai Lama, and Luisi has attended all the meetings since then (held every other year). Luisi’s and Varelas’s relationship was furthered by their common interest in the theory of autopoiesis, a theory proposed by Varela and his teacher Humberto Maturana, and which tries to explain the nature of life and the nature of cognition.
(08:1o) The convergence of East and West
I inquire further into how it impacted Luisi being part of the dialogues hosted by Mind & Life and he responds by emphasizing that it’s not easy to know or give an easy answer to such a question. “Breathing in the air” amongst scientists and contemplative practitioners, who all search for a wider horizon and who look for a higher spirituality, will necessarily broaden and deepen one’s own inquiry. For Luisi this ushered forth an even more rigorous exploration into one of the most fundamental questions we can ask ourselves, namely, what is life?
(11:45) What is life?
So I ask Luisi, what is life? He responds first from a biological perspective and fleshes out some details in regards to Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis. Essentially, life must be seen as a system which is self-maintaining and self-generating from the inside, and he gives several concrete illustrations. Moreover, any living entity is an open system that is in constant negotiation with it’s environment, while at the same time being informationally and operationally closed. This dichotomy between an open and closed system is one of the core characteristics of a living system.
(15:35) The basis for cognition
Luisi goes further into the idea of seeing living systems as open, and he points to how this is also the basis for cognition. He describes cognition as the capability to act specifically with and within one’s environment. Moreover, he explains that cognition is a fundamental aspect of life (even amongst bacteria) cognitive in the sense that every living entity has been provided with it’s own specific set of tools to be able to interact with it’s environment. This understanding is an integral component of the systemic view on life. Also, he points to the understanding that the environment itself is understood as an active agent that can have a direct influence on living entities. Hence, there are many possibilities for feedback and exchange in both directions.
(21:00) Cognition and mind
Luisi makes a qualification regarding the term cognition, given that the term is often understood in an anthropomorphic sense and equated with mind. His view is that cognition is a set of fundamental properties given to a living entity through the process of evolution, so that the entity can successfully interact with it’s environment. The human being is a highly sophisticated animal and subsequently has a very sophisticated level of cognition, which of course includes a whole range of sense-making capabilities, up to the level of mind, the capability of thinking.
(23:50) The embodied mind and the process of evolution
We then inquire into a model which is thoroughly discussed in the book, a model that seeks to identify and integrate three aspects of all living systems, namely the biological self-maintaining entity, (which we call autopoietic), cognition, and environment. Luisi explains how these dimensions shouldn’t be understood as separate entities, rather, we should see body and cognition as one! He explains further that they are one in the sense that none of them can exist separately without the other, and moreover, that this entanglement between body, mind and environment suggest how living systems have evolved through history; mainly as a response to changes in the environment. If the organism isn’t capable of adapting to the changes, for instance by changing it’s cognitive abilities, the organism will die. However, if the process of evolution is allowed to flow through time the organism will evolve due to what he describes as contingencies. Evolution is not planned, nor does it follow an orderly design, rather evolution evolves due to a myriad of accidental changes in the environment, in conjunction with the internal accidental changes in living species. Hence, as he points out, the human species is of course here, but it might just as well never have evolved! A humbling thought indeed.
(30:10) Are we approaching a new period of species extinction?
Speaking of humbling considerations I point out, as they also do in the book, that we are possibly entering a new phase of species extinction. The world has seen five of these massive disruptions to life already, as in the famous extinction of the dinosaurs, but this possible sixth phase is different because it’s catalyzed by life itself, specifically by human beings! Many see the human species as the apex of evolution, but as Luisi points out, human beings are the only species that systematically destroys it’s own habitat. Nevertheless, there are solutions and the last part of their book (almost 200 pages) is dedicated to this. They especially point to systemic approaches and reference the work of people such as Lester Brown, Jeremy Rifkin and Amory Lovins.
(34:00) Seeing problems (and solutions) as interconnected
Although there are solutions there seems to be a bottle neck in our political institutions and systems of governance, so I ask Luisi how he believes the systems view on life could help facilitate the needed transformations. Firstly, he says, we must create awareness about the situation, and secondly, we must see all the different challenges of our time as interconnected problems. Moreover, we must understand that the main root to all our problems is the inherent limitations in our desire for unlimited growth, and we need to see how many of our global challenges are related to these dynamics.
(38:50) Inspiring the shift from quantitative to qualitative growth
I then ask Luisi what he and Fritjof Capra hope to achieve with their book and he responds that first and foremost they hope to raise awareness about the problems of our time and the possible benefits that a systemic approach could bring to the table. They also have high hopes for young managers in different industries, hoping they will recognize that there are more wholesome forms of value creation than just making more money. For instance, what if car companies changed their identity from being based on the production of cars, to rather seeing themselves as being caretakers for the mobility of citizens. Such a shift in identity will necessarily bring forth a sense of responsibility for many other societal issues, such as controlling the amount of traffic in a town an being responsible for getting people to work. There is a shift from quantity (just selling more cars) to quality (providing needed services) and this principle could be applied to all sectors of societies (banks, corporations etc.). Basically, what Luisi and Capra are arguing for is a fundamental shift in perception, a shift towards qualitative growth, sustainability and interconnectedness.
(43:50) Are we running out of time?
As a final question I ask Luisi if there is anything else he would like to express and he responds by pointing to the recent demonstrations in New York where 1 million people came out onto the streets in conjunction with the UN Climate Summit. A collective outcry such as this does give ground for hope, but Luisi also raises the concern that we might be running out of time! He also mentions a recent book by two theologians, Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff, a book which covers some of the same territory as The Systems View of Life. The book is called Tao of Liberation – Exploring the Ecology of Transformation.