The Web of Life
A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter
The Importance of Pattern
The recent advances in our understanding of living systems are based on twodevelopments that originated in the late 1970s.
One was the discovery of the new mathematics of complexity.
The other was the emergence of a powerful novel concept, that of self-organisation.
To understand the phenomenon of self organisation, we first need to understand the importance of pattern.
The idea of pattern of organisation - the configuration of relationships characteristic of a particular system - become the explicit focus of systems thinking in cybernetics and has been a crucial concept ever since. From the systems point of view, the understanding of life begins with the understanding of pattern.
Substance and Form
We have seen that throughout the history of Western science and philosophy there has been a tension between the study of substance and the study of form.
The study of substance starts for the questions, "What is it made of?";
the study of form with the question, "What is its pattern?".
Those are to the different approaches, which have been in competition with one another throughout our scientific and philosophical tradition.
The throughout the history of philosophy and science, the study of pattern was always present. However, for most of the time the study of pattern was eclipsed by the study of substance until it re-emerged forcefully in our century, when it was recognised by systems thinkers as essential to the understanding of life.
The key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of those two very different approaches, the study of substance (structure) and the study of form (pattern). In the study of structure we measure and weigh things. Patterns, however, cannot be measured or weighed; they must be mapped. To understand the pattern, we must map the configuration of relationships. In other words, structure involves quantities, while pattern involves qualities.
The study of pattern is crucial to the understanding of living systems because systemic properties, as we have seen, arise from a configuration of ordered relationships. Systemic properties are properties of a pattern. What is destroyed when a living organism is dissected is its pattern. The components are still there, but the configuration of relationships between them - the pattern - is destroyed, and vastly organism dies.
The Patterns of Life
Having appreciated the importance of pattern for the understanding of life, we can now ask: Is there a common pattern of organisation that can be identified in all living systems? We shall see that this is indeed the case. This pattern of organisation, common to all living systems, will be discussed below.
Its most important property is that it is a network pattern. Whenever we encounter living systems - organisms, parts of organisms, or communities of organisms - we can observe that their components are arranged in network fashion. Whenever we look at life, we look at networks.
Cybernetics tried to understand the brain as a neural network and developed special mathematical techniques to analyse its pattern. The structure of the human brain is enormously complex. It contains about 10 billion nervous cells (neurons), which are interlinked in a vast network through 1000 billion junctions (synapses). The whole brain can be divided into subsections or subnetworks, which communicate each other in network fashion. All this results in intricate patterns of interwined webs, networks nesting within larger networks.
The first and most obvious property of any network is its nonlinearity - it goes in all directions. Thus the relationships in a network pattern are nonlinear relationships. In particular, an influence, or message, may travel along a cyclical path, which may become the feedback loop. The concept of feedback is intimately connected with a network pattern.
Because networks of communication may generate feedback loops, they may acquire the ability to regulate themselves. For example, the community that maintains an active network of communications will learn from its mistakes, because the consequences of a mistake will spread through the network and returned to the source along feedback loops. Thus the community can correct its mistakes, regulate itself, and organise itself.
Indeed, self organisation has emerged as perhaps the central concept in the systems view of life, and like the concept of feedback and self-regulation it is closely linked to networks. The pattern of life, is a network pattern capable of self organisation.