link: earth

                             SYSTEMS THINKING: PLANET EARTH AS A NATURAL SYSTEM

 (Mathei Wangari Nobel Peace Prize)

theme: Within the framework of the wholistic worldview and the systems perspective, the planet earth is a natural open system, profoundly affected by human activities.

"The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the breakdown of the mechanistic theory even with physics, the science where it was the most successful. Sets of interacting relationships came to occupy the center of attention, and these were of such staggering complexity - even within a physical entity as elementary as an atom - that the ability of Newtonian mechanics to provide an explanation had to be seriously questioned. Relativity took over in field physics, and the science of quantum theory in microphysics. The progress of investigation in other sciences followed parallel paths. Biology attempted to divest itself of the ad hoc dualism of a 'life principle' as it appeared in the vitalism of Driesch, Bergson and others, and tried to achieve a more testable theory of life. But the laws of physics were insufficient to explain the complex interactions which take place in a living organism, and thus new laws had to be postulated - not laws of 'life forces' but laws of integrated wholes, acting as such. Just as the science of economics proved to be incapable of explaining the rise of stock prices on the basis of the individual personalities of stockbrokers and the public, so the science of biology was unable to explain the self-preservation of the animal organism by recourse to the physical laws governing the behavior of its atoms and molecules. New laws were postulated, which did not contradict physical laws but complemented them. They showed what highly complex sets of things, each subject to the basic developments in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and economics, contemporary science became, in Warren Weaver's phrase, the 'science of organized complexity'. Equipped with the concepts and theories provided by the contemporary sciences we can discern systems of organized complexity wherever we look. Man is one such system and so are his societies and his environment. Nature itself, as it manifests itself on this earth, is a giant system maintaining itself, althiough eventually all its individual parts get sifted out and replaced , some more quickly than others. Setting our sights even higher in terms of size, we can see that the solar system and the galaxy of which it is a part are also systems, and so is the astronomical universe of which our galaxy is a component. (Laszlo, Ervin. The Systems View of the World: The Natural Philosophy of the New Developments in the Sciences. New York: George Brazilier 12)

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James Lovelock and Gaia Hypothesis...

characteristic properties of the system as a whole: 'emergent properties'...

need for wholistic perspective: the case of 'acid rain'...

Properties of systems and 'systems theory': Value of systems theory is that it makes it possible to explain the nature of properties which emerge from the systems i.e. 'emergent properties'. A system is perceived in terms of its own properties as a whole, over and above the properties of its parts. The general property of the whole system is something more than the sum of the properties of the individual parts. Complex systems have ‘emergent properties’ that describe their characteristics as wholes and these properties are conditioned, but not determined by the constituent parts of the systems.

 A system is a configuration of parts connected by a web of relationships. The joining and integrating of the web of relationships creates properties that describe the characteristics of the system as a whole i.e. 'emergent  properties'. The emergent property is an irreducible property resulting from the integrated functioning of the differents parts. Emergent properties cannot be found by analysing the parts. Value of systems theory is that it makes it possible to explain the nature of emergent properties. Perceived in terms of wholes or 'systems,' all natural phenomena are treated as 'natural systems. The properties of natural systems are not reducible to the properties of the interdependent parts. The functioning of the whole is understood in terms of the constituent sets of integrated relations and interacting parts. The emergent properties result from the interdependence of its constituent parts.

 A proper understanding of the whole system is only possible with the recognition of its irreducible 'emergent properties'.

Thus the properties of the atom, a natural system, are not reducible to the properties of the different parts of the atom. The functioning of the brain as a whole has irreducible properties. The same applies for all the other natural systems on different levels of organization, such as the molecule, the cell, the tissue, the organ, the organism and so on. Even the human personality as a whole can only be understood in terms of the integrated functioning of the individual's feelings, instincts, volitions, reasoning capacities etc.

Systems are subject to environmental forces  Natural systems are subject to the forces of a changing environment. As a whole and as a large system, the physical world approaches a state of ultimate disorganization. The quantity called 'entropy,' and its negative form 'negentropy,' is a measure of the energy available to the system. In any system, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy increases and negentropy decreases with time.

A natural system which requires energy for the maintenance of a dynamic steady state is an 'open system in a steady-state' requiring energy for its maintenance in a changing environment. Characteristic of open natural systems is the maintenance of steady state equilibrium as opposed to 'inert equilibrium'. Living organisms are open natural systems which take in energies, metabolize and rearrange substances, and liberate energies in new forms which are used for self-maintenance and growth. The regulative mechanism of body temperature in warm-blooded organisms, known as 'homeostasis', is a clear example of an 'open natural system.' Other examples are the cells of an organism, the brain as an organ, man as a social organism and the planet earth as a gigantic organism.

Importance of systems thinking: mechanistic thinking is not appropriate for evaluation of complex systems.

 It is being discovered that not only is the reductionist scientific paradigm insufficient for the study of the physical world; it is insufficient for the study of human affairs as well. The study of human affairs - including education requires the 'systems thinking' of the science of wholes or 'holistic science'.

Wholistic science and systems theory: Structuralism and the systems approach: "The specialist concentrates on detail and disregards the wider structure which gives it context. The new scientist however, concentrates on structure on all levels of magnitude and complexity, and fits detail into its general framework. He discerns relationshps and situations, not atomistic facts and events. By this method he can understand a lot more about a great many more things than the rigorous specialist, although his understanding is somewhat more general and approximate." This is knowledge of 'connected complexity'.(Laszlo, Ervin. The Systems View of the World: The Natural Philosophy of the New Developments in the Sciences. New York: George Brazilier10) 

 James Lovelock: The Gaia Hypothesis  James Lovelock, physician and geologist, describes the planet Earth as a 'living planet.' He proposes a systems approach to the scientific study of the Earth. Actively maintained and regulated by life on its surface, the living Earth is named 'Gaia' after the Greek name for the earth goddess. This idea originated in the search for life on Mars. Lovelock was invited by NASA to be an experimenter on the first lunar instrument mission. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he first worked on the lunar probe and then on the design of sensitive instruments for analyzing the surfaces and atmospheres of planets. With a background in biology and medicine, he grew curious about the experiments to detect life on other planets. Together with philosopher.... employed by NASA to assess the experiments, Lovelock decided that the most certain way to detect life on a planet was to analyze its atmosphere.  He reasoned that the existence of living organisms would depend on the atmosphere for the conveyance of raw materials, products and by-products of their metabolism. The result would be an atmosphere of changing chemical composition, an atmosphere in disequilibrium - recognizably different from the atmosphere of a lifeless planet. In 1975 the two Viking spacecraft sent to Mars on a life-detecting mission confirmed the absence of life on that planet. This important finding led to new perspectives and models of Earth as a planet with life - as a 'living planet.'

The new model of the Earth views the planet as a self-organizing and self-regulating open natural system i.e. 'Gaia hypothesis'.

Gaia as a planetary being  Gaia is a planetary being described in terms of the co-evolution of living species and their environments. With one modifying assumption, the Gaia hypothesis is in accordance with Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. Whereas Darwin assumed the evolution of species to be independent of the evolution of the environment, Lovelock makes a case for the coupled co-evolution of species and their environments. Through the mechanism of natural selection, species and environments evolve together as open natural systems.

 The wholistic 'Gaia hypothesis' forms the basis of a unified science of the Earth. Combining geology and the earth sciences with physiology and the life sciences, the systems science of the Earth is 'geophysiology.' With a wholistic perpective of the planet Earth, the new science constitutes a theoretical basis for establishing a 'planetary medicine.' Instead of being in control of the planet and its resources, the human species through human activities brings about important changes and thus plays an important role in the functioning of the whole living planet.

According to Gaia theory "we are just another species, neither the owners nor the stewards of this planet. Our future depends much more upon a right relationship with Gaia than with the never-ending drama of human interest." (James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. (London, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988), 14)

"Every theory generalizes certain commonalities underlying individual differentiations. The commonalities it abstracts are the recurrent features of phenomena - the nonvarying aspects of it: the invariances. The question is 'which of the recurrent aspects of phenomena are abstracted at the basic and essential invariances?' Classical science and natural philosophy abstracted substance and causal interactions between substantive particulars. Contemporary science tends increasingly to concentrate on organization: not what a thing is per se, nor how one thing produces an effect on one other thing, but rather how sets of events are structured and how they function in relation to their 'environment' - other sets of things, likewise structured in space and time. These are invariances of process related to systems. We may call them invariances of organization." (Laszlo, E. The Systems of the World: The Natural Philosophy of the New Developments in the Sciences. New York: George Brazillier (21) )

 The need for a wholistic perspective: the effects of 'acid rain' (reported since the 1960s.) The reactions involved in the formation of acid rain take place in the lowest 10 or12 kilometers of the atmosphere. Effects of acid rain result from precipitation of rain with particles made acidic by atmospheric gases. Through processes which have been taking place long before human beings were burning fossil fuels... such as volcanic activity and soil bacteria metabolism...sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen are emitted into the atmosphere...they are converted into new combinations known as sulfuric and nitric acids by way of chemical reactions which utilize oxygen and water molecules and which are triggered by the energy of sunlight. The sulfuric and nitric acid molecules are emitted into the atmosphere as pollutants ...incorporated into the water droplets of clouds, forming acid clouds, and the result is precipitation of 'acid rain'.

The reactions can be described in detail as follows: A photon of sunlight strikes a molecule of ozone(O3) to produce a molecule of oxygen (O2) and a single reactive oxygen atom which then combines with a water molecule (H2O) to form two hydroxyl radicals 2(OH). O3 --- O2 + O O + H2O --- 2 (OH)- One of two hydroxy radicals is used in the following reaction which results in the production of sulfuric acid. When a hydroxyl radical combines with sulfur dioxide(SO2) the product is sulfuric acid (H2SO4) (OH)- + SO2 ---- H2SO4 The amount of nitric and sulfuric produced depends on the amount of nitrogen and sulfur dioxides in the air; the supply of hydroxylradicals is inexhaustible, even though it is very small...one part per trillion. This results from the fact that the hydroxyl radical is regenerated in the same reactions in which it is used.

 Combined with other biotic and abiotic stress factors, acid rain has caused a great deal of damage to coniferous forests. The most dramatic tree damage is found in Germany, where scientists have named the phenomenon 'waldsterben' meaning forest death. Data in the U.S. indicate that extensive forest death has occurred in some mountanous areas in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. Though the techanism of damage is not known exactly, data indicate that acid rain may contribute as an additional stress factor to the breakdown of a tree's resistance to age, disease, insects, parasitic fungi, severe winters, shortage of light, water or essential nutrients and other stresses.

The increased formation of acid rain is an example of the detrimental consequences of man's technological activities on life and the environment. The damage caused by acid rain illustrates the far-reaching consequences of human interference in the biology and chemistry of the planet's biosphere. Human beings pollute the air through their technology. The production of  acid rain represents the manifestation of large scale interference with the chemical cycles through which living things interact with their environment. There is an urgent need to devise and implement a new technology which will eliminate emissions of pollutants from power plants and vehicles.

     The utilization of natural resources for energy and transport involves responsible interrelationships of many other aspects of the biotic and abiotic environments. Now there is an urgent need for all human being to develop a wholistic perspective in order to understnd the effects of their activities on their environment and the rest of the biosphere. The damage caused by acid rain illustrates the far-reaching consequences of human interference in the biology and chemistry of the planet's biosphere.

Implications for education 'holistic education'

"It is a nontrivial matter that we are almost always unaware of trends in our changes of state. There is a quasi-scientific fable that if you can get a frog to sit quietly in a saucepan of cold water, and if you then raise the temperature of the water very slowly and smoothly so that there is no moment marked to be the moment at which the frog should jump, he will never jump. He will get boiled. Is the human species changing its own environment with slowly increasing pollution and rotting its mind with slowly deteriorating religion and education in such a saucepan?" (Gregory Bateson Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam Books, 1979 p. 104)

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"Every theory generalizes certain commonalities underlying individual differentiations. The commonalities it abstracts are the recurrent features of phenomena - the nonvarying aspects of it: the invariances. The question is 'which of the recurrent aspects of phenomena are abstracted at the basic and essential invariances?' Classical science and natural philosophy abstracted substance and causal interactions between substantive particulars. Contemporary science tends increasingly to concentrate on organization: not what a thing is per se, nor how one thing produces an effect on one other thing, but rather how sets of events are structured and how they function in relation to their 'environment' - other sets of things, likewise structured in space and time. These are invariances of process related to systems. We may call them invariances of organization." (Laszlo, E. The Systems of the World: The Natural Philosophy of the New Developments in the Sciences. New York: George Brazillier 21)) Organization and interrelationships in the biological world... perspective for a study of biology. From the point of view of its organization and interrelationships, the study of the biological world can be understood and become meaningful and relevant as well as very interesting, no matter what your reason for starting a study of biology. There are many varied reasons why a study of biology is relevant to nearly everyone. You may wish to have a better understanding of the workings of that complicated machine, the human body; or of the intricate relationships between the human species and the environment which it begins to control; or of the recent trends in biological research which have a direct bearing on our everyday lives; or of the ethical questions connected with controversial forms of research; or of the history of the study of life; or even of one's place in nature and its philosophical implications. These are only a few of the many possible motivations which could lead one to begin a study of biology. Whatever the reason, the course should be an adventure.

some objectives - to appreciate the history of the philosophy of science in general, and the development of specific scientific theories; to see relationships among the different areas of physical science and betwen the physical and biological sciences; to gain an understanding of the roles of various aspects of the physical world on the natural world. Emphasize the imortance of the appreciation of scientific principles. Stress the connections between physical and natural phenomena meaning phenomena in the world of living things. For example, the physical properties of the chlorophyll molecule and its role of converting light energy into biochemical energy in the light reactions of photosynthesis. Also the physical chemistry of the water molecule and the role in transport of oxygen in the blood, hydrogen bonding between water molecules makes cohesion and upward movement of water against gravity to the leaves of trees possible. Oxford dictionary : natural world natural means " physically existing, not spiritual or intellectual or fictitious, concerned with physical things." Natural history is the "study of animal or vegetable life, especially as set forth for popular use." Theme for the course could be 'the relationship between the physical sciences and the world of living things' or 'the role of physical phenomena in the biological world.'