The Web of Life Paradigm

My previous post on ecoliteracy brought to mind a review I did of two books, both published in 1996.

  • The Whispering Pond, Ervin Laszlo, Element
  • The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra, Harper Collins

The review appeared in Long Range Planning magazine in 1997, so is written from a business/ strategic planning perspective, but the messages are widely applicable. Any books by these two authors are well worth reading.

Some of the references to current trends now appear somewhat dated, a lot has happened in over 20 years! Sadly, a lot of the change since then has not been for the better.

Why should business people be interested in two recent books describing thinking from the forefront of popular science? The answer lies in the way all our thinking is dominated by the underlying paradigms that have crystallised in our consciousness since the scientific revolution. This structure is being shattered by the sort of developments described in these books. The world of the future is likely to be founded on this emerging underlying paradigm.

Traditional scientific paradigm

The traditional paradigm is very much associated with the names of Descartes and Newton. The universe comprises matter and space; the objects within it can be viewed as machines acting according to universal laws. The scientific method is the approach par excellence to achieve a full objective understanding of the workings of the machine, by understanding the parts and how they combine together to form the whole. These parts can be understood down to the ultimate building blocks of matter, once atoms, but now mesons, quarks, etc.

Materialism, mechanism and reductionism are key words defining this world viewpoint.

Living beings were seen as independent mechanistic entities. Human beings sought to dominate nature. Evolution of life depended on incremental change and ‘survival of the fittest’ in a competitive environment.

The brain was seen as simply a component of the body, providing the function explaining phenomena of cognition and consciousness.

Related business paradigm

Economics developed with the pretensions of science. Money was established as the true motivating force behind business, and indeed politics.

The capitalist business system was established with an essentially mechanistic model, supplemented by a competitive system with ‘survival of the fittest’ a la Darwin. Competition was the order of the day, supplanting the more humane co-operation of some earlier societies.

Taylor’s theories of management were very much based on this mechanistic world view. Work was broken down into parts on a production line and individual workers made the parts which were put together to form the whole. Organisational heirarchies broke down the management task into separately managed elements.

These mechanistic systems have not been over-concerned with underlying values, such as the value of the natural or social environment, hence there is a parallel history of environmental degradation, pollution and human misery in terms of poverty and injustice.

Emerging scientific paradigm

However, prompted by Relativity and Quantum Theory science itself has moved on apace during the 20th century. As these books demonstrate, the machine model is no longer relevant as a serious attempt to describe the world and its phenomena.

Matter and space turn out to not be fundamental concepts, but symptoms of an underlying deeper reality, the Quantum Vacuum or Psi field.

Systems theory and the science of complexity stress the importance of complete systems comprising interconnected networks. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and the system can demonstrate new emergent properties which are not predictable.

Life itself comprises self organising, self bounded and self generating systems, with the earth (Gaia) herself postulated as one ultimate example.

Life has evolved from simple to more complex systems over aeons of time, making unpredictable leaps of development when under stress conditions, (a view inspired by Ilya Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures).

The web of nature is interconnected; organisms are closely coupled to their environment. The body is not a biochemical machine but a complex creative system. Symbiosis between systems has played a major part in the process of evolution. Life is a triumph of co-operation and creativity, not merely the result of competition.

The Santiago theory sees mind as emerging out of the very process of life. Mind and matter are different aspects of one reality. The brain provides a material structure through which the ‘mind process’ operates.

The process of cognition is one of ‘bringing forth’ the world, not representing it. This achieves the quality of consciousness for organisms which are ‘self aware’, associated with the development of language.

Consciousness is a social phenomenon, not an individual one. We seek in vain for the self, but as the mystics have always told us, it does not exist – it is part of the illusion of ‘maya’, which originally meant ‘magic creative power’.

Values in the new paradigm become earth-centred rather than human-centred (eg man is part of nature rather than dominating it) or even ego-centred (cf laissez faire capitalism).

Finally, esoteric phenomena, such as telepathy and clairvoyance, become part of the legitimate field of scientific study, rather than being regarded as oddball nonsense.

Implications for business

What are the implications for business of this emerging paradigm? We can see examples in many areas where the business paradigm is already moving in similar directions.

The business organisation appears to fit well the model of complex adaptive systems. Organisations grow and evolve, just as organic entities do. They develop emergent strategies (cf Mintzberg, new paradigm) to cope with chaotic circumstances that cannot be planned (cf Antzoff, old paradigm). The current focus on the learning organisation (cf Senge) is putting an emphasis on learning and adapting to the environment.

Organisations develop symbiotic relationships (cf the fashion for collaboration and partnership), although perhaps there is still more stress on competition (old) compared to co-operation (new).

Today’s passion for networking and benchmarking provides a further illustration of a move in the interdependent direction.

We can today see the reality of the process of cognition of the business entity ‘bringing forth’ the reality of things such as the world wide web, the internet, mobile communications. An environment of merger and take-over has long made us aware of the transitory nature of self consciousness of the business entity!

Despite this there is perhaps too much stress on the identity of the organisation as opposed to the needs of the system as a whole (society/ Gaia). The new paradigm stresses the interdependence of organisation and environment. (What hollow success would be rich islands of laissez faire capitalists protected by fortress from massive squalor.)

In terms of values, phenomena such as Global Warming and Ozone Layer Depletion forced world political leaders to adopt more earth-centric values, illustrated by the world-wide initiative Agenda 21. In the business world we can see moves towards social responsibility, social- and eco-auditing, etc. The ‘Excellence Model’ of the British Quality Foundation encourages assessment of an organisation’s ‘Impact on Society’.

Moving on to the esoteric, the military have long taken this seriously, notably with their experiments in telepathy. Applicability to business is not clear – but what price the world wide web if telepathy could be made a ‘going concern’?!


Business would appear to be evolving in many of the directions indicated by the advanced science summarised in these books.

This is indeed what would be expected in an interconnected world where the knowledge in one sphere can transform another sphere, not only by the normal direct process of human communication, but also through symbiosis across different fields, and ultimately via communication through the quantum vacuum!

If this is the likely direction of evolution of human understanding, those companies which best understand and try to become part of this paradigm are likely to be those which emerge successful into the coming age!

The books themselves are reasonably easy to read considering the complexity of some of the subjects under consideration. Laszlo perhaps concentrates more on the cosmology/ physics, and Capra more on the mathematics/ biology – and they are not necessarily consistent in every detail. Either book provides a good overview feel for the emerging scientific paradigm.

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