Systems Theory

The idea that seemingly very different entities share something deeper in common has been developed under the guise of systems theory during the course of this century. The origins of systems thinking can be traced back to the 1920s and the thinking of the 'organismic' biologists who considered lifeforms as wholes and not just constituent parts. These ideas were continued and developed with Gestalt thinking, best summarised with the maxim 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts'. Mid century saw a huge growth in the theory and application of general systems theory, the term credited to biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Also at this time, and hugely influential, were Norbert Wiener's ideas of cybernetics, or 'feedback and control in man and machine'. In the 1970s, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's developed 'autopoiesis', a revolutionary systems theoretic view of life and cognition which develops ideas of feedback into self-maintainance and self-making. The 1970s and 80s saw a major revolution in scientific thinking in the form of chaos theory and Benoit Mandelbrot's fractal geometry, both strongly systems theoretic approaches. Herman Haken's synergetics, Rene Thom's catastrophe theory and Rupert Sheldrake's morphic resonance all relate to these ideas as well. The latest incarnations of systems theory are complexity science and artificial life which focus on themes of emergence, self-organisation, and the edge of chaos. Stuart Kauffman's 'The Origins of Order' is perhaps the major work in this field and investigates how these ideas coupled with evolution account for biological form.