Fritjof Capra

Hidden Connections - I read The Turning Point and The Tao of Physics by Capra many years ago. And his Uncommon Wisdom which is excellent. But I sort of lost track of him. Then I happened upon this Hidden Connections in a used bookstore. It's not very old (2002). Focuses on sustainability. I guess it's a followup to his The Web of Life, which I haven't read. Plan to read this one. Looks right up my alley. Capra is an interesting writer to me, though his strength is in dialogue, starting and sustaining a conversation (something more than an interview). Uncommon Wisdom was so fascinating in that respect, filled with his dialogues with brilliant minds from a broad spectrum of disciplines.

Definition of Life

Capra begins by discussing a definition of life. Most point to DNA as defining life. Capra looks at systems and networks. Specifically, he suggests that life is defined by a cell. At a minimum, cells possess two "things":

  1. Membranes that separates self from non-self. And life is defined by a relationship within the self and between the self and non-self, and the membrane is composes the boundary
  2. Autopoietic Network - composed of two networks:
    1. Metabolic Network - Intake of "food" which is broken down into component metabolites.
    2. Epigenetic Network - Transformation of metabolites into macromolecules, such as protein for enzymes (control chemical reactions) and structure..

He makes the point that we do not pass DNA to the next generation. DNA has no way to replicate itself or do anything on its own. We pass an entire cell. A cell with membranes and an autopoeitic network. DNA is a part of the whole, but by itself it's nothing. Without the environment of relationships defined by the cellular membranes and the metabolic and epigenetic networks, DNA does nothing. Call it cellular ecology or cellular ghia principle...or cellular biosphere.

That point is the relationships ARE life. Taking a macromolecule (DNA) out of the whole and calling it life has no meaning. DNA is a macromolecule that HELPS with the process of life.

I'm still struck by the obviousness of Capras observation, that we come from an unbroken line of cells and not just DNA. DNA by itself is nothing. It's not alive. It's a component of a living system (for lack of a better word), composed of the cell AND it's environment. The two, cell and environment, are key. They have no meaning OR consequence separated.

This makes sense, too, since biologists know that the expression of a gene depends on the environment. Some genes will manifest very different characteristics (phenotypes) depending on the environment. (Need example)

Because the relationships described in the autopoietic networks are vital to defining life, Capra and others believe that advances in biology will consist of advances in non-linear mathematics which can, potentially, describe those patterns and relationships. Until recently, non-linear equations (read "chaos" and "complex system") could not be studied because we didn't have the computer power to play with the equations. The quick evolution of the computer age has changed that.

It all reminds me of Isaac Asimov's story, TheLastQuestion

Question: Is there a difference between "living" and "conscious"?

Perhaps not. Consciousness is about the awareness of self/non-self, but maybe awareness isn't quite right. I mean a behavioral pattern that treats self as different from non-self--a living organism does not eat itself or destroy itself....But in a way it does in the metabolic cycle. Whatever. There is some separation of self, as Capra describes in his requirements of a cell. Cells are alive and conscious on some level...I'm bothered (stuck) by this word "conscious." Need a definition.


Hidden Connections
The Web of Life
The Turning Point
The Tao of Physics
 Uncommon Wisdom

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