It is a fact beyond doubt that the world as we know it today has undergone a lot of changes. It is erroneous to assume the planet as a static phenomenon; rather, it is a dynamic phenomenon that has changed over the years, and continues to change. These changes manifest themselves in several aspects of the society, such as globalization, industrialization and such others.
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The forms of life in the planet also do change. This is what happens when organisms evolves and becomes complex as far as their functioning and structures are concerned.
However, a question emerges, regarding how sustainable this change or development is. Given that change is inevitable, how are we, as human beings, managing that change to ensure that we do not become extinct?
This is the question that Fritjof Capra tries to answer in one of his latest books, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. This book was published in the year 2002 by Random House Publishers in the city of New York. It was published right at the turn of the twenty first century, the time when humanity was just starting to grapple with the challenges brought about by changes on the planet.
This paper is going to critically review this book. The author will first provide a brief bibliography of the author, followed by a synopsis of the book. This will be followed by an analysis of the books structure and criticism of the same. A thematic analysis and a critique to the whole book will also be provided.
Fritjof Capra the Author: A Brief Overview
Before looking at the book by this author, it is important to provide a brief background on him. This background will help the reader to have a clear picture of the kind of personality that they are interacting with in the book.
Capra was born on February 1, 1939, in Vienna Austria (Zharkov 26). He is an American of Austrian origin, and he is a trained physicist. He is regarded as the brains behind the launch of the Centre for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, given the significant role that he played in launching the institution and serving as the first director (Patsky 28).
He started his schooling at the University of Vienna, and it is here that he got his PhD in theoretical physics, a field that he will later integrate with others especially when he started writing.
He got his PhD in 1966, and went ahead to become a renowned field in that field for several years. For a period of two years after his graduation with a PhD, Capra worked as a researcher in particle physics and systems theory at the University of Paris (Zharkov 8).
He has taught in various universities both in the united states of American and in other continents. He is also a renowned author, having written several books in the field of science and its implications on humanity (Patsky 29). The following is a selection of some of the books that he has authored or co-authored:
The Tao of Physics
This was his first book, published in the year 1975 (McCrone 8). In this book, Capra challenges conventional wisdom in the society by doing a comparison between oriental and Greek traditions and the innovations that were to follow in the 20th century (McCrone 9).
This is especially the discoveries that have been made in the physics field. The two fields, after comparison, were found to have parallels that could not be ignored. To date, this book has a total of forty three editions written in about twenty three languages (McCrone 8).
The Turning Point
This book was subtitled Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (Tickell 4). It was released in the year 1982, and in it, Capra makes an effort to elaborate on the scientific and economic crises that has beleaguered the society by then (Tickell 7). In this book, Capra traces the background of science and economics, providing the reader with limitations of some of the widely held theories in these two fields.
Capra co-authored this book with Charlene Spretnak, and it is one of the several books that he has collaborated with colleagues in his field in producing (Tickell 8). The book was published in the year 1984, and the two scholars assess the rise of the Green Party in Germany (Tickell 8).
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This is together with other political parties that have the same philosophy as the Green Party in Europe. To date, the book has a total of seven editions and has been published in four languages (Tickell 4).
The book was released in the year 1988. In this book, Capra provides an overview of the dialogues and interactions that he had with scholars as he was writing his second book, The Turning Point. To date, like his other books, it is in several editions in twelve languages.
Belonging to the Universe
The book was co-authored with David Steindl Rast and Thomas Matus, renowned scholars in their own rights (Tickell 5). In this book, the three authors try to compare and contrast contemporary thinking in science and Christianity (Tickell 8).
The Web of Life: This book was published in the year 1997, and it built on some of Capra’s earlier works, especially The Turning Point (Tickell 7). The book provides a summary of the mathematics of complexity, and further provides an analysis of contemporary nonlinear theories touching on living systems (Tickell 4).
The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living
The book was published in the year 2002. It builds on the outlines of systems and complexity theory provided in the Web of Life. Unlike in the Web of Life, this book provides an analysis of this theory in the social world.
The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of Renaissance
This book was published in the year 2007 (Tickell 8). In this book, Capra claims that the ideas of Leonardo touched on the science of the living world, and they can be seen as having foreshadowed the arrival of contemporary complexity and systems theory (Tickell 9).
Having looked at Fritjof Capra’s life and some of his works, it is now appropriate to provide a synopsis of the book that will be reviewed in this paper.
The Hidden Connections: A Synopsis
For several decades now, humanity has been collectively concerned by the challenges that have come with the new developments on the planet. This is for example the global warming that comes with increased industrialisation and urbanisation. It is obvious that, unless something is done, the planet may come to a halt, or, rather, humanity might come to a halt and fail to exist.
Several suggestions have been put forth, touching on how humanity can overcome the challenges and save the planet. From this discourse, a tentative agreement on the need of redesigning the systems in operation in the society has emerged (Brodsky 5). There is need to redesign these systems so that, according to the words of Brodsky, they are compatible with the natural ecosystems around which we live (6).
Scientists working on this redesigning try to find out the aspects of nature that humanity need to imitate. It is noted that life has been in existence for the past 3.6 billion years (Wenz 9), and all this time, it has sustained itself. The question is how do we as humans apply the operating principles by which this has happened to our systems (Wenz 9)? This is the basis of sustainable science, and it is what Capra addresses in this book.
Looking for the answers regarding the redesigning of the human systems is likely to be long drawn affair. It might even transcend generations. However, in the meantime, according to Capra (57), there is a need to come up with a strong theoretical basis for this phenomenon. There is need to have a strong comprehension of what we are currently doing. There is need to have a grounding on how what we can do to sustain the planet.
In order to understand this book well, it is important to take the entire body of work by this author holistically. An isolated analysis of his work on a standalone basis will not be so informative.
For example, it is noted that he fiercely criticises what he refers to as reductionist theories, the likes of Cartesian and Newtonian thinking (Nauheimer 8). The groundwork for this criticism was prepared in the Tao of Physics and The Turning Point, some of this earliest works. Specifically, these two books heralded his entry into the realm of holism, systems theory and the science of sustainability (Ellis 2).
Two of his recent books, the Web of Life and The Hidden Connections, realised the ideas that he had initiated in his earlier works. It is in these two books that he talks, in depth, about sustainable future and the planet.
Unlike the Web of Life which analyses the systems theory within the context of science, and especially biology, The Hidden Connections extends the premises of this theory to the social world (Bolstad 1). Capra is of the view that, the systems theory best illustrates the ability of biological systems to create and sustain themselves for the past 3.6 billion years (Bolstad 2).
The systems maintain their structures and processes through a systematic management of energy around them. This process also enables them to survive in the midst of “entropic chaos” that the biological world is plunged in from time to time.
In The Hidden Connections, Capra argues that, if humanity is to redesign their systems along the lines of the biological system, the above considerations of energy management have to be taken into consideration. In this book, he creates a synergy between contemporary thinking in biology and the new “science of sustainability”, as he calls this field (Greigt 24).
To create a distinction between mechanical systems and the new human systems proposed in the book, Capra brings in the aspect of cognition (Greigt 24). He is of the view that, machine systems consumes the information fed into them unselectively, without discrimination.
This is not the case in human systems; cognition makes it possible for the human system to interpret the information fed into it. This means that it only acts on the information that creates relevance and meaning to it. Human cognitive and social functionalities are built on individual biological reality (Fullhner 9).
The Hidden Connection: Structure and Organisation of the Book
The book is 287 pages long, and it is organised into two parts. Each of the two parts is further subdivided into several sections, each section covering a specific topic. However, it is important to note that, despite the fact that each of the various sections covers a different topic, they are all related, and each section builds on the preceding one. The following are the sections in this book:
Part One: Life, Mind and Society
This section is divided into three subsections. These are:
- The nature of life
- Mind and consciousness, and
- Social reality
The section addresses the issue of the connection between the three elements; life, mind and the society at large (Capra 3-70). In this section, Capra makes an effort to define what life is.
On page six, he poses the question “what is life?…….how does a bacterial cell work” (Capra 6). He goes ahead to describe the structure of the cell, the building blocks of life itself. He says that the cell itself is made up of complex systems and interconnections that regulate its functionalities, and that is how it sustains itself.
In this section, he especially talks of the processes of metabolism, which, according to him, “…….form[s] a chemical network” (Capra 10). On page thirteen, he talks of the theory of autopoiesis, which he conceptualises as a systems’ theory that “….. [describes] the self-generating networks as defining characteristic of life……” (Capra 13).
It is still in section one of the book that he talks of the Santiago theory of cognition, which deals with “………cognition [as a] process of knowing, process of life” (Capra 34). He bemoans the inability of contemporary scientists to deal with what he refers to as “subjective phenomena” (42), and he attributes this to the Cartesian heritage evident amongst most scientists today.
Part Two: The Challenges of the Twenty-first Century
This section is subdivided into four subsections. These are:
- Life and leadership in organisations
- The networks of global capitalism
- Biotechnology at a turning point, and
- Changing the game
In this section, Capra applies the systems theory that was identified in section one of the book to the human society (Capra 97-210). The author applies his new perspectives of the systems theory to a myriad of urgent contemporary issues such as globalisation and the emergence of new forms of technology such as biotechnology (Fullhner 8).
For example, he talks of how managers in organisations can use the systems theory to increase productivity. He argues that, “the more managers know about the detailed [and complex] processes involved in self-generating social networks, the more effective they will be in working with the organisation’s communities [such as employees and clients]” (Capra 111).
He talks of how the living system, such as that made up of humans, responds to “perturbances” (112) from the environment. He talks of how developments such as capitalism and biotechnology can upset the living system if not well managed, and if the living system is not equipped to deal with the disturbances riding on such developments.
A Critique of the Book Organisation and Structure
The book is well organised, making it easy to read it through. The organisation of the book into two sections was a good idea on the part of the author. He divided his topic into two, and each of the two sections addresses a different part of the topic.
The subdivision of the sections also makes it possible for the author to address different subtopics. A strong aspect of the book is the clear synergy that appears between the different sections. Subdivision in this case does not mean isolation and segregation of the topics.
The book has an acknowledgements section where the author recognises all those that were involved in the production. This section is informative, as it is an indication of the fact that the book does not contain the sole perspective of the author. This is despite the fact that the other contributors may have played a minor role in the book, such as editing the manuscript.
Several themes are evident in this book. The following are the major ones:
Interconnectedness of Systems
The central theme in this book is the need for interconnectedness of living systems in the planet today. Capra starts by trying to define what a system is in the contemporary world. He looks at different forms of systems in the world today. These are for example ecological systems, social system and an economic system (Ellis 8).
Capra is of the view that, the relationship between these systems should be like that in the biological systems, meaning that they should be working together. The social system cannot be isolated from the economic system; the economic system should not be isolated from the ecological system.
The author identifies the difficulty that the systems theory, or the theory of autopoietic as he calls it, faces in the scientific world.
This is given the fact that contemporary scientists still subscribe to the classical and reductionist thinking of Cartesian and Darwin among others (Greigt 56). Modern thinkers such as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela are some of the scientists that have advocated for the adoption of the systems theory.
Modernisation and the Challenges to the Planet
Another theme in this book is that of modernisation and the challenges this portends to the planet today. Capra identifies the various manifestations of modernisation in the society today. These are for example urbanisation, improved technology and such others.
It is noted that, every time there is a meeting of world leaders to discuss issues such as global trade or such others, demonstrations are inevitable. These are for example the demonstrations by environment advocacy groups that are seen during international meetings on climate change.
Capra provides the rationale behind these observations in this book. He argues that there is need to integrate the issue of cognition when dealing with modernisation and technology. This is the only way that humanity can use modernisation to its benefit.
Challenges coming with modernisation include global warming, population explosion, health issues coming with genetically modified organisms among others. These are the challenges that should be addressed; otherwise, the planet may suffer.
The Hidden Connection makes a good reading. However, there are some criticisms that are evident in the book. For example, as much as the author would like to appear progressive and all, there are minimalist tendencies apparent in the book. For example, the theories he puts forth in the book are not fully developed.
There are more of emerging theories that have not been tested and proved. However, they are a good start in the sustainable science debate; they will sow the seeds that will later bring forth the change in the future.
Capra also makes a conscious effort to provide a rational and balanced analysis of the issue at hand, as opposed to the liberal, activist and firebrand stance that is adopted by other players advocating for change in the systems of today.
However, the last few chapters of the book seem to provide the author with a platform to engage in political activism. He talks of globalisation, the international trade and the politics of the developed countries. This is a sharp departure from the discourse on the other sections of the book, and it appears out of place and disconnected from the rest of the book.
However, despite the various weaknesses, the book is a good start in the debate of sustainable science today.
Bolstad, Rachel. The Hidden Connections. 2009. Web.
Brodsky, Bart. Exploring the Hidden Connections: Interview with Green Pioneer Fritjof Capra. Open Exchange. 2004. Web.
Capra, Fritjof. The Hidden Connections: Sustainable Science. London: Doubleday, 2002.
Ellis, Bill. The Hidden Connections: Book Review by Ellis Bill. Radical.org. 2003. Web.
Fullhner, Gregory. Critical Book Reviews. London: McGraw, 2005.
Greigt, Turner. The Hidden Connections. The Journal of Ecological Design, 23(3), 2009.
Nauheimer, Holger. Fritjof Capra: The Hidden Connection. Change Management. 2007. Web.
McCrone, John. Network Culture: “The Hidden Connections”. Guardian. 2002. Web.
Patsky, Patrick. Capra Fritjof: A Bibliography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Tickell, Crispin. Hidden Connections: Book Review. Crispin Tickell. 2011. Web.
Wenz, Phillip S. The Hidden Connections: Book Review. The Journal of Ecological Design, 2002. Web.
Zharkov, Henry. Critical Book Reviews. The Journal of Ecological Design, 3(9), February 2004.