A Science for Sustainable Living, New York: Anchor Books, 2004
The Hidden Connections is perhaps the most lucid of Capra’s books. This being said, I could well imagine that if you begin reading Capra with the present book, without reading his previous books first, you might get stuck somewhere in the midst of it—simply because you lack out on essential information that is contained in Capra’s earlier books.
At the very onset of The Hidden Connections, Capra reveals an important detail about himself and his unusual development as a scientist:
My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. This is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter. Our academic disciplines have been organized in such a way that the natural sciences deal with material structures while the social sciences deal with social structures, which are understood to be, essentially, rules of behavior. In the future, this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century—for social scientists, natural scientists and everybody else—will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions—their material and social structures—do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life./xix
Capra starts, systemically sound, with the cell, noting that the simplest living system is the cell, and especially, the bacterial cell. Then Capra looks at what membranes are, and what they do, and this is highly revealing, and teaches an important lesson about relationships. I haven’t found this insightful metaphor anywhere else, and it showed me right at the start of this book that it’s going to be highly substantial lecture:
A membrane is very different from a cell wall. Whereas cell walls are rigid structures, membranes are always active, opening and closing continually, keeping certain substances out and letting others in./8
The cell’s metabolic reactions involve a variety of ions, and the membrane, by being semipermeable, controls their proportions and keeps them in balance. Another critical activity of the membrane is to continually pump out excessive calcium waste, so that the calcium remaining within the cell is kept at the precise, very low level required for its metabolic functions. All these activities help to maintain the cell as a distinct entity and protect it from harmful environmental influences. Indeed, the first thing a bacterium does when it is attacked by another organism is to make membranes./Id.
The next important point to understand how nature ‘thinks’ is the cell’s metabolism, the network that serves recycling. Capra succinctly elaborates:
When we take a closer look at the processes of metabolism, we notice that they form a chemical network. This is another fundamental feature of life. As ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs (networks of organisms), so organisms are viewed as networks of cells, organs and organ systems, and cells as networks of molecules. One of the key insights of the systems approach has been the realization that the network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks. (…) The metabolic network of a cell involves very special dynamics that differ strikingly from the cell’s nonliving environment. Taking in nutrients from the outside world, the cell sustains itself by means of a network of chemical reactions that take place inside the boundary and produce all of the cell’s components, including those of the boundary itself./9
I shall leave out in this review the long passages in which Capra explains the essential contributions of systems researchers such as Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, or Ilya Prigogine, as this would render this review definitely too extensive. I shall thus restrict myself to a few remarks for describing the core of systems research that Capra unfolds in this book:
The starting point for this is the observation that all cellular structures exist far from equilibrium state—in other words, the cell would die—if the cellular metabolism did not use a continual flow of energy to restore structures as fast as they are decaying. This means that we need to describe the cell as an open system. Living systems are organizationally closed—they are autopoietic networks—but materially and energetically open./13
One of the most important insights we gain from systems theory and the close observation of natural processes is the relationship between chaos and order. What is chaos? What is order? We all have some preconceptions here. Sure, but I promise you that when you read this book, you will let go all of them, because they are wrong! Chaos is not chaos, but ordered chaos, and thus not random, and order is not a stable condition. You may remember that we discussed earlier on what self-organization means relating to systems. Here, Capra explains in more detail what self-organization actually does:
Th[e] spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life. It is technically known as self organization and is often referred to simply as emergence. It has been recognized as the dynamic origin of development, learning and evolution. In other words, creativity—the generation of new forms—is a key property of all living systems. And since emergence is an integral part of the dynamics of open systems, we reach the important conclusion that open systems develop and evolve. Life constantly reaches out into novelty./14
The next great error most of us are caught in is the discrimination between humans and animals when it is about cognition. Fact is that humans are not much more intelligent than Gorillas, only a little more, to be precise: we are precisely 1.6 times more intelligent than gorillas. Besides that, it was believed that in animals cognition was working in basically different ways than in humans. This seems to have been an error. Researchers found you can talk with chimpanzees if you learn their language, and they can learn ours.
Throughout most of Western philosophy, the capacity to reason was seen as a uniquely human characteristic, distinguishing us from all other animals. The communication studies with chimpanzees / have exposed the fallacy of this belief in the most dramatic of ways. They make it clear that the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and humans differ only by degree; that life is a great continuum in which differences between species are gradual and evolutionary./65-66
I shall finalize this review with some very interesting political and social hidden connections that Capra unveils in his book.
There are probably still people around who are fond of biotechnology, but I guess they just ignore the facts, and their knowledge is for the most part taken from the huge amount of propaganda material. Was it only for this enlightening information, the present book is worth its price as it daringly unveils the hidden facts and tells the truth!
The most widespread use of plant biotechnology has been to develop herbicide-tolerant crops in order to boast the sales of particular herbicides. There is a strong likelihood that the transgenic plants will cross-pollinate with wild relatives in their surroundings, thus creating herbicide-resistant superweeds. Evidence indicates that such gene flows between transgenic crops and wild relatives are already occurring. /193
Why do we need biotechnology? I guess certain people, corporations and their consorts need it for making huge amounts of money. But is it tolerable in a democracy that all suffer from the side effects of technologies that enrich a few? I learnt as a law student that such a kind of system is called an oligarchy, the reign of an elite. So I am seriously asking how we ever came to say that we are living in a democracy?
In the animal kingdom, where cellular complexity is much higher, the side effects in genetically modified species are much worse. ‘Super-salmon’ which were engineered to grow as fast as possible, ended up with monstrous heads and died from not being able to breathe or feed properly. Similarly, a superpig with a human gene for a growth hormone turned out ulcerous, blind, and impotent. (…) The most horrifying and by now best-known story is probably that of the genetically altered hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone, which has been used to stimulate milk production in cows despite the fact that American dairy farmers have produced vastly more milk than people can consume for the past fifty years. The effects of this genetic engineering folly on the cow’s health are serious. They include bloat, diarrhea, diseases of the knees and feet, cystic ovaries, and many more. Besides, their milk may contain a substance that has been implicated in human breast and stomach cancers./198
Why do we need superpigs? It seems to me that they are the result of quantitative thinking, a primacy of quantity over quality, and this for the obvious reason of maximizing profits. This is a good example for the fact that we live in what has been called the corporate society, as the prototype of a society in which major corporations dictate the standards the government is going to follow and to enact as laws. Capra notes the details:
In the United States, the biotech industry has persuaded the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat GM food as substantially equivalent to traditional food, which allows food producers to evade normal testing by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and also leaves it to the companies’ own discretion as to whether to label their products as genetically modified. Thus, the public is kept unaware of the rapid spread of transgenic foods and scientists will find it much harder to trace harmful effects. Indeed, buying organic is now the only way to avoid GM foods./199
In Germany, France, and most other European countries, the laws are different regarding genetically modified food. Capra informs:
The governments of France, Italy, Greece, and Denmark announced that they would block the approval of new GM crops in the European Union. The European Commission made the labeling of GM foods mandatory, as did the governments of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Mexico. In January 2000, 130 nations signed the groundbreaking Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in Montreal, which gives nations the right to refuse entry to any genetically modified forms of life, despite vehement opposition from the United States. /228
As a trained lawyer, I can clearly see that we are facing currently a challenge to legally codify these new technologies—lest, as it were, they are going to codify us, entraining us in a turbulence of faits établis, and then the law will leap behind the actual developments. But the law should better accompany the research step by step so as to be updated with the explosive growth of these very heavily funded research disciplines. Capra writes:
The development of such new biotechnologies will be a tremendous intellectual challenge, because we still do not understand how nature developed technologies during billions of years of evolution that are far superior to our human designs. How do mussels produce glue that sticks to anything in water? How do spiders spin a silk thread that, ounce for ounce, is five times stronger than steel? How do abalone grow a shell that is twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics? How do these creatures manufacture their miracle materials in water, at room temperature, silently, and without any toxic byproducts?/204