on March 5, 2004
For those familiar with Capra's more famous tome "The Tao of Physics," the inconsistencies of that book are also present in this one. Once again, Capra has attempted a synthesis of specialized branches of scientific knowledge into an overall unified theory, this time dealing with biology and ecosystems. Unfortunately, just as the older book explained eastern and western views of time and space but failed to convincingly integrate them into a larger understanding, the same thing happens here. The result is a useful compilation and summary of various realms of modern scientific thought, but once again Capra's goal of creating a unified theory fails to materialize.
What we do get is a serviceable summary of recent research and breakthroughs in various "systems" theories. This is the antithesis of classic western science in which natural processes are broken down into small independent parts that are only related in a linear cause-and-effect pattern (the mechanistic view). Capra provides plenty of evidence that natural phenomena, both within organisms and across ecosystems, operate in far more complex and systematic fashions. These types of systems theories are necessary for a true understanding of the Earth and life itself.
But Capra's work here is mostly summary with little analysis. He tends to introduce scientists and their theories repeatedly throughout the book, and very large segments are made up entirely of the works of other theoreticians such as Lynn Margulis or Humberto Maturana. Capra also has an annoying way of saying that every scientific discovery he covers was groundbreaking or profoundly influential. The book ends very inconclusively with a skimpy 8-page epilogue in which Capra tries to tie the extensive knowledge he has compiled into a new theory of how humans should interact with the Earth. But it turns out to be merely simple environmentalism, and not the grand unified theory that was goal of all the extensive build-up. This book is quite useful as a summary of knowledge, but once again Capra just doesn't quite bring it all together. [~doomsdayer520~]
on July 1, 2001
What's good about this book? It provides a nice, concise history of the various developments that have led up to the "paradigm shift" supposedly taking place in modern science from reductionism and mechanism to holism and neo-vitalism. In so far as it does so, it is a laudable achievement.
Unfortunately, the author, and many of the thinkers he seems to be drawing from, insist on deriving unwarranted conclusions from their work, particularly in the areas of social theory and political philosophy. We are told, for example, that humans have built societies based on hierarchies of domination and submission, but that nature espouses the creation of "networks". which, it is alleged, are egalitarian. This is simply untrue. Anything involving two or more elements that are related to each other may be called a "network", including the most brutal master/slave relations ever seen on Earth. There is nothing inherently egalitarian in the notion that everything living is connected and related to everything else. The notions being preached here do not follow from the premises, however true they may be.
A deeper problem with such conclusions is that they are not borne out by natural systems themselves. Most, if not all, higher mammals are highly hierarchical species; especially the higher primates, to whom we are most closely related. Clearly, this is a fact of nature that is at odds with the author's desire to promote a vision of an egalitarian world informed by ecological and biological thinking. This is the great weakness of the book. While it clearly and neatly explains the history of systems thinking, it insists on deriving from it's premises politically correct values that have absolutely no foundation in nature itself, as anyone familiar with the controversy over socio-biology and evolutionary psychology could tell you. Those movements, by the way, are utterly absent from the bibliography and are unmentioned in the subject index. I can only think that this is by deisgn. The author is so well informed on other matters that I cannot believe that he is unaware of the work of these movements.
Thus, I would warn everyone who considers reading this book to take the results it derives from it's first principles with more than a few grains of salt, even if those principles are themselves convincing. It presents a picture of nature that has more to do with the sentimental fables of Rousseau and his generations of Leftist admirers than with the real knowledge gleaned from the study of nature. And anyone who would embrace ecological thinking as the model for a new era should remember this: Nietzsche, certainly no humanitarian or egalitarian, was the modern philosopher most heavily influenced by biology and vitalism.
on November 16, 2000
This book is an excellent synthesis of those intriguing and sexy scientific terms you'd like to understand but don't know where to begin. Systems theory, complexity, chaos, cognition, autopoeisis, symbiosis, gaia theory. For these and more the answer is to start reading here.
Those who already have half a clue about what these terms may refer to will notice that Capra's overview is emphatically cross-disciplinary. His bringing together of work in different fields of inquiry makes him well worth reading to see something of the 'bigger picture'. There is also likely to be something here you didn't already know. For instance, I was intrigued by Capra's description of the work of Candace Pert on the role of peptides, and her conclusion: 'I can no longer make a strong distinction between the brain and the body' (p. 276). Time after time I was filled with the strong desire to know more about the wonderful world Capra is describing, and to chase up the references on each page.
Capra's approach, along with his conclusions, are controversial and all the more stimulating for that. Even if you don't swallow the whole story, his vision of life in which everything is connected to everything else will make you question many preconceived ideas about the nature of nature. Despite what might be claimed for a book such as this, Capra hasn't quite reached the 'holy grail' of a complete, holistic account of life. In fact, it is exciting to consider how much there is that we still don't know and can't agree on. I give 'The Web of Life' four stars. I felt is petered out somewhat toward the end. If there had been a more dynamic conclusion to the book, it would be worth five.
on August 18, 2000
The Web of Life has been a revelation to me: I have always been struck by the beauty to be uncovered in the study of biology; however, I have found too many books on biology to be dry and reductionist, completely ignoring the metaphysical, aesthetic aspect of the life sciences.
This book is the first of many more I hope to read on this deeper aspect of biology and ecology. Capra looks at the life sciences through the lens of systems theory, and thus provides a very good introduction to systems theory for those (like me) who are novices. He also gives an account of life, from its earliest origins on up to the beginnings of human consciousness, working with the ideas of the main developers of systems theory over the past several decades.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this theory (or perhaps I should say set of theories) for me is how it describes and works out in more detail a basic intuition that many of us have even as children (and that many spiritual traditions have always recognized): that all things are connected in a giant web-work (wheels within wheels within wheels....). Anyone responding to this intuition knows that no being can be understood without looking at both the patterns it comprises, as well as the greater patterns it is a part of.
Another provocative aspect of these theories is how they push the definition of life out farther and farther, for in many ways all dissapative systems (economies, cultures, hurricanes) can be seen as having living qualities.
I disagree with the criticisms of the reviewers who complain that this book is derivative and contains too few original ideas. The author's intent here was to present a synthesis of teachings on a subject which is still new to many people, whilst arguing for a more appreciative and reverent attitude towards the world we live in. The result is a book which is not only fascinating but inspiring as well.
on June 18, 2000
I arrived to this author out of a suggestion found while reading a Wayne Dyer book. To my surprise this work is much more that what I bargained for. Eventhough most of the issues discussed herein involve deep philosophical and scientific issues, from the fields of chemistry, physics and biology, Mr. Capra does a superb job placing difficult concepts at a level, that any person with a basic level of education will understand him. What is most amazing is that he hardly falls in the custom of explaining through metaphors, which usually misleads more than explain. On the contrary, he carefully selects the words and phrases so the reader will not be left behind or fall asleep.
The best way to summarize what this book is about, is by using the author's words:
"My thesis has been that a theory of a living systems consistent with the philosophical framework of deep ecology, including an appropriate mathematical language and implying a non mechanistic, post-Cartesian understanding of life, is now emerging"
And guauu, this guy is a great advocate of his case.
on May 12, 1999
The difference between a mechanistic and a holistic view of the Universe is even greater than the difference between a flat and a round Earth. The problem is, the vast majority of us are still stuck with a perception of the world that is based on fundamentally flawed theories passed down to us by Newton and Descartes. In other words, everything you know is wrong.
We do not so much live in a universe of space filled with objects as our senses imply or as the classical physicists postulated, as we are all part of an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy.
This holistic worldview recognizes the connections and interdependencies in the world rather than merely separating the world into parts and attempting to reconstruct it like a child playing with blocks. By trying to understand the world merely in terms of its parts we obscure the properties that emerge from the interplay between the parts. The Universe is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
Capra's outstanding achievement in "The Web of Life" is to communicate so plainly, effectively and compellingly the outline of the holistic paradigm and the impending shift. "The Web of Life" is THE primer for the dynamical systems theory that you will need to compete (and to integrate) in the 21st Century.
Deep Ecology, Gaia Theory, and an incredible new theory of cognition are among the many ideas explored in the book as well as feedback loops, complexity and chaos theory, dissipative structures and autopoietic, or self-organizing, systems.
This is a moving and transforming book that will inform and inspire. I refer to it constantly and give it the highest recommendation.
on October 2, 2003
I thought this book was very informative and easy to understand for people who are not experts in systems theory. It provided me with a nice holistic perspective of the systems we are involved in. Through his books, Frijof Capra is spreading a holistic way of looking at life. I believe that his books serve a very important function in this age of materialism, urban alienation, spiritual confusion and chaos. Although there are many great books that serve this purpose, this is defintiely one of them. Another book that serves this wonderful purpose is, "The Ever-Transcending Spirit" by Toru Sato. It is an incredible book that uses the systems approach to understand how our subjective selves are also involved in these systems. If the world is to become a better place, both books should be read by many many more people.
on June 21, 2000
For the first half of the book, Capra takes the reader through the philosophy and history behind systems theories while pointing out some of the milestone discoveries in the last century. He then devotes a small middle section to the mathematics behind complex systems. In the second half of the book, Capra integrates the ideas and theories discussed in the first half and attempts to explain the general pattern of life.
In the end, I was left with a strong desire to learn more.....
what more can one ask from an introductory book?
on December 13, 2000
Considering that Capra acknowledges the debt he owes to Jantsch early on in this book, he doesn't appear to have read the seminal "The Self-Organizing Universe" very thoroughly. While it is true that Jantsh's work needed to be updated but Capra's shoddy attempt really doesn't fill the gap.
Capra's book will also irritate anyone who has ever read Ken Wilber since Capra seems to be loudly proclaiming a view very similar to Wilber's "holons" without the depth of Wilber's insight. That is, Capra seems to be stuck on the ideas of the Gaia theory without really getting into the social aspects of the theory at all.
Jantsch and Wilber are very cognizant of Maturana and Varela's work (see "The Tree of Knowledge") while Capra seems ignorant. This might explain why he doesn't do a very solid job of tying the social side to the material side of life.
This is the same treatment all other points in the book receive including his linking of Prigogine's work on dissipative structures and evolution. Although Behe and Hoyle may seem fairly "far out" in their theories, Capra does not offer any ideas or arguments about exactly how evolution and dissipative structures combine to produce such interesting things as cells that at some point "decide" to specialize and form a human body let alone how the information contained in DNA gets translated into the structure.
I'm really saddened by this effort since there is a lot of relevant information lying around right now for a good attempt at a very strong "theory of everything". When one looks at Prigogine, Chaitin, Jantsch, Wilber, Wilson's "Spikes, Decisions and Actions", Perlovsky, Maturana and Varela, or Austin's "Zen and the Brain" then one begins to glimpse that there are some very salient common points finally beginning to emerge from Western Civilization's foray into science.
In the end, I'd recommend a book by one of the above authors if you really want to learn something.
on July 22, 1999
What put me off straight away was the last few lines at the bottom of page 4 about the great challenge of our time: to create sustainable communities.....social and cultural environments in which we can satisfy are needs.....
I was hoping for a sharp, objective analysis of the state of everything as it currently stands. What I got was a complex and interesting book, but as always, from a selfish, human-orientated perspective (not Capra personally, just the species in general). That's what's got us this far in evolution and will continue to take us on to the end of our existence, whenever and for whatever reason. Humans are humans. And humans want everything! You just can't change the spots on a cheetah.
But if you want a fresh interpretaion of the world as it is, and some more ammunition to fuel the radical views that the back of cereal packets just don't provide anymore (joke!) then give it a go. And if you listen to my opinion then go back to square one and don't collect 6 biiion years of evolution