Top critical review
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Only useful as a short history of systems thinking
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.