This post is the first in a series of three. I have been studying a “systems view of life” as a component of a larger three-part goal:
- First, become better able to leading students to explore their “ecological identity” (their self-described place/role in the natural world).
- Second, from a systems theory perspective, how a learner incorporates new experiences and information into his or her prior existing understanding or worldview.
- And then, lastly, explain why once someone has learned or believes something, even if a wild misconception, it is so difficult to change his or her mind or perspective.
So, what is our place in the natural world (which is all the world by the way) and how do we make sense of it? I’m swinging for the fences here.
This has lead me first to understanding living systems as being “autopoietic,” meaning it “is a system capable of sustaining itself due to a network of reactions which continuously regenerate the components—and this from within the boundary ‘of its own making’” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 134). In other words, it not only maintains itself, but it can also regenerate from within itself all its own components using resources from its surrounding environment.
Living systems have their own boundary and then are embedded in larger living systems. A cell is bound by a membrane, but interacts with other cells to form and organization into tissues, which create systems of tissues organized into an organ, which are organized into organ systems, all of which are interlocked in feedback mechanisms to maintain the whole of your body’s living system. The body interlocked with the ecosystem in which it lives, taking in molecules and energy to self-maintain and regenerate your living system (autopoiesis) and then contributing what our body considers waste in the form of molecules and heat energy back into the larger ecosystem.
Using a graphic, I adapted from Capra & Luisi (2014, p. 134), we can illustrate step-by-step a living cell interlocked with its environment to self-maintain and regenerate (be alive).
- The cell is a
- self-contained living system which is in
- a larger ecosystem that gets
- inputs from that ecosystem. Those inputs determine
- how the metabolic processes in the cell react. In so doing,
- it produces needed molecular components, used to
- self-make and regulate as a bounded system. It then expels waste product and heat
- back into the ecosystem.
The cell uses negative feedback loops to maintain its internal homeostasis. That internal homeostasis is continuously out of equilibrium. To maintain this constant, balanced state out of equilibrium, requires an input of energy and molecules from the environment. So, what is occurring, is that a living system must cycle matter and energy through itself to fuel its own self-maintaining and self-regenerating functions (being alive).
This is like a thermostat regulating the temperature of a house. What we as the inhabitants of the house deem as comfortable might very well be far different than the conditions that would exist if no energy was used to heat or cool the house and the system was allowed to settle into a “natural” state of equilibrium—so temperature same inside as outside of the house.
However, to keep it constantly comfortable for us living in the house (a state of homeostasis), we set the thermostat at 72 degrees and then the heating system uses a negative feedback loop to keep the house at 72 degrees. In the winter, when the temperature drops below that set point, the furnace is turned on until it reaches that set point. The heat, once detected at 72 degrees by the thermostat is used to shut down the very system that was creating the heat. This is a classic example of a negative feedback loop. The house is using energy and molecules from outside the system to maintain the preferred homeostatic state within the boundary of the system.
Of course this is a simplified example of a non-living system to help you understand a much more dynamic and complex living system. The house isn’t autopoietic because, while the HVAC system can maintain a temperature once set, it isn’t really self-regulating (since the human is using the tool of the thermostat to do the regulating), and it certainly isn’t self-regenerating–but man would the nice if it could!
With me so far?
This is my first crack at trying to summarize the first part of my question at the beginning. I welcome thoughts, questions, and comments.
Tomorrow, I will attempt a first crack at connecting this to the second part of the question regarding learning.
And then from there, we’ll see if we can figure out some kind of an answer that explains why it is so damn hard to change a person’s mind once they’ve become “set in their ways.”
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Capra, Fritjof & Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.