Review of the book - 'The Web of Life' by Fritjof Capra


Fritjof Capra is a famous theoretical physicist who has written various books related to the philosophical implications of the modern sciences. He has extensively delivered lectures on these subjects and 'The Web of Life' is one of his leading and best-selling books. This article is a review of the book in details.

Introduction

Scientists and philosophers are relentlessly in pursuit of unravelling the mysteries of life. How life came into existence and what is that hidden thing that distinguishes life form from non-life for. Many distinguished scientists have contributed in this area have published their thoughts and shared their knowledge in form of the books. The Web of Life is one such book written by the theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra. It tries to assimilate various scientific and mathematical theories along with the biological research to understand the mystery of life. The book was published in the year 1997 and has been translated into many foreign languages.

About the Book

The book is divided into 4 parts which are again subdivided into chapters. We will go one by one through them to understand the contents of the book easily and comprehensively.

  • Part I - THE CULTURAL CONTEXT -This is the opening part of the book and contains only 1 section where the author has discussed the concept of deep ecology and has emphasised that we should see all the natural phenomenon and animal life in totality rather than the perspective of human-centred ideas. All the natural phenomenon and life forms are interdependent and interconnected and only after asking deeper questions about them we can understand them better.

    The author further says that all our scientific efforts should be in the direction of life-preserving and life-furthering rather than life-destroying. To understand the things properly it has now become mandatory to amalgamate Physics with life sciences and then only we will be able to understand and decipher the web of life one day.


  • Part - II - THE RISE OF SYSTEMS THINKING -This part of the book consists of 3 sections. The first section deals with how the scientific and analytical thinking changed with time from part thinking to the whole thinking and matured as systems thinking. The start of Physics with classical Newtonian mechanics and finally reaching the quantum level is an example of a part to the whole. Still, Physics is not able to explain the mysteries of life and more is yet to unfold. The ecology is also to be understood in the whole considering all the flora fauna and principles of nature acting on Earth.

    The second section talks about systems theories and illustrates how with the time the understanding of various activities of nature and the material world were acquired by the scientists and scholars. There was a great leap from studying objects to studying the relationship between them. Then there were network analysis and process thinking. All these changes lead to a systemic study of mind, life and consciousness where all the existing knowledge and subjects were used in one way or other.

    The third section speaks about the logic of the mind. It speaks about the birth of cybernetics and how the researchers started comparing the organisms with that of man invented machines. The feedback loops in living beings were observed with great interest in order to copy or use them in the real world machines. All these ideas generated a spark for studying an analysing the relationship between science and philosophy - ultimately to understand what life is?


  • Part - III - THE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE -This part contains 2 sections. In the first section, the author has discussed how the organisations developed increasingly complex industrial enterprises using systems analysis and other techniques. In the biology side, the development of genetics brought worldwide interest in understanding the life and its evolution. It led to studies and research in finding out the organisation of a living organism and to understand how such a brilliant coordination and feedback mechanism with corrective actions is possible in them.

    The second section is about the mathematical complexity and fractal presentations in the material world as well as in nature and how they can help us in learning methods to decipher the mystery of life.


  • Part -IV - THE NATURE OF LIFE -This is the last chapter and has six sections. In the first section, the author discusses the new synthesis to find out the mystery of life. He argues that to find the key to the comprehensive theory of living systems it is necessary to have an approach of pattern recognition and study of the structure of the substance or matter. The patter will describe the shape, chemical composition and layout of various physical components while the structure is the physical embodiment of its constituents. The author further explains the key criterion of living beings and their cognitive potentials which are necessary for the synthesis of life.

    In the second section, the author has discussed how the plant and animal life are in constant flow with the ecology and environment around and energies are dissipating from one to another in the finest of natural ways to sustain life. This dissipative structure is really amusing and flows forward with the movement of time. The order and disorder are flowing along as if they are the part of a whole convergent system.

    The third section tries to understand the evolution of life forms through mathematical models and autopoietic networks and also make efforts to understand how the living cells could reproduce, replicate and evolve to the present species.

    In the fourth section, the author has started from Darwin's theory of evolution and added that the molecular biology and genetics have given new insights to understand evolution which is much more complex than what Darwin explained in the simple survival of the fittest terms. System biologists started to portray the genome as self-organising networks capable to produce new life forms and new theories and models were being proposed to understand these mysteries of life forms and their propagations.

    The fifth section deals with the mind, cognitive processes, their relations with genetic codes and the spread of these everywhere in the living being through nerves. When a foreign material is injected into the body the whole system starts defending cognitively as managed by the mind. The cells, chemicals and other body constituents take part in the exercise as happens, albeit at a very low scale, in a supercomputer being administered from a central server.

    In the sixth section, the author has elaborated on the human consciousness and tried to explain it in scientific ways correlating it with the environment and surrounding ecological communities with whom a continuous exchange of energies is going on.


After the end of Part-IV, the author has added an endnote in which he has dealt with the ecology and its connection with the living beings and the differentiation between humans and other living beings in terms of consciousness.

About the Author

Fritjof Capra is a theoretical physicist who did his PhD from the University of Vienna. He had done research in high energy Physics in various universities in Europe and America. He has authored many books on the philosophical implications of science and has advocated using all the scientific knowledge together to unravel the mystery of life forms, their origin and working.

He was born on 1st February 1939 in Vienna, Austria. He is a founding Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, California. Presently he lives in Berkeley, California.

His other main books are - The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, Uncommon Wisdom, The Hidden Connections and The Systems View of Life.

Conclusion

The Web of Life is a fine reading. It is written in a simple explanatory language and can be enjoyed by an average reader. There is a flow in the book which keeps the reader interested in various explanations by the author. For those who have a scientific background, it will be a very very interesting reading. It is also a valuable aid to all those who are actively engaged in research in this area.


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