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Utopia (Limited)

The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture

by Fritjof Capra
Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., $17.50

In his great work An American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal praised the effort made by “a handful of social and biological scientists” to combat racism and hereditarianism—cultural prejudices once so pervasive that white intellectuals throughout the world had portrayed the inferiority of blacks as a self-evident truth. Myrdal then wondered what more general biases might be so deep and unquestioned that we cannot even recognize them:

But there must be still other countless errors of the same sort that no living man can yet detect, because of the fog within which our type of Western culture envelops us. Cultural influences have set up the assumptions about the mind, the body, and the universe with which we begin; pose the questions we ask; influence the facts we seek; determine the interpretation we give these facts; and direct our reaction to these interpretations and conclusions.

In The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, tries to identify and combat what may be the deepest bias of Western conceptual life, and a primary source (in his opinion) of our current ills and unhappiness. According to him, the trouble started nearly four hundred years ago when a previous organicism yielded to the conceptual paradigm of Cartesian mechanism—an approach pervading all disciplines and characterized by an explanatory tactic that separates, analyzes, and reduces the world to basic particles of atoms and molecules. This reductionist strategy for explanation has been allied with a conceptual machismo: belief in continual progress and growth by exploiting the earth and all its life (which we therefore view as separate from man and available for dominion), and the basic idea that we learn in order to control and manipulate (“knowledge is power,” as Bacon proclaimed).

To halt our slide down this Cartesian path into an abyss of our own construction, Capra offers a new “paradigm of thought” now arising spontaneously, and often in unconscious or inchoate fashion, among troubled and perceptive thinkers in all disciplines. The watchwords of this new way are “holism” and “ecology.” We must recognize inseparable union and interaction as basic realities. Complex systems, not separated building blocks, must be our units of explanation. We must immerse ourselves in nature and work with it, not separate it in order to exploit it.

Capra’s book comes in four parts. The first outlines the current crisis that Cartesianism has imposed upon us and offers some hints for an alternative. The second, in two chapters, sets forth the Cartesian model and then argues, by contrast, that its rationale has disappeared with advances in modern physics which reflect the ecological and interactive themes of many non-Western and mystical traditions. (Capra, a physicist by training, pursues several themes of his earlier book.) The third chronicles the dire influence of Cartesianism in biology, medicine, psychology, economics, and the politics of growth. The fourth proposes a holistic rescue in the same (but now indissoluble) areas.

This enormously right-minded general theme, here somewhat caricatured for brevity, surely wins my approval. My own recent work in evolutionary theory follows Capra’s prescription: I have been trying to describe a hierarchical alternative to the Darwinian tradition, one that would reduce all large-scale evolutionary phenomena to extrapolated results of natural selection working at the level of individual organisms within populations (the “struggle for existence,” as Darwin stated, or, in modern terms, “differential reproductive success”). (Hierarchical models recognize genes, organisms, and species as legitimate entities in a sequence of levels with unique explanatory principles emerging at each more inclusive plateau.)

When King Paramount, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia (Limited), decides to transform his island paradise along modern British lines, he proclaims: “Though lofty aims catastrophe entail, we’ll gloriously succeed, or nobly fail.” The Turning Point is no catastrophe, but I do regard it as a noble failure, for two reasons. The first, not at all Capra’s fault, harks back to Myrdal’s insight: we are so embedded in Cartesian biases that we hardly know any other way to think. It is always easier to identify problems than to construct solutions. If Capra’s description of the holistic and ecological paradigm lacks rigor and richness, well, many people are struggling with it—and no one has yet succeeded, so why should we expect more of him. The second, however, I do lay at his doorstep, for I find Capra’s reasoning simplistic and even antirational (I think intentionally) at too many points. I shall concentrate, in turn, on the problems I see in his historical analysis of Cartesianism, his identification of the new paradigm, his intellectual justification for it, and his views on how we might enforce the substitution.

Historical Analysis of Cartesianism

The world is a complex place. In our struggles to simplify and understand it, we often identify some bugbear and then make it responsible for all evils. Cartesian reductionism is Capra’s candidate, and his far-fetched invocations of its baleful sway often seem ludicrous when much simpler explanations are available. Consider, for example, his account of why “in most European languages the right side is associated with the good, the just, the virtuous, the left side with evil, danger, and suspicion.” Since the actions of our right side are mediated by the left hemisphere of our brain, and since the left hemisphere (in an oversimplified dichotomy so favored in scores of pop-psychology articles) performs “quantification and analysis” while the right thinks in holistic, integrated patterns, Capra argues that our preferences for right-handedness reflect “our culture’s Cartesian bias in favor of rational thought.” Has Capra forgotten Biblical preferences for him who “sitteth at the right hand of the father”—a bias originating in an age of pre-Cartesian organicism? Can he really pass by the obvious and simpler explanation for this pattern—that for some reason not yet understood most human beings are right-handed, and that good old xenophobia and fear of the unusual are quite sufficient to create our linguistic distinction of dexterous and sinister, without searching for Cartesian bugbears under every rug.

Moreover, Capra is so eager to blame the rise of Cartesianism for the origin of most Western problems that he paints an absurdly romantic view of a happy, holistic Europe before Cogito, ergo sum. For example,

The value system that developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gradually replaced a coherent set of medieval values and attitudes—belief in the sacredness of the natural world; moral strictures against money-lending for interest; the requirement that prices should be “just”; convictions that personal gain and hoarding should be discouraged, that work was for the use value of the group and the well-being of the soul, that trade was justified only to restore the group’s sufficiency, and that all true rewards were in the next world.

Tell it to the merchants of the Hanseatic League! I am not aware that a Europe so frequently ravaged by plague and war, with a peasantry so often oppressed and indentured, can lay any claim to such economic enlightenment.

My favorite scene in Brecht’s Galileo dramatically paints the oppressive side of whatever holistic and organic elements resided in the paradigms of pre-Cartesian politics. The Little Monk, an astronomer who knows that Galileo is right, explains to his mentor why he will abandon the truth of the heavens and return to the Church’s doctrine of a central earth. His parents, he says, are poor peasants in the Campagna and their life-long suffering only makes sense if each creature plays a foreordained and inevitable role in the static harmony of permanent oneness. As the planets circle a central, controlling earth in a limited cosmos, so too must bishops defer to the Pope and peasants to their lords. Thus, says the Little Monk to Galileo, “Can you understand now that in the decree of the Holy Congregation I discern a noble motherly compassion, a great goodness of soul?” Galileo’s reply is searing: “Damn it, I see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine wrath?” Pre-Cartesian holism was not only a bucolic perception of nature’s fundamental unity but a dandy doctrine to enforce a status quo not blissful for everyone.

Identification of the New Paradigm

As I have said, we are so embedded in the Cartesian world view that we hardly know how to formulate a general and coherent alternative. Capra himself quotes the perceptive biologist Sidney Brenner:

I think in the next twenty-five years we are going to have to teach biologists another language…. I don’t know what it’s called yet; nobody knows. But what one is aiming at, I think, is the fundamental problem of the theory of elaborate systems….

In the absence of a well-formulated substitute for Cartesian thinking, Capra is reduced to selective quotation from the heroes and harbingers of his new order. But buzz words and vague advocacy quickly pale into boredom. At best, we get hints from people who have worked out a holistic system only half way (von Bertalanffy), or in an oracular fashion (Gregory Bateson), or in the pop mode (Arthur Koestler). At worst, we have partial quotes from gurus who, so far as I can see, were not groping toward anything particularly anti-Cartesian, but whom Capra obviously wants in his pantheon. I fail to see, for example, why Teilhard de Chardin’s harmless mystical reveries about the upward march of consciousness toward point Omega should be seen as presaging the new holistic order simply because Teilhard once defined consciousness as ” ‘the specific effect of organized complexity,’ which is perfectly compatible with the systems view of mind.”

Justification of the New Paradigm

When something hasn’t been formulated rigorously, justification becomes a formidable task. Capra’s basic strategy consists of searching for similarity in the apparently disparate systems of people on the right track. If Western physicists and Eastern mystics are really saying the same thing in their ostensibly different struggles to understand deep reality, then, by God, there must be something to it. This is a dangerous and superficial approach to the analysis of similarity.

Natural historians, those scientists most directly charged with the task of analyzing similarity, have developed a system of classification to sort kinds of meaning, and the meaningful from the meaningless. Similarities are homologous, or genealogical, if they refer to structures retained by both objects from a common ancestor—my arm and a horse’s forelimb, for example, with their markedly different functions, but striking similarity in bony structure. Homologous similarities have a kind of intrinsic meaning from the standpoint of inheritance.

Similarities developed independently and identified by formal or morphological resemblance are called analogous—wings of birds and bats, for example, since their common ancestor did not fly. Analogous similarities are particularly difficult to evaluate because they may be meaningful or meaningless depending upon context. Bird and bat wings tell us nothing about inheritance, but we may learn much about the aerodynamics of flight if a set of independent evolutionary events converge upon the same mechanical solution. When analogous similarities are regulated by the same physical constraints and laws, we can identify common reasons behind a unity of form even though each event occurred separately. The events may be quite diverse—hexagonal shapes of soap bubbles, plates on a turtle’s shell, and basalt pillars in the Giant’s Causeway of Northern Ireland, for example—but the same laws or formal causes may still underly the similarity, the geometric rules of closest packing in this case.

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