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.

For analogies, however, an obvious problem arises because similarities not granted intrinsic meaning by genealogy may be striking in our subjective judgment but still quite accidental, random, superficial, or falsely perceived merely because we so desperately seek order in a confusing world. After all, the world contains far more things than we have concepts—so we make such mistakes all the time. Surely most similarities fall into this superficial class, and we pass them by because our intuitions are well honed. (Some of us do not pass them by and end up in all sorts of foolishness by, for example, listing common properties of Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations and believing that some deep reality has been revealed.)

It is always instructive to confront an older system of thought granted deep meaning to similarities we now dismiss. Medieval bestiaries, for example, drew fanciful parallels between animals and their names, thinking that the names themselves had independent status and must reveal not only the animals, but their deeper significance for our lives. My copy says that a goat is called capra in Latin (our author’s name as well) because it strives to attain the mountain crags (aspera captef) and therefore represents Christ, who, in an anachronistic reference in the Song of Songs, “cometh like a he-goat leaping on the mountains.”

Capra makes no attempt to distinguish meaningful from superficial similarities; he seems to feel that some organizing unity must lie behind whatever analogies happen to intrigue him. Thus his holistic paradigm emerges because so many different traditions that win his sympathy seem to be striving for the same oneness and simplification. But are they the same in any meaningful way?

As in his previous book, The Tao of Physics, he particularly stresses similarities between Eastern religious traditions and modern physics. For example, after laying out the dichotomy (and interpenetrating unity) of yin and yang, he decides that the complementarity of wave and particle descriptions for atomic phenomena records the same insight about reality constructed as an indissoluble system, not built from unambiguous items eventually “unpacked” at minute sizes.

But why should I accept this analogy as expressing a real unity in nature? Am I being too crudely analytical in noting that Chinese philosophers were not discussing basic particles even if they tried to construct a comprehensive system? Might not their yin and yang reflect our mind’s struggle to grasp a complex reality by dichotomizing, rather than nature itself? And why should I view the twofold nature of yin and yang as meaningfully similar to wave and particle in the first place? There are just so many ways to describe the world, and attempts often overlap without producing a eureka of true synthesis.

Further problems surround Capra’s primary use of modern physics to support his holistic reconstruction. As the source of his illustrations, physics becomes his ultimate justification. He writes, for example:

This is how modern physics reveals the basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated building blocks, but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole….

Here, at the level of particles, the notion of separate parts breaks down. The subatomic particles—and therefore, ultimately, all parts of the universe—cannot be understood as isolated entities but must be defined through their interrelations.

Consider the peculiarity of that last sentence: “the subatomic particles—and therefore, ultimately, all parts of the universe….” The self-styled holist and antireductionist is finally caught in his own parochialism after all. He has followed the oldest of reductionist strategies. As it is with the structure of physics, queen of the sciences, so it must be, by extrapolation, with all of nature. You don’t exit from this Cartesian trap by advocating holism at the lowest level. The very assertion that this lowest level, whatever its nature, represents the essence of reality, is the ultimate reductionist argument.

The hierarchical perspective must take seriously the principle that phenomena of one level cannot automatically be extrapolated to work in the same way at others (a stricture that must be treated with special respect when we indulge our Cartesian habits for explaining the large in terms of the small). It might well be (though I doubt it) that subatomic phenomena are indissoluble, while houses, sequoias, and rhinos are wondrously distinct. And both will represent equally valid aspects of reality.

Finally, I find that too much of Capra’s supposed justification for holism rests upon a simple glorification of the nonrational. We encounter, for example, the persistent theme that nature’s way must be right and that our bumbling minds err if we do anything different. This argument is particularly ill-suited when Capra’s notion of nature is so wanting:

By developing our capacity for abstract thinking at such a rapid pace, we seem to have lost the important ability to ritualize social conflicts. Throughout the animal world aggression rarely develops to the point where one of the two adversaries is killed. Instead, the fight is ritualized and usually ends with the loser conceding defeat but remaining relatively unharmed. This wisdom disappeared, or at least was deeply submerged, in the emergent human species. In the process of creating an abstract inner world we seem to have lost touch with the realities of life and have become the only creatures who often fail to cooperate with and even kill their own kind.

This may have been a transiently popular theme in ethology fifteen years ago, but recent studies of animal behavior have uncovered, in species after species, far more injury and death and far less abstract ritual than we once thought. So be it. Nature has no automatically transferrable wisdom to serve as the basis of human morality. Passive observation and unquestioned reverence for nature are no substitute for ethical philosophy.

In other passages, the blessings of holism (even its justification) are equated with those emotional rushes that cut through reason and make us so sure that all is one:

At rare moments in our lives we may feel that we are in synchrony with the whole universe. These moments may occur under many circumstances—hitting a perfect shot at tennis or finding the perfect run down a ski slope, in the midst of a fulfilling sexual experience, in contemplation of a great work of art, or in deep meditation.

I don’t abjure these joys, especially the third and fourth. But why must all Capra’s examples lie so pointedly in the realm of the nonrational? Am I so peculiar because some of my greatest emotional highs have accompanied my understanding of a bit of nature’s complexity? And why, oh why, must the athletic examples always be tennis and skiing? Because this is what the beautiful people do? Is anything really wrong with softball and bowling, my own persistent favorites, despite their odor of ordinariness?

I hate to say this, because it reveals an unwarranted parochialism on my own part. I thought that Capra and I would be kindred spirits, since we maintain a similar commitment to a holistic and hierarchical perspective. Yet I found myself getting more and more annoyed with his book, with its facile analogies, its distrust of reason, its invocation of fashionable notions. In some respects, I feel closer to rational Cartesians (at least we have a common basis for disagreement) than to Capra’s California brand of ecology. I guess I’m just a New York holist.

How to Make the Transition

If Cartesianism is so pervasive a basis for scientific work, and if it grants such benefits to those in power, then it will not be happily abandoned in an orgy of expiation. Those who reap the spoils will not easily surrender them. Capra, however, seems little troubled by political realities and does not probe much beyond the faith that transitions so desirable are somehow bound to happen. “Following the philosophy of the I Ching rather than the Marxist view,” he writes, “I believe that conflict should be minimized in times of social transition.” Nice if you can have it. Perhaps, he suggests, holistic pressure groups will make the desirability of transition so apparent that former nonvoters will flock to the polls and “turn the paradigm shift into political reality.”

I find it both depressing and amusing that so many of our intellectual efforts, though masquerading as attempts to understand nature, are really anodynes for justifying our hopes and calming our fears. We have had central earths in small universes and people created in God’s physical image. Capra’s version of the holistic vision ultimately fails because it follows the same tradition and substitutes desire for analysis. From the political theme that it will happen because it should, to the search for analogies that must be meaningful because admirable people present them from different worthy traditions, Capra’s claims and prognoses often do little more than promote his personal preferences as nature’s way.

Most seriously, I think that Capra’s focus on his own hopes has led to a basic misunderstanding of the very paradigm that he advocates. The anti-reductionist model tries to understand nature as a hierarchy of interdependent levels, each coherent in itself, but each linked by ties of feedback to adjacent levels (Koestler’s Janus-faced holon, for example, who stands firmly in one spot but looks both up and down at the same time). No level is an ultimate reality and reference point for extrapolation; all are legitimate, interacting aspects of our natural world.

Capra, in his hopes for harmony and oneness, continually argues that the levels must reinforce one another and lead, ultimately, to the same desired end for all. He writes, for example:

Accordingly, the systems view of health can be applied to different systems levels, with the corresponding levels of health mutually inter-connected. In particular we can discern three interdependent levels of health—individual, social, and ecological. What is unhealthy for the individual is generally also unhealthy for the society and for the embedding ecosystem.

Would it were so. The world would be an easier place if this hope of interacting harmony followed inevitably from a concept of levels. But it doesn’t. If levels have substantial independence, then advantages to individuals at one level may or may not yield benefits to individuals at adjacent levels. Blessings to persons need not benefit collectivities—unless we are trying to graft our hopes for harmony upon an ultimately uncooperative world.

The benefits of adjacent levels are often contradictory; “harmonious” solutions must be balances that satisfy neither level completely, not the inevitable discovery of a pathway optimal for all. In my own field of evolutionary biology, benefits to organisms in the immediate struggle for existence often (probably usually) reduce the longevity of species (next level up). Intricate and complex structures, from peacocks’ tails to the elaborate armature of fighting males, confer evolutionary success upon the biggest and brightest individuals, but commit a species to such extreme specialization for particular environments that it will perish when conditions change—while related species that remain small and drab may retain enough evolutionary flexibility to weather the change. Sports heroes are not hurting themselves with seven-figure salaries, but the economic structure of the games they play may be threatened thereby. Does Japan’s economic success record a relatively low degree of conflict between the demands of workers and corporations? Can the system survive as actors at one level learn about potential benefits previously unappreciated?

Holism does not imply necessary harmony; conflicts among legitimate demands of different levels are as much a part of the hierarchical model as confluence. We may develop a new paradigm, as Capra believes, but it will not produce a nirvana of self-benefiting cooperation. The world remains too complex. I see no intrinsic bar to a decent life for all, but I doubt that we will ever escape sacrifice and struggle.

This Issue

March 3, 1983