Systems thinking could be conceived as the opposite of reductionism.  In systems thinking the whole is the object of inquiry, not the parts.  In her excellent book on the subject, General Systems Theory beginning with Wholes, Barbara Gail Hanson points out, “When we begin to see in terms of wholes rather than parts, patterns appear that a classic model of simple linear cause and effect cannot capture.” 1 Systems theory started with the advent of computers, which allowed the management of multiple streams of data, and found applications in business, industry, and government.2   However, the idea that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts goes back as far as Aristotle’s Principle of Non-Summativity.1(p 27

Biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy originated the expression “general systems theory,” while mathematician and psychologist A. Rapaport gave a broad definition of a system: “A system is a portion of the world that is perceived as a unit and that is able to maintain its” identity “in spite of changes going on in it.”  (Quoted in Stamps, p. 12) 3

Erno Laszlo was one of the first to articulate systems theory most forcefully.4  What follows is a table based on his listing of the distinctions between the classical view of the world and the systems view of the world.

* © 2003 by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.


NATURE: a giant machine composed of intricate but replaceable machine-like parts


NATURE: an organism endowed with irreplaceable elements and an innate but non-deterministic purpose for choice, flow, and spontaneity


PEOPLE are separate from each other and from their environment


PEOPLE are connected to and communicate with each other and their environment


MATERIALISTIC – all things are distinct and measurable material entities


WHOLISTIC – matter is a configuration of energies that flow and interact, and allows for probabilistic processes, creativity, and unpredictability


SUPPORTS the accumulation of material goods, promotes a power-based and competitive ethos


SUPPORTS the importance of information, and so of education, communication, and human services


Values SOCIOECONOMIC PROGRESS via growth in the material sphere, greater and greater use of energies, raw materials, and other resources (with the attendant waste)


Values SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT through flexibility and accommodation among cooperative and interactive parts


EUROCENTRIC, taking Western industrialized societies as the paradigms of progress and development


INCLUSIVE and Based on DIVERSITY, taking all human cultures and societies as equally valid, ranking them only in terms of sustainability


ANTHROPOCENTRIC – human beings can master and control nature for their own ends


EARTHCENTRIC – humans are organic parts within a self-maintained and self-evolving whole planet


SOCIAL SCIENCE: the struggle for survival, the profit of the individual, free markets


SOCIAL SCIENCE: cooperation, tolerance of diversity, institutions and practices that foster adaptation and harmony


MEDICAL SCIENCE: the human body is a machine frequently in need of repair by impersonal interventions and treatments.  The mind is separate from the body and is to be treated separately.


MEDICAL SCIENCE: the human body is a system of interacting parts.  Body and mind are not separable.  The health of the whole system is to be maintained by attention to interpersonal,  psychic, physical, and psychological factors.

(Table created from information in The Systems View of the World, by Erno Laszlo)

The systems approach is particularly appropriate in any discipline that studies human beings, which are very complex systems yet have generally been studied mostly part by part, as any book on anatomy and physiology will attest.  As Hanson points out, by promoting an epistemological shift to seeing the world in terms of connectedness, relationships, and context, in other words, “of relational wholes, (systems theory) is an alternative to more reductionistic or mechanical models that encourage study through dissection, then reconstitution, as is traditional in classical biology and medicine.” 1(p27

In my book Food and Healing (1996) I suggested that in order to understand the human body and the effects of nutrition and health intervention, we need to go beyond the model of Newtonian physics, which sees the body as a machine, with pumps and pipes and pulleys and osmotic pressure and so on.  The machine is indeed a whole, one could argue, but the view is that it is possible to tinker with the parts, or even replace them, without affecting the whole very much.  However, that may be an over-simplification.  As Rudolph Ballentine points out, “Newtonian physics . . . may turn out to be a bit crude for dealing with biological systems.” 5(p30)

I suggested we look at systems theory for a more holistic model of living beings.  Systems theory says that wholes should be described in terms of the relationships between their parts rather than by the parts themselves.  That means that when one part is tinkered with, the entire system reacts; that when one part is replaced, the reverberations travel everywhere and the system’s function will be affected, even if the new part is “better” or “healthier” than the old replaced part.  I also argued that living systems are best described as patterns of organization with input, output, and purpose.6(Ch1)

Living systems, such as human beings, show four specific characteristics:

–  wholeness and order (the whole is more than the sum of its parts)

–  adaptive self-stabilization (environmental disturbances will provoke reactions to return to normal)

–  adaptive self-organization (constant disturbances create adaptations that minimize the disruption)

–  intra and inter-systemic hierarchies (the body is made up of systems of organs, and is part of family and social systems)6(pp28-29).

In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, some thinkers consider that living systems also exhibit purpose, or intention.  According to Russell Acoff and Fred Emery, a purposeful individual or system is one that can produce (1) the same type of outcome or behavior in different ways in the same environment;  and (2) can produce different outcomes or behaviors in the same and different environments.7 (p31)  These authors focused their inquiry on human systems and on the role of purpose in psychology.  Other authors have studied the purposeful behavior of humans as well as that of organizations.8  However, I would argue that within a systems viewpoint  any system with goals could be considered purposeful, whether the goals/ purpose is conscious or automatic.  I propose that maintaining life is a purpose of living things.  Therefore, whatever an organism does to keep itself alive, both through directed behavior towards an end (e.g., eating, seeking shelter) as well as through its internal function, is in itself purposeful.

In my view, systems theory must become a basic component of the modern scientific view of nature.


1 Barbara Gail Hanson, General Systems Theory Beginning with Wholes (Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995).

2 C. West Churchman, The Systems Approach (New York: Laurel – Dell, 1968).

3 Jeffrey S. Stamps, Holonomy:   A Human Systems Theory (Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1980).

4 Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World:  A Holistic Vision for Our TIme, ed. Alfonso Mortuori, Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1996).

5 Rudolph Ballentine, Radical Healing:  Integrating the World’s Great Therapeutic Traditions to Create a New Transformative Medicine (New York: Harmony Books – a division of Crown Publishers, 1999).

6 Annemarie Colbin, Food and Healing, Second ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).

7 Russel L Acoff and Fred E Emery, On Purposeful Systems, Systems Inquiry Series (Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1971).

8 Jeffrey B Vancouver, “Living systems theory as a paradigm for organizational behavior:  Understanding humans, organizations, and social processes,” Behavioral Science 4, no. 3 (Jul 1996) (1996): 165-204.