The Web of Life :

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

by Fritjof Capra

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The acclaimed author of The Tao of Physics puts modern biology and ecology under his revisionist scrutiny. Capra's whole approach is based on the premise that earlier schools of science falsely attempted to force their subjects into mechanistic, easily quantifiable models, in opposition to the holistic awareness of today's scientific revolutionaries. Systems thinking and fractal geometry replace traditional analytical tools and methods.

In biological terms, this means abandoning the traditional emphasis on the cell as a fundamental building block of life. Instead, the modern cell emerges as a symbiotic partnership between a number of formerly independent entities, now playing the roles of nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, chloroplasts, and so forth. Indeed, the emphasis on cooperation is a keynote of Capra's vision.

The Gaia hypothesis, in which Earth itself is seen as a single self-regulating biological entity, plays a large role in his vision. Likewise, he believes that the vision of struggle for survival aided by chance mutations is refuted by the discovery that microorganisms can in effect cooperate by passing genetic material from one to another across species lines--a discovery that he feels calls into question the entire notion of separate species. But Capra pushes his thesis too eagerly and with too little attention to mundane details. A reader up on the subject will catch him in innumerable small errors (for example, he seems unaware that most biologists see modern apes not as human ancestors but as collateral descendants of a common ancestor).

He likes to replace well-established terminology with new jargon, much of it rather condescending; readers of a book like this are unlikely to need him to substitute "southern ape" for the scientific term Australopithecus. He too often states sweeping and unprovable assumptions--such as that Cro-Magnons possessed "fully developed language"--as fact. Surveys a great deal of fascinating ground, but from the standpoint of a true believer rather than of an objective explorer.