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The Earth: beyond the levels of life.


James Grier and Jesse Miller (Miller and Miller, 1982) identify Earth in the context of living systems theory (LST). The earth is a non-living system that exhibits some but not all of the critical subsystems of living systems. Living systems at any of the seven levels of life identified by Miller (1978) may disperse outwardly any of their critical subsystems except the decider. If, however, a higher level living system disperses downwardly a subsystem such as the extruder or ingestor, it must be possible for that lower level system to extrude or ingest at the boundary of the higher level system. Lacking certain of the critical processes and structures of living systems, Earth is a nonliving system. As such, it does not constitute an extension of the LST levels of life.

The acknowledgement that the earth is not a living system does not suggest that LST cannot instruct certain ecological and environmental inquiries. As far as we know, only living systems are concerned with such inquiry. LST concerns those living systems and their interactions with each other and the natural environment. The contribution of LST, however, is limited to that of an empirical theory.

The philosophical roots of LST in Whitehead's (1978) process philosophy of organism may provide additional insights into questions that concern the system Earth. To that end, Miller's view of the earth system is set in the context of Whitehead's philosophy.


The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP, 2001), in an article titled 'The Earth's Life-Support System in Peril', states: 'It is now clear that the Earth has entered the so-called Anthropocene Era--the geological era which humans are a significant and sometimes dominating environmental force. Records from the geological past indicate that never before has the Earth experienced the current suite of simultaneous changes' (p. 11). If we are such a force, we are obligated as conscious beings to influence Earth for the survival of life. We seem not to do that sometimes, perhaps often.

Wide-ranging scientific disciplines nevertheless are being brought to bear on major problems and integrative systems science is contributing as well. LST may provide insights to many problems, but as a scientific theory, it was never meant to encompass all of human inquiry. The scope of human inquiry reaches well beyond science and, perhaps, reason. Aesthetic, moral, and religious interests may be as important as the scientific interests when it comes to perpetuating life on Earth.


Alfred North Whitehead, in a series of lectures published as Process and Reality (1978) describes his 'philosophy of organism'. He states, 'It must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science' (p. 12). It is not likely that science can advance solutions to certain global problems without commensurate advances in those other areas of human inquiry.

Whitehead delimits the scope of his cosmology in a manner that is finding increasing expression in the current systems movement. He states, 'The doctrine of the philosophy of organism is that, however far the sphere of efficient causes be pushed in the determination of components of a concrescence--its data, its emotions, its appreciations, its purposes and its phases of subjective aim--beyond the determination of these components, there always remains the final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe' (p. 47). The current discussions of self-organizing systems and Corning's (2001) 'synergism hypothesis' are not unrelated to that conceptual boundary of Whitehead's cosmology.

Whitehead's progression of thought is as important as his conceptual boundary. In his own words, 'The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant's philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason describes the process by which subjective data pass into appearance of an objective world. The philosophy of organism seeks to describe how objective data pass into subjective satisfaction, and how order in the objective data provides intensity in the subjective satisfaction' (p. 88). Whitehead's domain of human inquiry proceeds from the objective to the subjective, from the data of natural science to the aesthetic, moral and religious interests. And, the domain may be encompassed with the 'final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe'.

Whitehead, however, goes a step further by setting an absolute standard of intensity in subjective satisfaction. 'This final reaction completes the self-creative unity by putting the decisive stamp of creative emphasis upon the determination of efficient cause. Each occasion exhibits its measure of creative emphasis in proportion to its measure of subjective intensity. The absolute standard of such intensity is that of the primordial nature of God, which is neither great nor small because it arises out of no actual world. It has within it no components which are standards of comparison' (p. 47). By comprehending the final reaction of progression from objective data to intensity of subjective satisfaction in the 'primordial nature of God' (as described), Whitehead's cosmology can interface major religious traditions and other world views. Such an interface is important to the progress of science and the solutions of many environmental problems.

It is also important however to recognize that such an interface is actually a logical disconnection. Paul Davies (1992, p. 81) quotes Albert Einstein: 'The existence of regularities in nature is an objective mathematical fact. On the other hand, the statements called laws that are found in textbooks clearly are human inventions, but inventions designed to reflect, albeit imperfectly, actually existing properties of nature. Without this assumption that the regularities are real, science is reduced to a meaningless charade'. Einstein stresses that there is no logical path between our theoretical concepts and our observations. One is brought into concordance with the other by an 'extra-logical' (intuitive) procedure. The interface between Whitehead's cosmology and various general world views is such a logical disconnection, a boundary of reason. Nevertheless, as our 'laws' shape our scientific inquiry, our grand world views shape our general inquiry.


Living systems theory may be described philosophically as lying between two of Miller's (1978) quotations from Whitehead: 'Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms' (Whitehead, 1925, p. 12); and 'process is reality ... each actual entity is itself only describable as an organic process. It repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm. It is a process proceeding from phase to phase, each phase being the real basis from which its successor proceeds' (1978, p. 215). Miller further limits the scope of his theory. 'It is beyond my competence and the scope of this book to deal with the characteristics, whatever they may be, of systems below and above those levels which include various forms of life, although others have done so' (Miller, 1978, p. 25). Setting his theory in a systems context, Miller states, 'The most general form of systems theory is a set of logical or mathematical statements about all conceptual systems. A subset of this concerns all concrete systems. A subsubset concerns the very special and very important living systems, i.e., general living systems theory.... The purpose is to produce a description of living structure and process in terms of input and output, flows through systems, steady states, and feedbacks which will clarify and unify the facts of life' (p. 41).

LST (Miller, 1978) defines living systems by nine characteristics. Briefly stated, they are:

(1) Living systems are open systems.

(2) They maintain steady states of negentropy, even though entrophic changes occur in them as they do everywhere else.

(3) They have more than a minimum degree of complexity.

(4) They either contain genetic material composed of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), presumably descended from some primordial DNA common to all life, or have a charter.

(5) They are largely composed of an aqueous suspension of macromolecules.

(6) They have a decider subsystem.

(7) They also have other specific critical subsystems or they have symbiotic or parasitic relationships.

(8) Their subsystems are integrated together to form actively self-regulating, developing, unitary systems with purposes and goals.

(9) They can exist only in a certain environment.

From this definition of living systems, LST is elaborated into a cohesive mosaic of terms, relationships and hypotheses that instruct a broad inquiry into life.


LST says a lot about Earth. Miller's first characteristic of life, that living systems are open systems, emphasizes that the structures of life emerge and are sustained in matter, energy and information flows in space-time. Those physical inputs, throughputs, and outputs occur in Earth, in particular, and only insignificantly in the universe as a whole. Living systems always concern the environment. They are an emergent of the environment Earth.

Miller's second life characteristic, steady state maintenance, points directly to nature's economic problem, entropy. Paul Davies (1992) states, 'At the heart of thermodynamics lies the second law, which forbids heat to flow spontaneously from cold to hot bodies, while allowing it to flow from hot to cold. This law is therefore not reversible: it imprints upon the universe an arrow of time, pointing the way of unidirectional change' (p. 47). In order to maintain steady states of negentropy over extended periods, living systems accelerate the overall production of entropy in Earth, or should we say Earth offers up its patterned energy in producing life, thus hastening its ultimate disintegration?

The last characteristic of life, that living systems can exist only in a certain environment, also directly concerns Earth. As far as we know, life only exists on the earth. Living systems continuously adapt to their environment, but that adaptation occurs within relatively narrow ranges of change. According to LST, the adjustment processes of living systems involve both internal purposes and external goals. Living systems pursue their goals in their environments. Earth is the environment of all living systems.

The significant detail of LST concerns many aspects of the interactions of living systems and their environment. It does so at seven or eight levels of life, identifying 20 processes and structures common across all levels and many emergents (differences) at each level. LST, consequently, may instruct empirical ecological and environmental studies.


LST is a scientific theory. As such, it can instruct empirical studies of the earth as a system. However, the catastrophic environmental problems becoming more evident as time passes likely cannot be solved by science alone. Aesthetic, moral and religious interests, may be as important as scientific interests when it comes to perpetuating life on Earth. Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy of organism, the philosophical cradle of LST, may point a way to unifying these important human interests.


Corning PA. 2001. Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Davies P. 1992. The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning. Simon & Schuster: London.

International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). 2001. Science Series nr 45. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science: Stockholm

Miller JG. 1978. Living Systems. McGraw-Hill Book Company: NY.

Miller JG, Miller J. 1982 October. The earth as a system. Behavioral Science 27(4): 303-322.

Whitehead AN. 1925. Science and the Modern World. The Free Press: NY.

Whitehead AN. 1978. Process and Reality. The Free Press: NY.

Tage Frandberg (1) and G. A. Swanson (2) *

(1) Hostvagen 1, Solna, Sweden

(2) Department of Accounting and Business Law, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN, USA

* Correspondence to: G. A. Swanson, Department of Accounting and Business Law, Tennessee Tech University, Campus Box 5024, Cookeville, TN 38505, USA. E-mail:
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Title Annotation:Research Article
Author:Frandberg, Tage; Swanson, G.A.
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Previous Article:The life and work of James Grier Miller ([dagger]).
Next Article:International Society for the Systems Sciences 50th Annual Conference, Sonoma State University, California, July 9-14, 2006.

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