Friday April 04 2014 Weekly Worker 1004
Review: Dialectics and systems theory
Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin; ‘Biology under the influence‘
In this review I discuss one particular chapter of the book, entitled ‘Dialectics and systems theory’. Though prolific writers, these two famous research biologists and evolutionists, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, are mostly known for their classic, The dialectical biologist, a gem more relevant today than when written in 1985. The chapter I am investigating here was written by Levins.
When Hegel, Marx or Engels wrote of ‘things’, they were commenting on the dynamics of everything: all things (matter-energy) are born or emerge (from other things); they live or exist, then decay and die. These things are all that exist – everything is in permanent flux and “all that is solid melts into air” (Communist manifesto).
The general dynamics of this birth, life and death into chaos before a new emergence of things, with their new patterns, processes, tendencies and rhythms; their specific cluster of contradictions, their form and content; their appearance and essence; their quantitative change and qualitative transformation processes; their emergence from other things – all these general ‘laws’, and more, of nature’s development are the content behind the method of dialectics.
Dialectics these days can be deeply grasped much easier when all ‘things’ are defined and grasped as ‘systems’. Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy began lecturing and writing articles on general systems theory in 1937, but the idea only took off in the 1950s and then even more so in 1968, when Bertalanffy published his defining book, General systems theory: foundations, development, applications…