For more than three hundred years Western thought has been dominated by the images of industrialism and scientific method. It’s time to change metaphors. We need to move beyond linear, mechanistic metaphors to more organic metaphors of human growth and development.
A living organism, like a plant, is complex and dynamic. Each of its internal processes affects and depends on the others in sustaining the vitality of the whole organism…Most living things can only flourish in certain types of environments, and the relationships between them are often highly specialized. Healthy, successful plants take the nutrients they need from the environment. At the same time, though, their presence helps to sustain the environment on which they depend. (1)
Think of anything in the human arena and it will display all the characteristics of non-linear systems. Family, government, business, relationships, science, religion, societal systems, the arts, the human mind etc – even a cursory examination will reveal that these are all things that are hard to predict, hugely variable and must be examined as a whole if we hope to understand how they work. As mathematician Steven Strogatz says about such systems:
This synergistic character of non-linear systems is precisely what makes them so difficult to analyse. They can’t be taken apart. The whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity.(2)
A linear system can be taken apart, examined and put back together and while it may give up it’s secrets readily, it will always simply be just the sum of it’s parts. Not so with complex, dynamic systems which have the potential – given the correct conditions – to far exceed the sum of their parts and produce outcomes that could never even be dreamed of when looking at any of the individual components.
How cool is that?
(1) Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (with Lou Aronica). Viking, 2009, p. 257.
(2) Steven Strogatz, Sync : the emerging science of spontaneous order. Hyperion (2003), p. 182