Living systems – Wikipedia

[I’ve always been suspicious of ‘living systems theory’ as I’ve experienced it as (ironically) highly mechanistic and somewhat simplistic – but there’s a 1,000+ page book so I can’t say I know. The nesting described here sounds good, the fundamental input-process-output dynamic seems potentially limiting]
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Living systems are open self-organizing life forms that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy and matter.

Some scientists have proposed in the last few decades that a general living systems theory is required to explain the nature of life.[1] Such a general theory, arising out of the ecological and biological sciences, attempts to map general principles for how all living systems work. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into components, a general living systems theory explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of the relationships of organisms with their environment.[2]


Living systems theory is a general theory about the existence of all living systems, their structureinteractionbehavior and development. This work is created by James Grier Miller, which was intended to formalize the concept of life. According to Miller’s original conception as spelled out in his magnum opus Living Systems, a “living system” must contain each of twenty “critical subsystems”, which are defined by their functions and visible in numerous systems, from simple cells to organisms, countries, and societies. In Living Systems Miller provides a detailed look at a number of systems in order of increasing size, and identifies his subsystems in each. Miller considers living systems as a subset of all systems. Below the level of living systems, he defines space and timematter and energyinformation and entropy, levels of organization, and physical and conceptual factors, and above living systems ecological, planetary and solar systems, galaxies, etc.[3]

Living systems according to Parent (1996) are by definition “open self-organizing systems that have the special characteristics of life and interact with their environment. This takes place by means of information and material-energy exchanges. Living systems can be as simple as a single cell or as complex as a supranational organization such as the European Union. Regardless of their complexity, they each depend upon the same essential twenty subsystems (or processes) in order to survive and to continue the propagation of their species or types beyond a single generation”.[4]

Miller said that systems exist at eight “nested” hierarchical levels: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, community, society, and supranational system. At each level, a system invariably comprises twenty critical subsystems, which process matter–energy or information except for the first two, which process both matter–energy and information: reproducer and boundary.

The processors of matter–energy are:

  • ingestor, distributor, converter, producer, storage, extruder, motor, supporter

The processors of information are:

  • input transducer, internal transducer, channel and net, timer (added later), decoder, associator, memory, decider, encoder, output transducer.

Miller’s living systems theory[edit]

James Grier Miller in 1978 wrote a 1,102-page volume to present his living systems theory. He constructed a general theory of living systems by focusing on concrete systems—nonrandom accumulations of matter–energy in physical space–time organized into interacting, interrelated subsystems or components. Slightly revising the original model a dozen years later, he distinguished eight “nested” hierarchical levels in such complex structures. Each level is “nested” in the sense that each higher level contains the next lower level in a nested fashion.

His central thesis is that the systems in existence at all eight levels are open systems composed of twenty critical subsystems that process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter–energy and information. Two of these subsystems—reproducer and boundary—process both matter–energy and information. Eight of them process only matter–energy. The other ten process information only.

All nature is a continuum. The endless complexity of life is organized into patterns which repeat themselves—theme and variations—at each level of system. These similarities and differences are proper concerns for science. From the ceaseless streaming of protoplasm to the many-vectored activities of supranational systems, there are continuous flows through living systems as they maintain their highly organized steady states.[5]

Seppänen (1998) says that Miller applied general systems theory on a broad scale to describe all aspects of living systems.[6]

Continues in source: Living systems – Wikipedia