Beyond reductionism – systems biology gets dynamic

Steven Hertzberg on LinkedIn


“Real biological systems – in the wild, as it were – simply don’t behave as they do under controlled lab conditions that isolate component pathways. They behave as systems – complex, dynamic, integrative systems. They are not simple stimulus-response machines. They do not passively process and propagate signals from the environment and react to them. They are autopoietic, homeostatic systems, creating and maintaining themselves, accommodating to incoming information in the context of their own internal states, which in turn reflect their history and experiences, over seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, and which even reflect the histories of their ancestors through the effects of natural selection.”


“Enactivism sees organisms as creating their own reality through dynamic interaction with their environment, assimilating information about the outside world into their own ongoing dynamics, not in a reflexive way, but through active inference, such that the main patterns of activity remain driven by the system itself. This perspective is well described by Varela, Thompson and Rosch, and developed by Evan Thompson in his 2007 book Mind in Life, and by others, including Alicia Juarrero (Dynamics inAction) and Andy Clark (Surfing Uncertainty), for example.”


Beyond reductionism – systems biology gets dynamic
By Kevin Mitchell – September 14, 2019

Is biology just complicated physics? Can we understand living things as complex machines, with different parts dedicated to specific functions? Or can we finally move to investigating them as complex, integrative, and dynamic systems?

For many decades, mechanistic and reductionist approaches have dominated biology, for a number of compelling reasons. First, they seem more legitimately scientific than holistic alternatives – more precise, more rigorous, closer to the pure objectivity of physics. Second, they work, up to a point at least – they have given us powerful insights into the logic of biological systems, yielding new power to predict and manipulate. And third, they were all we had – studying entire systems was just too difficult. All of that is changing, as illustrated by a flurry of recent papers that are using new technology to revive some old theories and neglected philosophies.

The central method of biological reductionism is to use controlled manipulation of individual components to reveal their specific functions within cells or organisms, building up in the process a picture of the workings of the entire system. This approach has been the mainstay of genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, developmental biology, and even neuroscience. When faced with a system of mind-boggling complexity, it makes sense to approach it in this carefully defined, controlled manner. In any case, in most of these fields it was technically only possible to manipulate one or a few components at a time and only possible to measure their effects on one or a few components of the system.

The productivity of reductionist methods, and the lack of viable alternatives, brought with it a widespread but often tacit commitment to theoretical reductionism – the idea that the whole really is not much more than the sum of its parts. Appeals to holism seem to many biologists not just out of reach technically, but somehow vague, fuzzy, and unscientific. We are trained to break a system down to its component parts, to assign each of them a function, and to recompose the systems and subsystems of organisms and cells in an isolated, linear fashion.

We can see this in genetics, with the isolation of a gene for this or a gene for that. Or in signal transduction, with the definition of linear pathways from transmembrane receptors, through multiple cytoplasmic relays, to some internal effectors. Or in neuroscience, with the assignment of specific and isolated functions to various brain regions, based on lesion studies or activation in fMRI experiments.

The trouble is that is not how cells and organisms work. Defining all these isolated functions and linear pathways has been productive, but only from a certain perspective and only up to a point. This enterprise has mostly depended on analysing responses to strong experimental manipulations – a trusted method to perturb the system but one that is inherently artificial (what Francis Bacon, the so-called father of empiricism, called “vexing nature”)*. And it has mostly analysed effects on limited, pre-defined readouts.

via Beyond reductionism – systems biology gets dynamic

shared work — news + insights — the outside

via shared work — news + insights — the outside


Why Shared Work?

Tuesday and Tim developed this foundational model for use in their systems change work. Time and time again, it has helped us to get unstuck when working in very diverse groups. We must identify our Shared Work together to move forward collaboratively. In this first session, Tim and Tuesday lay the groundwork for understanding this pragmatic model for systems change.

These links are tagged ‘shared work’ and give an overview – they also offer an online course (paid) at

Helpfully subversive about frameworks | Agendashift

via Helpfully subversive about frameworks | Agendashift

Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences 1946-1953: The Complete Transactions (2016) — Monoskop Log

Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences 1946-1953: The Complete Transactions (2016)
16 December 2019, dusan
Filed under book, proceedings | Tags: · cybernetics, information, information theory, mathematics

“Between 1946 and 1953, the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation sponsored a series of conferences aiming to bring together a diverse, interdisciplinary community of scholars and researchers who would join forces to lay the groundwork for the new science of cybernetics. These conferences, known as the Macy conferences, constituted a landmark for the field. They were the first to grapple with new terms such as information and feedback and to develop a cohesive and broadly applicable theory of systems that would become equally applicable to living beings and machines, economic and cognitive processes, and many scholarly disciplines. The concepts that emerged from the conferences come to permeate thinking in many fields, including biology, neurology, sociology, ecology, economics, politics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and computer science.

This book contains the complete transcripts of all ten Macy conferences and the guidelines for the conference proceedings. These transcripts are supplemented with an introduction by Claus Pias that charts the significance of the Macy conferences to the history of science.”

Edited and with a Foreword by Claus Pias
Publisher Diaphanes, Zürich, 2016
ISBN 9783037345986, 3037345985
734 pages


PDF (89 MB)

via Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences 1946-1953: The Complete Transactions (2016) — Monoskop Log

Trailer videos for the Systemic Leadership Summit #SLS2020, January 12-19, 2020 (and available online after that)

via 07. Benjamin Taylor – Paradoxes, polarities and paradigm shifts in systems work – Trailer – YouTube

Oh hey – it’s me! And Jennifer Campbell made me sound smart 🙂

sampler for #SLS2020, the systemic leadership summit – book now
(affiliate link) – you can book for live access as they go out, access plus recordings, or both plus transcripts!

And get the likes of:
Dave Snowden
Ed & Peter Schein

Dr Glenda Eoyang
Joan Lurie
Dr Louis Klein
Nora Bateson
Dr Mette Boll
Patrick Hoverstadt
Dr Orit Gal

…and many many more!

APM – Developing the practice of governance

Patrick Hoverstadt on linked says:

Project X report on the governance of major projects for UK government has VSM at its core.

Developing the practice of governance | APM Research

Source: Developing the practice of governance | APM Research

Developing the practice of governance
About the research
This research highlights the fact that good governance is the key to establishing a successful project by exploring academic literature combined with expert input from practitioners to understand what is known and where gaps in the knowledge base lie. The research focused on governance of large public-sector projects and the report aims to provide guidance to project professionals. The research is part of Project X, a broader research programme seeking to generate insights into major government projects and programmes.

The review has three purposes:

To synthesise and summarise the knowledge base on project governance and assurance
To identify from the academic literature, gaps in the existing knowledge base
To provide guidance from both knowledge of practice and academic research.

Why is the research important?
It has been identified that a project needs to be governed from concept all the way through to delivery in order to be successful. Despite this the literature review that was undertaken as part of this study has shown that there are significant gaps in the knowledge base and that the literature does not agree on the structure of a robust project governance model, only that it should be based around four key principles.

This research looked at different types of projects, fixed-goal and moving-goal, and has endeavoured to give professionals guidance for the governance of each. It also looked at how governance changes during the different phases in the project Lifecyle.

Intended audience
The study should be of interest to experienced project professionals in both the public and private sector and anyone with an interest in the governance of major projects.

What did we discover?
The review found that:

There is a considerable amount of literature available, either directly based on project governance or in areas of importance for governance however, it also found, despite this, that some areas of governance have very little research. This highlights areas in which no firm guidance has been identified within the knowledge base. These areas include complexity, assurance, the informal phase, avoiding excess optimism and benefits realisation and maturity models.
The research has highlighted that an assurance system is an integral part of governance and therefore the assurance system needs to be developed alongside the governance system.
The research has found that two types of project exist (fixed-target and moving-target) and that the governance and assurance system will be very different for these projects because they are fundamentally different entities.
The research has identified that there have been cases of metric manipulation reported.
Many problems within major public investment projects have their origins before the final decisions to go ahead, which means that there are opportunities to re-scope and improve the projects. Soft analysis methods are important in helping to ‘se through complexity’ and inform major decisions. Soft analysis methods should be applied to all major projects to identify the most critical issues and risks ahead of time and ahead of the final decision to go ahead.
APM and the authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), along with colleagues within the Project X research initiative. They are also grateful for the important contributions of the participating organisations, individuals and access to data to enable this research to take place. For more information on Project X, please visit

Source: Developing the practice of governance | APM Research

Systems thinking and startups – any ideas

Someone on twitter asked me about the application of systems thinking to startups, specifically:

any case study of applying systems thinking for developing a new product on a small scale within a short time frame
Or simply systems thinking applied by startups

It’s a fair question and setting out to look for some answers reminded me why people often castigate systems thinking as simplistic and limited – some half-regurgitated systems dynamics, Senge, vague links to Deming, ‘service design’, and Theory of Constraints, mentions of Ackoff and maybe a token ‘wilder’ systems thinker (in this case, funnily enough, John Gall) – it’s not that there isn’t value there – the links below often present some solid ideas, well. But I can’t find anything really neat and solid in this space.

What I would recommend is a good look at the core underlying dynamics of organisation, as presented by the VSM – and

And (explicitly covering some of the above as well as systems thinking, and only partially systems thinking, with a strong focus on public services), look for what is interesting in the RedQuadrant reading list –

All contributions on this specific topic welcome!

Articles I found:

Applying basic systems dynamics thinking: (another version of same

And more:

Ackoff and Fifth Discipline-inspired ‘organic, social system’ (then Deming and H. Thomas Johnson)

A little bit of modelling and organisation/environment fit (framed as ‘customer’)

Another one which says Lean Startup is insufficient, and gestures at ‘systems’ as holistic thinking:

Simple opinion piece on non-linearity and looping thinking:

Think about the ‘wider systems’ impact of your startup

Five recommended systems thinking books (a couple of nice surprises in there)