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THE SYSTEMS VIEW OF MAN: IMPLICATIONS FOR MEDICINE, SCIENCE, AND ETHICS HOWARD BRODY* Summary From Laszlo's analysis of living things as natural systems one may develop a view of man, in both the individual and social dimensions, as a hierarchy of such natural systems interconnected by various patterns of information flow in feedback circuits. "Health" may then be defined as the harmonious interaction of all hierarchical components, while "disease" is the result of a force which perturbs or disrupts hierarchical structure. The systems approach clarifies the relations among the biological and social sciences, points out the need for new concepts of medical practice, and suggests directions for closer contact between science and ethics. Further development of the systems view may yield significant results, both practical and theoretical. Systems View of Man Systems theory, along with cybernetics, information theory, decision theory, and related areas, has long appeared to hold great promise for a comprehensive overview of natural phenomena. It was hoped that a systems approach could provide a powerful tool to deal with complex, multidisciplinary problems, such as those in the area of ecology. For the most part, however, the systems approach has been applied only to highly specialized problems, and "systems science" has carved out its own narrow and parochial field of inquiry [I]. But recently, Ervin Laszlo, in The Systems View of the World, has grappled with the full possibilities of the * Department of Human Development, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48823. I am deeply grateful to my faculty adviser, Dr. James E. Trosko of the Department of Human Development, Michigan State University , for his support and suggestions throughout the inception of this paper and the preparation of the manuscript. Dr. Van Rensselaer Potter of the McArdle Cancer Laboratory , University of Wisconsin, and Dr. John R. Piatt, Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, reviewed the manuscript in detail and made numerous helpful suggestions. I also wish to thank Dr. Dwight J. Ingle for suggesting additional references. The illustrations were prepared by the Biomedical Communications Center, Michigan State University; typing was by Pamela Watkins. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1973 | 71 systems overview and has provided the basis for a systems view of man which can be used to elucidate problems in medicine and ethics as well as the natural sciences [2]. Laszlo observes that natural structures of vastly different orders of magnitude , from subatomic particles to stars, can be viewed as "natural systems ," each sharing certain characteristic properties: (1) Natural systems are wholes with irreducible parts. (2) Natural systems maintain themselves in a changing environment. (3) Natural systems create themselves in response to challenges of the environment. (4) Natural systems are coordinating interfaces in a hierarchical organization [2]. In another recent work, Yates, Marsh, and Iberall set forth a statisticalmechanical view of systems based on five propositions. In addition to Laszlo's four characteristics, these propositions note some additional facets of natural systems: that their dynamic stability is characterized by nonlinear , cyclic processes; and that hierarchical emergence of new structures occurs as the result of interactions among particles, scale changes, and physical constraints. They point out organization as the central characteristic , defining structure as "organization in space" and function "as organization in time" [3]. Similar lists of systems properties are given by Weiss [4] and, in more detail, by Koestler [5]. The property of hierarchical organization is particularly significant. Most complex systems, such as a human being, have subcomponents (e.g., the organ systems) which can be viewed as natural systems in their own right. In general, a natural system on hierarchical level ? has subcomponents which are natural systems on level ? — 1, and is in itself one of the subcomponents of a system on level ? -j- 1 (fig. 1). Thus, the individual human being is both a natural system and a hierarchy of natural systems. This is the dualism expressed in Koestler's concept of the "holon" [5]. If the hierarchy including human beings is extended as far as practicable in each direction, the resulting hierarchical levels may be taken to define "Man" in the broadest sense (fig. 2). While the labeling of the levels of the hierarchy...


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