Life’s Organizing Principles — Part I: Intrinsic Qualities of Life
This is the first essay in a three-essay series on life’s organizing principles.
Ecological design at its core is about designing with life and in support of life. This means that in order to practice ecological design successfully, we need to understand what life is.
What is life? How do we define and demarcate life such that we can confidently say what things in the universe can be considered alive and what things cannot be? What makes possible the incredible diversity of life we see today and life’s proliferation into every corner and inch of this planet? When we visit another planet or moon, what criteria can we use to determine if something we’re seeing is a living thing? Philosophers, mystics, and scientists have been endeavoring to answer these fundamental questions for millennia.
I have practiced spiritual kinship with the more-than-human, living world my whole life. My earth-based spirituality led me to be intensely curious about the nature of life and what explains the awe-inspiring diversity and abundance of life. My understanding of life changed dramatically and forever when one of my best friends from college gifted me a book, titled The Web of Life, written by renowned biophysicist Frijtof Capra. The book introduced me to living systems theory, a seductive and wildly intriguing explanation for the origins and fundamental nature of life. I read the book during my time in college when I was intensely studying ecological design and permaculture. Between my classes and the book, I became obsessed with learning more about regenerative biocultural systems whose design is inspired by life.
The series of three essays, of which this is the first one, is something that I have been writing over and over again — kind of obsessively — for many years, with each new version exhibiting a deeper and richer understanding of life and regenerative systems. The act of writing the essays is a critical part of my own education as it helps me synthesize and articulate all that I have learned. The essays are also an offering to others, a gift that I want to share with those who are also on the sacred journey to understand life and design with life. I hope sharing my knowledge helps deepen your learning.
Living Systems Theory
Life, or the state of being alive, is a novel property that emerges when organic molecules self-organize into a system of nested networks and engage in biochemical processes that produce more organic molecules. This “biomatter” is fed back into the system to maintain a perpetual cycle of self-generation.
A living thing is an organizationally closed but energetically open system. It feeds on a constant flow of energy but its form remains relatively stable over time until triggered by internal or external stimuli to evolve. The constant flow of energy allows living things to exist far from thermal equilibrium. In fact, existing far from thermal equilibrium is one of the requirements of being alive. Living things need the energy differential — a net positive in energy — to self-organize and self-generate. Thermal equilibrium is death. Because they exist far from thermal equilibrium, living things are capable of systems change. When faced with stimuli that a living thing’s current form cannot accommodate, it undergoes systems change to reach higher levels of order and complexity. It innovates new metabolic pathways, new structures, and new biomatter that are capable of responding successfully to the stimuli. Living things that fail to evolve tend to perish.
Life’s Organizing Principles
Life is incredibly diverse. I loved watching nature documentaries on PBS growing up because I got to see the most unusual and jaw-dropping life forms that I realistically have no hope of ever seeing in real life. From iridescent birds-of-paradise and deepwater fish that glow to titan arum plants whose flowers reek of a rotting corpse and the honey mushroom, the largest organism on earth, life is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Every species has its own biological idiosyncrasies and unique ecological strategies for survival. The incredible diversity of form and behavior among living things can lead us to think that there is no unifying set of fundamental principles that underpin all life. But there is.
Life has been able to diversify and proliferate into every inch and corner of this planet by adhering to basic principles of organization. These organizing principles steered life’s first coming into being nearly four billion years ago and continue to govern life’s evolution today. They form the basis of all living things. I call them life’s organizing principles since that is how I learned them from reading Fritjof Capra, but they go by several other names, including patterns of nature and ecological principles.
I like to organize (pun intended) life’s organizing principles into three groups. In Part 1 (this essay), I talk about the largest group of principles, which concerns the intrinsic qualities of living things. In Part II, I talk about the second group of principles, which concerns the shapes and structures that living things take. In Part III, I talk about the third group of principles, which describes the key behavioral strategies that living things have been employing for billions of years.
The organizing principles I discuss in my essay series represent only my best identification and understanding of them thus far in my life after over a decade of learning about them from science and indigenous knowledge systems as well as my own observation and contemplation. Trying to understand the principles that underpin all life is a lifelong, intergenerational and interdisciplinary endeavor. The list of principles is not exhaustive but rather an ongoing list that I fully expect to continually expand and refine.
Intrinsic Qualities of Living Things
The principles below describe intrinsic qualities of what all living things are at their core beyond the biological idiosyncrasies and unique survival strategies of particular species.
Self-organization is the ability to organize oneself into particular forms based purely on internal forces — one could say volition — rather than in response to an external directive. Self-organization is the most basic organizing principle of the universe, not just living things. It is responsible for the formation of solar systems, galaxies, and galactic superclusters. In Hinduism, the power of self-organization is recognized as Vishnu, one of the three supreme deities, known as “The Preserver”, who represents the tendency of the universe to maintain order.
Self-organization is also the most basic quality of all living things. Elemental atoms somehow and somewhen in the deep recesses of time spontaneously came together to form organic molecules, which went on to self-organize into the first proto-cells that could establish cellular identity, capture energy and perform metabolic functions, and self-replicate. From there, self-organization became a runaway train. Single-celled organisms self-organized into multicellular organisms, which self-organized into ecosystems, which self-organized into biomes, which ultimately self-organized into a living planet.
I see self-organization everywhere. Whenever we as a people organize to fight against systems of oppression, we are reenacting the ancient process of self-organization. Even mundane activities like organizing a dinner party or a club is tapping into the power of self-organization. Observing self-organization happening spontaneously and ubiquitously is a powerful reminder that living things will self-organize. Colonial and supremacist societies will always want to dictate the movements and activities of the living things they oppress, but the power of self-organization is insuppressible. Ecological design is inherently a liberatory practice because it is a design process that leans into and makes use of life’s self-organizational power in contrast to conventional, top-down design, which seeks to impose a creator’s often ego-driven vision onto the world.
Self-organization is a manifestation of autonomy, the ability of all living things to be their personally and culturally authentic selves. Because living things are organizationally closed systems, they are able to possess a distinct sense of self and discern what is itself and what is not-itself or outside-of-itself. This distinct sense of self imbues every living thing with agency. In nature, there is no cosmic overlord dictating the behavior and destinies of individuals. All living things have the innate capacity for self-reference — the act of turning inward to check in with one’s desires, needs, and goals — and self-determination — the process of taking actions that are aligned with one’s internal compass. Because of self-reference, a living thing becomes more empowered and capable of making better decisions when it is connected to more of itself and has more information about what it wants to be. Living things achieve their highest act of sovereignty when they are able to experience joy and pleasure and actualize one’s creative potential.
I have always felt a spiritual connection to our plant, fungi, and animal kin. Ecology is my favorite science because I love learning about the dynamic relationships between living things and their environment. Being passionate about social justice and racial equity, I believe in the power of community. Given all this, it was such an affirmation of my lived experience and values when I learned that interdependence was one of the most important organizing principles of life.
Interdependence plays an outsized role in shaping the nature and evolution of life. Nested networks of relationships are apparent at all levels of life. When we look at life on the ecosystem level, we see that every living thing is entangled in countless webs of connection to other living things. Living things exist in interspecies communities. Their survival depends on it. Trees and other plants in a forest, for example, partner with mycorrhizal fungi in the ground to facilitate a critical exchange of nutrients and information among the plants and fungi (and possibly many other organisms), which ultimately support collective survival. When we zoom in and look at life on the organismal level, we see that an individual organism is in fact a microcosm of even more nested networks of relationships amongst smaller living systems. The symbiosis between us humans and the bacteria that live in our gut is one of the best examples. I love knowing that the bacteria perform important digestive and immune functions that contribute to our health and in return our bodies provide them with nourishment and a safe habitat.
All of us owe our identities to interdependence. We learned from the science of complex systems that the identity of a component of a system is very much shaped by its relationships to other components. Likewise, living things are who they are in kinship with other living things. Going back to the example of the bacteria who live in our gut, we humans co-evolved with the bacteria such that the bacteria do not have an independent existence outside of our bodies and our human identity — our experience of being human — is greatly facilitated by these bacteria. We are who we are and the bacteria are who they are because of our relationship to each other.
I think interdependence is the most important organizing pattern to develop an appreciation for in these times when we are experiencing a global crisis of disconnection from ourselves, each other, and the living world. Many of us have forgotten that our collective wellbeing hinges on our interdependence with the living world. The great work that we have to do in our environmental and social movements is to rekindle our memory of that kinship.
Dance between Interdependence and Autonomy
Insect societies are majestic examples of the dance between interdependence and autonomy. Many species of termites in Africa, Australia, and South America build incredible mounds, some reaching over 8 feet tall. These homes are made possible not by a central termite engineer telling subordinate termites what to do, but by each termite acting autonomously while being fully responsive to the actions of other termites. In honeybee hives, there is no honeybee leader who is telling other bees how and where to search for nectar. Every bee makes their own decisions, communicates the results of their endeavors, and accordingly decides whether to adjust one’s efforts based on information they receive from their peers.
The tension between staying true to who we are and being in harmony with our community is something that almost all living things experience. Autonomy is often confused for independence. This conflation happens often in individualistic societies like the U.S., but the two terms do not mean the same thing. Living things are autonomous but they are not independent. They are not atomized individuals with unadulterated identities, purely self-directed thoughts, and wholly uninfluenced behavior. Our sense of self as autonomous living things may be distinct but it is not rigid. It is in fact porous and greatly shaped by the people with whom we surround ourselves. It is also incredibly fluid, continuously expanding and contracting across our webs of kinship. Our sense of self at times may include the community in which we are embedded and at other times be as wide as the ecosystem that nourishes us.
Conversely, being interdependent does not imply that we are all subject to conformity and obedience to a larger group. Our communities may influence us, but we ultimately make our decisions. Far from being opposing forces, interdependence and autonomy work off of each other. We are able to practice self-determination most successfully when we are nourished by our community and our webs of connection are strongest when each of us is able to be our authentic selves.
Growing up as a queer person, the belief that homosexuality was wrong was hammered into my psyche through relentless cultural messaging. Some of the messaging was overt homophobia but much of it was subtle conditioning in heteronormativity. Because of the latter, I was led to believe that queerness was an unnatural anomaly that “liberal White people invented” and that humanity on the whole — and nature on the whole, for that matter — was heterosexual. People concocted a heteronormative and gender-binary image of nature and weaponized it to villanize queerness. This turned out to be patently false, of course. Homosexuality abounds in nature. Many animal species, most notoriously birds, form same-sex unions. There is also abundant queerness in sexual identity. Plants and fungi are particularly famous for being fluid with their expression of sex. Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), a small understory tree native to eastern Turtle Island, regularly switches from being a monoecious tree to a dioecious tree and back, and from being a male-flower tree to a female-flower tree and back. The split-gill mushroom (Schizophyllum commune) is known to have nearly 23,000 expressions of the equivalent of animal sexual identity. When we begin to appreciate the expansiveness of queerness in the living world, human queerness suddenly seems quite limited and unimaginative in comparison.
Queerness also goes deeper to the core of what living things are. If being queer by definition is about not being confined to restrictive categories imposed upon life by supremacy cultures, then all of life is inherently queer because living things readily defy and break neat colonial definitions of unadulterated species. The concept of species has several different definitions, but all of them share the belief that each living thing belongs to a single species. Biologists believed for a long time that all living things could trace back a linear ancestry and were subsequently obsessed with classifying them into distinct species. They still are! But breakthrough discoveries in evolutionary biology in the 20th and 21st centuries have given us a completely different story. We are learning that new life forms are created just as often from the fusion of different, far-related ancestors as they are from the splitting-off of a common ancestor. Lichen is one of the most well-known contemporary examples. Lichen is a life form that emerges from the union of algae, fungi, and bacteria. Lichen is a composite being that completely upends the notion of species. Is lichen a whole new species or temporary partnership of three species or neither?
The coming-together of different, far-related living things to form new life forms didn’t happen just once but multiple times in the history of life. Did you know that chloroplasts in plant cells and mitochondria in animal cells have their own DNA that is different from the DNA of the respective plant and animal? Biologist theorize that this is because somewhen in the deep history of life, some unknown organism fused with a bacterium that could photosynthesize and from the union emerged the plant cell that we recognize today and similarly some unknown organism fused with a bacterium that could generate energy and from the union emerged the animal cell that we recognize today. These two unions were consequential to the evolution of life.
Liminality — the state of existing at the transitional edges and straddling multiple identities — is an intrinsic quality of living things. We come back again to interdependence. The hyper-connectedness of life makes liminality possible. Living things are incredibly promiscuous and have a proclivity for engaging in partnerships and unions, especially to overcome existential obstacles and take advantage of new opportunities.
We are all liminal beings with queer identities because our bodies are a living record of different lineages of life. We are composite beings who are still forming new unions. Remember the bacteria who live in our gut? We experience our human body as being purely human, but there are actually more nonhuman cells that make up our body than there are human cells by a ratio of 1.3 to 1. How do we begin to make sense of our experience of being human when we are in truth a hybrid of human and bacterial? Do we owe the bacteria who live within and on our bodies our humanity? Are we singular or plural?
A human-built machine, no matter how sophisticated, is still crude and simplistic in comparison to a living thing, because the constituent parts of a machine often have a linear relationship with each other and as a result exhibit a hierarchical flow of information and influence. Machines are designed in a top-down manner to produce predictable outcomes. Machines do not evolve over time on their own. Ironically, the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and the subsequent rise of the computer in the late 20th century inspired humans to use machines as metaphors to describe living systems. I think this is purely a symptom of human hubris, which has led many people (ahem, straight White men) to think that a human invention can ever be an adequate descriptor of the living world.
Living things by comparison are richly complex systems made up of nested networks. The self-organized connections that exist amongst the constituent parts of a living system are multidirectional and nonlinear. This nonlinearity creates countless feedback loops in which each constituent part is influencing and being influenced at the same time by other parts. Due to our propensity for hierarchy, we used to believe that the human brain controlled the rest of the body, but that turned out to be untrue. The brain controls a lot, but not any more than any other organ. Our bodies are made up of many different organ systems, e.g., circulatory, nervous, respiratory, and endocrine, that have formed multidirectional and nonlinear connections with each other. They are influencing and being influenced by each other at all times.
When a complex system goes through enough rounds of positive feedback loops, it often reaches a bifurcation point, i.e. point of instability and potential change, where it must choose one direction or another. Bifurcation points are powerful opportunities for a living system to abandon its existing form and evolve a new one. A caterpillar transitioning into a chrysalis reaches a bifurcation point in its cocoon where it must decide whether to turn into a butterfly or something else. With millions of years of ancestral wisdom stored in its DNA, the caterpillar instinctively knows to turn into a butterfly.
The feedback loops ensure that a complex system is unpredictable and appears chaotic to an outside observer who is looking at the system at a particular point in time. But widen the view and span of time and the observer will see that a complex system always displays a deeper level of order that is only perceptible on the level of the whole. We must learn to see the forest for the trees, literally.
Complex systems tend to exhibit emergent properties, which are particular properties that only appear can be perceived at the level of the whole system. These properties do not reside in the constituent parts. Once the system is dissected, the properties disappear.
Water is a simple example of emergence. Water emerges from the union of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The quality of wateriness only exists at the level of the H2O molecule. It does not belong to either hydrogen or oxygen. As I wrote at the beginning of the essay, life itself is an emergent property. The quality of being alive emerges from the self-organization of organic molecules into a complex system of nested networks that are then able to engage in biochemical processes that produce more organic molecules. The quality of being alive does not reside in any single aspect of an organism. DNA is just matter. It disintegrates quickly outside of a body and without the metabolic processes to make use of the information stored in it. A body is just an organism’s form. Without DNA and metabolic processes, the body never comes into existence. Metabolic processes are simply abstract potentialities. They never come “online” without the organic molecules to embody them and the organism’s body to house them.
Why focus on such an abstract concept? Well, it’s because emergence in many ways is the opposite of design. Design lies in the realm of intention. Emergence lies outside of it. Things in nature emerge into being, they are not designed into being. The power of emergence has been worshiped in Hinduism for thousands of years as Brahma, one of the three supreme deities, known as “The Creator”, who represents the process of creation, of coming into existence. Surrendering to the power of emergence is the ultimate act of humility and being open to magic. Emergence is an inherently magical experience. Emergence is serendipity. Its unpredictability usurps and subverts any ill-guided desire for human control. We can design, plan, and manage all we want, but we can never dictate what emerges when people come together, when living things come together. You don’t know what’s going to emerge until it does. You can only anticipate and make space for it. That’s the beauty of emergence.
When I was five or six years old, still living in Burma, I was walking home with my mom and sisters one day after visiting the food market. We were on our block and seconds away from reaching our house when a neighbor’s dog escaped from beneath a fence gate, ran towards me, and bit me on the side of my left knee. I crashed to the ground and cried from the shock and pain of the attack. My parents rushed me to the doctor to clean up the wound and stitch it up. It took weeks for the wound to heal and that was the first time I truly got to witness my body’s incredible ability to repair itself. Fun fact: skin that has repaired itself is structurally stronger than undamaged skin. A scar, despite being aesthetically unfavored, is a site of strength. It would take years for me to also heal from my dog-phobia that I developed in that moment of attack. My experience with healing from the physical wound and the psychological trauma of getting attacked by a dog as a young child was my first introduction to the regenerative power of life.
Regeneration has two levels of meaning. On one level, regeneration speaks to living things’ impressive ability to repair themselves after sustaining damage or disruption. Human-built machines can’t repair themselves when they break (at least not yet), but living systems can. Regeneration is often used interchangeably with other similar-meaning words that also start with the letter “r” including recovery and restoration. But the latter words often carry a connotation of bringing something back to its former condition. Regeneration is not about restoring a system to what it used to be but more about restoring wholeness. Becoming whole again ironically often involves change and becoming something new. I could never be the innocent child I was before I was bit by a dog, but I did go through a period of healing and came out the other side as a stronger person capable of interacting with dogs. I am now raising a powerful and mischievous and totally adorable pitbull. Similarly in ecology, when a forest sustains damage or disruption such as from a fire, it can never go back to what it once was, it can only heal and transform into a stronger and even more complex ecosystem. Wholeness is not sameness. In fact, trying to remain the same often stalls your process towards wholeness.
Regeneration on another level has an even more beautiful and awe-some meaning. Famed biomimicry innovator, Janine Benyus, defines regeneration as “life creating conditions conducive to life.” Living things have an incredible capacity to transform any environment they settle in into a place that can support ever more life. The earth in its infancy was a violent world hostile to life. Ancient bacteria were perhaps the first major group of living things that radically altered the course of this planet by transforming the earth’s toxic atmosphere into one that contained more oxygen and could subsequently support oxygen-consuming life forms. And in the billions of years since, countless lineages of life successively managed to turn the hostile planet into the fertile world that we inherited. We can witness this regenerative power even today. Whenever a new landmass is created, such as from a volcanic eruption, we can monitor how the barren landscape quickly teems with life in a matter of a few centuries. Or in an even more intimate time scale, we can witness life taking back degraded places that have been scarred by extraction and pollution.
Life’s regenerative power may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s a given. It’s very possible for life forms not to make, or not be able to make, their environments more livable places to live. Colonial and supremacist societies and their extractive ways of being certainly fit the bill. I imagine that in the four billion years of life on this planet, many life forms that could not be regenerative have perished and the ones that could were the ones that survived and evolved into the living things that populate the planet today.
Ecological design is often also called regenerative design because the discipline is committed to partnering with life to build physical and cultural systems that support life. Colonial and supremacist societies have built systems that extract, exploit, and degrade in the pursuit of profit and power. These systems are degenerative — the opposite of regenerative — as their actions are literally collapsing the life-sustaining systems of this planet. I modify Benyus’ definition slightly and define regenerative as “being in right relationship with all our relations, human and more-than-human, so that our mutual existence contributes to ever more life on earth.” Ecological design strives to put us in right relationship with ourselves, each other, and the more-than-human, living world.
Learning Edge: Animism in Indigenous Cosmology
My innate curiosity and love of learning combined with having grown up in multicultural and multilingual environments have allowed me to cultivate a very porous mind. I am by disposition open to many different worldviews. My own worldview is a hybrid — a liminal worldview! — of all the different knowledge systems that I have had the privilege of coming into contact with and learning from.
You may have noticed that living systems theory and the intrinsic qualities of life I described in this essay comes heavily from the biological and ecological sciences. These knowledge systems are predicated, at least for the time being anyway, on the belief that some things in the world are living and other things are not. Scientists do not consider water and rocks, for example, to be alive. This distinction made by Western science stands in sharp contrast to many indigenous cosmologies which uphold the understanding that all things in the universe are imbued with life, including non-biological entities like water and rocks. European anthropologists label this understanding as animism, a term I believe says as much about the anthropologists’ own positionality as it does about the cultures on which they are applying the label.
My understanding of life is informed as much by the Western scientific disciplines of biology and ecology as it is by indigenous cosmologies and traditional ecological knowledge. Growing up, I was steeped in indigenous Burmese and Chinese teachings, which taught me to recognize place-spirits. To this day, when I enter a particular place, especially a “natural” place like a forest or wetland, I greet and pay my respects to the spirit that resides in that place. I regularly communicate not only with trees and fungi but also with wind, rivers, and mountains.
My embrace of both the Western scientific view of life and indigenous views of life obviously creates tension and conflict and therein lies my learning edge. On the intellectual level, I see the contradictions and cannot reconcile them. Not yet anyway. But when I bypass the limits of my rational mind and engage from a deeper, spiritual place, I know that both worldviews are true. Both worldviews are held comfortably in my being and there is no contradiction to reconcile. I do know that Western science has a habit of dismissing ancient wisdom only to make breakthrough discoveries that affirm what indigenous people have known for a long time. So maybe in the near future Western science will make new discoveries that affirm that the property of life extends beyond biological entities and that all of creation is fully expressive and animate but just in ways and time spans that are different from those of biological life. Until those discoveries are made, the apparent contradiction and the desire to reconcile it represent my learning edge.