Learning from Natural Systems

Fifteen 2-hour classes.

The last century of science has revealed that everything we see in the universe is a complex system made of smaller parts. A galaxy is a system of interacting solar systems, a cell is a system of interacting molecules, and a human society is a system of interacting people. If we focus on what these systems are physically made of, the similarity might seem to end there: after all, a solar system looks very different from a molecule or a person. If, however, we focus instead on how these systems function, then we can discover profound — and profoundly important — similarities. As just one example, all three of these systems are capable of making more of their own parts: galaxies can create new stars, cells can create new molecules, and societies can create new people.

Inspired by the fascinating new field of natural systems theory, we will explore what else galaxies, cells, societies — and also brains, ecosystems, and atoms — have in common. And at the same time, we will also investigate how the nature of these complex systems has evolved since the birth of the universe. What, we will ask, makes a human society different from a cell and a galaxy?

On one level, this systems perspective can offer us powerful new insights into our own identity. By exploring how molecules come together to create a functional cell, we can better understand how fifty trillion cells come together to form a functional human being (or how 8 billion humans might come together to form a functional species). Studying natural systems can also teach us how to distinguish thriving systems from dysfunctional ones, and even how to shift complex systems such as human minds or human societies towards healthier patterns of activity.

In our view, however, the biggest benefit of the systems view is that it allows us to experience the universe as a unified whole in which humanity’s existence makes sense. Instead of seeing ourselves as simply existing inside the universe — like fish swimming inside an aquarium — systems theory suggests that we are complex systems which emerged out of other complex systems as part of a coherent evolutionary process. By exploring the path this journey has taken over the last 13.7 billion years, students learn how they fit into it, and also how they can participate in its creative advance.

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Course Content

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How Natural Systems Work
A Systems View of the Cosmos
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Course Includes

  • 15 Classes
  • 15 Exercises