The whole is more than the sum of its parts

The worldview we live in today began to take shape in that remarkable period in European history called the Renaissance which sparked the scientific revolution and enabled the first violent globalization in the form of colonialism and — later — the first industrial revolution. At the heart of these changes was a powerful new way of thinking and a change of attitude towards nature. Tens of thousands of women with knowledge of herbal medicine and natural remedies were burned as witches during a 300-year period which coincided with the development of the scientific method.

Science began to replace religion as the ‘ultimate authority’ and arbiter in questions of right and wrong. Our perception of the natural world shifted from a nurturing view of ‘mother nature’ and the belief that all life was connected (anima mundi) to seeing nature as a resource to be exploited, controlled and conquered.

The powerful scientific method offered a conceptual separation between subject and object, mind and matter, and humanity and nature. It taught us how to understand things ‘objectively’ by taking them apart and out of their context. The detached observer, relying on dualistic logic and the power of reason, aims to explain the functioning of each part in order to get an understanding of the whole.

This mechanistic approach took its guiding metaphors from how a clock-maker or mechanic takes apart a watch or a machine, in order to understand or ‘fix’ their workings. This is clearly a useful method for machines, but life is much more complex than a machine. Organisms and ecosystems cannot be adequately understood within a mechanistic explanatory framework.

The Renaissance and the scientific revolution have shaped our worldview and who we are today, and by no means should they be regarded as a mistake or negative development.

The mechanistic, reductionist methodology of science, along with the specialization of human knowledge and activities, enabled a breath-taking explosion in knowledge, insight and technological development. The approach will continue to be useful to humanity, if we learn to put it in its place and recognize that it offers a simplified metaphor — an approach to making sense of the world — but it is not the only, and by no means the most important, way of seeing the world. Even more importantly, it is not the only valid way of making sense of our participation in the process of life. Like all other perspectives, it has serious limitations and perceptual blind-spots.

The flipside of reductionism and specialization is that we run the danger of not paying enough attention to the fundamental interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all the fields we have categorized into separate ‘subjects’ or disciplines. The often primarily qualitative emergent properties that give complex dynamic systems their unique identities are for the most part invisible to the myopia of single disciplines and reductionist, purely quantitative analysis.

Just as the many surprising properties of water could never be explained or expected by only looking at oxygen and hydrogen on their own, important aspects of all living systems escape purely reductionist and mechanistic analysis. Failure to balance this approach with more holistic and systemic approaches can lead to many unintended and often negative consequences.

Whole-systems thinking

The whole-systems understanding of the world acknowledges that a whole is always more than the simple sum of its parts, paying attention to the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships, and the dynamic patterns of behaviour that often lead to unpredictable and surprising innovations and adaptations.

Many of the interrelated problems we face, as change agents in the transition towards a more sustainable human presence on Earth, have their root cause in a way of thinking that has not paid enough attention to whole systems and their dynamic interconnectedness, dynamic relationships and context.

Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves.

Experts and specialists are important contributors to most sustainability projects, but we also need integrators and generalists who can help to put the contribution of each discipline into systemic relationships and help to contextualize the contributions made by the specialists. Too often we employ limited progress indicators or inadequate measures of success based on the dominance of a particular discipline or perspective.

One way to define the word ‘system’ is as a set of interconnected elements that together form a coherent pattern we can refer to as a ‘whole’. Such a system exhibits properties of the whole that emerge out of the interactions and relationships of the individual elements. This systems definition could be applied to a molecule, a cell, a human being, a community or the planet. In many ways a system is less a ‘thing’ than a pattern of relationships and interactions — a pattern of organization of constituting elements. The Greek root of the word system is ‘synhistanai’ and literally means ‘to place together’.

Systems thinking and systemic intervention is a possible antidote to the unintended and dangerous side-effects of centuries of focusing only on reductionist and quantitative analysis informed by the narrative of separation. Yet, it is important to maintain the awareness that the systems view itself is also just another map that, as Gregory Bateson put it, should not be confused with the territory.

We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts. Neither the whole nor parts are primary; they come into being through the dynamic processes that define their identity through relationships and networks of interactions.

One of the most important questions in any systemic approach is to ask ‘what is the system in question’. In doing so we define boundaries that provide us with the necessary ‘enabling constraints’ to make sense of a situation. Yet, these boundaries are themselves a way of seeing that make a distinction between the system in question and its environment.

We should regard the boundaries that delineate one system from another as places of connection and exchange rather than barriers that separate or isolate.

In more general terms, whole-systems thinking invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing. Thinking in this way helps us to pay attention to the fertile ground of synergistic, whole-systems solutions. It can help us to more clearly see the opportunities in the multiple converging crises around us.

Whole-systems thinking stops us from seeing ecological, economic and social constraints as irreconcilable challenges. It invites us not to view different stakeholder perspectives in a competitive, win-lose frame of mind, and encourages us to explore win-win-win solutions that improve the overall health and sustainability of the system as a whole. Whole-systems thinking is living systems thinking.

I believe that a systemic understanding of processes by which life continuously regenerates conditions conducive to life offers a pathway to creating regenerative businesses and organizations within a regenerative economy as enabling factors of a regenerative culture. We will explore many examples in subsequent chapters. Here are some questions to contemplate when dealing with systems:

What is the system in question and how are we defining what belongs to the system and what does not?

What is the wider context that the system in question operates in?

What are the key agents whose interactions and relationships define the system structure and drive the system’s behaviour?

How is our perspective of the system in question shaped by our worldview and value system?

What are the key ‘emergent properties’ of the system that could not have been predicted by simply looking at the individual ‘parts’ of the system?

How does our participation in the system and our way of describing it affect what we are observing?

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]


Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative development, whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh), and holistic science (Schumacher College), and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health.

He was director of Findhorn College between 2007 and 2010, and is a member of the International Futures Forum since 2009 and Gaia Education since 2007. He has collaborated with UNITAR and UNESCO, many large NGO, and as a consultant he has worked with companies such as Camper, Ecover and Lush, as well as, with UK Foresight (with Decision Integrity Ltd) and the Commonwealth Secretariat (with Cloudburst Foundation).

Daniel is a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow, on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the research group of the Global Ecovillage Network. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014. Daniel currently also works part-time as Gaia Education’s head of innovation and programme design.

His first book Designing Regenerative Cultures was published in 2016 by Triarchy Press and has already reached international acclaim.

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