The Living Systems Theory
of James Grier Miller
By Elaine Parent
Living Systems Theory is a general theory about how all living systems “work,” about how they maintain themselves and how they develop and change.
By definition, living systems are open, self-organizing systems that have the special characteristics of life and interact with their environment. This takes place by means of information and material-energy exchanges.
Living systems can be as simple as a single cell or as complex as a supranational organization (sueh as the European Economic Community). Regardless of their complexity, they each depend upon the same essential twenty subsystems (or processes) in order to survive and to continue the propogation of their species or types beyond a single generation.
Some of these processes deal with material and energy for the metabolic processes of the system. Other subsystems process information for the coordination, guidance and control of the system. Some subsystems and their processes are concerned with both.
The essence of life is process. If the processing of material-energy and information ends, life also ends. The defining characteristic of life is the ability to maintain, for a significant period, a steady state in which the entropy (or disorder) within the system is significantly lower than its non-living surroundings.
Living systems can maintain their energic state because they are open, self-organizing systems that can take in from the environment the inputs of information and material-energy they need. In general, living systems process more information than non-living systems, with the possible exception of computers which have greater information processing capabilities. Another fundamental difference between living and non-living systems is that all living systems have, as essential components, DNA, RNA, protein and some other complex organic molecules that give biological systems their unique properties. These molecules are not synthesized in nature outside cells.
In the conceptual system developed by James Grier Miller, living systems form eight (8) levels of organization and complexity, ranging, as indicated earlier, from the simple cell to the supranational organizations. The best known single cell animal is the amoeba. This can be contrasted with the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund.
The twenty (20) subsystems that process information or material-energy or both account for the survival of living systems, at any level. These subsystems are summarized below.
A fundamental concept in general systems theory is the notion of emergence and interaction. A system is defined as a set of interacting units with relationships among them. The properties ( or behavior) of a system as a whole emerge out of the interaction of the components comprising the system.
The eight levels of living systems are: cells: a basic building block of life organs: the principle components are cells, organized in simple, multi-cellular systems. organisms: there are three kinds of organisms: fungi, plants and animals. Each has distinctive cells, tissues and body plans and carries out life processes differently. groups: these contain two or more organisms and their relationships. organizations: these involve one of more groups with their own control systems for doing work. communities: they include both individual persons and groups, as well as groups which are formed and are responsible for governing or providing services to them. societies: these are loose associations of communities, with systematic relationships between and among them. supranational systems: organizations of societies with a supraordinate system of influence and control.
The twenty subsystems and processes of all living systems arranged by input-throughput-output processes Processes which take place in the Systems Input Stage input transducer: brings information into the system ingestor: brings material-energy into the system Processes which take place in the Systems Throughput Stage A. information processes: internal transducer: receives and converts information brought into system channel and net: distributes information throughout the system decoder: prepares information for use by the system timer: maintains the appropriate spatial/temporal relationships associator: maintain appropriate relationships between information sources memory: stores information for system use decider: makes decisions about various system operations encoder: converts information to needed and usable form B. material-energy processes: reproducer: with information, carries on reproductive function boundary: with information, protects system from outside influences distributor: distributes material-energy for use throughout the system converter: converts material-energy into suitable form for use by the system producer: synthesizes material-energy for use within the system m-e storage: stores material-energy used by the system motor: handles mobility of various parts of the system supporter: provides physical support to the system C. Processes which take place in the Systems Output Stage output transducer: handles information output of the system. extruder: handles material-energy discharged by the system.
Because the Living Systems Theory of James Grier Miller is a general Theory, the aforementioned concepts are metaphorical only, meant to be algebraically translated to the particular living system in systemic inquiry.
Editor: Elaine Parent is a close associate and assistant to James Miller