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Systems Thinking and Evolution

Systems Thinking and Evolution

There is evidence of systems all around us.  The idea that systems control everything didn’t come from Ray Kroc building McDonald’s or Michael Gerber writing about systems in a small business (eMyth books).  No, systems have been ruling the universe much longer than that.

Donella Meadows describes this in Thinking in Systems.  She explains that systems form from the smallest part and move up to form hierarchies as things slowly advance.  “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up – from the pieces to the whole, from cell to organ to organism, from individual to team from actual production to management of production.”  You don’t need management before you have actual production.

The idea is that there isn’t much need for a system when you have a single cell organism, but a complex animal needs numerous systems to operate.  The systems needed to operate a single person company are less than what is needed for a large corporation.  

She goes on to emphasize this point.  She says “life started with single-cell bacteria, not with elephants.”

Reading this line immediately stopped my reading and made me think about the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.  Creating the world as we know it and all of the 10,000 things (from the Tao Te Ching representing everything around us), all was created systematically starting with small steps and growing slowly (evolving) over time.    

Lao Tzu pointed to nature and systems around us frequently when he wrote the Tao Te Ching 2,500 years ago.  He even explains that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  His entire work is really just his insightful observations of the systems around us.

Using systems and habits to slowly grow over time is not a novel idea at all.  In fact this is the guiding principle of everything around us.  The world has been formed by millions of years of small systematic changes.  Over time the small changes become something great.  

This idea of systems slowly shaping the world around can be used on a much smaller scale as well.  If we really want to change our current situation, we have to do so with small steps over time.  Yet we seem to gravitate to the quick fix, the shortcut, the crash diet, the get rich quick scheme, the instant gratification.  We go against the principles of systems and wonder why we often come up short in reaching our goals.

Today when you go through your daily routine, try to observe examples of systems around you.  It could be in nature, at work, on TV, driving home, or anywhere else.  Just simply see the world a little different.  

Instead of wondering how such a large skyscraper was built, look for the systems that started with small huts, then one-room buildings and eventually became these colossal structures.  Look at traffic lights and understand that these represent almost perfect systems for accomplishing their intended goal – safely navigate people through intersections.  Watch The Discovery Channel and instead of feeling sad for the gazelle or happy for the lion after the hunt, understand the system represented.  Without any of these systems, the world would look much different.  

I believe this is what Lao Tzu meant when he said in the 29th verse of the Tao Te Ching:

“Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?

I do not believe it can be done.

Everything under heaven is a sacred vessel and cannot be controlled.

Trying to control leads to ruin.

Trying to grasp, we lose.


Allow your life to unfold naturally.

Know that it too is a vessel of perfection.

Just as you breathe in and breathe out,

There is a time for being ahead

And a time for being behind;

A time for being in motion

And a time for being at rest;

A time for being vigorous

And a time for being exhausted;

A time for being safe

And a time for being in danger.


To the sage

All of life is a movement toward perfection,

So what need has he

For the excessive, the extravagant, or the extreme?”


Looking at the world through systematic eyes is really the only way to understand that the world is actually perfect.  All the faults and horribleness that we see is actually part of the system, not an error or mistake.  Remove emotion from our views of the world and we will start to see the perfect system evolving in front of our eyes, even though we want to think we could create a better system.  We can’t.  The world around us is actually perfect.