On Mechanistic and Living Systems | Devin Vodicka | 5 Min Read

March 25, 2022

We must move away from a mechanistic view of the universe to one that recognizes and supports living systems. This shift in perspective begins to make clear a number of implications for our work as educators.  In a mechanistic mindset, the view tends to be narrowly focused on closed systems with the idea that optimizing the parts is the way to get to solutions.  The “parts” are inert and unable to find their own way which requires an external activator.  In a living systems view, the “parts” are alive and they exercise agency as they grow.  As living beings, they are not reliant on an external activator and they have the capacity to find their own solutions.  

In a closed, mechanistic system resources are finite and therefore each of the parts are competing for the resources that are needed.  In an open, living system, resources are abundant and can be recombined in many ways to better support each of the agents within the system.  Living systems benefit from cooperation. Symbiosis is an excellent illustration of this principle.  A classic example of two organisms benefiting the other in Finding Nemo is the symbiotic relationship between an anemone and a clownfish; the anemone provides the clownfish with protection and shelter, while the clownfish provides the anemone nutrients in the form of waste while also scaring off potential predator fish.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

In mathematical terms, mechanistic systems are “zero sum” whereas living systems are “nonzero” and therefore potentially infinite.  In a zero sum scenario for every winner there must also be a loser (like in chess or checkers) whereas in a nonzero system that is not the case.  The author Simon Sinek brilliantly elaborates on this distinction in his recent book The Infinite Game where he asserts that the goal in an infinite game is not to win, but to keep playing.  

Given the competitive, limited resources view we see mechanistic systems oriented to consumption of scarce resources.  In an open, interconnected living system we see abundance and opportunities for creation.  Reproduction is an obvious example of creation in a living system.  Mechanistic systems are subject to the second law of thermodynamics and they move towards entropy, a state of gradual decay towards disorder.  

In mechanistic systems, the parts are inert and only become active when something is done to them. …

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Devin Vodicka

Devin Vodicka is the CEO of Learner-Centered Collaborative and the author of Learner-Centered Leadership. He is also three-time California superintendent of the year (2016 AASA, 2015 ACSA, 2015 Pepperdine), Innovative Superintendent of the Year (2014 Classroom of the Future Foundation), and nine-time White House invitee, both in recognition for district-wide achievement, and to advise and partner with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Educational Technology and Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.