On Mechanistic and Living Systems

By Devin Vodicka

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.  For example, a mechanical watch is driven by a mainspring which must be wound either periodically by hand or via a self-winding mechanism. Its force is transmitted through a series of gears to power the balance wheel, a weighted wheel which oscillates back and forth at a constant rate. In other words, mechanistic systems are dependent on an outside force to become activated.  This is in contrast to living systems where organisms exercise agency and co-exist interdependently.  In the words of Margaret Wheatley, “You can never direct a living system, you can only disturb it.” Anyone who has ever tried to give directives to a toddler knows how true that statement is. 

A key in understanding the distinction between mechanistic and living systems the difference in directionality.  Since mechanistic systems require outside activation, there is a causal flow that requires that actions are “done to” each of the elements of the system.  As we know from the toddler example above, even when perceived authority may be hierarchical in a relationship, there is a flow of feedback between the agents in a living systems and the mutuality of choices leads to a dynamic where activity is “done with” others.  

Finally and as a result of the aforementioned distinctions, mechanistic systems are inherently technical while living systems are inherently adaptive.  Mechanistic systems are predictable and subject to the laws of science.  Living systems are unpredictable and dynamic, driven by principles that we are just beginning to understand from fields like complex adaptive systems and network theories that attempt to explain nonlinearity. 

Mechanistic SystemsLiving Systems
Inert partsActive agents
Finite resourcesInfinite resources
Zero sumNonzero 
Dependence Interdependence
Done toDone with

The implications of understanding how change occurs in a mechanistic and technical system compared to a living and adaptive system are profound.  In a mechanistic system, an outside activator can make sweeping changes all at once and in fact it is often more efficient to benefit from the efficiencies of such widespread adjustments.  For example, a school system that is attempting to upgrade heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC) would likely find it more impactful to do a number of upgrades all at once.  Similarly, bringing in a new student information system is best done uniformly instead of phasing in components like enrollment and attendance while maintaining multiple systems.  

Remember also that mechanistic systems are running a race against time due to the forces of entropy and they will therefore tend to disorder over time (in other words: they break down) and thus a longer change process means an extended period for additional decline which likely requires additional maintenance and intervention. In conclusion, absent an external change a mechanistic system will cease to function and the ongoing functionality of the system is more at risk when a prolonged intervention occurs. 

Living systems do not respond well to such sweeping changes, especially from an outside activator.  Since living systems are comprised of active and creative agents, they must be involved in the change process not only to preserve their own identities, but also to be contributors and co-constructors.  In addition, living systems are infinitely generative and as a result they do not rely on an outside activator for survival.  In fact, an outside activation creates risk which is one of the reasons that Wheatley says that living systems can only be disturbed.  

The dynamics of a living system require that changes are done with those who are affected.  Additionally, Rogers Diffusion of Innovation Theory has helped us to understand that change in a living system typically occurs in phases through feedback and adjustments.  Our increasing understanding of social networks reinforces the relational nature of the change.  

I think it is fair to say that much of our modern schooling is rooted in the mindset of mechanistic systems.  I also think that the pandemic has intensified our understanding of the limitations of that approach in a dynamic context.  The rate of change in our world is only going to accelerate and it is incumbent upon us to reframe and to orient to a view of education as a living system.  

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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