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FP — What's the difference between a network approach and a system approach? You use both terms. One may be older than the other…
FC — The systems approach is older, and it means an approach that focuses on relationships rather than separate objects. And it focuses on processes rather than structures. Exactly what you just said. The network approach grew out of the systems approach when people focused specifically on the network pattern.
Actually, come to think of it, it's not really true that the network approach came later. Ecologists introduced the term ecosystem, which was a major advance in making the systems terminology acceptable and publicizing it. And they also introduced the food web and the network approach. From ecology, network modeling and network thinking went into biology and into various other fields. This happened in the 1920s and ’30s. So, you could say that systems theory and network thinking really arose together.
In the ’30s and ’40s, there was the school of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, which was called general systems theory. He was a biologist and worked on theoretical biology, and he focused on open systems. He was a predecessor of Prigogine, but he did not have the mathematical tools to describe nonlinear systems. The cyberneticists did not focus on the physiochemical processes but on the patterns, and they very much dealt with networks.
FP — It would be interesting to do a history of network thinking…
FC — Yes, that would be interesting. This is the kind of study that would be great for a graduate student.
FP — What allowed you to move from one level to another, from one science to another, from biology to cognition to social networks? Why can something that works at one level be applied at another? What gives you the right to use the same metaphors at those three levels?
FC — My firm belief is that life is a unified whole, that we don't have biological life, and social life, and mental life or psychological life, and spiritual life. I think this is all part of the whole process of life, which has evolved on this planet for the last 3.5 billion years. It has evolved, as I said before, by using the same patterns over and over again. I make somewhat of a leap of faith here by saying that, since life has used the same patterns over and over again, I believe that, when I talk about networks of communication and compare them to biological networks, I can find similarities in the patterns. I have done this to quite some extent, and I have tried to push the parallels as far as I can. In particular, I have put together a whole list of similarities between networks of communications and networks of biological processes.
FP — You are talking about "belief," a "leap of faith"…
FC — Yes. The justification is a belief. But what I actually say about similarities comes from observations. And I think this is typical of science. When you start with a theory or a hypothesis, it's always a leap of faith.