Moxibustion, Indeed!


The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982, 464 pp., $17.50.

I have fairly sensitive antennae that guide me in allocating the limited time I have to read books. They would have warned me away from The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, author a few years back of the bestseller The Tao of Physics. Now that I have read it at REASON's request, I must say that my antennae were right. For the book is a farrago of all the turgid humbug that those of us who came naively to Berkeley in the 1960s and grew to intellectual maturity here had to wade through on the path to scientific and political enlightenment. This book is, in truth, no more than a confused, ignorant, and unrepentant revenant from the '60s.

Capra, a physicist by training, argues that the Western world is in a deep crisis and at a historic turning point (whence the name of the book). The crisis is not simply economic, nor does it come simply from the threat of nuclear warfare nor of vanishing resources. Rather, all of these are manifestations of the same, profound cultural crisis he sees; namely, the ultimate failure of the Western idea of progress, of economic growth, of the Judeo-Christian belief in the rightness of man's dominion over the earth, and of the efficacy of analytical science.

This great failure is epitomized, says Capra, by the "crisis" of the Cartesian, or "reductionist," paradigm in fundamental scientific research, which contends that insight into the operation of large complex systems can be gained by isolating small components and studying how they work. This approach has typified science; for instance, physicists search for the fundamental particles of matter, chemists examine how elements combine to form compounds, and molecular biologists study the basic unit of genetics, the gene.

The reductionist approach is to be distinguished, says Capra, from holistic, or ecological, or "systems," approaches that seek to understand the whole organism as a whole, integrated into (rather than isolated from) its environmental context. While Cartesian reductionism has been ascendant for the last three centuries and has colored all aspects of Western culture, it is now in its twilight in Capra's view, and the dawn of the holistic, solar age will soon be irresistibly evident.

Capra devotes an early chapter of his book to modern physics, an area where he supposedly speaks with authority. It is easy for the general reader to be snowed by this presentation and by Capra's conclusions, which he uses to lend credibility to the rest of the book. But my physicist friends here at Berkeley tell me that what Capra sets forth as "the" picture of modern physics (for example, the view that fundamental particles do not have an objective existence apart from our consciousness or his espousal of something called S-matrix theory) is opinion rather than undisputed fact; and in the case of S-matrix theory, it is the opinion of a sidelined, frustrated minority at that.

Capra obliquely concedes this; he laments that not a single Nobel prize has been awarded to any of the developers of S-matrix theory. And at the end of the chapter, he reveals: "My presentation of modern physics…has been influenced by my personal beliefs and allegiances. I have emphasized certain concepts and theories that are not yet accepted by the majority of physicists…" Just so, and for this reason the layman need not be intimidated by the way Capra disingenuously drapes the authority of modern physics around the rest of the book.

Moving on to the field where I can speak authoritatively, he devotes a chapter to modern biology. And here he utters nonsense. It is simply not true that the reductionist approach has encountered fundamental limits and is no longer fruitful. One area of research where Capra alleges this to be the case is in understanding how neurons function in networks. But work here is in fact proceeding at a fantastic pace, and it is precisely reductionism—teasing out how simple nervous systems (such as that of the leech) are netted together—that is producing results. The same holds true for embryogenesis and the system controls over tissue differentiation and growth, the other area in modern biology that Capra specifically cites as an example of reductionism's failure.

Capra then takes on medicine, holding that diseases are wrongly understood by the Cartesian paradigm as having specific causes. The disease "process" actually involves one's entire lifestyle, mental state, social relations, stress, and so forth, says Capra, and it is disturbances in these that are primarily responsible for predisposing one to contract an opportunistic disease. In this view, merely killing the bug with a drug will be futile, since if the predisposing disturbances have not been corrected, one will just get sick from something else. Healing therapies that seek to address these holistic, or contextual, influences are then to be preferred over "linear" Western medical beliefs that simplistically aim at destroying germs, excising tumors, transplanting hearts, or prescribing drugs.

In this vein, Capra runs approvingly through a veritable candy store of counterculture yummies: shamanism, mysticism, homeopathy, connective tissue massage, acupuncture, primal scream therapy, rolfing, dance therapy, biofeedback, orgone therapy, herbal medicine, the laying on of hands, Simonton cancer therapy, and yes, moxibustion (which has nothing to do with moxie, although it takes a kind of moxie for a physicist to mention this seriously; it is the burning of small cones of a powdered herb called moxa at critical points on the body).

Cancer is one disease in Capra's view that, being systemic in nature, defies reductionist solutions. Yet the rate of advance in understanding the fundamental nature of cancer is blistering, and it is a story of continuing progress along reductionist lines. One of the most exciting findings of the past year is the isolation of "cancer genes" from human bladder cancer cells and also of the protein products made by these genes. These proteins are components of the growth-regulation system of tissue cells, a system that will very shortly be elucidated as a result of these clues. Understanding this system and how it can go awry will likely be a crucial step in developing remedies to cancer. The other area of extremely heartening current progress in cancer centers on monoclonal antibodies. There is every reason, then, for believing that the next five years will see a cascade of increasingly effective therapies for different varieties of cancer coming out of this purely reductionist work.

Having dispatched physics, biology, and medicine to the discard heap of history, Capra then takes on psychology and economics, which he asserts are also suffering from a terminal case of Cartesian crisis. It would be wearying for me to continue with these; let it suffice to say his analysis here similarly consists of the same impenetrable thicket of errors and clouded thinking.

An annoying feature of Capra's argument is its inconsistency. He extols, for instance, the virtues of self-organizing systems, of decentralization of power, and of small-scale technologies. At the same time, however, he advocates proposals that implicitly endorse a vast increase in centralized political power and force. Among other entries on his Christmas "wish" list, he wants to redistribute wealth to decrease economic inequality both domestically and internationally, restrict advertising of "unhealthy" products, limit the items offered in vending machines, stop the construction of new hospitals (which, he says, are "incompatible with the new view of health"), introduce national health insurance, decentralize populations (that is, disperse them from cities), dismantle large corporations, reclaim the mass media for the public from their corporate owners, and have the government subsidize organic agriculture, solar energy, and the practice of holistic medicine.

His treatment of self-organizing systems is particularly eccentric, since he describes many examples of such systems (evolution, ecology) and fully understands their open-ended nature but explicitly rules them out in the economic sphere. There, he argues, the whole cannot be allowed to be the sum of its parts because its "parts" are merely private interests; because there are externalities; because of the enormous power of giant corporations, monopolies, and advertising; and because certain ends that such a system might produce (such as corporations) are inherently evil. Government counteraction of the spontaneous ordering of the economy is, then, needed. Thus the few hints scattered through this book that would attract advocates of individual freedom are embedded in whole gobs of statism, authoritarianism, and force that would not just drive them up the wall but flatten them against the ceiling.

A sampling of Capra's own words may best capture the flavor of this literary effort. He confidently asserts that, "twentieth-century physics has shown us very forcefully that there is no absolute truth in science." Of modern medicine, he announces that "just [why infant mortality has declined in developed countries] is still poorly understood, but it has become apparent that medical care has played almost no role in its decline." Capra comments on big business that "the numerous horror stories of corporate behavior in the Third World which have emerged in recent years show convincingly that respect for people, for nature, and for life are not part of the corporate mentality." And agribusiness "ruins the soil on which our very existence depends, perpetuates social injustice and world hunger, and seriously threatens global ecological imbalance." Had enough from Capra? I have.

William Havender is a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.