General Theory of Living Systems

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In order to understand or design any successful, continuing digital ecosystem, there must first be a general theory of living systems that we can use a template to build such a theory.


In 1978 James Grier Miller attempted a General Theory of Living systems [1] which proposed rigid taxonomies of levels of complexity and common processes contained in each level. As with all taxonomies of living systems, this one necessarily has very fuzzing boundaries which help a new learner, but which become an undue burden if carried to extremely fine detail. Miller understood all of this and selected an a number of levels that best fit the data. None-the-less, this page will continue in Miller's path and try the same taxonomic approach, but first a short description of alternate methods. Whereas Miller thought that living systems were a subset of all systems, this page takes the view that all complex, successful, enduring systems are subject to the laws of evolution (specifically survival of the fittest) and hence should be considered to be living systems.

In 1979 Douglas Hofstadter started making the case that natural thinking involved "chunking" small ideas together to make a smaller number of classes of objects [2] that hide the details in ways that were currently in process in "object oriented programming. He continued this line of development into the use of fluid analogies in our own thought as a model for how computer networks should work.[3] Analogies (which we make constantly, relentlessly and mostly unconsciously) are what allow categorization to happen. "Our minds are constructed with an unlimited quality for 'chunking' primordial concepts, which then become larger concepts." As an example the word "hub," as in "Denver is the hub for United Airlines," brings to mind a large linked network of concepts that are "chunked" together to make up the commonly used term. Other examples range from basics like "wheel" and "node" to higher-order concepts like "spoke" and "network." Higher-order concepts are assembled from lower-order concepts. He believes there no fundamental difference in thinking with basic concepts and very large concepts because we don't "see" inside them. We build concepts by putting several concepts together and putting a membrane around them and giving that a name. Kind of miraculously these [interior] concepts disappear into the named high-order concept.

While high-level languages and object-oriented programming (OOP) were present in the early days of computing (e.g. MAD and Smalltalk), they did not capture a significant mind-share of working programmers until the release of Java in 1996. With OOP languages, encapsulation or information hiding became a recognized feature of computer system architectures. While this sound like "chunking", one of its purposes was to hide details. Whereas living systems create abstract chunks, information hiding created pieces that were sealed and did not expose details of the implementation. So information hiding does not allow for level crossing and does not share the capability in open systems for higher level systems to directly interface with lower level systems. Since this is a general theory, we cannot assume that information hiding is necessary or appropriate, although privacy advocates might disagree.

In 2007 Cleland and Chyba wrote a chapter in Planets and Life:[4] "In the absence of such a theory, we are in a position analogous to that of a 16th-century investigator trying to define 'water' in the absence of molecular theory." ... "Without access to living things having a different historical origin, it is difficult and perhaps ultimately impossible to formulate an adequately general theory of the nature of living systems"

Bayesian Identity Proofing provides the means for a collection of authentication and verification steps to be validated.


Human cognitive process are limited and not nearly a logical as some believe.

Cognitive Overload

Cognitive Dissonance


Taxonomy of Levels of connected Systems

Level Name Typical use User Experience
1 Chip Management of Computer Only by Administrators
2 Board Computer Internet of Things Room temperature or video surveillance
3 Single Processor Computer Accessing Web Sites Simple Queries of web
4 Multiple Processor Computer Local processing & virtualization Mobile or Desktop device that maintains user info
5 Data Center Collection of computers in a single location Only by Administrators
6 Cloud (single owner) Social Network Interaction of user searches and tracking
7 Internetwork of Clouds Maintenance of Names User cannot access desired resourced for security reasons

Miller's "Processes" that work at all levels

Miller had 19 processes, the timer was added later. The boxes highlighted color are the ones that deal with energy or manner, not the primary focus of this presentation. Two special cases are the reproducer, which might include cloning, but is not further discussed here; and the boundary which is important for identity and information hiding.

Nu Name Function Importance
1 ingestor input food, parts, energy Energy Matter, important to computers
2 distributor move food, parts, energy Energy Matter, important to computers
3 converter Change from one form to another Energy Matter, might be important to computers
4 producer Local processing & virtualization Energy Matter
5 storage Could include batteries or generators Energy Matter, important for reliability
6 extruder Social Network Energy Matter
7 motor Maintenance of Names Energy Matter
8 supporter Energy Matter
9 reproducer Create new copies of self Energy Matter and information
10 boundary Accessing Web Sites Energy Matter and information, allows identity
11 input transducer Local processing & virtualization
12 internal transducer Collection of computers in a single location
13 channel and net Social Network
14 timer (added later) Maintenance of Names
15 decoder Management of Computer
16 associator Internet of Things
17 memory Accessing Web Sites
18 decider Local processing & virtualization
19 encoder Collection of computers in a single location
20 output transducer Social Network

ingestor, distributor, converter, producer, storage, extruder, motor, supporter The processors of information are: input transducer, internal transducer, channel and net, timer (added later), decoder, associator, memory, decider, encoder, output transducer.


  1. James Grier Miller Living Systems 1978 ISBN 978-0070420151
  2. Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid 1978 Vintage ISBN 0-39474502-7
  3. Douglas R. Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought 1995 ISBN 978-0465024759
  4. Woodruff, T. Sullivan; John Baross. Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology. October 8, 2007 Cambridge University Press.