Introduction

The founder of systems theory was a little known Russian scientist called Alexander Bogdanov, who published a three-volume work entitled Tektology in 1912-1917. A German edition was published in 1928 but the work remained largely unrecognised and unknown in the West. Lenin denounced Bogdanov on ideological grounds, and the Soviet authorities suppressed his works.

About a quarter of a century later, an Austrian scientist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, developed his general systems theory. It is unlikely that he was ignorant of Bogdanov's earlier work, but he never acknowledged it, and the lingering possibility of plagiarism cannot be entirely dispelled. Nevertheless, Bertalanffy was very influential, and he is widely recognised as one of the principle founders of the general systems theory. His main contribution was the concept of the open system, which would allow energy to flow into it and, interestingly, this was an enlargement of the second law of thermodynamics.

The French physicist Sadi Carnot first formulated the second law of thermodynamics, which postulates that all energy gradients disappear in a closed system. This process is described as an increase in entropy, or disorder. A closed system will thus tend to total internal uniformity of energy distribution. The open system is in direct contrast and, by absorbing energy from outside, it can increase its energy gradients. An open system can be described by saying that its negative entropy (negentropy) increases.

The concept of negative entropy can be applied to complexity of organisation, as well as to energy. In a closed system, organisation tends to disappear, resulting in total disorganisation, and simplicity of arrangement. In an open system, organisation tends to increase, resulting in complexity of organisation. All living systems are open systems. They absorb energy, and their complexity of organisation increases.

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