Ludwig von Bertalanffy and ‘the Tibetan prayer mills of selectionism’.

Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (19.IX.1901 Austria – 12.VI.1972 USA) was a theoretical biologist and the father of General System Theory (1). He played an important role in the intellectual history of the twentieth century (2). He was the member of Deutsche Akademie für Naturforscher Leopoldina (Halle), the New York Academy of Sciences, he held positions at the University of Vienna (1934-48), the University of Ottawa (1950-54), the Mount Sinai Hospital (Los Angeles) (1955-58), the University of Alberta (1961-68), State University of New York (SUNY) (1969-72) (3). According to (2) “Ludwig von Bertalanffy is mainly remembered as the originator of the open systems theory in biology, an organismic theory which rejected both the mechanistic and the vitalistic explanations of life processes .”

In 1967 Ludwig von Bertalanffy published the book “Robots, Men and Minds, Psychology in the Modern World”. The book has been translated into several languages, in 1972 as “Clovek-robot a mysleni” into Czech (4). Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote the foreword for the Czech translation where he mentioned the great Czech writer Karel Capek, who had coined the word robot used in the title of the book (derivation from the noun “robota” or verb “robiti” – to “work”).

“Robots, Men and Minds” concisely presents von Bertalanffy´s ideas on systems, man, science, psychology and history. There is neither enough place here to go into details of his thoughts nor it is the aim of this short reflection which main purpose is to address von Bertalanffy´s ideas on evolution. Let me only notice that von Bertalanffy saw man as an aim-oriented being whose environment (or better – “die Umwelt”) is predominantly shaped by culture. Culture is understand as “symbolic world” and it is symbols (especially language) which play the crucial role in human life. Man cannot be understand outside his “symbolic world” and outside his openness toward the world. Von Bertalanffy thus dismissed reductionist view of man – be it behaviorism, zoomorphism or freudism. In this sense his work is based also on ideas of Ernst Cassirer, Jakob von Uexkull and also Adolf Portmann (5).

Von Bertalanffy’s thoughts about evolution are closely connected to his concept of systems, but he also emphasized dynamics of organizing forces intrinsic to organisms of a species (2).

Because only Czech translation of the book is available to me I will make references to the Czech edition.

In the chapter “God is conscious of Himself” von Bertalanffy wrote (I translate): “…We do not neglect man’s misery and negative aspects when we say that man is something more than a bug. A scientist might say, while using quite objective criteria, that homo sapiens is the highest product of the earth’s evolution. A mystic would say almost the same claiming that evolution is a god who realized himself. It is an old mystic wisdom. Teilhard de Chardin has given us only the modern expression – and not the best one. Only thereafter evolution and history is something more than Macbeth’s resignation, history narrated by an idiot, full of sounds and rage, but without any meaning.” (7)

The whole chapter “A view on evolution” addresses the problem of evolution. After having shortly described the crux of the “New synthesis” von Bertalanffy dismissed selection as the possible source of the origin of living systems in the “primordial soup”. According to his opinion the second rule of thermodynamics would lead to chemical equilibrium. It would mean breaking of “improbable” proteins into “probable” and more simple chemicals. He supposed that only some new principle could solve this problem.

Von Bertalanffy considered man – comparing him with reptiles or amphibians – as a higher form. It is not a subjective judgment, but a fact that can be proved by terms of anatomical structures, differentiation of functions, behavior etc…Von Bertalanffy concluded that he didn’t see any scintilla of evidence that evolution from lower to higher organisms had anything to do with adaptation, selective advantages, greater production of offspring or other darwinian concepts. Adaptation is possible in every level of organization. If selection drove evolution then it is hard to explain why evolution went on beyond rabbits or bacteria which are unsurpassable in producing their offspring. He criticized the neodarwinian theory, proponents of which avoid any discussion using the only argument: we want scientific explanation and it is only random mutation and selection. Otherwise opponents are branded as philosophers, metaphysicians, lamarckists etc…

Von Bertalanffy believed that there are some laws also above the level of atoms, proteins and nucleotid acids. There is no need to believe that there are no other laws governing the evolution than  those of chance modifying genetic code and selection. Such a notion would be metaphysical, or nothing else as  “Tibetan prayer mills” of selectionism – with these words Bertalanffy described empty claim that everything can be explained by random mutation and natural selection.

It may be also of interest that von Bertalanffy claimed that he had predicted “regulatory genes” long before molecular biology has arisen.

 Neverthenless evolution seems to be governed by “internal factors” or is “internally controlled” in his opinion. Von Bertalanffy concluded that there is a meta-scientific question about the sense of evolution if we consider evolution to be something more than a chance or  “playing in dice” – using famous Einstein’s metaphor. Von Bertalanffy seems to be another scientist who dismissed simple neodarwinian model as a valid explanation of evolution. (6)


A participinat on noticed me , that von Bertalanffy should have written (8)

I think that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in ‘hard science’ has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds. Society and science have been so steeped in the ideas of mechanism, utilitarianism and the economic concept of free competition, that instead of God, selection was enthroned as ultimate reality.–Perspectives on general system theory, p. 142.



1) Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1901-1972, Father of General Systems Theory  Author: Mark Davidson

 2) University of Alberta Center for Systems Research
Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972):
A Pioneer of General Systems Theory
Thaddus E. Weckowicz † 2000 2
Associate, Center for Systems Research, University of Alberta 


 4) in Czech: Ludwig von Bertalanffy: Clovek-robot a mysleni, Psychologie v modernim svete. Nakladatelstvi Svoboda Praha 1972.

 5) 51 ibid.

6) 109-115 ibid.

7) 77  ibid.



One response to “Ludwig von Bertalanffy and ‘the Tibetan prayer mills of selectionism’.

  1. Thank you! This is rich material. I really appreciate you presenting von Bertalanffy’s clear headed appraisal of Darwinian theory, using science to rebutt a metaphysical theory posing as science.

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