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A General Theory of Living Systems | James Grier Miller

When exploring the meaning of Living Systems, it’s pretty hard to ignore the major works of James Grier Miller (1916–2002) with a book thus titled.  In addition to the 1978 book Living Systems (of 1168 pages!) some additions were published in 1992 in Behavioral Science, the Journal of the Society for General Systems Research.

Miller cites Alfred North Whitehead as a spark for this research.

This book began sometime in its author’s prehistory — whenever an inclusive curiosity and a need to order and integrate arose. Hardly viable at first, the seminal ideas germinated during my college and graduate years, under the influence of one man particularly, my teacher, sponsor, and friend: Alfred North Whitehead. A number of these ideas stem directly from his “philosophy of organism.” Nowadays other terms are popular and, if he were alive today, he might prefer to call his viewpoint a “philosophy of system.” Key concepts later accepted as basic to systems science occur in his writings. Several sentences from his Science and the Modern World show how clearly his thought was a precursor of what today is called systems theory:1

  • 1 Whitehead, A. N. Science and the modern world. New York: Macmillan, 1925, 145, 146, 156.

“Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms. … The concept of an organism includes. … the concept of the interaction of organisms. … There are also organisms of organisms. Suppose that electrons and hydrogen nuclei are … basic organisms. Then the atoms, and the molecules, are organisms of a higher type, which also represent a compact definite organic unity. But when we come to the larger aggregations of matter, the organic unity fades into the background. … When we come to living beings, the definiteness of pattern is recovered, and the organic character again rises into prominence.”

Life to Whitehead was made up of systems of systems. Observing that the physical sciences concern themselves with a hierarchy of systems, he extended such concepts to more complex biosocial phenomena. Reality is continuous. Respect for these views motivated my first serious publication, written under his close guidance.2 Analysis of his concepts of historical change in societies — which he held to be complex and vigorous organisms showed that he conceived them to have many of the characteristics of life at other levels. It interpreted his search for general principles of the rise, decline, and fall of societies — their historical aspect — which he compared to the stages of existence of their component individuals. Not only was he interested in organismic structure and its long-range historical change, but he also laid stress on the continuous dynamic process which to him was the essence of all reality. “Event,” one of his favorite concepts, became in his writings almost a morphological term:3

  • 2 Miller, J. G. Whitehead: history in the grand manner. Harvard Guardian. 1937, 1(1), 23-29 and 1(2), 25-30.
  • 3 Whitehead, A. N. Op. cit., 102. [1978a, p. xiii]

Appreciating the reason for this life’s work is summarized at the end of the first chapter, “The Need for a General Theory of Living Systems”:

Increasing understanding of the physical universe has provided the skills to engineer great monuments and public works, to communicate over vast distances, and to move into space with incredible speed. Atomic research has given us tremendous sources of power. All this has increased our ability to control our environment even though it has not provided freedom from fear, at least as yet. Physical science so far has been used more to help man than to harm him, in spite of some obvious and dangerous misuses of it. The same is true with biological science. Medicine and biology know how to kill in more complicated and effective ways than were possible a hundred years ago, but medical and biological knowledge have been used for the public welfare vastly more often than for harm. While the specters of biological warfare and of starvation in overpopulated regions cannot be overlooked, the advance of these fields has freed man from many sorts of illness and pain and increased his span of life. Unquestionably the science of living systems as it develops may give opportunities for intimate forms of control and drastic threat, but on the other hand, it can also serve to free us from emotional disturbance, problems of interpersonal relations, and ultimately from the international disease of war which has scourged man throughout history. The expansion of such science is not likely to be avoided long by any nation. We can view this eventuality constructively, willingly accepting the challenge of its inherent dangers in order to realize its potentials for expanding the quality of human life.

Somewhere in this suggestion lies the hope that the same method which has harnessed physical forces can give us control over ourselves, a hope that adequate understanding of man and society can ultimately lead to constructive freedom and avert mass destruction. A general theory of living systems viewed, as in this book, as a particular subset of all systems — implies a unity of science. It contends that the method which has advanced physical science can also advance the science of living systems [1978b, p. 7].

Looking backwards in time from 2006, Ken Bailey provides a informed summary of the evolution of Living Systems Theory.

Most readers probably see LST in terms of its basic structure of 20 ‘critical subsystems’ displayed on each of eight hierarchical levels. In reality, there are many more contributions. One neglected contribution of LST is its consistent emphasis on process. […]

The seven original hierarchical levels in LST are the cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society and supranational level (Miller, 1978). The eighth level, the ‘community’, was added later, and was inserted between the organizational and societal levels (Miller and Miller, 1992). Miller (1978) had originally discussed the inclusion of the community level, but had decided against it.

The 19 original ‘critical subsystems’ include two that process both matter-energy and information (the reproducer and the boundary). Eight additional subsystems are said to process matter-energy only. These are ingestor, distributor, converter, producer, matter-energy storage, extruder, motor and supporter. There were originally nine additional subsystems said to process information only. These are input transducer, internal transducer, channel and net, decoder, associator, memory, decider, encoder and output transducer. The tenth information- processing subsystem (and the twentieth sub- system) is the timer, which was not included in the original list, but was added later (Miller and Miller, 1992). [Bailey 2006, p. 292).

Bailey offers 20 contributions that Living Systems Theory makes. It’s worth consulting the published article for this, to get beyond a simple listing.

  1. the specification of the 20 critical subsystems;
  2. the specification of the eight hierarchical levels;
  3. the emphasis on cross-level analysis and the production of numerous cross-level hypotheses;
  4. cross-subsystem research;
  5. cross-level, cross-sub-system research;
  6. the detailed analysis of types of systems, as demonstrated by Miller’s (1978, pp. 16–39) discussion of the variety of systems concept;
  7. the distinction that Miller (1978, pp. 16-39) made between concrete and abstracted systems;
  8. Miller’s (1978, pp. 9-22) discussion of physical space and time;
  9. Miller’s emphasis on information processing;
  10. detailed analysis of matter-energy processing;
  11. the analysis of entropy;
  12. the recognition of totipotential systems. …. That is, all of its 20 subsystems are fully functioning, with no help needed from external systems, or systems at different levels of the nested hierarchy (Miller, 1978, p. 18).
  13. the notion of a partipotential system (Miller, 1978, p. 18).  …. Their relations with other systems may take a number of forms such as parasitic, symbiotic, or be characterized by different forms of dispersal, such as upward dispersal, downward dispersal, lateral dispersal, or outward (external) dispersal (Miller, 1978).
  14. the innovative approach to the structure-process issue, as previously noted.
  15. the concept of a ‘joint subsystem’;
  16. the concept of dispersal.  …. Dispersal occurs when a particular component of the system (e.g. ‘Group A’ is unable to fulfil the needed subsystem process by itself, but must have help.
  17. the notion of inclusion. An inclusion is something from the environment that is not part of the system, but is surrounded by it. An inclusion can be either living or nonliving.
  18. notion of … an artefact. An artefact is an inclusion that is constructed by animals
    or humans.
  19. the notion of an ‘adjustment process’. Adjustment processes are those processes that combat stress in a system.
  20. the notion of a critical subsystem.  [Bailey 2006, p. 292-296]

Two omissions by Miller were acknowledged in the original 1978 work itself.

Despite its long list of contributions, LST (like any complex theory) unfortunately displays some limitations, including some unfinished work. Two limitations are the failure to develop an abstracted theory to complement the concrete theory of LST, and the failure to quantify LST. (Bailey 206, p. 296)

Ken Bailey’s legacy is as a sociologist, so the abstract systems were at the core of his work, continuing some of the tasks that “Miller left unfinished”.

With recognition of the updates, we can refer to 1992 journal articles first, falling back only to 1978 book for deeper clarifications.

The relations between living systems at different levels is addressed.

The principle components of living systems at each level are systems at the level below. Cells have nonliving molecular components, organs are composed of cells, organisms of organs, groups of organisms, and so on. Systems at higher levels are suprasystems of their component lower-level systems. All living systems are organized into subsystems, each of which is a structure that performs an essential process.

The eight levels of living systems evolved by a process of fray-out (see Figure 1) in which the larger, higher-level systems developed increasingly complex components in each subsystem than those below them in the hierarchy of living systems. The cell membrane, for example, carries out many processes that, at higher levels, require many components. Fray-out can be likened to the unraveling of a ship’s cable. The cable is a single unit but it can separate into the several ropes that compose it. These can unravel further into finer strands, strings, and threads.
[Miller & Miller 1992, pp 1-3]

Living systems levels, in fray-out
Fig.1 Fray-out

The concrete subsystems of living systems are the focus.

Living systems maintain within their boundaries the energic states that are characteristic of life by continuous flows, interacting with the environment. They take from it inputs of matter, energy, and information that are essential for their processes and return to the environment outputs of products and wastes. The total input to a living system is lower in entropy and higher in information than the total output.

All living systems have requirements for specific sorts of matter and energy, without which they cannot survive. They must secure food, fuel, and other necessary inputs. They must process their inputs in various ways to make it possible for them to maintain their structure, to reproduce, to make products, and to carry out other essential activities of life. The metabolism of matter and energy is the energetics of living systems. […]

LST identifies 20 essential processes which, together with one or more components, constitute the 20 sub-systems of living systems (see Tables 1 and 2). [Miller & Miller 1992, p.3]

Table 1

The 20 Critical Subsystems of a Living System

1. Reproducer, the subsystem which carries out the instructions in the generic information or charter of a system and mobilizes matter, energy, and information to produce one or more similar systems.

2. Boundary, the subsystem at the perimeter of a system that holds together the components which make up the system, protects them from environmental stresses, and excludes or permits entry to various sorts of matter-energy and information.
3. Ingestor, the subsystem which brings matter-energy across the system boundary from the environment 12. Internal transducer, the sensory subsystem which receives, from subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information about significant alterations in those subsystems or components, changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort which can be transmitted within it.
4. Distributor,
the subsystem which carries inputs from outside the system or outputs from its subsystems around the system to each component.
13. Channel and net, the subsystem composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes, over which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system.
14. Timer, the subsystem which transmits to the decider information about time-related states of the environment or of components of the system. This information signals the decider of the system or deciders of subsystems to
start, stop, alter the rate, or advance or delay the phase of one or more of the system’s processes, thus coordinating them in time.
5. Converter. the subsystem which changes certain inputs to the systom into forms more useful for the special purposes of that particular system. 15. Decoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input to it through the input transducer or internal transducer into a ‘private” code that can be used internally by the system.
6. Producer, the subsystem
which forms stable associations that endure for significant periods among matter-energy inputs to the system or outputs from its
converter, the materials synthesized being for growth, damage repair, or replacement of components of the system, or for providing energy for moving or constituting the system’s output of products or information markers to its suprasystem.
16. Associator. the subsystem which carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among items of information in the system.
7. Matter-energy storage. the subsystem which places matter or energy at some location in the system. retains it over time, and retrieves it. 17. Memory, the subsystem which carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing Information in the system tor different periods of time, and then
retrieving it.
18. Decider. the executive subsystem which receives inlormation inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs for guidance, coordination, and control of the system.
19. Encoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input to it from other information passing subsystems, from a “private” code used internally by the system into a “public” code which can be interpreted by other systems in is environment.
8. Extruder, the subsystem which transmits matter-energy out of the system in the forms of products or wastes. } 20. Output transducer. the subsystem which puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over channels in the system’s environment.
9. Motor, the subsystem
which moves the system or parts of it in relation to part or all of its environment or moves components of its environment in relaton to
each other.
10. Supporter, the subsystem which maintains the proper spatial relationship among components of the system, so that they can interact without weighting each other down or crowding each other.

In the visual alignment of rows across the table of 20 critical subsystems of a living system, Miller sees some similarities between the matter-energy processes on the left, and the information processes on the right.

The general living systems theory which this book presents is a conceptual system concerned primarily with concrete systems (see page 17) which exist in space-time. Complex structures which carry out living processes I believe can be identified at seven hierarchical levels (see page 25) — cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system. My central thesis is that systems at all these levels are open systems composed of subsystems which process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter, energy, and information. I identify 19 critical subsystems (see page 32 and Table 1-1) whose processes are essential for life, some of which process matter or energy, some of which process information, and some of which process all three. Together they make up a living system, as shown in Fig. 1-1. In this table the line under the word “Reproducer” separates this subsystem from the others because that subsystem differs from all the others by being critical to the species or type of system even though it is not essential to the individual. Living systems often continue to exist even though they are not able to reproduce. Subsystems in different columns which appear opposite each other have processes with important similarities — for instance, the processes carried out by the ingestor for matter and energy are comparable to those carried out by the input transducer for information. In general the sequence of transmissions in living systems is from inputs at the top of Table 1-1 to outputs at the bottom, but there are exceptions. [Miller 1978, p.1]

Table 2 is presented in two parts, with a matrix of that is filled in, with the following structure.  The first part has (i) the subsystems which process both matter-energy and information; and (ii) subsystems which process matter-energy.

Table 2, (Part 1) Selected Major Components of Each of the 20 Critical Subsystems at Each of Eight Levels of Living Systems

The second part has subsystems which process information.

Table 2, (Part 2) Selected Major Components of Each of the 20 Critical Subsystems at Each of Eight Levels of Living Systems

For interested readers, there are three chapters in the Behavioral Science 1992 issue that are much shorter than the 1100+ page book.


Bailey, Kenneth D. 2006. “Living Systems Theory and Social Entropy Theory.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23 (3): 291–300. .

Miller, James Grier. 1978a. “Preface.” In Living Systems, vii–xli. McGraw-Hill.

Miller, James Grier. 1978b. “The Need for a General Theory of Living Systems.” In Living Systems, 1–8. McGraw-Hill.

Miller, Jessie L, and James Grier Miller. 1992. “Greater than the Sum of Its Parts. I. Subsystems Which Process Both Matter‐energy and Information.” Behavioral Science 37 (1): 1–9. .

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