The Dynamics of Life


  • Victor Ronald David MacGill


entropy, flow, living system, social system, Adaptive Cycle


I propose a workshop on the Dynamics of Life model, which has three parts designed to increase our understanding of living and social systems.

The first part is the Dynamics of Life diagram, which follows flows of energy, matter, and information through a living or social system to fend off the relentless force of entropy within it. The system uses energy, matter, and information to turn chaos into order within the system boundary by doing work that maintains internal processes and exerts forces on the environment to enhance its wellbeing and fulfil its goals.

As a living system becomes more complex, managing entropy becomes increasingly difficult. Life consistently creates subgroups to take on the infrastructural tasks of the whole system, we might call the “co-ordinator” group. If that fails to contain the entropy, a higher “manager” group is established. Many levels of nested hierarchy can result to contain the excess entropy. Ironically, each new level of hierarchy increases inequality that destabilises the group. Entropy that cannot be managed is passed out of the system like the game of “Hot Potato” and is projected on to the outside environment, which in turn responds. Any entropy not dealt with or expelled remains in the system as a toxic element.

The internal functioning of a living system is controlled by a rule set that proscribes the actions of the system’s parts. Parts are rewarded when they comply or a punished when they rebel. The rule set leads to actions within the living or social system that is called the primary cycle. Every action of the primary system opens the space for a shadow system to emerge that opposes the primary system. Ideally, this creates the space for dialogue and innovation, but all to often it leads to conflict and even violence. Some entropy is not able to be expelled that remains in the system as a toxic element.

The second part takes this dynamics pattern and fits it into each level of a Tree of Life reflecting the levels through which life has evolved from the biological to the psychological to the social. Life began at the biological level where the rule set is the body controlled by pain and pleasure. Energy, matter, and information not utilised is expelled or excreted.

At the psychological level emotions and thinking enable a much wider range of responses to the environment. Emotional outburst of unmanaged emotional energy passes on the hot potato. Unprocessed or unexpelled emotion becomes supressed. The rule set at the thinking level is the belief and value system of the individual.

The social level usually uses a document or set of laws as the rule set with formal and informal ways of rewarding or enforcing compliance. Social unrest arises from unmanaged entropy.

We are sometimes overwhelmed by entropy and are unable to move up a layer to access a greater range of behavioural options. We then regress to a lower level. From debate and discussion, we drop to an emotional outburst and when that fails the final level is the physical resulting in fighting or war.

The final part of the three borrows much from Holling and Gunderson’s Adaptive Cycle, demonstrating life as a process unfolding over time as a cycle of exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganisation.


Since the model is still a work in process, there is ample space for comments, discussion and dialogue about the model and improving its ability to explain the processes of living systems. Break out groups will also be used so groups can focus on specific aspects and report back to the whole group.

Author Biography

Victor Ronald David MacGill

PhD completed 2015 through University of the Sunshine Coast