Living systems require matter-energy, needing specific types of it, in adequate amounts. Heat, light, water, minerals, vitamins, foods, fuels, and raw materials of various kinds, for instance, may be required. Energy for the processes of living systems is derived from the breakdown of molecules (and, in a few recent cases, of atoms as well).
Meaning is the significance of information to a system which processes it: it constitutes a change in that system’s processes elicited by the information, often resulting from associations made to it on previous experience with it. Information is a simpler concept: the degrees of freedom that exist in a given situation to choose among signals, symbols, messages, or patterns to be transmitted.
The advance of communication technology over the years has been in the direction of decreasing the matter-energy costs of storing and transmitting the markers which bear information. The efficiency of information processing can be increased by lessening the mass of the markers, making them smaller so they can be stored more compactly and transmitted more rapidly and cheaply. Over the centuries engineering progress has altered the mode in markers from stones bearing cuneiform to magnetic tape bearing electrons, and clearly some limit is being approached.
Types are abstractions. Nature presents an apparent endless variety of living things which man, from his earliest days, has observed and classified.
The subset of living systems includes cells, organs, organisms, groups, organizations, societies, and supranational systems.
The suprasystem of any living system is the next higher system in which it is a component or subsystem. For example, the supraystem of a cell or tissue is the organ it is in; the suprasystem of an organism is the group it is in at the time. Presumably every system has a suprasystem except the “universe.”
In order to survive, the system must interact with and adjust to its environment, the other parts of the suprasystem. These processes alter both the system and its environment. Living systems adapt to their environment, and in return mold it. The result is that, after some period of interaction, each in some sense becomes a mirror of the other.
An artifact is an inclusion in some system, made by animals or man. Spider webs, bird nests, beaver dams, houses, books, machines, music, paintings, and language are artifacts. They may or may not be prostheses, inventions which carry out some critical process essential to a living system. An artificial pacemaker for a human heart is an example of an artifact which can replace a pathological process with a healthy one. Insulin and thyroxine are replacement drugs which are human artifacts. Chemical, mechanical, or electronic artifacts have been constructed which carry out some functions of all levels of living systems.
Living systems create and live among their artifacts. Beginning presumably with the hut and the arrowhead, the pot and the vase, the plow and the wheel, mankind has constructed tools and devised machines. The Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth Century, capped by the recent harnessing of atomic energy, represents the extension of man’s matter-energy processing ability, his muscles. A new Industrial Revolution, of even greater potential, is just beginning in the Twentieth Century, with the development of information and logic-processing machines, adjuncts to man’s brain. These artifacts are increasingly becoming prostheses, relied on to carry out critical subsystem processes. A chimpanzee may extend his reach with a stick; a man may extend his cognitive skills with a computer.