A brief history of (ancient) systems thinking


Systems thinking is not new. I have been thinking about its ancient history and so far this is what I have gathered:

  • 600 B.C. – philosophers used systems thinking to organize their thoughts (e.g. Lao Tze)
  • 2,700 B.C. – Egyptians, like Imhotep, showed evidence that he was using systems thinking during his roles as architect, physician and engineer in Egypt.
  • 4,000 B.C. – Cuneiform, a system of writing appears thanks to the need to keep track of multiple economic transactions.
  • (date pending) – the beginnings of economic (value exchange systems). My assumption here is that value exchange systems were designed by systems thinkers.
  • (90,000 B.C.) – the beginnings of organized belief systems. You can find traces of these belief systems going back as far as 90,000 B.C. [1].  Rather than being “designed” the earliest belief systems may have emerged at the individual level. People may have organized, and synthesized them into coherent systems.
  • (date pending) – the emergence of spoken languages. We needed communication systems to organize ourselves and our societies. Spoken language is a designed system that has many semi-organized contributors. So, our spoken languages, the basic tools of all societies, may be an example of an ancient, living and breathing example of systems thinking.
  • (date pending) – Meaning.  The emergence of symbolic meaning and symbolic communication. Meaning emerges within interactive systems of signs and symbols.[2]
  • (date pending) – Culture. Culture is an interactive system between people. More specifically, it is a shared system for thought and behavior. It may be an emergent system that eventually gains organization between its member/participants. It may be the fertile ground in which meaning, languages, and communication systems grow.

Did systems thinking aid the emergence of civilization?

In some aspects we may be able to chart a parallel line between the emergence of human civilization and the emergence of systems thinking.

Why is systems thinking so rare in our society?

So, now the question is…if systems thinking is such an old way of thinking, and if systems thinking has played such a key role in the development of many tools of civilization for thousands of years, then why isn’t it more popular as a thinking method in our cultures? According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only 3% of our population are systems thinkers. (see also [2.1])

I suspect one reason for this lack of adoption has something to do with a lack of value associated with it and a lack of recognition of the role it has played within our societies.

Acknowledging its historical presence and its contribution to civilization may help us recognize its value.

Addendum: 10-31-08

Most of us are systems thinkers?

Another way to think systems thinking is to focus on how system’s thinking has permeated most aspects of our civilized life to the point that we no longer realize that we’re using systems thinking. Instead, systems thinking has become like the air that we breathe, highly important but mostly invisible and undetectable by our socialized minds.

So, in a way, most of us are participating in systems thinking. We participate in it by living our lives within systems designed by systems thinkers.

But there is a huge difference between doing something with awareness of our acts and doing something without awareness. One may lead us to the development of skills, the other may be like going through the motions (zombie, or robot-like behavior).

Why learn about systems thinking? One reason may be to gain awareness of the systems we participate in. Yet another reason may be to gain the critical skills to understand how these systems function and how they affect us and others. If we are going to change and improve these systems then we need to first understand them.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica Online Edition

[2] Wikipedia: “Semiotics”; “Symbolism”;

[2.1] Wyospace blog “Systems Thinking


Systems Thinkers – Magnus Ramage, Karen Shipp
“This book presents a biographical history of the field of systems thinking, by examining the life and work of thirty of its major thinkers.”



5 thoughts on “A brief history of (ancient) systems thinking

  1. This is a great question. There might be many reasons for the lack of popularity of ‘system thinking’.

    One of the important reasons I think is the way we teach school and college students — the reductionist principle of thinking. So there is a lot of brainwashing right from a tender age. Hence most people are unaware of system thinking except a few.

    Of course this is what I feel, which might not be necessarily correct.

    dibyendu de

  2. Vicky

    You should also check out the book ‘Glut’ by NY Times UX lead Alex Wright. It’s basically a history of IA from the beginning of taxonomies!

  3. Thanks for the suggestion Vicky.

    That is an interesting topic. Most systems require some sort taxonomy.

    Since in this blog I try to write about socialized limitations to thinking. I am also interested in taxonomies as “silos” and as barriers to more holistic thought processes.

  4. This is a great post Daniel. I’ve provided a link to it on my own systems-thinking related blog.

    I would be interested to see an account leading on from your last entry for “culture (date pending)”….

    Best regards,

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