Erich Jantsch’s 90th birthday…

Image of EJ relaxing in a chair during an interview.
Erich Jantsch, May 1972 from NW Mag (presumably taken during that interview, as a tape recorder is visible on the table before him). With many thanks to Leah Sciabarrasi for permission to use it here. (

would have been today (Capra 1981, p.151). Instead, the world lost an incomparable polymath and genius on 12 Dec 1980, less than a month before his 52nd birthday, and we are all much, much the poorer for that loss (Capra 1981, Linstone, Maruyama & Kaje 1981, Zeleny 1981).

He developed what was perhaps the first model of Big History based on the modern understanding of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in The Self-Organizing Universe (Jantsch 1980). This book – his widely-acknowledged masterwork (and for good reason) – is still a stunning example of integrative multidisciplinary scholarship even after four decades, and anyone who is interested in a deeper understanding of the physical processes underlying Big History would do well to get hold of a copy.* He also made fundamental contributions to – among other things – futures studies, general systems theory, urban planning, integral approaches to consciousness, and the list goes on. He would definitely be one of the people I would invite to an “ultimate dinner party”, along with Einstein, Darwin, etc. No question.

Here’s a taster of some of his thoughts on the integrative power engendered by the paradigm of  evolutionary self-organisation. First (quoted in Zeleny 1981, p.120, and most probably referring to Jantsch 1981a):

The new paradigm of self-organization, and with it the focal concept of autopoiesis, ends the alienation of science from life. It forms the backbone of an emergent science of life that includes a science of our own lives, the biological as well as the mental and the spiritual aspects, the physical as well as the social and the cultural.

And, from his final book The Evolutionary Vision (Jantsch 1981b):

the greatest importance of today’s evolutionary vision may lie not in its present propositions and concepts, but in the new questions it poses in many areas of scientific endeavour and especially in the unifying transdisciplinary ‘pull’ it exerts in these areas. (p.210)

Of [great] importance will be a precise formulation of the relations between biological/ecological/sociobiological evolution on the one hand and psychological/sociocultural evolution on the other. … The evolutionary vision opens up the possibility of understanding all creative dynamics in a unified way. (p.212)

And, finally, what appear to be his last words in print:

The evolutionary vision is itself a manifestation of evolution. The reward for its elaboration will not only be a new (or partly revived) natural philosophy or an improved academic understanding of how we are interconnected with evolutionary dynamics at all levels, but also an immensely practical philosophy to guide us in a time of creative instability and major restructuration of the human world … . With such an orientation, science will also become more realistic and meaningful for the concerns of human life. It will be not merely an end product of human creativity, but a key to its further unfolding in all domains. (p.213)

For more information about him, the Wikipedia page is a useful source, and there is an excellent biography of Jantsch by Leah Sciabarrasi, which also contains links to some of his many works listed there.

Two final comments from his contemporaries and colleagues are in order. One from Milan Zeleny (1981, p.120):

his ideas will be missed with an increasing intensity. He will be re-discovered, recognized, and acknowledged as one of the most original systems thinkers of recent decades.

And one from Harold Linstone (in Linstone et al. 1981, p.3):

We are grateful to Erich Jantsch — his mind rocketed through intellectual space with dizzying speed, leaving a bright trail for us.

Indeed. I wonder what other treasures and illuminations we might have received from him if he had indeed lived to today…

Meanwhile, watch for a related paper in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Big History.


* Even second-hand copies tend to be a bit expensive, some ridiculously so (I found it through But, luckily, it appears to be possible (at least at the time of this writing) to download a free PDF copy from

See also

Voros, J 2012, ‘Macro-prospection: Thinking about the future using macro- and Big History’. Paper presented at Global Future 2045 International Congress, Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel, Moscow, Feb 17-20.

——— 2012, ‘Complexity + Consciousness: A model of Big History based on self-organising complexity, incorporating consciousness’. Paper presented at Teaching and Researching Big History: Exploring a new scholarly field; the International Big History Association inaugural conference, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Aug 2-5.


Capra, F 1981, ‘Erich Jantsch 1929-1980’, Futures, vol. 13, no. 2, Apr, pp. 150-151. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(81)90022-7

Jantsch, E 1980, The self-organizing universe: Scientific and human implications of the emerging paradigm of evolution, Pergamon Press, New York. (PDF)

Jantsch, E 1981a, ‘Autopoiesis: A central aspect of dissipative self-organization’, in M Zeleny (ed.) Autopoiesis: A theory of living organization, Elsevier-North Holland, New York, pp. 65-88.

Jantsch, E (ed.) 1981b, The evolutionary vision: Toward a unifying paradigm of physical, biological and sociocultural evolution, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA.

Linstone, HA, Maruyama, M and Kaje, R 1981, ‘Erich Jantsch 1929–1980’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 19, no. 1, Feb, pp. 1-5. doi:10.1016/0040-1625(81)90045-7

Zeleny, M 1981, ‘Erich Jantsch (1929–1980)’, Human Systems Management, vol. 2, no. 2, Jul, pp. 118-120. doi:10.3233/hsm-1981-2208

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