Module 2:Discovering Evolutionary Patterns in Physical and Biological SystemsLearning Unit 3: Understanding the Evolutionary Principles of LifeThis lecture introduces the Autopoietic theory.
As you saw in the main presentation to Module 2, the word Autopoiesis comes from the Greek words auto —meaning “self”— and poiesis —meaning “creation, production.”Autopoiesis means self-creation.To review and go a bit more in-depth on this topic, Autopoietic theory was developed by Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana and his former student and subsequent colleague Francisco Varela as they were studying cognition and perception. The theory states that an autopoietic system is a self-creating system: it continually creates its own parts and its own structure, while maintaining its overall identity and pattern of organization. ForMaturana and Varela, autopoiesis is the definition of life itself. Let’s investigate how this might be.A time-honoredexample of an autopoietic system is the biological cell. A cell is made of various biochemical components and is organized into bounded structures such as the nucleus, various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy, produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components. The process involves auto-catalysis (where a component creates the means for the subsequent re-creation of itself) and cross-catalysis (where one component creates the means for another component to create the means to re-recreate it!).All this is to say that the processes used by an autopoietic system are network processes of production. As with this Escher's drawing on the left, the two complementary hands can draw each other in a continuous circular loop of self-creation. To fully understand autopoiesis, it is critical to differentiate between the structure of a system and its organization. The structure of a system includes its parts and the way the parts inter-relate with one another to constitute a unit, i.e., the system itself.The organization of a system is the specific pattern or configuration of the relationship between the system’s parts that is necessary for the system to exist and be recognized as an unique living being. For instance, we are able to distinguish between a dog and a cat because of their different pattern of organization. When we see two dogs from different breeds, we still recognize them as belonging to the animal class “dog” because, even though the dogs may have different structures (different sizes, shapes, hair length and color and so on). Nevertheless, since they still meet the pattern configuration of dogs, in general, we can recognize and group the apart from other animals such as cats.
It is interesting to note how Autopoietic systems are able to autonomously change their structure while maintaining their overall organization. The autopoietic process supports the principle of “conservation through change”. That is to say, autopoietic systems are able to change their structure in order to adapt and evolve while maintaining their overall organization and identity.For instance, consider that the cells of our hair, skin, fingernails, taste buds and the protective lining of our stomach are replaced constantly and at a rapid rate throughout our lives. Self-production, the capacity of living systems to use autopoietic processes as a means to maintain themselves, is the main characteristic of life. As Margaret Wheatley points out so well, “nothing exists independently of its relationship with others — we can move away from our need to think in terms of separate, polar opposites... The quantum world answered this question for me. There are no either/ors. There is no need to decide between two things pretending they are separate. What is critical is the relationship . . .” [Leadership & The New Sciences,p. 35-36]
An Autopoietic system has the following essential characteristics:It is energetically open: the system is able to perceive change in its environment and exchange energy, matter and information with it.It is self-referential: the system’s structural changes are always consistent with the system itself (this means that the parts are sensitive to or aware of the whole).It is a cognitive system: For Maturana, communication in an autopoietic system is identical to its coordination of behavior and does not require a nervous system. Cognition is understood to be a biological phenomenon. For instance, honeybees dance to depict sophisticated patterns, thus indicating the location of specific flowers. For honeybees, the dance is a communication mechanism that allows them to coordinate their behavior – a kind of bee language.
Autopoietic systems are structure-determined. This means that their structural changes and adaptations are triggered, but not determined, by perturbations in their environment (if you wanted to be scientific about things, you could say that the system is structurally closed). It is the structure itself that selectively determines which perturbations in the environment the system will notice or ignore, and which new interactions will be created between its components.The concept of structure-determined systems has important implications for the notions of freedom versus determinism that we will explore in great depth in Word 2, the second course of this program. For now, you should note how a living system is determined by its own structure, but able to maintain its freedom to define what will trigger its internal change and adaptation. In other words, living systems always choose what to notice in their environment based on what their internal structure can afford before embarking on an adaptive change and transformative process. As you might imagine, this is an important understanding to have if you want to be an effective agent of evolutionary change!
Structural coupling is the term used to describe the process by which a living system engages with another system or with its environment in ways that lead to greater wholeness and evolutionary complexity. Structural coupling relates of the process of inter-systemic coordination (when two or more systems coordinate their activities) and to the process of co-evolution (when a system adapts to change in its environment).When a system becomes coupled with another system, it influences and is influenced by change in the other system — that is, structural changes in one system influence the other system to also change its internal structure. The important point to remember here is that each change is bound to what each system’s structure can afford at a given time. Therefore, it is not useful to talk about changes in one of the systems without referring to its interactions with the other system.Over time, the history of the structural changes in a system defines the system’s developmental path (i.e., its evolutionary trajectory). At any given point along the evolutionary path of a living system, the structure of the system can be considered “a record of previous structural changes and thus of previous interactions.” This means that all living systems have a history that consists of the set of all structural changes they have ever undergone in their lifetime. This is why a system’s history is important to the understanding of its development and evolution.Maturana is perhaps one of the the first scientists who, from his work as such, explains love. He states that love is not a quality or a gift, but a relational biological phenomenon that consists of a behavior or class of behaviors through which another (a person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself. According to Maturana, we get sick by living a way of life that systematically denies love.
To complete this presentation of autopoietic theory, we invite you to turn your attention to the process of cognition. A cognitive system is an autopoietic system. In autopoietic theory, the mind is not a thing, but a process that does not require a nervous system or a brain. The definition of cognition in autopoietic theory goes beyond the thinking process to include perception, emotion and action, as well as language and the conceptual thinking of humans. As Fritjof Capra points out, “cognitionis not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the process of living.” This view is in conflict with the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and matter which, as you may recall from Module 1, posits the complete separation between subjective phenomena and the objective reality of the independent world in which they exist. Conventional scientific methodology consists of providing an “objective” description of reality, but from the standpoint of autopoietic theory, it is not possible to separate the observer from the phenomena it observes, since the observer is a structure-determined living system. As we now know, findings in quantum physics have shown that separation between the observer and the observed phenomenon does not exist when dealing with sub-atomic entities. This phenomenon now extends beyond quantum systems: it seems to be a characteristic of all living systems, no matter their size or scale. From this perspective, all cognitive activity is embodied and context-specific.The autopoietic definition of cognitive activity provides a new way for understanding communication among living systems (and humans in particular). As you have seen, new information is necessary for a living system to evolve and create new order: in isolation from its environment, a system’s entropy increases and the system falls into decay. Information is the “creative energy” of living systems. Autopoietic theory holds that information does not exist independently of a system; it is not something “out there” that the system picks up from itsenvironment. Rather, the system selects which environmental perturbationsto notice and consequently creates information and assigns meaning to it through structural coupling. In this way, communication can be seen not a process by which organisms exchange information, but instead, as a process used for coordinating behavior. For Maturana, language arises when a level of abstraction is reached at which there is communication about communication. In other words, there is a coordination of the coordination of behavior.
With some consideration, it is possible to apply autopoietic theory to social systems considering that social systems exist and emerge their meaning in a domain of communication. Social systems use communication as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction.This has important implications for the development of culture as noted in this quote from Fritjof Capra: “[C]ulture arises from a complex, highly nonlinear dynamic. It is created by a social network involving multiple feedback loops through which values, beliefs, and rules of conduct are continually communicated, modified, and sustained. It emerges from a network of communications among individuals and, as it emerges, it produces constraints on their actions. In other words, the social structures, or rules of behavior, that constrain the actions of individuals are produced and continually reinforced by their own network of communications…People’s behavior is informed and restricted by their cultural identities, which in turn reinforces their sense of belonging.”