"The stability of the internal medium is a primary condition for the freedom and independence of certain living bodies in relation to the environment surrounding them."
Claude Bernard, Leçons sur les Phénomènes de la Vie Communs, 1878-1879
"If we are to understand a newer and still evolving world; if we are to educate people to live in that world; if we are to legislate for that world; if we are to abandon categories and institutions that belong to a vanished world, as it is well-nigh desparate that we should; then knowledge must be rewritten. Autopoiesis belongs to the new library."
Stafford Beer, Preface to Autopoiesis, 1980
Autopoiesis is based on the way living systems address and engage with the domains in which they operate. This biologically based theory, introduced here, (originated by Maturana and Varela) defines life as the ability to self-produce, rather than as (conventionally) the ability to reproduce. Like complexity theory it is a systems perspective, and is applicable to brains and societies as well as to biology and artificial life. In its original form it was applied to cognition, and replaces an external objective view of this subject with an internal relativistic understanding, in terms of an embedded observer.
Only two types of structural change are possible in living organisms, changes of state that preserve identity, or disintegration (death). External perturbations trigger the changes to the organism but do not themselves determine them. The available states of the organism determine which environmental triggers can be recognised and which will disintegrate it, but the available states occur by a process of self-organization. This is the concept of 'structural closure' or 'structural determinism' that forms a main theme in autopoietic thinking. Note that this means that we do not 'map' our environment but just respond to a subset of it - a simplification required by the cybernetic Law of Requisite Variety.
Instructive interactions (traditional imposed learning) are said by Maturana to be incapable of being subjected to scientific procedures. Like moulding clay, they leave no trace of the original structure. Thus the standard neo-Darwinist idea that the environment imposes order on organisms is at best metaphorical. For example, the light entering our eye does not 'cause' the photochemical release that occurs, that mechanism must already exist, light just triggers it. This ties in with the complexity view that selection acts on systems whose structure has already self-organized.
An organism undergoes a history of perturbations from its environment (also seen as a dynamical system at a higher level, subsuming the organism) which trigger its own state trajectories. If these triggers are regular, then the organism also has regular state cycles, if continuously changing then novel trajectories will occur. If the organism affects (triggers) the environment in turn then we have the coevolution of two structurally coupled systems.
If these triggers result in state changes that involve component changes (rather than just interactional ones) then we have adaptation. This plasticity in structural topology at both state and component levels is what is called 'structural coupling' and can operate in both directions. By this process the medium or environmental organization becomes co-ordinated with that of the organism. But note that there is no necessary informational or semantic commonality between the two, each reacts to the other on its own terms.
The components of the organism are regarded as a form of autocatalytic set. In other words the components take in food (lower level components) from the environment and by a dissipative process (using energy) act on each other in such a way as to recreate themselves dynamically (unlike machines with fixed parts). This closure of the system allows it be bounded, to isolate itself from the outside world and become a self-sustaining constant (homeostatic) system. This definition of life is far better that the systemic illogicality of defining it as the reproduction of a passive gene. A living system is a ongoing process that self-defines and self-maintains its form, reproduction is not a necessary function of this.
Autopoietic closure is a systems property and is thus not restricted to biological systems. It gives Autonomy; Phenomenal Distinctions - an emergent composite level as well as a part level (these are not logically deducible from each other); Adaptability - tracking its environment in the present (ontological); and Adaptation - divergent trajectories of parallel systems (some disintegrate). Thus reproduction and natural selection is a domain orthogonal to self-producing 'being' or existence itself - they are different dimensions.
The organism's current state is due to its history of structural coupling. This base or instinctive state is a combination of evolutionary and developmental processes. Learning is also a form of structural coupling, so is indistinguishable from instinct. Distinctions between evolutionary, developmental and experiential structural change are thus those of timescale and not of type, and this suggests that they can be modelled by a common mechanism.
The independence of system states from environment states allows for decoupling, seen (from outside) as inappropriate behaviour - often called 'instinct' or 'mistake'. This relates to systems that are internally dynamically self-consistent (able to follow their own processes) yet do not act on their environment in a way consistent with some external understanding. This insight suggests that many alternative and equally valid 'human systems' can exist without being regarded as 'faulty' - an idea that has many implications for medical interventionism aimed at 'normalisation'.
This is the structural coupling between two autopoietic and structurally plastic systems. The interactions between the two systems are closed on triggers but are open on the systems that realise them (organisation is independent of the parts that create it). This means that we can substitute functionally equivalent systems without affecting the coevolutionary result. Thus artificial lifeforms would be indistinguishable from natural ones from a behavioural point of view.
Further, because any individual is organisationally closed and cannot distinguish the source of its triggers, then the 'reality' that we create bears no relationship to the external world. We do not model or describe a reality, simply a consensus. Interacting systems serve as a source of (cybernetically) compensatable perturbations to each other, but do not share explicitly any external common reality.
Our discrimination of our environment (in autopoietic thought) is constrained by structural limitations, the participant's possible organizational modes. Each mode forms a subset of the structurally determined set of available actions, and this set changes over time with the system's structural coupling to the environment (learning, triggers). Each cognitive entity therefore occupies a niche or specific 'cognitive domain' closely linked to its own history of structural coupling. In autopoiesis, calling the brain an 'information processing device' is patently wrong - that is a description from an external observer viewpoint and not one experienced by the organism. Information processing is an external analogy (like attributing emotions to robots) and does not relate to an internal description of a real symbolic manipulation system.
Language is not therefore an 'instructive interaction', passively moving information between two entities, but a mutual orientation of the participants to a common consensus domain - a linking of their separate cognitive domains. We can only agree as far as our structural options let us, what an observer assumes (from their separate domain) to be a universal agreement about reality may be no more than a common history of structural coupling - a correlation or co-ordination between two discrete entities achieved over a period of mutual plastic changes. This viewpoint generalises language to include many other forms of signalling, and thus makes all semantics contextual and not absolute.
- Does the system have identifiable boundaries ?
- Does it have constituent elements or components ?
- Is it mechanistic (subject to cause and effect) ?
- Are the boundaries self-produced ?
- Are the components of the boundaries self-produced ?
- Are the rest of the components self-produced ?
Under these criteria, not only are biological organisms autopoietic, but so is cognition, society
and many institutions within it.
Coevolution relates to the two-way interplay between the organism and aspects of its environment and can occur in various forms. Firstly the organism can affect the physical environment, by changing the adaptive pressures on itself (e.g. by moving around, digging holes), thus the physical environment should not be regarded as a static 'object'. Secondly physical changes in this environment can affect the organism (e.g. weather changes) leading to adaptation or changes in behaviour. Most forms of coevolution however will occur with respect to other organisms, and again there are several aspects to this also. The interactions encountered can be with members of its own species, either competitive or cooperative, with 'prey' species (lower on the food chain), with 'predator' species (higher on the food chain), with neutral species (at any level) and with kin (family). In evolutionary biology, economics and game theory the dynamics of such interactions lead to such concepts as 'Nash equilibria' or 'Evolutionary Stable Strategies' (ESS) - situations where no agent can improve their lot so long as the others continue with their current strategy. This leads to repetitive behaviours (cyclic attractors), however for our purposes here we are interested in more complex situations where stability is at best temporary due to the multiplicity of influences.
All these influences may be multi-faceted, i.e. they can affect several interacting values or needs in each organism. A particular set of relevant interactions, almost ignored so far in the research community, relates to synergic coevolution, where a number of organisms enter into a mutual arrangement such that the net benefit to all exceeds their individual costs (a win-win situation). This dynamic also takes many forms including symbiotic, social and ecological networks. In general all these effects will be present to some degree in any complex system, including economic, technological and cultural ones. This necessitates a much more holistic and multilevel approach if we are to understand which mutual structural changes are taking place, which niches are being dynamically created, and what are their relative stabilities. It is found from simulations that such coevolving systems naturally adjust their parameters to maximise overall group fitness, moving from either static or chaotic regimes to a metastable 'edge-of-chaos' state possessing complex mixes of behaviour with fractal structure on both spatial and temporal scales.
Whilst the dynamics of all these forms of coevolution have many common systemic characteristics, we can divide them for explanatory purposes into three distinct levels related to the organistic or human needs involved in each. It is important to note however that all these levels interact and they should not be regarded as just 'stand-alone' subjects for study, although since such dynamics have been significantly neglected so far in science there is much scope to remedy this situation also ! The level names used below are however illustrative and are not, in any sense (as yet), common 'complexity' terminology.
At this level the world's physical resources are employed by biological organisms to meet their primal needs. In this dynamic, matter is transformed into life and conversely (upon death) life is transformed back into matter (recycling is endemic to this process). This two way interplay between the physical and biological realms is lost in the general separation between physical and biological sciences, although it does feature to some extent in the various cycles studied in biochemistry, and it also features significantly in the Gaia theory of James Lovelock. Many separate resources and different types of organisms operate here and in this mode we concentrate on the individual's coevolution between matter and life, the maintenance, in whatever way, of an autopoietic (self-sustaining) overall organism (body plus the lower instinctive mind aspects), in other words the emergence of 'life' itself.
In the next level up we study the interplay between individual lifeforms and their social fellows, the 'collective' behaviour. Here we engage a more complex dynamic whereby many types of social structure become possible, including the move between 'individual' and 'social' forms seen in the slime mold. Here also we consider animal societies, which can take innumerable complex forms, and we can extend this to include the interplay between different species which are studied in ecology and ethology. In this mode many human behaviours also fit well, especially our day-to-day social interactions - which take place largely unconsciously and are automatically constrained by our cultural norms (akin to animal instincts). This coevolution between life and society is, once more, largely missed by our scientific compartmentalization - which separates biological, psychological and sociological disciplines. This level relates to the maintenance of an autopoietic socioecosystem (akin to the organization of a multicellular organism, but rather less constrained), the emergence of society and ecosystem.
The final level that we will consider is generally thought to apply only to humans, who uniquely have the ability to generate abstract ideas, non-material concepts like mathematics, philosophy, ethics and politics which nethertheless affect how we behave and the dogmas we so often adopt, i.e. they are not, in any sense, irrelevant to science (in any of its forms) as is so often assumed by those of a purely 'materialist' or 'reductionist' bent, but define and constrain the very behaviours employed within such disciplines. Thus we have coevolution between our social level and a mythical (yet very real to all the people involved) world of the imagination, which takes place along many separate abstract dimensions. It is here that language and symbolism come to the fore and the autopoiesis here takes place largely in these realms. Academically, these dimensions are however increasingly all kept divorced from one another, sometimes with murderous ferocity - even though they are all of the same type and all coevolve necessarily with each other. This autopoietic level maintains 'culture' itself, in the form of our self-sustaining and self-reinforcing 'belief systems' or philosophical 'worldviews', and tries to defend such 'systems' - even in the face of contradictory 'facts'. This level relates to the emergence of 'virtual realities'. A more fragile balance exists here however than in the other two levels, this level is more subject to perturbation and systemic disintegration by outside influences (as we see in the more frequently seen extinction or transformation record of human 'societies' or 'civilizations' - compared to either ecosystems or individual species).
Autopoietic systems are self-sustaining wholes, however where these are fairly loosely defined with vague, open boundaries (e.g. most human systems) the terms sympoietic is sometimes used. These terms can can contrasted with heteropoietic which refers to externally sustained or planned systems (e.g. a person looking after an aquarium) and allopoietic which is an unsustainable, throughput-based, system (e.g. a production line which depletes the environment). We should note that most companies are not autopoietic systems, even internally, since they are forced into being and do not spontaneously organize (although they could, advantageously, be transformed into such systems). With today's emphasis upon sustainablility it is clear that a focus upon autopoiesis is both invaluable and necessary if we are to correct the many errors caused by our misunderstanding of the nature of systems, evolution and learning.
Autopoiesis, with its stress on action within an environment helps us to understand life at all levels. This relates to the situated or selected self-organization mode of complexity thought, which considers the coevolution of system and environment. Whilst autopoiesis usually does not incorporate the complexity concept of dynamical attractors it uses the same idea of limited flexibility due to structural connectivity, along with the need to change structure if we are to develop new modes of behaviour. No mechanism is generally suggested however to drive these structural changes and in this respect complexity thought goes beyond this field, allowing for internal mutation or recombination to generate emergent metastable options for subsequent testing against environmental response. Autopoiesis remains however a valuable perspective with which to understand the essential nature of the interplay between any system and its current (and ever changing) environment.