Autopoiesis… scratching the surface

Taken from the link:

Before Autopoiesis
Before the concept of autopoiesis was developed, Maturana and Varela were trying to determine what made something living. Whilst it is easy to class something as living or dead, it is difficult to say what characteristic of living beings (e.g. mammals, fish or insects) make them living. With the example of an umbrella, the characteristics that distinguish it from another entity include: stopping you getting wet, protection from strong sunshine, portable means of keeping dry or a piece of plastic in a curved, six sided shape on the end of a pole. Together, these provide a unique reference to an umbrella. Unique features that represent living beings include: moving, respiring, growth, reproducing and excretion. However, Maturana and Varela (1998) argue that if a machine made from aluminium could do these things it would be living. Whilst this is not true, given the conditions the machine would be a living being. Hence, a new way of defining living beings was needed. Maturana and Varela proposed that instead of creating a list of properties, they would characterise living beings as ‘continually self-producing’. This self producing ability was to be determined by the organisation of the organism.

Definition of Autopoiesis
Before defining autopoiesis, Maturana and Varela had to create an entity, and this was a machine defined as ‘a unity in the physical space, defined by its organization’. This means that anything that can be described in terms of its organisation (i.e. The way it is made) is a machine. It is also necessary to view people, and other beings, as living machines. From here, Maturana and Varela defined an autopoietic machine as:

‘a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.’ (Maturana and Varela 1980)

 Maturana and Varela have included several key ideas in this definition, and these are listed below.

1.Entities are defined by the processes that realise them as entities
2.The processes are responsible for the transformation and destruction of components in the entity
3.The network of processes is regenerated through the entity’s interactions and the transformation of components
4.The processes constitute the machine as a concrete entity in the space in which it exists

This is the formal specification of an autopoietic machine, but a more useful definition by Maturana (1975), defines autopoietic machines as ‘homeostatic systems that have their own organization as the critical fundamental variable that they actively maintain constant’. However, the formal definition has given rise to six conditions which now act as a check list to determine whether an entity can be considered autopoietic.


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