Thoughts on Autopoiesis

[Note:  I wrote this piece, if I recall rightly, as a post to a Usenet newsgroup somewhen around 1990. I’ve transcribed it here from a scanned pdf file without changes.  For those not familiar with the term, “autopoiesis,” it refers to the self-organizing, self-creating nature of living systems including learning, biological evolution, and cognitive development, and the recursive, self-referential nature of such processes.  The term was coined by Humberto Maturana (“Biology of Cognition”) and Francisco Valera in the early 1970s.

blue line

CAUTION:  This is a “free-write”  – I’m pretty likely to say some things that others have said before and may get to some unsupportable conclusions.

Trying to talk about autopoietic process in ordinary English is like Euclid trying to describe a Mandelbrot Set with his geometry. Common usage is riddled with inappropriate metaphors – “power”, “force”, “stress”, “impact”, “energy”, etc. – which only serve to obscure cybernetic reality in living systems.

“Logic is a poor model of cause and effect.” [Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature]

Revolution will not suffice.  Gorbachev is to Yeltsin as Kerensky was to Lenin (or Trotsky?) – Czar > Party Chairman > President, Boyer > Commissar > Manager, Serf > Worker > Employee – – What has remained constant through the changes?

Louis > Robespierre > Bonaparte

We in USA still often like to imagine that a Presidential Candidate can promise with the same confidence of enacting his will as a king.

The shift to autopoietic thinking/perceiving is difficult.  Old habits persist and re-emerge.  The shaman does not lecture.  He tells stories and dances.  The Ancient Mariner “blessed them unaware” and the Albatross fell from around his neck.  We ride the ox in search of the ox.  Where has the Worship of the Word by the Peoples of the Book brought us?  To the Babble of ‘isms?  In India, Ganesha, the elephant headed god, is the scribe of the gods, and a poet, not the iterator of Ultimate Truth, but a recorder of tales, a keeper of stories.  (“the elephant never forgets.”)  A different relationship is being held constant and sacred.

“Divergent processes are unpredictable.” [Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature]

To paraphrase Heinlein,  “Put too many rats in a cage and they go crazy.  Humans are the only species that does this to themselves on purpose.”  Six billion and counting … I wounder.

Splitting hares is a messy occupation.  A bad pun, but it just popped out, why?  There’s something about learning to perceive autopoietically that connects with getting language to run in circles instead of its accustomed straight lines … pun, paradox, metaphor, humor.  I’ve long suspected that if I ever learned to read Chinese I’d find quite a few of these in Lao Tsu and the Zen stories, the level of such that is all but impossible to translate.

Do I know where this is going?  No.  The free-write process is itself autopoietic.  When its really cooking the connections create themselves … self-referential self-reference … Speak to find out what you will say.

Conscious Purpose is something else again, and problematic, linear, end-point oriented, when there can be no end point.  Maybe that’s the attraction in apocalyptic prophecy, the illusion that the universe has some purpose beyond its own unfolding, and an end point where the final score will be known, a morality play instead of the jazz of becoming becoming.  Godot never arrives.

“The Greatest Good For The Greatest Number.”  The greatest cry of the greatest scoundrels and the greatest criminals of good intent.  I’ve been following [That was, back in the ancient days of the Usenet.] a topic called Sociopathy.  In history, on review, I think the sociopaths have done less harm than have the Sincere Saviors of Mankind.  The evil minded are generally content with stealing what wealth they can and enjoying the suffering of their immediate kin and neighbors.  Wickedness done in the name of Good and Right knows no bounds and spares none.

“Take care to do good in minute particulars.”  [Paul Watslawick, Ultrra-Solutions, Chapter 10]  This admonition is of some importance when we think on reforming the paradigms of discourse.  – Full Circle to revolutions and their failures.

So, how might the autopoietic paradigm unfold in our time?

Go Meta, go meta, go meta … find the level where the relation you would preserve already operates, then intervene at the next level down?  The tree of illusions is vast.  You can prune the branches for ever and it will only grow more lush.  Cut at the root and it all withers.

The Zen student chants daily a vow to save all sentient beings.  Then he sits down to meditate.

Paradox:  How to set about to do what cannot be done by setting out to do it?  The answer of hermits and monastics has for ages been, “I will bring about the unfolding realization of Being by devoting myself to the unfolding realization of that part of it that is ‘me’.”

Might I save the rain forests by going out and looking at my garden in the moonlight?  Preposterous!  Still, it’s worth a try.

Butterfly wings and hurricanes?!?!

Good Night


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Autopoiesis

  1. I had to look up autopoiesis. I liked this piece – free writing or not, this makes some solid points about life. And I’m not convinced the “sincere saviors” are not often also sociopaths.


      1. I wasn’t pointing to one particular savior. There have been many “saviors” who convinced many to follow them. Jim Jones was given a special place on the San Francisco Housing Commission because he had done so much, so selflessly to help the poor. Things are not always as they appear.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s