What is Life and Environment? : Autopoiesis of Life World



Nihon University, College of Industrial Technology

2-11-1 Shin'ei, Narashino-shi, Chiba 275-8576



Abstract: This paper draws a more detailed picture of life as seen from autopoiesis, a system first conceived and developed by H. R. Maturana and F. J. Varela whose pioneering study on life has enabled us to focus upon how "life" comes into being. As will be shown, this study also aims to shed a new light on the hitherto unexplored nature of life and subsequently that of environment.


Keywords :autopoiesis life environment self by itself organization 乗丂observer


1. Introduction

   Chilean biologists, H.R. Maturana and F.J. Varela (e.g., 1980,1992), whose search of life's definition, have successfully given a clue to the understanding of the most vexing question of life. Autopoiesis, a systematic principle does not reduce life to super-nature like soul and vigor, nor does it aim to explain life physiologically, seeing it as physiological processes, reproductions and movements as something physically grounded as is widely taken for granted in current sciences. Autopoiesis, therefore, is totally new way of seeing life and environment.

   Autopoiesis is a compound word: auto meaning oneself and by itself, and poiesis, production, creation, and formation. Hence, the word 乬autopoiesis乭 literally is "self-production, and self-creation".

    Maturana and Varela (1980) define "autopoiesis" as follows: An autopoietic system is a system organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components. At this time, the components have the following characters: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously they regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) they constitute it (the system) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.

    The theory enables us to see further into life and environment, together with earth-system.


2. "By Itself", für sich

   An autopoiesis system, as Maturana and Varela have defined, is a system that produces organizations continuously which in fact put the system-itself "by itself" in motion. In one circulation of productive process, components of the system produce components that are needed to maintain the system in mutual action. That is, components produce the organization, which solely produce components through their function. By this definition autopoiesis system makes a clearly closed region, that is, its own boundary of action, a 乬self乭 region. Autopoiesis system regulates its boundary by and for itself (für sich), and not by and for an observer乫s points of view!

   This definition on autopoiesis shows that the system works "by itself", and reveals the proper contents of the word, "It is living."(It is of utmost importance therefore to give careful notice that autopoiesis is a self-referential and infinitely circular system wherein persistent self-production of components is observed. Components, as will be carefully expounded upon later, are never hierarchically fixed as in a reductionist method, nor are they "parts" of the whole.)

    One may get a clearer view of how this system works when compared with a non-autopoietic system, i. e., allopoiesis. A robot gives us a best example of the allopoiesis, since it is biologically non-self-productive, and does not have any self-sustenance of its own. Its actions are deliberately programmed by man so as to make itself behave like a human being. The robot is simply an assemblage of parts which cannot reproduce themselves. When it breaks down, the broken parts must be replaced from an outside system. Therefore, it is not the system running "by itself", and must be an allopoiesis system.

   "By itself" gives us a key term to fully understand the difference between biosis and non-biosis. To repeat, the components in the system self-produces the self-same components and hence an ever continuous network of the components themselves is established to produce the components. Through this continuous self-productive process, the system as a systematic unity distinguishes itself from other systems. This system is just a "living" system. This is the best definition of life hitherto given.

   A cell, for example, is best studied in terms of the autopoiesis system, for its continuous self-production and sustenance of tissue, as have been seen, are observed in nucleic acid, protein cases. Here the components of the cell invariably form a network of reciprocal functions which self-produce components, but this is not ordered by "gene乭, as some might believe it does. The reciprocal network of components produces gene that requires a place to work in the cell.

A gene must have its own place of function. Pax6, for example, is one of those genes functioning in the formation of the eyes of mammals. It keeps a homology with a gene called eyeless who plays a vigorous role in the formation of eyes of vinegar fly. However, in the body of a vinegar fly, pax6 cannot generate ocelli of mammals, it produces compound eyes of a vinegar fly. The self-same gene produces compound eyes within the body of a vinegar fly, while ocelli within the mammals! Thus shapes of biota change with no mutations in the genes. The reciprocal network of autopoietic components of a cell produces genes, and also determining their functions.

To repeat again, autopoiesis is a system as a network of processes of production of components that produces the components, and is not a so-called 乬self-organizing乭 system taken widely in current sciences. The latter system is nothing but a non-linear system that a preceding series of process gives a chance to generate the following self-same process. Therefore, unlike autopoiesis it has not a clearly closed active region as unity and cannot generate the boundary (für sich) for its action by itself as shown later. So, because such a system is not the system that the 乬self乭 (für sich) is organizing by itself, current theories, widely so-called 乬self-organizing乭, cannot rightly treat life system. 


3. No Inputs and Outputs 

   The autopoiesis system is a closed one with the self-productive activity, as in the formation of the cells. The closeness of the system is best explained by the term "by itself". As it is a self-recurrent system, as long as this closeness of the system can exist, it iteratively self-produces its own components continuously so as to survive by itself.

   The autopoiesis system is a system that self-produces all required for maintaining its own organization. Hence, there is no inputs and outputs in the autopoiesis system. The maintenance of the system, as has been asserted, is not kept by any given controlled regulations from the outside. Thus, there is no inputs and outputs in the autopoiesis system.

   It must also be carefully understood here that the functional relationship with the outside of the system is not broken off in the autopoiesis system. As long as the recursive circulation is kept maintained in the system, there could emerge an "environment" which bears meaningful existence toward the autopoiesis system, in a topological domain outside the system. While the system is in operation one can see an interaction of environments with the system. There is, as will be seen, not only a single environment but also many which possibly have a high potential of interactions with the system. (The questions as "What is complexity? " or "Why does this world look complex?" are caused from this situation, as revealed in section 7.)

   In the autopoiesis system, as has been shown, there is no inputs and outputs. This premise that it has closeness in maintaining the system ("by itself") proves that the openness to environment and closeness of the autopoiesis system are not mutually exclusive. Being not only exclusive in retaining the system, but also because of having no inputs and outputs in the system, it can be therefore functionally related to its environments. (Fig.1)


4. What is 乬environment乭?

    As long as an autopoiesis is running, there appears an "environment" which is of a special significance for the system. Contact with the environment brings about exposure in the system. While this exposure is guaranteed here as long as the systematic occlusion is in work, the occlusion is, as has been repeatedly noted, indispensable to the self-formation of autopoiesis. As shown in Fig.1, this situation is due to the work of autopoiesis system that self-produces by itself. These actions of the system, therefore, compose the presence of environments through this autopoietic work of self-production. Autopoiesis thus functions with producing environment inherent to the system. 

   When autopoiesis self-creates an inherent environment essential to its own action, a condition necessary for an appearance of autopoiesis is simultaneously ensured. This action reveals another decisive aspect of self-production by itself. A non-autopoietic system does not and cannot create its own environment by itself.

   The Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, often illustrated as an example of self-organization system, is devoid of any self-creative function that establishes its own environment by itself.  Someone (an experimenter) who is setting up an environment that would be adjusted to the given system, so that this cannot be an autopoiesis system, therefore, only maintains this reaction. So, strictly speaking, it cannot be a self-organizing system, because it is merely a system controlled by someone outside the system.

   Environment, and what it posits is of greatest critical importance when one has to give detailed description of autopoiesis-theory. A Darwinist interpretation of the survival of the fittest, for instance, proves the fallacy of the relationship between biosis and environment, when it is compared with that of autopoiesis. The Darwinist interpretation is only applicable to the explanation of the non-living system, because as has been shown above, allopoiesis system does not and cannot create its own environment to retain the system by itself. A regulation from the outside should be necessary for an allopoiesis system in order to maintain the system. The general idea of "the survival of the fittest" is the reflection of the tacit thought that biosis is presumed the existence which is just regulated from the outside of the system.

   Biosis in autopoiesis is not simply set in the environment, and it is not simply adjusted to the given environment. In autopoiesis, life's continuous self-productivity composes environments prerequisite to its survival. Thus, theory of autopoiesis logically proves a conceptualization of niche and its subsequent inevitability for life-systems.

   As has been discussed, the life-system as an autopoiesis system has originally been unaffected in its systematic function by any possible existent environments. For as long as the autopoietic organization of nucleic acid- and protein-systems are kept maintained and thus keep biosis on earth in autopoiesis, there is life and life-system for any environment. Environment for biosis, as is clearly seen, is neither fixed nor given. Biosis constantly self-creates its own inherent niche and its environment by itself.

Biosis is not simply applicable to the given environment and conditional. It is endowed with the power to change by itself alone regardless of any exterior influences. This reveals some important phases of autopoiesis that are, as has been shown, self-productive and self-creating activities. Lynn Margulis proves that "eukaryote" for instance, originated in a symbiotically related system of "prokaryote"(e.g., Margulis and Sagan, 1997). This explains that the system which gives birth to "eukaryote" is not a result of mutation of DNA, nor that of slowly progressing natural selection. An emergence and development of multicellular biota as a symbiotically related system is the just result of self-productive process of autopoiesis.


5. Symbiosis 乗丂An Example of Autopoietic Operations

   Symbiosis reveals one of the most remarkable aspects of the life-system that functions with an accompaniment of the ceaseless autopoietic movements. It enables the life systems to transfer themselves to the coming time and space by denying their preceding isolated systems, in one and same place. Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), a Japanese philosopher, terms this life's remarkable activity as 乬predicative logic乭 in "absolutely contradictory self-identity". Contradictory existences (a heterogeneous group of existences) unify themselves into a new existence by creating and sharing the same place wherein they finally self-identify themselves (乬Life A is in the place C. Life B in the same place C. Through the identity of the place, therefore, A is B.乭 This is the predicative logic wherein contradictory existences self-identify themselves.). That is, life creates the place and the place new life!  Nishida sees the essence of life-itself and life-world as "absolutely contradictory self-identity" (e.g., Nishida, 1993).

   German mathematicians, Cantor and Dedekind's well-known definition of "infinite": The whole involves parts and parts the whole" has a close parallel to Nishida's theory of  "absolutely contradictory self-identity".

   The following simulation can illustrate the movement that is attributed to 乬infinity乭 and 乬absolutely contradictory self-identity乭: 乬With the TV camera I take a picture of the place where I am乭. When I am photographed, the place is also photographed. I who am photographing the place am in the place. That is, through the work that I take pictures of the place, the place also takes pictures of the place itself. This endless sequence of the relationship between the place and I is valid, and this movement emerges as that of the self-development (A fractal figure, which illustrates that a part involves the whole, helps us understand this self-referential movement).

   To repeat 乬absolutely contradictory self-identity乭, life occupies a place wherein the place gives birth to life, as shown in symbiosis. This is nothing but one aspect of the relationship between autopoiesis system and its environment, as discussed in the previous sections. From this action emerges a life-world full of diversity, without any regulation and control from the outside of the system. An endless movement of fractal in computer simulations, which can also be applied to the idea of "infinite" of Cantor and Dedekind, gives a good hint as to the diversity of life on earth, which is emerging without any exterior rules, laws, regulations, and controls. (It must be noted here that the self-development in life is not the simple iteration of the one and same pattern, as some researchers carelessly conclude fractal just like life system.)

   Biosis as autopoiesis can freely change itself without regulation from the outside as long as autopoiesis system is kept maintained. This is the work of "by itself", as has been shown, and is a crucial characteristic of biota as autopoiesis. Thus it is possible for life to exist and survive in every nook and corner of the earth, in the intense heat and at the deepest seabed of the oceans.

   The theory of autopoiesis thus gives us a brave new insight into the mystery of environment, and we can have the first logically proper clue to ask a big question: "What is environment?" to which question we shall return in section 7.


6. "Boundary" and "Observer and Observed"

   With iterative actions of reproducing its own components, an "occlusion" system self-revolves, and thereby produces "boundary". That is, the autopoietic productive processes of the components in action naturally draw the boundary.  A current argument over substantialist-based self-organization first posits an observer's point of view that definitely fixes the elements of the system within the given space.  Next, the observer would be invited to study the structure and relationships among such elements that are nothing but fixed originally from an observational point of view. All these substantialist hypothetical procedures are inevitably accompanied with statical and hierarchical presuppositions, so that they cannot even see what they insist as self-organizing is not a self-organizing system. Autopoiesis has nothing to do with any such substantialism. No point of observer's view is allowed to include, for the subject-object dualism is totally invalid in autopoiesis.

   The theory clearly points out that the true function of "boundary" within the space of the system is totally different from what has been proved scientifically true. Actually, there is no guarantee that a boundary which a system produces and what an observer considers align with each other. The true function of "boundary" is hardly understood.

  One of the prevalent false presuppositions that a boundary in the cellular system is nothing but a cell membrane is apparently the result of sheer failure to understand how the system organizes by itself, which is due to a static and fixed presupposition of an observer for a self-creating system. (A cell membrane is a boundary of 乬structure乭, which is a relationship among components of autopoiesis (see section 8), emerged in the real space.) The boundary of the system is entirely different from what we believe seeing and imagining.

  As Maturana and Varela (1980) have explicitly illustrated in their book, that the dynamics of the self-creating system is to be studied with a topological space in view in which there are three coordinates that produce triple relational components: construction, specificity and order. So we must discard Cartesian coordinates to understand how "boundary" is drawn and set in autopoiesis system, and how it is constructed, specified and ordered.


7. Why does our world look complex?

   There is first a topological space wherein an autopoietic occlusion space is formed by iterative production of components. The action simultaneously draws the boundary, because of its iterative self-production. This boundary forms the region of "self" for the system. The "self" appears with a simultaneous composition of "environment" outside the 乬self乭 region. 

   "Environment", however, is not one with the "self", nor is it separated from the "self". This relationship between "environment" and "self" is not the same with that of two sides of the same coin. So this gives us an inexplicably odd impression. It is best understood as "penetration". The self is composed with no inputs and outputs. Self-formation therefore has nothing to do with the environment as long as an autopoietic action is secured. That is, the 乬self乭 self-produces 乬by itself乭 so that the environment penetrates borderlessly into the 乬self乭, as has been shown in sections 3 and 4 about these situations.

   As long as an autopoiesis system works, the region of "self" is continuously created within the topological space wherein "environment" emerges simultaneously with the production of "self". The moment the autopoiesis system produces a "self-region", "environment" penetrates into 乬self乭. So, the self stands independently by itself without knowing its surrounding environment. This is due to the work of "by itself". The "self" cannot recognize its surrounding, and so it finds its surrounding inexplicable, while it is ceaselessly penetrated by 乬environment乭. This relationship of the borderless penetration between an environment and "self" thus gives the 乬self乭 an impression of sheer complexity and incomprehensibility about its surrounding and also a borderless openness to its surrounding.

   This is best explained as an inexplicable anxiety that would be experienced as a sense of coming from "a keen feeling of being closely watched", especially when he/she is with his/her lover. As long as this autopoietic interaction, the love-system between them is secured, an environment penetrates borderlessly into this love-relationship. The penetration of the environment here is "a keen feeling of being closely watched". Although the lovers cannot recognize what the environment is and why such an environment surrounds them, they would feel ceaseless anxiety of "a keen feeling of being closely watched", i.e., a penetration of the surrounding.


8. Organization, Structure and History

     When autopoietic system operates in a topological space, we recognize that, in the actual world, the components organize a systematic unity that builds a certain network among the components. This concrete relationship among the components is called "structure". "Organization" of the autopoietic system, i.e., a circulative process systematically produced by the network of components, remains stable as long as the autopoiesis works.

     "Structure" is variable, and so it is freely rearranged by the components that go through the cycles of their formations and extinction. Many of the emergent structures have concrete reflections of "organization" of the system. Thus, the transformations of the "structures" introduce various "histories" into the life system.

    "History" in life system is best explained by the ontogeny, for instance, of a frog, of whose "structure" is variously rearranged among the cells, which sustains a systematic unity of what we call a "frog". The systematic unity here, it is to be noted, covers the whole history of a frog.


9. Applications and Prospects

   A concept of autopoiesis first conceived by Maturana and Varela was originally germinated in search of life system. Niklaus Luhmann, a German sociologist, with his keen insight found this system applicable to his theory in which he deliberately goes further to show that any social systems, including legal and economic etc., are likened to a neuron- and a mind-system (Luhmann, 1987; Kneer and Nassehi, 1993). These are exactly the same autopoietic systems with the life system, for it has a self-productive component prerequisite to the retention of the system.

    It is crucial to understand that a social system is also based upon the very system of autopoiesis (Luhmann, 1990). That is, the social system is composed of communications, not of human beings. The communications produce communications by the recursive work of the autopoietic system. A crucial point to make here is that the communications are not the results of human activities. They are products of this recursive communicating system which explicitly reveals that communications are made possible only by communications. This is best explained by the relationship between "I" and "Thou", the smallest social system. "Thou" is a representation and a meaning about the other person which the communicating system has produced. Without communications "Thou" as a meaningful existence is unable to emerge for "I". In other words, there is no human being unless there is communication.

     A "mind"-system similarly is an autopoiesis system that continuously produces a content of thought by its own content of thought as a component of the autopoiesis system. This is what we call "representation", and "the noematic". The system self-produces a systematic unity through the recursive production of representations. The systematic unity is what we call "self". The moment the first content of thought disappears the next one is produced. And at the same time, it has an incessant production of thoughts: I think that "I think, therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum.)"; I think that I think that "I think, therefore I am乭, etc. Consciousness is thus produced. This consciousness, called "self", produces the mind-system. Thus "self" is no substance as some might think it is. It is a self-product of an autopoiesis system and it disappears at the moment when the mind system as autopoiesis stops working.


10. Structural Coupling, 乬Non-dependent-dependency乭

An endless openness and sheer complexity of the world, as have been expounded upon, are the products of running of the autopoietic system. This situation brings autopoiesis system boundless penetration of 乬environment乭.

 Closed circulation of social- and mind-systems are likewise inseparably penetrated into another system, alternately becoming "environments". A continuous production of communications in social-system is made possible by the consciousness in mind-system of more than two persons. There is no consciousness without communication, as in "I" and "Thou", communication without consciousness. Both consciousness and communications, however, stand mutually as environments. There is, therefore, no possibility of organizing any higher rank systems that can unify both. This unusual relationship is called "structural coupling". While being structurally coupled, one becomes dependent on the other, and one simultaneously remains an "environment" for the other. Structural coupling, in this manner, reveals an interesting relationship that may be termed as "non-dependent-dependency".

   This is best explained by the following supposition. When a man or a woman is having a discussion with other people in a conference, he/she may be also thinking of meeting his/her lover in the evening. This gives a good example of a man or a woman who is drifting away from the given communication system to another different autopoietic system, i.e., from a social-system to a mind-system. The communication system, however, is not capable of finding out how he/she feels, for the communication system does not care to understand mind and heart. For the arguments in the conference produce nothing but the series of linkages of arguments, while the mind-system is distinctly different in that it ceaselessly produces only personal thoughts and feelings.

   Another good example of similar "structural coupling" is found between an encephalon- and mind-systems. There is no mind without brain, any brain without mind because one cannot recognize brain without mind. The encephalon system, however, explains nothing about mind in principle, for it is not a system that self-produces autopoietic components of the mind system. 


11. Endless Evolution of the Autopoietic World

   Life is a drifting existence that moves incessantly from one autopoietic circulation to another, and then to the next, etc. We as life are, so to speak, floating and moving within a topological space in the autopoietic world. The numerous autopoietic circulation in the topological space can figuratively be likened each to a doughnut ring. There are uncountable numbers of floating rings with circulating movements in our world. Some of these rings may be so reciprocally intersected as to couple structurally. Some may solely float in the space confronting the others as "environments" (Fig.2).

   The history of life with its endless autopoietic development from the birth of life to mind- and language-systems has drawn a brave new picture of our world wherein a ceaseless development of numerous autopoietic rings floating and drifting in the topological space is observed. This is the real nature of our world that the Earth has attained after 4-giga years of time.

It is autopoiesis and its accompanying numerous autopoietic systems which would definitely help us to understand more about the self-productive development of our life-world over 4-giga years on this great globe. The autopoiesis theory has such an enormous potential of rediscovering the world we live in.



I would like to thank Prof. M. Kubodera for useful comments on the manuscript.



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Figure 1. Autopoiesis and environment. An autopoiesis system will keep running as long as organization for autopoiesis, which an oval in the figure illustrates, is perennial, even if output-input relationships between the system and its environment change (for example, even if x and y change into x乫 and y乫, respectively). This plasticity of environment brings the autopoiesis system boundless penetration of environment into the system.











Figure 2. Doughnut rings of autopoiesis in a topological space. Life world consists of uncountable numbers of floating doughnut rings of autopoiesis with circulating movements. Some of rings couple with others structurally and some float solely in a topological space. 


Figure Captions

Figure 1. Autopoiesis and environment. An autopoiesis system will keep running as long as organization for autopoiesis, which an oval in the figure illustrates, is perennial, even if output-input relationships between the system and its environment change (for example, even if x and y change into x乫 and y乫, respectively). This plasticity of environment brings the autopoiesis system boundless penetration of environment into the system.

Figure 2. Doughnut rings of autopoiesis in a topological space. Life world consists of uncountable numbers of floating doughnut rings of autopoiesis with circulating movements. Some of rings couple with others structurally and some float solely in a topological space.