II. Autopoiesis (Self-Making)

This is the 2nd in a series of postings on whole systems thinking. In the coming weeks, after the topic is introduced, I’ll offer a contemplation that relates the information to our personal lives and higher order systems.


Living systems are cognitive systems, and living is a process of cognition. The statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system.

                                                                        Humberto Maturana (Chilean neuroscientist)

This statement led Maturana and his colleague, Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist at the University of Santiago, to conclude that a fundamental characteristic of biological systems, is that they are self-making. The word they coined for it is “autopoiesis.” Auto means “self, and poiesis is Greek for “making.” Living systems are individual and interdependent. Unlike machines, which are closed systems, they don’t have an external regulator. They operate on their own.

These researchers observed that “the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network.” It’s how the system makes itself. In closed, mechanical systems the component is referred to as a “part.” In open, living systems that exchange and express within their environment, the term for the component is “member.” A part is an independent and interchangeable singularity, like an engine part or circuit board. A member participates in a network of interactions where discrete individuals are continuously being produced by its components and in turn contribute to the production of the network’s components.

It’s important to note that autopoiesis is Nature’s way of constructing, maintaining and renewing living organisms. The temptation is to apply it in total to social systems, but human beings are more than their biology. The challenge of managing human social systems is compounded by the facts that their members are intelligent, and no two are alike. Each is an independent decision-maker, and the larger systems within which they are a component are themselves intelligent, decision-making wholes.

What I think we can safely borrow from the phenomenon of autopoiesis, is that the character and functionality of a human social system, whether it works or not, is a function of how it is organized and the quality of interaction among the members. Because these systems are open and not determined or controlled, there’s a need for continuous self-assessment in order to produce feedback on performance. Further, when human systems are unable or unwilling to self-regulate—by merging their needs with the needs of the whole systems above and below it—as we have seen in some corporations—a higher order social system, for instance, a government, can and needs to impose regulations to bring the system into optimal performance according to its design or purpose.


Contemplation on Autopoiesis (Self-Making) 

A personal example of this is a lesson I learned early on in the process of long-term film production. Members of the crew were showing up late or at the wrong location, were too tired to work, weren’t appropriately dressed, forgot a prop or didn’t call to say they couldn’t make it to the shoot. They were not self-regulating, so I imposed regulations, one of which was for the production manager to make a “courtesy call” to everyone involved the night before a shoot, to ensure that they would show up, on time, at the right place, have their sleep and food needs met and have the proper equipment, props or costume.

One of the principles of closed system management that applies equally to social systems in the context of autopoiesis advises: “Attend to the parts and the whole takes care of itself.” It’s one of the points made in the novel, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. When a mechanical system breaks down, the way to get it working again is to locate the dysfunctioning part and attend to it—ascertain what it takes to repair or replace it, then follow through appropriately. When all the parts function according to their design and work together, the whole system will operate as was intended. Systems thinking encourages us to understand relationships. And autopoiesis provides a model from Nature, suggesting that there is wisdom in allowing her to take her course, more often letting life guide relationships and interactions, as opposed to trying to manage or force them.

A benefit of age is hindsight regarding a phenomenon we all experience. Why, when we get a good idea and follow it through with a passion, it doesn’t work out? If only I’d known that ahead of time! Why does the Universe let me invest hours, a day, week or years trying to accomplish something when it doesn’t or can’t happen? Sometimes I’ll drive around to several stores before I find the object I’m looking for. It seems like a waste of time. Why doesn’t my mind—or the Universe—direct me to the one right place? I’m convinced there’s no way to avoid situations like that. And when I think about it, nothing is really a waste of time. Learning occurs. And patience. And those are real values, even an investment that pays dividends in the process of future decision-making.

From the living systems point of view, human beings are self-making, autopoietic. But there’s a paradox. On the one hand, the human body is continuously and automatically maintaining and renewing itself. We can and do influence its health, but it’s largely operating on its own. On the other hand, and sometimes interfering with the body’s natural functioning, we “make” ourselves as “persons”—an integration of body, mind, spirit—based on the assumption that we are in control, that we know what’s best for us. We know what we want, and we generally know what we want to make of ourselves. Nature, or life, wants us to go one way, while the mind or ego inclines us to go another. The net result—conflict. And when conflict becomes acute we experience pain—a signal that indicates system breakdown.

There are two routes to choose from in order to repair human breakdowns—allow Nature or life to move in the direction it will, or continue on the path of willful self-making. As conscious creatures, there’s a fundamental question to be addressed as life unfolds: Am I in charge? Or is life in charge? What I’ve found, operating under both assumptions, is that the latter brings more comfort, joy, confidence and peace. I love the following quote. It’s an expression of complete trust that life, the Universe, the soul—whatever word you prefer—is working out and all is well.

When we stop searching, we start finding. By looking less, we see more. When we allow the light within us to merge with the light that guides us, we experience oneness. Without any effort, we relax into a state where we have no decisions to make. There is no confusion, second-guessing, thinking, or searching for answers. There is just beingness—acceptance of life as it is.

Jacob Israel Liberman

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