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Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality (Varela)

Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality (Varela)



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Essay 1Autopoiesis and aBiology of Intentionality
Francisco J. Varela 
CREA, CNRS—Ecole Polytechnique,Paris, France.
Parts of this text have been published in (Varela 1991).
Biology of Intentionality
Francisco J. Varela 
1.1 Introduction
As everybody here knows, autopoiesis is a neolo-gism, introduced in 1971 by H. Maturana and my-self to designate the organization of a minimal livingsystem. The term became emblematic of a view of the relation between an organism and its medium,where its self constituting and autonomous aspectsare put at the center of the stage. From 1971, untilnow much has happened to reinforce this perspec-tive. Some of the developments have to do with thenotion of autopoiesis itself in relation to the cellularorganization and the origin of life. Much more hasto do with the autonomy and self-organizing qual-ities of the organism in relation with its cognitiveactivity. Thus in contrast to the dominant cogni-tivist, symbol-processing views of the 70’s today wewitness in cognitive science a renaissance of the con-cern for the embeddedness of the cognitive agent,natural or artificial. This comes up in various labelsas nouvelle-AI (Brooks 1991c), the symbol ground-ing problem (Harnad 1991), autonomous agents inartificial life (Varela & Bourgine 1992), or situatedfunctionality (Agree 1988), to cite just a few self-explanatory labels used recently.Any of these developments could merit a full talk;obviously I cannot do that here. My intentionrather, profiting from the position of opening thisgathering, is to try to indicate some fundamentalor foundational issues of the relation between au-topoiesis and perception. Whence the title of mytalk: a biology of intentionality. Since the crisis of classical cognitive science has thrown open the issueof intentionality, in my eyes autopoiesis provides anatural entry into a view of intentionalty that isseminal in answering the major obstacles that havebeen addressed recently. I’ll came back to that atthe end. Let me begin at the beginning.
1.2 Cognition andMinimal Living Systems
1.2.1 Autopoiesis as theskeletal bio-logic
The bacterial cell is the simplest of living sys-tems because it possesses the capacity to produce,through a network of chemical processes, all thechemical components which lead to the constitutionof a distinct, bounded unit. To avoid being triv-ial, the attribute ‘living’ in the foregoing descriptionmust address the
that allows such consti-tution, not the materialities that go into it, or anenumeration of properties. But what is this basicprocess? Its description must be situated at a veryspecific level: it must be sufficiently universal to al-low us to recognize living systems as a class, withoutessential reference to the material components. Yetat the same time it must not be too abstract, thatis, it must be explicit enough to allow us to see suchdynamical patterns in action in the actual living sys-tem we know on earth, those potentially to be foundin other solar systems, and eventually those createdartificially by man. As stated by the organizer of ameeting on artificial life: “Only when we are able toview
in the larger context of 
will we really understand the natureof the beast” (Langton 1989b, p. 2).Contemporary cell biology has made it possiblefor some years now to put forth the characteriza-tion of this basic living organization—a bio-logic—as that of an
system (from Greek: self-producing—Maturana & Varela 1980; Varela
et al.
1974). An autopoietic system—the minimal livingorganization—is one that continuously produces thecomponents that specify it, while at the same timerealizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in spaceand time, which makes the network of productionof components possible. More precisely defined: Anautopoietic system is organized (defined as unity) asa network of processes of production (synthesis anddestruction) of components such that these compo-nents:(i) continuously regenerate and realize the networkthat produces them, and(ii) constitute the system as a distinguishable unityin the domain in which they exist.Thus, autopoiesis attempts to capture the mech-anism or process that generates the
of theliving, and thus to serve as a categorical distinc-tion of living from non-living. This identity amountsto self-produced coherence: the autopoietic mecha-nism will maintain itself as a distinct unity as longas its basic concatenation of processes is kept in-tact in the face of perturbations, and will disappearwhen confronted with perturbations that go beyonda certain viable range which depends on the specificsystem considered. Obviously, all of the biochemi-cal pathways and membrane formation in cells, canbe immediately mapped onto this definition of au-topoiesis.A different exercise—which I do not pursue hereat all—is to see how this basic autopoietic orga-nization, present at the origin of terrestrial life(Fleischaker 1988), becomes progressively complexi-5
Biology of Intentionality
Francisco J. Varela 
fied though reproductive mechanisms, compartmen-talization, sexual dimorphism, modes of nutrition,symbiosis, and so on, giving rise to the variety of pro- and eukaryotic life on Earth today (Margulis1981; Fleischaker 1988). In particular, I take herethe view that reproduction is
intrinsic to theminimal logic of the living. Reproduction must beconsidered as an added complexification superim-posed on a more basic identity, that of an autopoi-etic unity, a complexification which is necessary dueto the constraints of the early conditions on a turbu-lent planet. Reproduction is essential for the viabil-ity of the living, but only when there is an identitycan a unit reproduce. In this sense, identity haslogical and ontological priority over reproduction,although not historical precedence.We do not pursue here these historical complexi-fications, neither do I pursue another equally perti-nent empirical question: Can a molecular structuresimpler than the already intricate bacterial cell, sat-isfy the criteria of autopoietic organization? Thisquestion can be answered by two complementary ap-proaches: (1) simulation and (2) synthesis of mini-mal autopoetic systems. There are advances in bothfronts. As to the first, there some new results inthe burst of work in artificial life, partly extend-ing our early simulations in tesselation automataof (Varela
et al.
1974). The second front, takesthe form of a new ‘cell-centered’ approach to theorigin of life which seeks chemical embodiments of minimal autopoietic systems. In fact, the encapsu-lation of macromolecules by lipid vesicles has beenactively investigated as a promising candidate foran early cell (Deamer & Barchfeld 1982; Lazcano1986; Baeza
et al.
1987; see Deamer 1986). Luisi& Varela (1989) make the case that a reverse micel-lar system can come close to the mark for being aminimal autopoietic system. In particular, they dis-cuss the case of a reverse micellar system hosting inits aqueous core a reaction which leads to the pro-duction of a surfactant, which is a boundary for thereverse micellar reaction. The interest of this caseis that much is known about these chemical systemsmaking it possible to actually put into operation aminimal autopoietic system. But I must leave thesefascinating issues to return to my chosen topic here.
1.2.2 Identity of the livingand its world
Autopoiesis addresses the issue of organism as aminimal living system by characterizing its
basicmode of identity 
. This is, properly speaking, toaddress the issue at an ontological level: the ac-cent is on the manner in which a living system be-comes a distinguishable entity, and not on its spe-cific molecular composition and contingent histori-cal configurations. For as long as it exists, the au-topoietic organization remains invariant. In otherwords, one way to spotlight the specificity of au-topoiesis is to think of it self-referentially as thatorganization which maintains the very organizationitself as an invariant. The entire physico-chemicalconstitution is in constant flux; the pattern remains,and only through its invariance can the flux of real-izing components be ascertained.I have addressed here only the minimal organiza-tion that gives rise to such living autonomy. As Ihave said, my purpose is to highlight the basic bio-logic which serves as the foundation from which thediversity visible in current organisms can be consid-ered: only when there is an identity can elaborationsbe seen as family variations of a common class of liv-ing unities. Every class of entities has an identitywhich is peculiar to them; the uniqueness of the liv-ing resides in the kind of organization it has.Now, the history of biology is, of course,marred by the traditional opposition betweenthe mechanist/reductionists on the one hand andholist/vitalists on the other, a heritage from the bi-ological problem-space of the XIXth century. Oneof the specific contributions of the study of self-organizing mechanisms—of which autopoiesis is aspecific instance—is that the traditional oppositionbetween the component elements and the globalproperties disappears. In the simple example of thecellular automaton illustrated above, it is preciselythe
reciprocal causality 
between the local rules of in-teractions (i.e. the components’ rules, which are akinto chemical interactions) and the global propertiesof the entity (its topological demarcation affectingdiffusion and creating local conditions for reaction)which is in evidence. It appears to me that this re-ciprocal causality does much to evacuate the mecha-nist/vitalist opposition, and allows us to move into amore productive phase of identifying various
of self-organization where the local and the globalare braided together explicitly through this recip-rocal causality. Autopoiesis is a prime example of such dialectics between the local component levelsand the global whole, linked together in reciprocal6

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