autopoiesis & organizations (attempt ii)

But the question remains; if meta-cellular organisms are autopoietic (any
given cell does not make part of the physico-chemical processes in the
neighbouring cell, and may therefore not be defined as an element in the
neighbouring cells autopoiesis), then what stops an ant-colony from being
autoopietic? An if we grant the social systems of ants the status of being
autopoietic, then why aren't our own social systems autopoietic, too?

I suppose the social system seems a little bit harder to conceive of as
autopoietic for two reasons:

1) It is dificult to see what the boundary of the system is since its members
can leave the organization on scouting trips, etc. Animals always stay in
their physical space and hence are easily identifyable (if it's leg takes a
walk, it's not part of the system anymore!), but social organizations have
fluid boundaries that pass through others, spread, and they somehow retain
their identity even through this shifting.

2) The members show less specialization. (This is less so in ants, but
definately in humans) Their domain of interaction is quite large, and so
specific type of structural coupling is not as structure-constrained as with
the cell. A liver cell can never conceivably be a neuron, but the janitor
can be CEO.

These in no way threaten the status of these organizations as autopoietic, but
are perhaps reasons why observers have difficulty identifying them as such (if
it is true). Both are considerations that look more at the parts rather than
the whole, but perhaps because we have difficulty getting that whole in view.

Anyway, at the cellular level, any given cell will remain as autopoietic as
ever, no matter how much of the total organism that gets replaced with
artificial elements. That 'the neigbouring cell' is made of plastic or
silicon is of no concern what-so-ever to the remaining cells. All that
matters is that the structural elements necessary to maintain the
structural coupling does not disappear, as that would put an end to the
cell withing short time.

IF one, as me, should prefer to keep the 'definition' of autopoiesis
restricted to self-producing systems, defined by a boundary in spacetime
(am I conservative, or what!), then 'cells' and the like are the proper
autopoietic systems. The organism is a _second-order COUPLING_, not a
genuinly autopoietic system (as shown with the thought experiment of the
artificial heart), and SOCIAL SYSTEMS are _third-order COUPLINGS_.

I don't think people would disagree that the organism definately is
since it easily satisfies the definition (relations of production of
which produce those relations). What is a component is really observer
dependent, in a sense, since only the self production of the whole matters.

Unfortunately, I tend to think that the artificial heart man is not an
autopoietic system. Although the heart participates in the maintenance of
production relations for the production of other components, there is no
relation conceivable within the previous autopoietic boundaries that account
for the production of the heart. The artificial heart is necessary for the
system to continue functioning, but now, unfortunately, it begins to look like
the metacode required to regulate change in a standard computer program, in
that it participates in the production of the system but is not itself
by it.

To maintain that it is autopoietic, one would have to include (as someone on
this list did), the production relations outside, which opens all of the
current cans of worms.

I think we can only conclude that the proposition implied in Autopoiesis and
a system is living iff it has an autopoietic organization
should be questioned, because it would be silly (and would have dangerous
ethical consequences) to say that the man is not living, although I would say
that his organization is not autopoietic as I tried to show above.

If autopoiesis is too restrictive to account for life, what does?

-Jon Lindsay
-Stanford University


Internet: tyger@leland.Stanford.EDU (Jon Randall Lindsay)
Thinknet BBS -- A new universe of discourse. -- Philosophy and Systems Theory
part of DialogNet -- -- myriad email lists -- 714-638-0876