New Paper on “Autopoiesis, Autonomy and Organizational Biology” Published on Cybernetics and Human Knowing

Leonardo Bich & Argyris Arnellos

Autopoiesis, Autonomy, and Organizational Biology: Critical Remarks on “Life After Ashby”

Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 19(4), 75-103



In this paper we criticize the “Ashbyan interpretation” (Froese & Stewart, 2010) of autopoietic theory by showing that Ashby’s framework and the autopoietic one are based on distinct, often incompatible, assumptions and that they aim at addressing different issues. We also suggest that in order to better understand autopoiesis and its implications, a different and wider set of theoretical contributions, developed previously or at the time autopoiesis was formulated, needs to be taken into consideration: among the others, the works of Rosen, Weiss and Piaget. By analyzing the concepts of organization and closure, the idea of components, and the role of materiality in the theory proposed by Maturana and Varela, we advocate the view that autopoiesis necessarily entails selfproduction and intrinsic instability and can be realized only in domains characterized by the same transformative and processual properties exhibited by the molecular domain. From this theoretical standpoint it can be demonstrated that autopoietic theory neither commits to a sharp dualism between organization and structure nor to a reflexive view of downward causation, thus avoiding the respective strong criticisms.

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  • "To say that a system is complex […] is to say that we can describe the same system in a variety of distinct ways […]. Therefore a system is simple to the extent that a single description suffices to account for our interaction with the system; it is complex to the extent that it fails to be true." (Robert Rosen, 1978)
  • “Complexity is not an intrinsic property of a system nor of a system description. Rather, it arises from the number of ways in which we are able to interact with the system. Thus, complexity is a function not only of the system’s interactive capabilities, but of our own”
    (Robert Rosen, 1985)


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