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Dr. Randall Whitaker
Copyright © 2001 Randall Whitaker

Randall Whitaker
Observer Web

  AUTOPOIESIS CHECKLIST

Enola Gaia
 
An Observer Web  Focus File

This material may be freely cited, copied, and/or distributed, so long as the author attribution is included.

 



  FOCAL REFERENCE:

Varela, F., H. Maturana, and R. Uribe

Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model

BioSystems, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 187-196.

NOTE:

Unless explicitly annotated otherwise, all quoted material presented below is drawn from this 1974 paper.

 

 



  This 1974 paper provides a concise set of criteria for determining whether or not a 'machine' is an 'autopoietic machine'. The criteria are presented in the form of a 6-point 'checklist' by which one may proceed step-by-step in evaluating autopoiesis for a given unity.

Nowhere else in the core literature are the criteria for ascribing autopoiesis so concisely laid out. This efficiency does not translate into clarity, however. Each of the relatively brief criteria are themselves framed with respect to the particulars of terminology and constructs which Maturana and Varela had formulated earlier. Because of this, care should be taken to obtain a grasp of concepts such as 'component' and 'unity' before attempting to apply the checklist.

This check list is presented in the table below, reflecting as much of the paper's original text as is feasible.

 

 



1 Determine if:    
 
The unity has identifiable boundaries (via interactions with it)

 

 
  • Is it 'discrete'?

  • Does it exhibit 'extent'?

  • Can you circumscribe it?

  • Can you specify where it stops and the environs begin?

 

  IF SO:
Proceed to Step #2.

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
"The unity is indescribable and we can say nothing."

(p. 192)

 



2 Determine if:    
 
"...there are constitutive elements of the unity, that is, components of the unity."

(p. 192)

 

 
  • Can it be seen as a set of 'parts'?

  • Do these 'parts' comprise the whole?

 

  IF SO:
Proceed to Step #3.

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
"...the unity is an unanalyzable whole and therefore not an autopoietic system."

(p. 192)

 



3 Determine if:    
 
...the unity is a mechanistic system, that is, the components properties are capable of satisfying certain relations that determine in the unity the interactions and transformations of these components."

(p. 192)

 

 
  • Is the unity as it is because of its components' interrelations, and not simply because of its components' individual properties?

  • "In a mechanistic explanation, the observer explicitly or implicitly accepts that the properties of the system to be explained are generated by relations of the components of the system and are not to be found among the properties of those components." (Maturana, 1978, p. 30)

  • "In a mechanistic explanation the relations between components are necessary ..." (Maturana, 1978, p. 30)

 

  IF SO:
Proceed to Step #4.

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
"...the unity is not an autopoietic system."

(p. 193)

 



4 Determine if:    
 
"...the components that constitute the boundaries of the unity constitute these boundaries through preferential neighborhood relations and interactions between themselves, as determined by their properties in the space of their interactions."

(p. 193)

 

 
  • Are the components of the apparent boundary participating in that boundary as a result of their interrelationships and interactions?

  • Are the components of the apparent boundary discernible as such because of their participation in the processes of the composite unity?

 

  IF SO:
Proceed to Step #5.

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
"...you do not have an autopoietic unity because you are determining its boundaries, not the unity itself."

(p. 193)

 



5 Determine if:    
 
"...the components of the boundaries of the unity are produced by the interactions of the components of the unity, either transformation of previously produced components, or by transformations and/or coupling of non-component elements that enter the unity through its boundaries."

(p. 193)

 

 
  • Are the components of the apparent boundary produced by the processes comprising the unity itself?

  • Is the unity generating the components of this apparent boundary, either from existing components or through accreting elements it appropriates from its environment?

 

  IF SO:
Proceed to Step #6.

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
"...you do not have an autopoietic unity."

(p. 193)

 



6 Determine if:    
 
"...all the other components of the unity are also produced by the interactions of its components as in 5., and if those which are not produced by the interactions of other components participate as necessary permanent constitutive components in the production of other components..."

(p. 193)

 

 
  • Are all the components of the unity produced by its components realizing processes within the unity itself?

  • Do all the unity's components participate in the production of its components?

 

  IF SO:
"...you have an autopoietic unity in the space in which its components exist." (p. 193)

 
  IF NOT:
STOP...
     
 
[If] "... there are components in the unity not produced by components of the unity as in 5., or if there are components of the unity which do not participate in the production of other components, you do not have an autopoietic unity."

(p. 193)

 


 
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