sitemap The Observer #7 -- 23 September, 1993

The Observer

Number 7: 23 September, 1993

"Everything said is said by an observer"

An electronic forum
Autopoiesis & Enactive Cognitive Science

Randy Whitaker


Jeremy Taylor: Games of Life; The Hackers Guide to Evolution


Your faithful editor has finally completed the move from Umea University in northern Sweden to the Armstrong Human Factors Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. This process has been exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. 8-{

I am approximately 6 weeks late in getting The Observer re-launched. Much of the unforeseen delay had to do with the fact that my local email server (on the Air Force Base) would not permit me to access the email addresses of many of you people out there on the Net. Part of the problem apparently concerned unexpected (or non-standard) usage / absence of host and/or domain labels in your email addresses.

The Observer is now being broadcast from my guest faculty account at nearby Wright State University. Additional delays have been encountered due to the administrative processing required to request, justify, obtain, and set up this account. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Wright State University for allowing me this account, and especially to Dr. Maryalice Citera for aiding me in acquiring it.

Anyway, these (and other) problems are now behind me, and I can now get on with the work at hand. Thank you all for your patience while The Observer has been in hibernation.

-- Randy

EDITOR'S ADDENDUM: Sunday, 26 September.....

As many of you know (to our mutual chagrin...) I attempted to mail out this issue of The Observer on Friday, 24 September. It didn't work. Due to an as-yet-unexplained "glitch" in the mailing software at Wright State University, the ASCII text file was automatically converted into base-64 binary code. One of our intrepid subscribers (Tom Holroyd) simply took the resultant mess and converted it back to ASCII. I do not expect this level of resourcefulness among the readership at large, and I apologize for the confusion.

I have contacted the systems adminstrators at WSU, and we believe we know how I can get around the glitch within the confines of working remotely from my laboratory. If any of you (except Tom) are reading this, you may now assume it worked. ;-)

Still fighting to keep you informed...... -- Randy


During the summer, I have re-formatted and updated the autopoiesisbibliography, mainly to incorporate some citations for: materials from Psychology Abstracts; some essays in a couple of recent books; and some of our own publications (e.g., relevant dissertations from Barry McMullin and me).

The Spencer-Brown bibliography is unchanged since March 1993.

The subject index for Autopoiesis & Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1980) is unchanged since its original distribution in / as issue no. 4 of The Observer.

These materials are available (as plain ASCII text files) over the Net. All anyone needs to do is contact me, and I will email the file(s). Due to security (and other) constraints at my new workplace and at Wright State University, I am still unable to establish and offer ftp or other interactive access to the ASCII resources.

I have been considering some other little "projects" aimed at developing similar resources (e.g., an expanded index for Varela's Principles of Biological Autonomy; an annotated lexicon of terminology with pointers to discussions in the literature, etc.). If any of you have any comments, suggestions, or (especially!!) contributions to make toward collecting and making available additional resources on autopoietic theory and enactive cognitive science, please let me know.

-- Randy (Your faithful editor)



Kent Palmer (an Observer subscriber / contributor himself) has recently established an interactive mailing list on autopoiesis. The list has just gone "on-line" as I write this, and it promises to be a fruitful venue for discussions.

To subscribe to the new interactive mailing list:

Send email to:

In the message, write:

SUBSCRIBE AUTO YourFullName YourUserID@Internet.address



Please note the difference between these last two addresses. If you send a message intended for the second address to the first address, it will be broadcast to the entire list population. 8-{

Kent and I are not competing for your attention or your allegiance...

In 1992, while following up Francisco Varela's suggestion to set up a forum on autopoiesis and enactive cognitive science, there was some discussion on how best to serve the (little-) known population of prospective readers. To make a long story short, the consensus was to start up as a moderated / edited forum / newsletter due to:

  1. the different degrees of familiarity subscribers had with the subject matter;
  2. the different backgrounds and interests of subscribers;
  3. the suspicion that a good deal of requested traffic would deal with resources for the new or intermediate explorer of this area;
  4. the technical problems that I would have faced in setting up an interactive server at Umea (and, as it turns out, here in Ohio).

I would have loved to have been able to set up something interactive, and I'm tickled pink to see that Kent has been able to accomplish this. I look forward to re-launching The Observer, taking part in interactive discussions on Kent's list, and listening to suggestions from all of you "out there" concerning how Kent and I can address your interests and your needs in the future. -- Randy


During the period of my transition from northern Sweden to central Ohio, some folks have actually been able to keep in touch with me, and others have actually managed to get in touch with me. New subscribers since The Observer went into its summer hibernation have increased the mailing list by some 6 %. Below, I include some of the correspondence from the summer. --- Randy

Dear Randy Whitaker,

I have been sent some specimen issues of the The Observer by Tim Smithers of ULB. I met Tim at the recent European Conference on Artificial Life, in Brussels, and we talked at some length on his views of animal behaviour and how they represent a challenge to orthodox animal behaviour theory.

I am preparing a six-part science TV series for BBC TV and for the American PBS network. It will be in cooperation with my friend Richard Dawkins, with whom I made two very successful documentaries for BBC in the mid-80's. Although Richard might represent to many scientists one of the more gifted and outspoken defenders of traditional Darwinism, he has become very interested over the last few years in the very nature of the relationships that must exist between the guiding, complexifying processes of mutation and natural selection, and the many autopoietic, self-organisational phenomena studied by the members of your network, and the many readers of the A-Life Digest. Chris Langton, David Jefferson and Charles Taylor (who run the A-Life community in the States) are enthusiastic helpers of my project, and Dave has suggested I, in effect, place an ad in the A-Life Digest about the series, inviting scientists to tell me more about research interests that we may be able to feature in one or more of the stories. Scientists like Jean-Louis Deneubourg, Luc Steels, Tim Smithers, Rod Brooks, and many, many more, are acquainted with the series and have all unstintingly helped to develop many of the ideas that are now beginning to take shape. I am now, of course, also a subscriber to the DIGEST.

From what I have read so far it is clear that The Observer is a very similar network, informally exchanging ideas over very similar territory,but with the enormously important groundwork and framework of Varela and Maturana. I would very much like you to consider whether I could receive issues of The Observer . I also append a version of the A-Life Digest ad, so that you can see more clearly what it is I think I am up to. If you think it would be fun to spin it round your network, it might serve as it stands. I hope to hear from you with your reaction to this, and run below the details ofmy project.


Jeremy Taylor.

[From Jeremy Taylor to all subscribers to The Observer]

I am the producer of a six-part science TV series soon to start production for BBC TV and an American TV company. The working title is Games of Life; The Hackers Guide to Evolution, and it will be presented by Richard Dawkins. It will deal with 6 areas of unresolved evolutionary theory through a rich mix ofnatural history film and computer graphics. Some of those graphics will be rendered with very high resolution so that the software lifeforms bear comparison with the real McCoy. In other cases the metaphor of life playing games will be represented as a snappy, visually-arresting computer game, similar in style to the commercial software kids play, but making a non-trivial point.

This circular is to tell all members on The Observer network who I am and what the project is about, and to invite any of you working on computer simulation of any of the problems mentioned below, to get in touch if you think that your approach could be developed into such a computer game, or if you know of work that could, or if it is particularly germane to where the underlying intellectual thrust of any of these programmes might lie.In general terms, the main underlying aim of the series will be to widen conventional neo Darwinism to embrace processes of spontaneous generation of order, pattern, complexity and self-regulation that are currently being researched by your community. We shall, therefore, be willing to address, where we can, the precise nature of the relationship between the guiding processes of selection and mutation, and the processes of self-organisation.


  1. PLAYING GOD Why and how did life originate in the first place, and how did it get so varied and complicated that we actually have a whole animal kingdom to marvel at? What induced the formation of the first cells; the first eukaryotes and the first multicellular organisms? How many of the constraints on form and pattern in nature can be explained in self-organisational terms and what has been the function of genes and evolution? Clearly a chance to deal with autopoietic phenomena.
  2. THE SEXUAL EXPLOSION Why did sex ever get invented? Why do some species not have sex, and why do most species only have two? What does having sex do for you in evolutionary terms? Part of the program to be devoted to the evolution of sex itself, the other to sexual selection. Simulations of bizarre experiments in sex from the world of bacteria; peacock's tails and symmetry in swallows and other organisms all welcome. Hurst, Hamilton, Moller and others.
  3. ELEPHANTS DON'T PLAY CHESS The games of strategy animals play - their behaviour - can be reduced to mathematical rules just like the software that programmes Nintendo. Here the allusion is to the application of Game Theory in animal behaviour. Zero sum; Chicken; Prisoner's Dilemma; the Philip Sydney game. One suggestion from John Maynard-Smith is to concentrate on animal communication, badges of rank, and the balance between truthful communication and lying and deceit. We will observe that the same games of deception and cooperation are played out at all levels of complexity, from the cut and thrust among pre-biotic molecules, to the higher animals and man. Harper, Grafen, Dawkins etc.
  4. THE COLONY OF MIND Ants and termites have very little brain yet colonies of them can create the animal equivalents of Notre Dame. How has evolution designed a "collective wit" so far in excess of that in each individual? Here the aim is to concentrate on ants, termites and bees. Examples of distributed intelligence include trail-laying in ants; foraging patterns in ants; gallery building in termite mounds; brood and food maintainance in beehives; bee foraging and comb building; web building in spiders.Some researchers hold that the same processes can account for some elements ofbehaviour in higher animals; including dam-building in beavors; flocking and shoaling in birds and fish; muskrats and grassy nests. Central to this is the work of Jean-Louis Deneubourg's group in Brussels, together with Nigel Franks of UK and Tom Seeley and Scott Camazine of the US.
  5. THINKING MACHINES What actually happens in the mind of a monkey? As ants build cathedrals, can we understand how animals' brains "build" behaviour? And can that be built, in turn, into robots? Here we attempt to find some way to articulate the question "What is behaviour?" Can there be intelligence without reason, without representation? We have a chance here to capture some of the new thinking on enactive cognitive science, and already envisage a strong imput from Rod Brooks' group and the robotics team of Luc Steels and Tim Smithers.
  6. WE ARE MADE OF STARS What if evolution, as a process, is not limited to carbon-based flesh and blood on Earth? Then other worlds, elsewhere in the Universe, would have a natural history of their own. Different in intriguing ways, but based nonetheless, on Darwinian evolution. Here we go further than the ideas of Universal Darwinism that Dawkins has previously dealt with. Are there links between the evolution of life on earth and the evolution of this Universe at large? Capable of evolving to a point when life could emerge on at least one planet. We may follow the line taken by mathematician Lee Smolin, to suggest a Darwinesque process of selection and fitness in myriad universes. This has been very recently popularised by science writer John Gribben, in his latest book In The Beginning....

I invite any scientist to suggest how their work can help us explore these themes, and who would be willing to see their computer programs adapted to a visual format that would be acceptable for public science television.

Articles can be sent to my London address:

4 Gatcombe Rd.LONDON N19 4PT, U.K.

Faxed to (44)-71-281-7166I can be reached on e-mail at 100271,

Thank you in anticipation!

Jeremy Taylor.


I am just trying to finalise the "formal" publication of the proceedings from the DCU workshop.* I don't know if I had been keeping you in touch with this, but, cutting a very long story very short, we have not been able to convince the publishers we approached that it was commercially viable, so we are having to settle for a "private" publication as a DCU Technical Report. Ho Hum.

*This refers to the Dublin City University Workshop on Autopoiesis & Perception, held in August 1992.


Lately I have been reading a lot of Stafford Beer and von Foerster. Are there any other second cybernetics writers that you would recommend? Hope your move was comfortable ...

--- haim yogal bodek



...I just got the Cybernetics of Cybernetics by the Biological Computer Lab, Urbana through interlibrary loan. I sure you've already seen this, but if you haven't be sure to track it down. It is a rather eclectic, experimental compilation of second order cybernetics including Beer, von Foerster, Maturana, and Varela. One essay by Maturana has a picture (circa 1974) of him -- I didn't know he had a Norbert Wiener beard. The Cybernetics of Cybernetics is like a Goedel, Escher, Bach of cybernetics with mathematics. My question is what ever happened to this enthused group of people. Did they just stop?


haim yigal bodek

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I know some of our Observer subscribers are at Illinois -- can any of them answer Haim's question(s) about what happened?? -- R.]

Hi, Randall:

... I'm acquainted with Varela's work by way of William Irwin Thompson's popularization of it over the last few years. I'm currently reading The Embodied Mind.

Thanks for any help you can offer.

Dirk Brandts

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Dirk, could you provide us with a brief synopsis of William Irwin Thompson's work and his use / application of autopoiesis??]

Dear Randall,

... I am a sociology grad student at the University of Texas, Austin. I am interested in applying evolutionary theories to social sciences. So far William Durham's and Peter Richerson's approaches are my favorites if you know what I mean. I like the computation part of the artificial life a lot also,...

Barna Kantor


As you may recall, the application of autopoietic theory to provide a basis for evaluating "artificial life" ("a-life"/"alife") artifacts was a focus of lively discussion last spring. Barry McMullin's detailed set of questions (issue 6) remain "dangling" out there.......

Anyway, Barry has now proposed an initiative toward incorporating autopoiesis with a generic software application........... -- R.


(This is being cross-posted to ALife Digest and The Observer; apologies if you see it twice...)

The basic principles of computer simulation of Autopiesis were, of course, first elaborated in the seminal paper:

Francisco J. Varela, Humberto R. Maturana and R. Uribe,"Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model", BioSystems, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 187--196.

I am currently considering a project to develop a "general purpose" simulation package for Autopoietic systems, to be placed in the public domain. This should, of course, support the specific class of algorithms originally presented in the paper above as a special case; but I would also intend that it would allow variations along certain lines, as well as providing a range of instrumentation and monitoring utilities.

The point of this note is to ask for help in specifying this project. Any comments would be welcome, but I'm particularly interesting in responses to the following:

I will, of course, notify progress on these issues back to the list,

Thanks, Barry McMullin


The following two articles describe the earlier APL-autopoiesis work that Barry mentions:

Zeleny, Milan, Self-Organization of Living Systems: A Formal Model of Autopoiesis, International Journal of General Systems, Vol. 4 (1977), pp. 13-28

Zeleny, Milan, and Norbert A. Pierre, Simulation of Self-Renewing Systems, in Jantsch, Eric, and Conrad H. Waddington (eds.), Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1976.

As to other computer programs and autopoiesis, I can only say that although I have seen autopoiesis invoked in describing software programs (e.g., the "self-organization" of their data structures), the Zeleny work remains the sole documented attempt at implementing "autopoiesis" that I'm aware of.

-- Randy



Well, that about does it -- for me (it's been a long week!) and for this re-inaugural issue of The Observer. Again, I'm deeply sorry for any confusion, inconvenience, and/or "withdrawal pains" associated with the longer-than-expected suspension of the newsletter. Please send in your comments, correspondence, and (especially) contributions -- and remember to check out Kent Palmer's interactive mailing list on autopoiesis. If you have any comments or suggestions concerning how Kent and I could or should coordinate our efforts to better support your interests in this area, please let me know. -- Randy