autopoietic network

An autopoietic network is anything that can be modelled reasonably by graph theory and which can be observed empirically - under scientific assumptions - to be doing autopoiesis.

simplest model

In the 1970’s, F. J. Varela, Humberto R. Maturana and Ricardo Uribe invented a cellular automata to simulate autopoietic systems, specifically to emulate a simple cell. Unlike the Game of Life where there is one type of components with two states (on/off), the Varela/Uribe model is much more complex.

There are three types of components: catalysts, elements and links. In the presence of a catalyst, two elements can join together to form a link. Links can decompose into separate elements. Links can bond with other links to form a chain.

This model represents a very simple cell with the catalysts representing enzymes and elements, links and chains representing cell parts that can be built into a cell membrane according to a complex set of transition rules.
Beginning with a set of elements and at least one catalyst, a simulated cell self-organizes, bounded by a cell membrane (a chain) with a
catalyst inside. The membrane can grow, repair itself and take in new elements (the raw material for new membrane parts).
“In the long run the chain continued to form an enclosure for the catalyst, while its links kept disintegrating and being replaced. In this way the membrane-like chain became the boundary of a network of transformations while at the same time participating in that network
of processes. In other words, an autopoietic network was simulated (199)."

between beings

Later, Varela and Maturana "constructed a systematic theoretical biology which attempts to define living systems not as objects of observation and description, nor even as interacting systems, but as self-contained unities whose only reference is to themselves" as "self-making, self-referring autonomous unities". This assumes that "living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition" which was in 1991 "a completely new perspective of biological (human) phenomena." Since "a complete linguistic description pertaining to the ‘organization of the living’ was lacking" they "coined the word ‘autopoiesis’ to replace the expression ‘circular organization’. Autopoiesis conveys, by itself, the central feature of the organization of the living, which is autonomy." - the 1991 book

This work had its origins in the network theory and since then has been much extended and abused. See the autopoiesis article.


A particular use was its applications to social networks especially by Verna Allee:

Whether any such net can exist between two living beings is quite controversial, but the assumptions about this seem to drive human capital theories.

Some theorists such as Allee and also Tom Atlee insist this is possible and that humans can and should learn to become something like working parts in a cognitive system larger than themselves. A few skeptics think such a claim confuses autopoiesis with heteropoiesis and prefer a far weaker claim that there is a power structure that forces or requires a heteropoietic network to behave as if it were in fact autopoietic, but this soon devolves when command and control is challenged, e.g. when a single command hierarchy fails to have every single order obeyed. This may be true if a strong ontology is required to keep the network coherent.

This allows a simple way to test such networks for robustness: If even small challenges to such an authority result in incoherence, failing of ethics and so on, then, the system is simply too fragile to be trusted to do real work or take real power. This is not necessarily different from the theory of the boot camp as best illustrated in the film Full Metal Jacket, or the very similar but subtler ideology espoused by the fictional Buddy Ackerman in the film Swimming with Sharks.

That said, there may be evidence within a well-controlled and sufficiently small creative network, tribe or village that a more moderate claim applies: a limited form of autopoiesis may describe certain aspects of the network, such as its instructional capital to infrastructural capital relations. However, its social capital to individual capital relationships would remain impossible to analyze by this means due to choice, creativity and imaginative rationality.

Put simply, there may be a reason to believe that B. F. Skinner was correct about the built environment but not correct about its ultimate power to shape cognition itself. And this is a good thing because the same creativity that makes humans difficult, also makes them useful, adaptive and effective under uncertainty.