Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Autopoiesis: When Chaos Misbehaves

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit—Henry Adams (1838-1918)

Poiesis is a Greek term that means production; autopoiesis means auto-production. The term autopoiesis was originally conceived to characterize the nature of living systems. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components like nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures like the cell nucleus, organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy, produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components. Autopoiesis refers to the dynamics of a non-equilibrium system and describes an organized state that remains stable for long periods of time despite matter and energy continually flowing through it. It is this flow that maintains the organization of the open system.

The word autopoiesis appeared for the first time in 1974 in an article published by Chilean scientists Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana and R. Uribe to describe systems that produce themselves in a ceaseless way. The biologically-based theory of autopoiesis defines life as the ability to self-produce rather than as the ability to reproduce. Like complexity theory it provides a systems perspective that is as applicable to brains and societies as it is to artificial life or intelligence. According to these researchers, living systems are self-producing machines, autopoietic systems that are both producer and product; they are self-organized. The authors assert that living systems are simultaneously autonomic and dependent, which is clearly a paradox. This autonomy-dependency paradox is a characteristic feature of living things according to the authors.

Scientists at the University of Western Sydney applied autopoiesis in organizations, coining the term “organizational autopoiesis” to describe any successful organization, subject to diverse external and internal forces (Dimitrov and Fell). Dimitrov and Fell suggested that if managers and employees were unable to cope with the chaotic dynamics, the organization would be inevitably thrown into a fixed order and rigidness or into an uncontrollable chaos and collapse. According to these authors, in order to exist, an organization must be able to reproduce its specific organizational dynamics and at the same time evolve and shape itself in a vital “structural coupling” (in co-evolution) with the ever-changing dynamics of its environment. Dimitrov and Fell provide the following main characteristics of organizational autopoiesis, which include elements integral to chaos theory (some of which I've already described and others, which I intend to describe later):

Recommended Reading:
Bohm, David. 1994. On Dialogue. Routledge. London.
Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Harper & Row. New York, N.Y.
Livingston, Ira. 2006. Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoietics. University of Illinois Press.
Maturana, Humberto, Varela, Francisco. 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition: the organization of the living. Reidel. Boston.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Nina, that's a new word for me today!

sfgirl said...

But what a word, eh?

Milton said...

Good post. I've been digging around in the area of how to apply complexity theory to social structures in a way that deepens problem solving/ingenuity. One of the tricks is to not turn the dynamic process into a linear 'how-to' technique. I tend to use agricultural metaphors to help explain the, 'You matter but you don't control it all' dynamic.

sfgirl said...

Yeah, that's certainly the trick, Milton: to keep the process open and adaptive rather than succumb to a formula that appears to work but in fact entrains you into limitations of structure. We seem to gravitate to that, like a ball rolling down a hill by gravity...Sounds neat, what you're doing. Have you published anything? I'd love to read it.

Milton said...

Hi Nina...this is terribly bad form to delay so long in responding to a question but perhaps very late is better than never. My publishing consists so far of a master's thesis on the relationship between words and objects, some pieces for a religious publication on people like Preston Manning, Reg Bibby, Don Page (a Stephen Hawking class cosmologist), an experimental church guy in Victoria, an essay on selling our farm published in issue 8 of GEEZ, and a peer-reviewed history paper on the activities of the nebulous St. Patrick in Ireland. Book-length work is still in the making.

I read and was challenged by your entry on what happened when people refused to submit to Hitler. Chilling, and in various forms, far too common.

sfgirl said...

This is great, Milton! Hope I can find some of these... :) Look forward to hearing more about what you are doing. It's a fascinating field... and one I an interested in keeping abreast of ...