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Autopoiesis literally means "self-production", "self-producing" or "self-making" (from the Greek: auto for self- and poiesis for creation or production) and expresses a fundamental relationship between structure and function of a self-organizing system. The idea of autopoiesis is simply that living things are produced and maintained by themselves. It is not a theory, rather an observation or phenomenon that describes systems with the self-* property of self-production. It should be emphasized that autopoiesis is like self-organization an abstract concept, similar to metabolism, but more general.

The term was originally introduced by Chilean biologists Francisco Varela (1946-2001) and Humberto Maturana in the early 1970s. Maturana and Varela take this form of autopoiesis (metabolic selforganization) to be the real essence of life and all living systems. The canonical example of an autopoietic system, and one of the entities that motivated Varela and Maturana to define autopoiesis, is the biological cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various 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. An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (a factory).

More generally, the term autopoiesis refers to the dynamics of self-organizing non-equilibrium structures; that is, organized states (sometimes also called dissipative structures) that remain stable for long periods of time despite matter and energy continually flowing through them. A vivid example of such a non-equilibrium structure is the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, which is essentially a gigantic whirlpool of gases in Jupiter's upper atmosphere. This vortex has persisted for a much longer time (on the order of centuries) than the average amount of time any one gas molecule has spent within it. From this very general point of view, the notion of autopoiesis is often associated with that of self-organization.

An application of the concept to sociology can be found in Luhmann's systems theory. John von Neumann tried to create a self-reproducing machine which resulted in a self-reproducing cellular automaton.


Autopoiesis is closely related to Self-Star Properties, autocatalysis and the biological principle of metabolism, because it means "self-production". Metabolism enables the built-up of own complex molecular material (anabolism) through breakdown of other material (catabolism).


  • Capra, Fritjof (1997). The Web of Life. Random House. ISBN 0385476760 —general introduction to the ideas behind autopoiesis
  • Maturana, Humberto & Varela, Francisco ([1st edition 1973] 1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living. Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky (Eds.), Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 42. Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co. ISBN 9027710155 (hardback), ISBN 9027710163 (paper) —the main published reference on autopoiesis
  • Mingers, John (1994). Self-Producing Systems. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. ISBN 0306447975 —a book on the autopoiesis concept in many different areas
  • Luisi, Pier L. (2003). Autopoiesis: a review and a reappraisal. Naturwissenschaften 90 49–59. —biologist view of autopoiesis
  • Varela, Francisco J.; Maturana, Humberto R.; & Uribe, R. (1974). Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5 187–196. —one of the original papers on the concept of autopoiesis


Margaret A. Boden, Autopoiesis and Life

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