F. Capra
The Web of Life

A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter

The Emergence of the Self-Organisation Concept

The concept of self organisation originated in the early years of cybernetics, when scientists began to construct mathematical models representing the logic inherent in neural networks. (1943 McCulloch-Pitts)

In the 1950s, in the 1950s, in the 1950s, scientists began to actually build models of such binary networks including some with little lamps flickering on and off at the nodes.  To their great amazement they discovered that after a short time of random flickering, some ordered pattern would emerge in most networks.  They would see waves of flickering pass through the network, or they would observe repeated cycles.  Even though the initial state of the network was chosen at random, after a while those ordered patterns would emerge spontaneously, and it is that spontaneous emergence of order that became known as "self organisation".

(Conway Game of Life)

During the Seventies and Eighties, the key ideas of the early models were refined and elaborated by researchers in several countries who would explore the phenomenon arm of self organisation in many different systems from the very small to the very large ?
Ilya Prigogine in Belgium, 
Herman Haken and 
Manfred Eigen in Germany, 
James Lovelock in England, Lynn Margulis in the United States, 
Humberto Maturana and Francsico Varela in Chile. 

Models of self organising systems

The resulting models of self organising systems shares certain key characteristics, which are the main ingredients of the emerging unified theory of living systems.

1 The first important difference between the early concept of self organisation in cybernetics and the more elaborate later models is that the latter include the creation of new structures and new modes of behaviour in the self organising process.

2 A second common characteristic of these models of self organisation is that they all deal with open systems operating far from equilibrium.  The constant flow of energy and matter through the system is necessary for self organisation to take place.  The striking emergence of new structures and new forms of behaviour, which has a hallmark of self organisation, occurs only when the system is far from equilibrium.

3 The third characteristic of self organisation, common to all models, is the nonlinear interconnectedness of the systems components.  Physically, this nonlinear pattern results in feedback loops; mathematically, it is described in terms of nonlinear equations.

Summarising those three characteristics of self organising systems, we can say that self organisation is the spontaneous emergence of new structures and new forms of behaviour in open systems far from equilibrium, characterised by internal feedback loops and described mathematically by nonlinear equations. 

Pg. 86
Ilya Prigogine  Dissipative Structures
Hermann Haken Laser Theory
Manfred Eigen  Hypercycles

Humberto Maturana / Francisco Varela 

"My investigations of colour perception led me to the discovery that was extraordinarily important for me: the nervous system operates as a close network of interactions, in which every change in the interactive relations between certain components all is results in the change of the interactive relations of the same or other components."    Humberto Maturana

Maturana drew two conclusions from this discovery. He hypothesized that the circular organisation of the nervous system is the basic organisation of all living systems: "living systems... are organised in a closed causal circular process that allows for evolutionary change in the way the circularity is maintained, but not for the loss of the circularity itself."

Since all changes in the system take place within this basic circularity, Maturana argued that the components that specify the circular organisation must also be produced and maintained by it.  And he concluded that this network pattern, in which the function of each component is to help produce and transform other components while maintaining the overall circularity of the network, is the basic organisation of the living.

The second conclusion Maturana drew from the circular closure of the nervous system amounted to radically new understanding of cognition.


He postulated that the nervous system is not only self organising but also continually self referring, so that perception cannot be viewed as a representation of an external reality but must be understood that the continual creation of new relationships within the neural network: "the activities of nerve cells do not reflect an environment independent of the living organism and hence still not allow for the construction of an absolutely existing external world."

According to Maturana, perception and, more generally, cognition, do not represent an external reality, but rather specify one through the nervous system's process of circular organisation.  From this premise Maturana then took the radical step of postulating that the process of circular organisation itself - with or without a nervous system - is identical to the process of cognition:" 
The living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition.  This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system."

This way of identifying cognition with a process of life itself is indeed the radically new conception.  Its implications are far reaching.

AUTO, means "self" and refers to the autonomy of self organising systems; and POIESIS - which shares the same Greek root as the word poetry - means "making".  So autopoiesis means self-making.  Maturana and Varela began their essay on  autopoiesis by characterizing their approach as "mechanistic" to distinguish it from vitalist approaches to the nature of life: "Our approach will be mechanistic, no forces are principles will be adduced which are not found in the physical universe."

However, the next sentence makes it immediately clear that the authors are not Cartesian mechanists:" Our problem is the living organisation and therefore our interest will not be in the properties of components, but in the process and relations between processes realised through components."

They go on to refine their position with the important distinction between organisation and structure, which had been an implicit theme during the entire history of systems thinking but was not addressed explicitly until the development of cybernetics.  Maturana and Varela make the distinction crystal clear.

The organisation of the living system : the relations between its components that characterises the system as belonging to a particular class (e.g. bacterium, as sunflower, the cat, or a human brain).  The description of that organisation is an abstract description of relationships and does not identify the components.  The authors assume that autopoiesis is a general pattern of organisation, common to all living systems, whichever the nature of their components.

The structure of living system, by contrast, is constituted by the actual relations among the physical components.  In other words, the system structure is the physical embodiment of its organisation.  Maturana and Varela emphasize that the systems organisation is independent of the properties of its components, so that are given organisation can be embodied in many different manners by many different kinds of components.

Having clarified that their concern is with organisation, not structure, the authors then proceeded define autopoiesis, the organisation common to all living systems.  It is a network of production processes, in which the function of each component is to participate in the production or transmission of other components in the network.  In this way, the entire network continually "makes itself".  It is produced by its components and intern produces those components. "In a living system the product of its operation is its own organisation."

An important characteristic of living systems is that their autopoietic organisation includes the creation of a boundary that specifies the domain of the network's operation and defines the system as a unit.

According to Maturana and Varela, the concept of autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterise the organisation of living systems.  However, this characterisation does not include any information about the physical constitution of the systems components.  To understand the properties of the components and their physical interactions, the description of the systemís structure in the language of physics and chemistry must be added to the abstract description of its organisation.

The clear distinction between those two descriptions - one in terms of structure and the other in terms of organisation - makes it possible to integrate structure-oriented models of self organisation (eg.by Prigogine and Haken) and organisation-oriented models (eg. by Eigen and Maturana-Varela) in the coherent theory of living systems.

See Capra_Web_153