The term autopoiesis was coined by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1973. The word Autopoiesis can be broken down into auto (self) and poiesis (creating or producing). All living systems are autopoietic since they produce themselves maintaining their internal functions by taking in matter, energy, and information from the outside and surviving in an often perilous external world. An autopoietic structure can maintain and repair its boundary with the world and all its internal functions (Capra, 1997). It makes it both independent because it maintains its separate identity, and dependent because cannot survive without an external environment and a continuous flow of energy. Autopoietic systems must control what enters and leaves the system to take in what is needed and exclude what might be harmful. An autopoietic system operates many feedback loops to regulate its internal and external processes and cannot be understood from a linear perspective.

Maturana and Varela talk about living systems being structurally determined since what the system is capable of is determined by its structure. The way we perceive our world is determined by our structure. We can only perceive our world using the means provided by our structure. Our eyes can sense certain frequencies of light and our ears hear a particular range of sound frequencies. Bees see different colours and dogs hear higher pitches than we do. Our brain enables many cognitive processes, but the brain’s capacity has limits. We sense the outside world through the signals that travel through our nerves to the brain but all our experience arises from how the brain interprets those signals. This means we can have no objective reality about the world we live in, because it exists for us only as we perceive it. The colour red as we perceive it is a product of our brain. It does not exist in the world.

A simple living cell is autopoietic. It is from those simple cells that all life as we know it evolved. Cells are constantly dying in any living system, while new ones are constantly formed to take their place. The new cells are created in just the right way so the structure is maintained. Our body knows just how many cells, and what sorts of cells are needed and where they are needed to maintain the shape and functionality of our body.

Autopoietic structures are also highly intertwined with the environment about them. The creature affects the environment as the environment affects the creature. They co-create each other. This structural coupling between the organism and the environment gives them the ability to adapt, evolve, and learn. Through autopoiesis, the organism learns to change its structure and the processes of its existence to become fitter within its environment.

Francisco Varela was very clear that an autopoiesis system had to have a biological or physical basis. Many people like Niklas Luhmann have noted the similarity between non-living complex adaptive systems and autopoietic systems. Niklas Luhmann, for example, proposed that social systems like the education system, the justice system, and the political system have all the qualities of autopoietic systems, but instead of flows of energy and matter, they are sustained by flows of communications.

Francesco Varela died quite young in 2001. I was fortunate to meet and hear Humberto Maturana in 2012 at a conference of the American Cybernetics Society in Asilomar, California.