Societal Aspects of Biological Self-Production
Zusammenfassung: Es wurde mit Erfolg behauptet,
daß alle biologischen (lebenden) Systeme autopoietische Systeme
sind. Mit geringerem Erfolg wurde die umgekehrte These vertreten,
daß alle autopoietischen Systeme biologische (lebende) Systeme
seien. Kürzliche Fortschritte auf den Gebieten des "Artificial
Life", der synthetischen Biologie und der osmotischen Wachstumsprozesse
haben aber gezeigt, daß zumindest einige autopoietische Systeme
nichtbiologisch sind: d.h. autonom und selbstproduzierend in einem
physikalischen, anorganischen Milieu. Das Phänomen Leben ist einer
spezifischen Organisation der Materie zuzurechnen, nicht einer
besonderen (e.g. organischen) Materie.
Weiterhin existiert eine ausführliche Diskussion
darüber, ob soziale Systeme (diejenigen, die spontan geordnet
und nicht vom Menschen entworfen sind) autopoietische Systeme
Dieser Essay behauptet, daß die Frage der Autopoiesis
spontaner sozialer Systeme irrelevant ist: Nicht nur, daß spontane
soziale Systeme autopoietisch sein müssen, sondern die Umkehrung
dieser Relation gilt noch bestimmter: Alle autopoietischen und
also alle biologischen (lebenden) Systeme müssen soziale Systeme
Diese These impliziert nicht, daß alle sozialen
Systeme autopoietisch sind; es gibt viele vom Menschen entworfene
und gemachte heteropoietische "Wunder" des sozialen
"engineering", die weder autonom noch selbstproduzierend
oder selbsterhaltend sind. Aber alle autopoietischen Systeme,
die organischen und die anorganischen, müssen notwendigerweise
soziale sein (Gesellschaften, Populationen, Kommunitäten).
Es ist nicht wichtig anzumerken, daß einige (d.h.
spontane) Sozialsysteme autopoietisch sind; entscheidend ist,
daß alle lebenden Systeme (und alle ihre lebenden Subsysteme)
Gesellschaften sind und als solche untersucht werden müssen.
One could say that the expulsion of the biological
and natural ecological determinants of human existence has been
one of striking features of sociological studies since the 1930s.
E. Shils, in his The Calling of Sociology (1985),
as well as in several later works, insists that the capacity to
discern connections between activities or institutional arrangements
which appear to be unconnected derives from the postulate of the
systemic character of society. Society, according to this postulate,
is a whole of interdependent parts, each of which is the "environment"
for all the others.
Shils's is a properly (in the sense of Smuts) holistic view,
recognizing a whole as a unity of parts that affects the interactions
of those parts. The temporal and territorial parochiality of the
traditional sociological research, although rich in concrete and
descriptive detail, is often short on fulfilling the programmatically
announced intentions of universal validity. Yet, Shils (1985)
Although sociologists have made little progress in the delineation
of whole societies, either in theory or in particular investigations,
the idea of a "society" as a whole or as a system
whose parts are interconnected in many ways, is a fundamental
postulate of sociology [Italics M. Z.].
Modern sociology is increasingly being challenged by the urgent
issues related to the sustainability or self-sustainability of
social networks (ecosystems, ecosocieties). These challenges can
be met only if the "fundamental postulate of sociology"
becomes firmly embedded within sociological research methodology.
Developing a sufficiently general notion of a "social system,"
with sufficiently generalizable organizational and structural
properties, is a necessary step towards producing sound knowledge
which can be of practical utility. The discovery of the fundamental
laws of social life remains an unfulfilled promise of sociology.
According to Shils: "There is at present no systematically
articulated general theory in sociology which would find general
acceptance among sociologists." Consequently, the rich results
of sociological investigations are not clearly and precisely cumulative.
The purpose of this essay is twofold: (1) To propose that many
important social systems are self-producing (autopoietic), rather
than purposefully "engineered" or constructed (heteropoietic),
and, more radically, (2) To propose that all self-producing (autopoietic)
systems, including biological "living" systems, must
also be social systems.
The first proposition attempts to unveil the nature of self-organization
and thus self-sustainability of spontaneous social orders and
thus provide a foundation for non-ideological, non-political and
sustainable social action.
The second proposition suggests and points to potentially significant
intersections of biology, economics and sociology. The resulting
interdisciplinary "crosspollination" of these disciplines
would go a long way towards effectively addressing the issues
of environmental self-sustainability.
Since the times of Parsons and Luhmann, "actions" and
"communications" have been considered the components
of social (sociological) systems. Autopoietic theory attempts
to reinstate the individuals to their proper place as the proper
components, with all their inaction and miscommunication abundant.
Cells move, die, divide, release inductive
signals or morphogens, link to form new sheets, and repeat variants
of the process. Genes control the whole business indirectly
by governing which morphoregulatory or homeotic product will
Gerald E. Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant
Since Huxley's The Individual in the Animal Kingdom, the
idea of individuality has continued to present fundamental difficulties
in biology. Is a colony of "white ants" an individual?
Huxley proposed that: "Wherever a recurring cycle exists
(and that is in every form of life) there must be a kind of individuality
consisting of diverse but mutually helpful parts succeeding each
other in time, as opposed to the kind of individuality whose parts
are all coexistent." Huxley, in 1912,
distinguished between individuality in time (species-individuality)
and our ordinary, simultaneous or spatial individuality.
It is the first kind of individuality, the individuality of a
cyclically recurring network of "ordinary" individuals,
that is crucial for an enhanced understanding of self-sustaining
social systems or networks.
Every organism, even if spatially and temporarily isolated, can
emerge, survive, and reproduce only as part of a larger
societal network of organisms. Similarly, each cell, organelle,
or neuron can exist only as part of a group or society of cells,
organelles, or neurons. Each component of an autopoietic (Varela/Maturana/Uribe
1974; Zeleny 1981) system
can emerge, persist, and reproduce only within the complex of
relationships that constitute the network of interconnected components
and componentproducing processes.(1)
Before any organism can reproduce, it must first be produced
(or self-produced), and it must survive. Autopoiesis (self-production)
therefore precedes, and in fact creates, the conditions for all
Survival (economic and ecological) activities of separate organisms
directly form and reform their metasocieties of interactive populations
which are further concatenated into regional networks and full
ecosystems. Reproductive organismic activities can take place
only within such preformed networks and thus assure their own
(i.e., networks') reinforcement and self-production. In fact,
autopoietic systems can, and many do, adapt and evolve without
their own reproduction; only their components may reproduce.(2)
Eldredge (1996) concludes
that a gene-centered view of such systems is unnecessary, and
that social networks are demonstrably biotic systems. The entire
human society can be viewed as such an autopoietic superorganism
(Stock/Campbell 1996), embedded in an autopoietic Gaia - as is
often propounded by L. Margulis (Mann
Margulis has also targeted Neodarwinism(3)
and its inability to answer important questions or explain fundamental
phenomena - for example, there is not a single case of a new species
created by building up of chance mutations. She has embraced the
so called "autopoietic Gaia".
The socalled "Gaia hypothesis" is not new in the history
of science; A. A. Bogdanov formulated it quite clearly (Zeleny
The entire realm of life on earth can be considered as a single
system of divergence, based on the rotation of carbon dioxide.
This rotation forms a basis for complementary correlations between
life as a whole - the "biosphere" - and the gaseous
cover of the Earth - the "atmosphere." The stability
of atmospheric content is sustained in the biosphere, which
draws from the atmosphere the material for assimilation.
Bogdanov, the father of tectology (the precursor of modern autopoiesis),
has thus conceptually coupled biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere,
and lithosphere into a single holistic(4)
system of mutually co-evolving influences.
Organisms cannot be separated (except through artificial cleavage)
from their economic, ecological, or social environments which
they themselves co-produce and mutually provide to each other.
Only a temporarily disembodied human mind can imagine removing
itself, temporarily, from its social surroundings - from its life
The significance of natural ecological and biological qualities
has been denied by sociology in favor of a conception of the environment
as preponderantly, if not exclusively "social". Yet,
any successful addressing of the challenging issues of sustainability
of social systems must address much longer and remoter (past and
future) historical periods than has been customary.
Even though we often talk about sustainable systems, it is the
self-sustainability of systems which is of greater interest. The
question is not: How can we sustain a given system?, but: How
can a system sustain itself in a given milieu?
Another dimension of sustainability must be its organizational
mode. It is important to realize that sustainability (and self-sustainability)
is directly related to system organization and its self-production
(autopoiesis). How are systems organized is much more important
than how its individual agents think or what values they uphold.
Self-sustainable systems are autopoietic and must therefore be
organized for autopoiesis. Sustainable systems are heteropoietic,
i.e., their sustainability does not come from within (from its
own organization) but from without, from planned, system-sustaining
activities of external agents. Non-sustainable systems are allopoietic,
i.e., they are organized to produce things other than themselves.
Allopoietic systems necessarily deplete their environment.
Heteropoietic systems can be sustainable as long as external
agents sustain their system-sustaining efforts. Only autopoietic
systems replenish their own environment and thus can become self-sustaining.
Self-sustainable systems must maintain their ability to coordinate
their own actions. Purposeful coordination of action - or knowledge
- has to be continually produced and maintained: self-sustaining
systems must be knowledge-producing, not just labor or capital
consuming entities. An autopoietic view of knowledge is also presented
through the corporate epistemology of Georg von Krogh et al. (1994).
In summary, the presented view of sustainability can be characterized
as follows: both sustainability and self-sustainability are time
and context dependent system properties emerging from system organization.
System organization must be continually produced or renewed via
operating a common, shared resource system, optimally managed
through competition and collaboration of agents. Continued functioning
of the organization thus requires continued coordination of action,
i.e., continued production of knowledge.
Most systems can be sustained over long periods of time through
an external supporting agent disbursing ideas, effort, money or
resources. Once this external agent withdraws its support, system's
sustainability can be directly challenged. Externally sustainable
systems do not have to be internally self-sustainable.
Any relationship (External agent -> Sustainable system) can
be transformed into a self-sustainable metasystem (External agent
<-> System). While an external agent can in principle make
any system sustainable, only a meta agentsystem can become self-sustainable:
through making the external agent an internal part of the system.(5)
If Nature possesses a universal psyche, it
is one far above the common and most impelling feelings of the
human psyche. She certainly has never wept in sympathy, nor
stretched a hand protectively over even the most beautiful or
innocent of her creatures.
Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant,
Among the physical, biological, and social systems, the most
complex and the most interesting are those which are autopoietic,
i.e., autonomous and self-producing. The definition of these systems
has been introduced by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe (1974). Also
Haken (1986), defining synergetics,
refers to systems composed of many individual parts which, by
their cooperation, form organizations and structures - i.e., he
refers to social systems.
An autopoietic system has been defined as a system that is generated
through a closed organization of production processes such that
the same organization of processes is regenerated through the
interactions of its own products (components), and a boundary
emerges as a result of the same constitutive processes.
Varela et al. (1974)
have conceived autopoietic organization as an autonomous unity
or meta-network of productions of components, which participate
recursively in the same network of productions of components,
which produced these components, and which realize such a network
of productions as a unity in the space in which the components
Such organization of components and component-producing
processes remains relatively invariant through the interaction
and turnover of components. The invariance follows from the definition:
if the organization (the relations between system processes) changes
substantially, there would be a change in the system's categorization
in its identity class. What does change is the system's structure
(its particular manifestation in the given environment) and its
parts. The nature of the components and their spatiotemporal relations
are secondary to their organization and thus refer only to the
structure of the system.
System's boundary is a structural manifestation of the system's
underlying organization. The boundary is a structural realization
of the system in a particular environment of components. In physical
environments this could take the form of a topological boundary.
Both organization and structure are mutually interdependent.
The concepts of the autopoietic nature of a system were developed
by Varela et al. (1974)
based on a living (biological) system as a model of self-production.
Yet self-production has the potential to mean and be interpreted
through many different ways by a variety of observers. "Autopoiesis"
has been coined (not translated from Greek) as a label for a clearly-defined
interpretation of "self-production." This phenomenon
of self-production can be observed in all living systems. A cell,
a system that renews its macromolecular components thousands of
times during its lifetime, maintains its identity, cohesiveness,
relative autonomy, and distinctiveness despite such intense turnover
of matter. This persisting unity and its holism is called "autopoiesis."
Zeleny (1981) presents an
overview of autopoiesis as a theory for the living organization.
Varela et al. (1974)
have developed a six-point key that provides the criteria for
determining whether or not a system is autopoietically organized.
These criteria, as they are applied to biological (living) systems,
can also be applied to other systems that are currently not considered
"living". This is a simple exercise with very important
implications. We have found (Zeleny/Hufford
1991; 1992) that
not only are spontaneous social systems autopoietic, but also
that the relationship is much stronger. Although all living systems
are autopoietic, not all autopoietic systems are living. For example,
inorganic osmotic growths (Zeleny/Klir/Hufford
1989) are often temporarily autopoietic.
All autopoietic systems must be social systems. In other
words, all autopoietic, and therefore all biological (living)
systems, are social systems. Also, the topological boundary, that
has been necessary to describe an autopoietic system within a
favorable environment of physical components (such as those within
and around a cell), may not necessarily take a physical form in
other types of systems, e. g., in social systems.
In social systems, dynamic networks of productions are being
continually renewed without changing their organization, while
their components are being replaced; perishing or exiting individuals
are substituted by the birth or entry of new members. Individual
experiences are also renewed; ideas, concepts and their labels
evolve, and these, in turn, serve as the most important organizing
factor in human societies. The organizing core for the implementation
of ideas must be the emergent society as an autopoietic entity.
Autopoietic systems can persist in their autopoiesis for many
decades (humans, trees), for many days (cells) or for mere flashes
of hours, minutes, seconds, or milliseconds (osmotic growths).
The "lifespan" of autopoiesis in no way enters (or should
enter) into its definition. Also, autopoiesis is bound to exhibit
gradation; it does not jump into being in a magic instant - it
becomes. It gradually degrades itself; the processes of autopoiesis
weaken and dim, more or less rapidly (Zeleny
There is a great modeling, methodological and explanatory potential,
certainly on the rise in modern sciences, in treating autopoietic
systems as social systems.
"Have you ever seen, in some wood, on
a sunny quiet day, a cloud of flying midges - thousands of them
- hovering, apparently motionless, in a sunbeam? ... Yes? ...
Well, did you ever see the whole flight - each mite apparently
preserving its distance from all others - suddenly move, say
three feet, to one side or the other? Well, what made them do
that? A breeze? I said a quiet day. But try to recall - did
you ever see them move directly back in the same unison? Well,
what made them do that? Great human mass movements are slower
of inception but much more effective."
Bernard M. Baruch, Foreword to Mackay's Extraordinary
Popular Delusions, 1849
It is time to define social systems and to elucidate the meaning
of "social" for the purposes of this paper. Such definition
should be as general as possible, encompassing a rich variety
of contexts, yet being fully amendable, adjustable and applicable
to all such contexts.
Social systems are renewable, self-producing networks characterized
by internal (rather than external) coordination of individual
action achieved through communication among temporary agents.
The key words are coordination, communication, and limited lifespan
of the agents or their groupings.
It should be self-evident that the general notions of coordination,
communication and individual lifespan will acquire different meanings
in different contextual embeddings.
Coordinated behavior includes both cooperation and competition
(and all forms of conflict), in all their shades and degrees.
Actions of predation, altruism, and self-interest are simple examples
of different and interdependent modes of coordination. Communication
could be physically, chemically, visually, linguistically, or
symbolically induced deformation (or in-formation) of the environment
and consequently of individual action taking place in that same
So I, as an individual, can coordinate my own actions in the
environment only if I coordinate it with the actions of other
participants in the network. In order to achieve this, I have
to in-form (change) the environment so that the actions of others
is suitably modified; I have to communicate. As all other individuals
are attempting to do the same, a social network of coordination
emerges, and, if successful, it is being "selected"
and persists. Such a network improves my ability to coordinate
my own actions within the environment effectively. Cooperation,
competition, altruism, and self-interest are thus inseparable.
Social systems cannot and should not be limited to human systems,
especially when addressing the issues of ecological self-sustainability.
Human systems simply in-form a special meaning on the universal
acts of coordination, communication, and birthdeath processes
in general social systems.
A group of fish thrown together by a tide wave is a passive aggregation,
not a social system. A swarm of moths lured to a porch light is
an active aggregation, but not a social system. A flagpattern
of athletes "constructed" through bullhorn-shouted commands
from a coordination center is a purposeful heteropoietic aggregation,
not a social system.
All of these can transform into social systems as soon as internal
communication patterns become established; they should then temporarily
persist (become autonomous), even after removing the external
Merely externally induced interaction of components does not
suffice: billiard balls interact and so do wind-blown grains of
sand - nobody would call them social systems.
Human waiting queues are often engineered and externally induced
(enforced, not voluntary) interactions. To a large degree however,
they do exhibit, at least temporarily, the voluntary self-organization
characterized by its own specific behaviors, rules of conduct,
choice of distance and modes of communication.
Similarly, schools of fish, swarms of bees, flocks of birds,
packs of animals, and even the spontaneous wavepatterns of Olympic-games
spectators are, however, no matter how ephemerally shortlived,
undoubtedly social systems.
Any social system, in order to adapt and persist in its environment,
must be capable of reshaping itself, controlling its growth, and
checking the proliferation of individuals. In other words, the
long-term persistence of a social system is critically dependent
on harmoniously balanced birth and death processes. There can
be no collective life without individual death.
A proliferation of individuals without balancing death processes
and without deathinducing communication is "cancer"
- a shortlived, environmentally destructive outburst of life-like
processes, but not the life itself. A dominant death process,
without a sufficient birth-process complement, takes any social
system towards its extinction.
Life of a social system, and thus life itself, is based on a
dynamic and autopoietic harmony between birth and death processes.
Life is necessarily a social phenomenon: the life of an individual
cannot take place outside a social network, and the individual
life itself must be socially embodied at the level of its components.
This view is quite different from the deterministic and essentially
non-biological dogma that (somehow) the growth of an organ is
genetically (symbolically) programmed into the cells which are
then guided (read-only memory) by this "geneprogram"
through an exquisitely precise and predetermined series of events.
No communication and no death implies no life.
Autopoiesis in Systems
To illustrate the diversity of autopoiesis in its application
to systems analysis, Zeleny and Hufford (1991;
1992) have analyzed
three systems: a biological (living) system, a chemical system,
and a spontaneous social system. Here we summarize their main
1. The Eukaryotic Cell
The generalized non-plant eukaryotic cell may be described as
having a plasma membrane which surrounds the cytoplasm and cytoplasmic
components of the cell. The cytoplasm contains the nucleus, mitochondria,
golgi apparatus, endoplasmic reticulum, various vesicles, lysosomes,
vacuoles, cytoplasmic filaments and microtubules, centrioles,
and other components of the cell.
After applying the Varela-Maturana-Uribe six-point key to the
generalized eukaryotic cell, it can be concluded that the cell
is an autopoietic unity in the space in which its components exist.
L. Margulis (Mann 1991) is one
of the few biologists who viewed eukaryotic cells as autopoietic
populations of components. "We are walking communities,"
2. Osmotic Growth
Stephane Leduc (1911) described
an "osmotic growth," a membrane of precipitated inorganic
salt, as having many processes, functions, and characteristic
forms that appear to be analogous to those found in living systems.
The osmotic experiments performed by Leduc have been also reproduced
by Klir, Hufford, and Zeleny (1988).
Unlike typical experiments in simple precipitation, where two
solutions are mixed and a cloudy solution of an insoluble salt
results, osmotic growths precipitate and grow over a period of
minutes to days and go from a thin transparent membraneous state
to an opaque state. An actual photographic sequence has been provided
by Zeleny, Klir, and Hufford (1989).
After applying the six-point test, based on the evaluation of
osmotic growths (specifically the calcium chloride/tribasic sodium
phosphate system), it can be concluded that an osmotic growth
is an autopoietic unity in the space in which its components exist.
At the macroscopic level, the osmotic precipitation membrane
exhibits fluidity, elasticity, and resealability identical to
the properties of the plasma membrane. As the internal osmotic
pressure increases, an expansion occurs (not a rupture) allowing
components from the internal and external spaces to flow through
the membrane and "couple" within the membrane. The osmotic
growth phenomenon occurs because the operational integrity of
the precipitation membrane is maintained.
Osmotic growths are, temporarily and often ephemerally, autopoietic.
This implies that if we hold the current autopoietic theory to
be correct and intact, then we must reassess our definition (redefine
our criteria) of what it means to be "living". If we
do not give up our current definitions of "living",
then we must conclude that there is a fundamental problem within
the existing theory of autopoiesis which needs to be addressed.
3. Kinship System - A Spontaneous Social System
As our third system, the kinship system is an example of a spontaneous
social order that has a substantial impact and great significance
in the life of social, economic, and political networks. A kinship
system constitutes, prototypically, an autopoietic system that
is produced and maintained through organizational rules (which
are potentially codified) of a given society. No matter what the
particular mix of its components (men, women, and children), the
kinship system organizes its social domain and coordinates its
social action in a spontaneous, self-perpetuating fashion. It
must continually adapt to the external challenges and interferences
of the society,(6) social engineers
Social networks, embodying kinship systems, are not static and
unchanging structures, but highly dynamic ones. Cochran et. al.,
in their study of kinship systems (1990),
established that the distribution of different types and roles
of network participants (kin, friends, neighbors, formal ties)
remains relatively stable, even though the names and faces of
network members keep changing. In the language of autopoiesis:
It is their organization that remains stable, while their structures
and components continually change.
Social networks can therefore change in their structure or in
the nature of their component relationships (organization). One
can therefore study shifts in the network's structure, turnover
among its members, and changes in the character of continuing
network ties. For example (Cochran
et al. 1990), in spite of frequent moving and changes of neighborhoods,
American white children maintain the largest stable social networks
(8 adults, 8 peers) while relatively immobile Swedish children
maintained the smallest (4 adults, 4 peers).
Viewing families and kinship networks properly as autopoietic
systems could lead to new and important understanding of the effects
of residential mobility, divorce rates, death and disease disruptions,
loss of employment, or state intervention on the structure, organization
and durability of social bonds in important social and support
networks - primary, functional, peripheral and formal.
Through social autopoiesis, one also can learn more about which
social environments produce desirable social supports in transaction
with parents. What is the role of friends and relatives? What
is the role of parental self-confidence, and how can it be enhanced?
What is the role of a parent's level of formal education? How
do intervention programs interact with the spontaneous self-organizational
nature of social autopoiesis? The research agenda of self-producing
social systems is remarkable in its challenge and significance.
It was F. A. Hayek who integrated the concepts of self-production
directly into the domain of social systems (1988).
Hayek stated that:
Although the overall order of actions arises in appropriate
circumstances as the joint product of the actions of many individuals
who are governed by certain rules, the production of the overall
order is of course not the conscious aim of individual action
since the individual will not have any knowledge of the overall
order, so that it will not be an awareness of what is needed
to preserve or restore the overall order in a particular moment
but an abstract rule which will guide the actions of the individual.
Consequently, the individuals in a society spontaneously assume
the sort of conduct and evolve the rules which assures their continued
existence within the whole. Of course, this conduct and rules
must also be compatible with the preservation of the whole. Neither
the society nor the individuals could exist if they did not behave
in this manner. The overall order, preservation of the society,
is not the "purpose" or the "plan" of the
individuals. The individual actions are motivated by their own
goals and purposes.
Biotic Social Systems
What do human beings, ants, and slime have
in common? Despite their differences in structure, physiology
and ecology, all three consist of individuals whose behavior
is sufficiently coordinated for the group to be called a society.
Howard Topoff, 1981
Is this "coordination" and the resulting society due
to executing a preconceived plan of a social engineer, central
planner, or a great designer (like in heteropoietic systems),
or is it due to the distributed and unintended self-coordination
of goalseeking and autonomously behaving individuals (like in
Cellular Slime Mold (Garfinkel
1987) is another good example of an autopoietic social system.
The slime molds (Gymnomycota) are an example of a fungus-like
protist. They are decidedly fungus-like at some stages and animal-like
at others. Their life cycle includes an ameoboid stage and a sedentary
stage in which a fruiting-body develops and produces spores.
In Dictyostelium discoideum (Garfinkel
1987), the vegetative cell is ameoboid. Ameobas are individual
cells moving around in search for bacteria to feed on. They will
grow and divide indefinitely. Often they digest so much and produce
new amoebas so rapidly that their food supply has no chance to
replenish itself. When the food supply has been exhausted, they
move rapidly to a central point, collecting themselves into a
well-differentiated spontaneous aggregation (center cells, boundary
cells, etc.) - a pseudoplasmodium. The aggregation is triggered
by the production of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (AMP) which
attracts other amoebas in a chemotactic fashion.
The group then assumes the shape of a "slug" with a
head, tail, and an apparent "purpose": searching collectively
for a new, potential source of food. Around the outside is secreted
a mucoid sheath (aggregate boundary). It migrates as a unit across
the substratum as a result of the collective action of the amoebas.
The changing of the roles of individual amoebas is prevalent;
the original leaders who formed the center of attraction are dispersed
throughout the "slug", and new leaders emerge, forming
the "goalseeking" head.
The head of the homehunting "slug" are simply the fastest-moving
amoebas. The "slug" is just a spontaneous temporary
metaorganism, preserving each amoeba as a separate individual.
The slug is positively phototactic (migrates toward light), and
it usually migrates for a period of hours. Its behavioral responses
are essential "to ensure" that the spores will be borne
in the air and so can be effectively dispersed.
Fruiting body formation begins when the slug ceases to migrate
and becomes vertically oriented. The "leading" amoebas
change quickly from the first to the last. The head of the slug
forms the base of a stalk which follower-amoebas continue to build
(they secrete cellulose to provide rigidity) up into a mushroom-like
metaorganism. At its top, hundreds of thousands of amoebas differentiate
into spores that are embedded in slime and, after the mushroom
"head" matures, it bursts. It disperses the spores to
new and potentially nourishing environments. When they fall to
earth, they change once again into the individual amoebas which
reproduce by cell division. This ecological cycle is then repeated.
Human Social Systems
To the naive mind that can conceive of order
only as the product of deliberate action, it may seem absurd
that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown,
can be achieved more effectively by decentralising decisions,
and that division of authority will actually extend the possibility
of overall order.
F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 1988
After the undisputed failures and fatal conceit of large-scale
social engineering and experimentation of the past (Hayek 1975;
1988), the phenomena of spontaneity and emergence in social systems
are becoming important again. The survival and robustness of social
institutions, such as market, family, culture, money, language,
economy, city, and myriads of other voluntary orders, are being
The biological amoeba metaphor has recently found its organizational
embodiment in the most successful "amoeba system" at
Kyocera Corporation (Hamada/Monden
The Kyocera "amoebas" are independent, profit sharing
and self-responsible units of three to fifty employees. Each amoeba
carries out its own statistical control, profit calculus, cost
accounting and personnel management. They compete, subcontract,
and cooperate among themselves on the basis of intracompany market
of transfer prices.
Depending on the demand and amount of work, the amoebas can divide
into smaller units, move from one section of the factory to another,
or integrate with other amoebas or departments. All amoebas are
continually on the lookout for a better buyer for their intermediate
products. Many amoebas even produce the same or similar products.
They are authorized to trade their intermediate products with
the outside companies; if the internal vendor is unreasonable,
the buyer amoeba will search for a satisfactory supplier outside
A most remarkable feature towards system autonomy is the member
trading. Heads of amoebas lend and borrow members and so eliminate
losses caused by surplus labor. So, Kyocera's amoebas multiply,
disband, and form new units in the spirit of autopoiesis (self-production)
of the enterprise. Amoeba division and breakup are frequent occurrences
and are based on the criteria of output and a worker's added value
This concept of ultimate flexibility is best summed up by Kyocera's
President Inamori: "Development is the continued repetition
of construction and destruction" (Hamada/Monden
1989), as if coming directly from the systems theories of
Another example would be Australian TCG (Technical Computer Graphics),
a self-producing network in a business-firm environment. There
are no coordinating divisions, "leading firms", or management
superstructures guiding TCG's 24 companies; the coherence, growth
and maintenance of the network is produced, according to J. Mathews
(1992), by a set of network-producing
of Social Systems
In kinship systems, their boundaries are usually well defined.
The distinction between family and non-family members is rarely
ambiguous or subject to fuzzy interpretation. A definite family
boundary can be established, although it is not necessarily topological.
In the context of the family, the concept of boundary might be
defined as the members included in a set. Family members are usually
distinguished from their environment (from the "society")
more sharply than any engineered or designed physical "membrane"
All social systems, and thus all living systems, create, maintain,
and degrade their own boundaries. These boundaries do not separate(8)
but intimately connect the system with its environment.
They do not have to be just physical or topological, but are primarily
functional, behavioral, and communicational. They are not "perimeters"
but functional constitutive components of a given system.(9)
Boundaries do not exist for a human observer to see or identify
the system, but for the system and its components to interact
and communicate with its environment. Boundaries range from phospholipid
bilayers, globular proteins, osmotic precipitates, and electric
potentials, through cell layers, tissues, skins, metabolic barriers,
and peripheral neural synapses, to laterally or upwardly dispersed
boundaries of territorial markers, lines of scrimmage, social
castes, secret initiation rites, and possessions of information,
power, or money.
A company can have a number of geographically separate offices
or be a virtual company, entirely "in the air" of electronic
communication. The U.S.A. includes Alaska and Hawaii. A doctor
does not leave the social system of a hospital while "on
call" or connected with a beeper. Many additional examples
and details of non-topological social boundaries are discussed
by Miller and Miller (1992).
Although social systems are necessarily physical because their
components realize their dynamic network of productions in the
physical domain (their components are cells, termites, lions,
adult humans, etc.), many computer simulations (Zeleny
1978) of autopoietic systems show that topological boundaries
arise only if very minute rates of production processes are very
finely adjusted and harmonized. In other words, the underlying
organization of processes has to be "tuned up". If not,
a human observer might not be able to "see" or recognize
any "topological" boundary. Yet the organization remains
functional and invariant; autopoiesis continues; we do not see
any boundary, but the system remains autopoietic.
Autopoietic Systems are Social Systems
Recent advances in the areas of Artificial Life (Langton 1989),
synthetic biology, and osmotic growths (Klir/Hufford/Zeleny
1988; Leduc 1911; Zeleny/Klir/Hufford
1989) have established that at least some autopoietic systems
could be nonbiological, i.e., self-producing in inorganic milieus.
Autopoiesis can take place only where there are separate and
autonomously individual components interacting and communicating
in a specific environment according to specific behavioral (including
birth and death) rules of interaction.
Approaches which sacrifice this essential individuality of components,
like the statistical systems of differential equations used in
the traditional systems sciences, cannot model autopoiesis. They
are definitionally incapable of treating autopoietic systems as
social systems. Components and participants in autopoiesis must
follow rules, interact, and communicate - they must form a community
of components, a society: a social system.
F.A. Hayek (1988) pointed
out that social engineers assume that since people have been able
to generate some systems of rules coordinating their efforts,
they must also be able to design an even better and "improved"
system. The traditional norms or reason guiding the imposition
and subsequent restructuring of socialism embody a naive and uncritical
theory of rationality, an obsolete and unscientific methodology
which Hayek calls "constructivist rationalism" and which
E. L. Khalil (1990) traced to
Karl Marx's concept of social labor.
Although the family (and other spontaneous social orders (Zeleny
1985; 1991)) can easily
produce and generate systems other than itself, its primary capability
is that of producing (and reproducing) itself.
The removal of external pressures, support and props is one of
the safest tests of viability (i.e., autopoiesis) in social systems.
If the coercive boundaries (physical or otherwise) dissolve, and
the social system ceases to exist, it was not autopoietic; if
it reasserts its social boundary and voluntarily increases the
level of cohesiveness, then it is autopoietic and self-sustaining.
It is only in the sense of such centrally-imposed "command"
systems that we present our conjecture: All autopoietic (biological)
systems are social systems.
Social organization can be defined as a network of interactions,
reactions, and processes involving at least:
1) Production (poiesis): the rules and regulations
guiding the entry of new living components (such as emergence,
birth, membership, acceptance).
2) Bonding (linkage): the rules guiding associations,
functions, and positions of individuals during their tenure within
3) Degradation (disintegration): the rules and
processes associated with the termination of membership (death,
In Figure 1 we graphically represent the above three poietic
processes and connect them into a cycle of self-production. Observe
that all such circularly concatenated processes represent productions
of components necessary for other processes, not only the one
designated as "production..". To emphasize this crucial
point we speak of poiesis instead of production and autopoiesis
instead of self-production. Although in reality hundreds of processes
could be so interconnected, the above three-process model represents
the minimum conditions necessary for autopoiesis to emerge.
From the vantage point of Figure 1, all biological (autopoietic)
systems are social systems. They consist of production, linkage,
and disintegration of related components and component-producing
processes. An organism or a cell is, therefore, a social system.
Figure 1: Circular organization of interdependent processes
and their "productions"
Marvin Minsky has titled his recent book The Society of Mind
(1986), attempting to exploit
the social metaphor in studying the mind as a society. According
to Minsky, mind is neither a unified, homogeneous "black
box" or entity, nor a collection of entities, but a heterogeneous
system of networks of processes. Unfortunately, Minsky's view
of "society" is the hierarchy of agents (or experts),
based on extreme division of labor (Zeleny
1988b), each of them doing "some simple thing that needs
no mind or thought at all."
Minsky writes like a social engineer of command systems, with
little or no awareness of spontaneous social orders (Zeleny
1985): " ... when we [italics M. Z.] join these
agents in societies - in a certain and special way - this leads
to true intelligence."
G. M. Edelman (1988) improves
upon Minsky by stating:
Any satisfactory developmental theory of higher brain function
must remove the need for homunculi and electricians at any level
and at the same time must account for object definition and
generalization from a world whose events and "objects"
are not prelabeled by any a priori scheme or top-down order.
Organisms As Social Systems
The body of a mammal with its many vital organs
can be looked upon as a community with specialized individuals
grouped into organs, the whole community forming the composite
Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant,
Although here we cannot analyze biotic systems in specialist's
detail, let us explore the cellular organism, including the human
organism, as a social system. Living organisms have often been
studied as "black boxes," or as components-free machines,
by mechanistic cybernetics.(10)
Biological organisms are not components-free black boxes but
communicating, birth-death process balancing social systems. Jim
Michaelson of Harvard is one of the few biologists who is prepared
to treat biological systems as social systems, positing the "competition"
of cells, the selection and survival of the most "fit"
during their embryonic development, as being dependent on the
cell's ability to secrete enzymes, rates of proliferation, etc.
Whenever a living cell is unable to communicate with other cells,
it does not die, but rather grows uncontrollably, multiplying
into other noncommunicating cells, forming a malignant tumor which
is unable to survive in its life-sustaining environment because
it destroys it.
All organismic cells are interconnected through tiny channels
in cell membranes or gap junctions. Through these channels, all
molecular, chemical, metabolic, and electric communication among
cells takes place. These communicative junctions are made of proteins
(connexins) that align all cells into one continuous channel-network:
a social system.
Malfunction in intercellular communication channels affects the
intercellular social system and thus could "kill" the
organism itself. If regulatory and inhibitory signals do not get
through, the uncontrolled, deathless growth, and the voracious
feeding on its own environment, would result.
To study cancer processes without studying cellular gap junctions
amounts to a case of professional neglect. Clogged channels block
social-regulatory signals and allow cells to go awry; clear channels
allow the propagation of deadly signals. Gap junctions themselves
are selective self-regulatory; they tend to close and protect
against chaotic signals and to open for and receive regulatory
Even a fetus could not develop if particular groups of cells
would not stop reproducing and growing "just-in-time",
or more precisely, would not start dying.
In order to treat cancers, one has either to re-establish communication
channels and thus self-regulation or block the growth of communication
and support channels (like blood capillaries) in order to stop
rampant proliferation. This is not a trivial mechanistic task;
it can be mastered if we view biological systems as social systems.
2. Social Neighborhoods
As discussed in an AAAS symposium volume (Zeleny
1980), cellular neighborhoods, rather than some inheritable
genetic "programs", are the main determinants of cells'
functions. Sociologically, autopoietic systems are better illustrated
by the American plan of development, where one's status and fate
are determined by one's neighborhood, rather than by the British
plan, where one's status and fate are determined by one's ancestors.(11)
The neural network especially, i.e., autonomous autopoietic system
embedded in a larger complex of organismic networks, requires
quickresponse flexibility and adaptability which cannot wait for
a mutations buildup or rely on requisite but cumbersome "genetic
alterations". Neural networks develop as autopoietic societies;
individual cells wander around, get exposed to differential signalings
of different cellular neighborhoods, and ultimately settle down
(or get captured) within these neighborhoods, becoming functioning
neurons of the visual, hearing, or smell regions of the cerebral
H. Maturana insists in (Zeleny
1980) that "genes" and viral DNA are only structural
components of autopoiesis. Their distribution and mutation therefore
affect structures and structural characteristics (inheritable
shapes and adhesion properties of proteins), but they do not partake
in organization: they do not organize matter, but are themselves
organized and ordered by autopoiesis.
The greatest error biologists could make at this paradigmatic
bifurcation point is searching for the seat of the master plan
behind the body's gray matter. There is no master plan and there
are no black-box feedback loops within feedback loops. There is
only a society in autopoiesis, organizing matter of different
structural attributes and properties (including viral DNA), thus
arriving at different, sometimes important, structural manifestations.
Dr. C. L. Cepko of Harvard Medical School put it quite bluntly:
"The mother cells do not impart specific information to their
daughters about what to become."
3. Death Process
In addition to communication, social systems are also characterized
by limited lifespans of individual agents-components, i.e., by
death. If molecules would not break down, or cells, organisms,
individuals and entire species would not die, there would be no
social systems and thus no self-sustaining life on Earth.
Death dominates development. The vestigial webbing between human
fetus fingers must be dissolved before birth. About eighty percent
of the nerve cells of the baby's brain must perish within hours
of their creation. Caterpillar's crawling muscles must be sloughed
off in order to have a butterfly; female genitalia must be whittled
away in order to have a male.
Still, an uncontrolled and massive death is non-redeeming: Alzheimer's,
Parkinson's, and Lou Gehrig's degenerative disorders result. Uncontrolled
and massive birth is equally unredeeming: cancerous cellmasses,
killing their own environment (i.e., host organism) result. Individuals
must die in order to maintain their social system.(12)
Death is not a chaotic, haphazard, or disorganized part of social
system autopoiesis; it is a harmonized, choreographed, and often
suicidal dance of the most exquisite complexity. The creation
of autopoiesis is inconceivable without the trimming of apoptosis.
The study of apoptosis is crucial in biology: in fact, no true
biology can exist without it.(13)
Death is not the absence of life, but the crucial building block
of life. Life is never "individual" life, but life of
a social network of balanced and communicating birth-death processes.
A good example is the immune system. Millions of T and B cells
are continually generated, each capable of assaulting foreign
proteins, but unfortunately also the body's own proteins. Up to
98 percent of them have to undergo immediate apoptosis in order
to maintain the body's autopoiesis in a hostile environment.
Death is a productive process of the social system; it creates
space, it generates production substrate, it brings in the innovation,
and it allows trial-and-error adaptation to the environment. Individual
cells are created in order to die, and thus their social system,
i.e. living organism, can persist.
The idea that reason, itself created in the
course of evolution, should now be in a position to determine
its own future evolution is inherently contradictory, and can
readily be refuted.
F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 1988
Social systems persist. They can persist as societies of agents
only if their individual agents are born, communicate, and die
in harmony with themselves and their environment. Because of the
turnover of components, the social networks not only persist and
are renewed, but they also evolve.
The unit of evolution (at any level) must therefore be a network
capable of variety of self-organizing configurations. It is the
entire social network, including neuronal groups (Eldredge
1996), that is being "selected", not its individual
components. Such evolving networks are interwoven and co-evolving
with their environment; they do not only adapt to the environment,
but also adapt the environment to themselves - through mutually
intimate structural coupling.
A bird must undoubtedly adapt to a mountain. However, a society
(network) of birds can make the mountain adapt to them. By overconsuming
particular berries, the new brush growth is controlled, the mountain's
erosion enhanced, and the production of both berries and birds
thus limited until a temporary balance or harmony is restored.
Colors of flowers have coevolved with the trichromatic vision
of bees; shapes of flowers with the structural traits of insects
and animals; modern breeders with the changing tastes and preferences
of man. We quote from R. Lewontin (1982):
The environment is not a structure imposed on living beings
from the outside but is in fact a creation of those beings.
The environment is not an autonomous process, but a reflection
of the biology of the species. Just as there is no organism
without an environment, so there is no environment without an
Varela et. al. (1991),
in their book The Embodied Mind,(14)
conform to the view that living beings and their environments
stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or
The world is not a landing pad into which organisms parachute;
nature and nurture stand in relation to each other as product
This new view of evolution of social networks implies that there
can be no intelligent distinction between inherited and acquired
characteristics. What evolves is neither genetically encoded nor
environmentally acquired, but is ecologically embedded in a social
network. The sociological implications of such realization are
There is also no one fixed or pregiven world (a universe), nor
is its dynamics simply observed or viewed differentially from
a variety of vantage points (a multiverse), but this world itself
is continually re-shaped, and re-created by coevolving social
networks of organisms.
The evolution of paradigms is itself an autopoietic process,
and it is thus inevitable to see how the aged "revolutionaries"
are clinging to the old and suddenly ineffective ideas, how they
themselves have become conservatives, and how they individually
resist the new interpretations of their younger colleagues, often
without realizing that their collective time has passed ...
When I began my work I felt that I was nearly
alone in working on the evolutionary formation of such highly
complex self-maintaining orders. Meanwhile, researches on this
kind of problem - under various names, such as autopoiesis,
cybernetics, homeostasis, spontaneous order, selforganization,
synergetics, systems theory, and so on - have become so numerous...
F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 1988
Living systems, i.e., cells, organisms, groups, and species are
social systems. Their interaction forms the entire terrestrial
biosphere or Gaia, a social system akin to the unified organism
of a living cell, which itself is a social system of its constitutive
Connecting different species into a coherent, interactive, and
self-organizing system cannot happen without the death and dying
- the fuel of environmental adaptation. The natural death of species
does not signal maladaptability of the species, but harmony, adaptability,
and systemic perseverance of the social network of species. Death
is a cosmological event - the most exquisite assurance of life
yet to be. At one point, individuals of all species receive, by
waves on the shore, sound of the wind, or with radio telescopes,
the exquisite, life sustaining message: "Now, now it would
be indecent not to die."
Harmony and fitness does not imply dominance or competitive advantage
but intimate coupling with the environment through all-embracing
communication. The nature, as a social system, is replete with
communication channels of great variety and subtlety. All life
on earth (and most likely interstellar too) is interconnected
through internal and external harmonies, often unnoticed or ignored
by linear sciences.
The connexins of cells, dances of bees, odors of fire ants, allochemicals
of Douglas firs, and the language of humans are only the hints,
only the shy peepholes into the veiled mysteries of life - and
the promises of science yet to come.