Reflections in relation to the article “Are living beings extended autopoietic systems? An embodied reply.” | Humberto Maturana Romesín

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Opinion Adaptive Behavior
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DOI: 10.1177/1059712319841740

Reflections in relation to the article of Villalobos and Razeto

Humberto Maturana Romesín

(Villalobos, M., & Razeto-Barry, P. (2019). Are living beings extended autopoietic systems? An embodied reply. Adaptive Behavior.


This is a very interesting article, and I would like to make a few epistemological and operational reflective commentaries that it evokes in me.


Autopoiesis, system, unity, living, organism

Handling Editor: Tom Froese, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico

We human beings exist as languaging beings. In our cultural present, we treat language as a system of transfer of information, yet if we attend at what we do when we are in a conversation or a reflection, we will notice that what we are in fact doing is coordinate our feelings, doings, and relations with others or with ourselves. So words or names do not transmit information or designate things, they evoke the coordinations of configurations of feelings, doings, and relations that constitute that which we are distinguishing or connoting, and that appears with what we do, in a way which determines the course that our living follows through them.

For me the problem of understanding living system was not a matter of defining their nature, but of discovering the network of molecular processes that realized them as discrete entities. So, when I proposed that living systems were autopoietic systems in 1962, I was saying that I had found how they were so. For me, it was obvious then that they were molecular systems and did not made this explicit, but in my conversations with my colleague Ximena Dávila (X.D.Y.) in the late 90s, she showed me that not doing so was the cause of much confusion. So we decided then to be always explicit when speaking of living systems, saying (a) that living systems are discrete molecular autopoietic systems, (b) that they define their own borders in their continuous self-realization as a discrete molecular autopoietic entities, and (c) that all the elements and processes that participate in the realization of their molecular autopoiesis at any moment determine their individual extension at that moment.

A living system operates only as an organism integrating an ecological unity with the sensory, operational, and relational niche that arises with it and makes possible the realization of its molecular autopoiesis. And we call this operational unity the ecological organism-niche unity, operational unity that exists only while the molecular autopoiesis of the organism is conserved. Thus, the manner of living of a living system as it operates as a totality occurs in its operation as an organism in the relational space of its ecological niche as it arises in the realization of its molecular autopoiesis.

In these circumstances, biological phenomena are processes that involve the realization of the molecular autopoiesis of at least one living system in the ecological organism-niche unity that it integrates. At the same time, the ecological niche of an organism involves all that participates in the realization and conservation of its molecular autopoiesis without being part of it, but interacts with it. For example, all that we human beings do in our different ways of living as languaging beings, from domestic activities to art, philosophy, science . . . politics . . . beautiful or ugly . . . are part of our ecological niche as aspects of the medium that contains us and makes us possible as molecular autopoietic systems.

It is not possible to tell a priori the nature of the ecological niche of an organism or how far it extends, only the observation of the manner of living of the organism that integrates it, will show us its ecological niche. Thus, if we accept that living systems are molecular autopoietic systems, we must also accept that what begun when they appeared on the earth were ecological organism-niche unities.

The first ecological organism-niche unities must have arisen through spontaneous generation some 3800 million years ago. And when their accidental fractures resulted in the conservation of the ecological organism-niche unities, systemic reproduction begun to occur as a process in which both the molecular autopoiesis of the organism and its ecological niche were conserved simultaneously. Then, when sequential systemic reproduction of the ecological organism-niche unities begun to happen, lineages and the diversification of lineages begun to occur, giving rise to the evolutionary natural drift of living systems as a network of ecological organism-niche unities spontaneously integrated in a biosphere.

When in 1961 I first realized that living beings were discrete systems that produced themselves, for me it was obvious that I was speaking of molecular system and that living systems existed in the molecular domain. Later, in the expansion of my reflections, I realized that it is only in the molecular domain where there are elements that in their interactions produce elements of their same kind. Now, as I have said above, X.D.Y. and I say, that to avoid confusions, and since we know that the molecular domain is the only operational domain in which living systems can exist as discrete self-producing systems, we must always be explicitly clear in that when we speak of living systems we are speaking of molecular autopoietic systems.

It was while I was observing our molecular constitution and the cyclical form of the network of cyclical molecular processes that realized our metabolism, that I found in 1962 that we were discrete closed networks of self-producing cyclical molecular systems that generated their own boundaries determining their own extension in their process of their self-production. And it was while talking about this in 1969 that I realized that the word autopoiesis (self-production) was adequate to evoke what I had observed.

Villalobos and Razeto are right when they say that it is not quite adequate to speak of a living system whenever one refers to many molecular autopoietic systems integrating an expanded totality unless one can say that that totality is a molecular autopoietic system in its own right. It is the criterion of coherence that one is applying in the moment of making the distinction what determines the nature of what appears with it. If one does not do that, the identity of what one is distinguishing will be obscured, and our understanding of what we may be doing will be confusing. As I said at the beginning of these reflections, language is not an instrument to designate entities as if these existed by themselves. Language is a manner of living together coordinating our inner feelings, doings, and relations in a manner in which we feel that which we distinguish as if it had been there prior to our distinguishing it, namely, as a ‘‘thing.’’ So if we are not careful in attending at the circumstances in which we say what we say or on what doings and reflections we intend to coordinate, we may result confusing relational or operational domains. Nothing is in itself, something is according to the operation of distinction with which we distinguish it, and it remains so as long as the conditions that make such operation of distinction possible are conserved . . . and can be realized by an observer.

Finally, a living system does not occur in an extended manner as the realization of its molecular autopoiesis necessarily entails the continuous generation of its dynamic borders and limits. Yet, what is extended, if one wanted to use that expression, is an ecological organism-niche unity, or a network of inter-related organism-niche unities, that involves all that participates in the circumstances that permit the realization of the molecular autopoiesis of the organisms that integrate it without being part of it.

Examples of words and their meanings according to how they are used:

A living system happens as a molecular autopoietic system, and operates as an organism in the ecological organism niche unity that it integrates. What happens when it dies? The molecular autopoiesis of the organism stops, and the organism niche unity that it integrated disappears. Furthermore, the world that the organism generated changes or is transformed around what is conserved in its absence.

The word organism refers to a living system as it operates as a totality integrated in its ecological niche. So, what may I be wishing to say if I say that Gaia is a living system, or if I say that it is an organism?

The word cell refers to a singular discrete molecular autopoietic entity (a living system) that may operate alone as an organism, or in symbiosis with other cells integrating a large multicellular one.

We usually speak of plants as living systems, but we also mean that they are autotrophic organisms that have chlorophyl. If I were to say that a tree is a living system, I would be implying that the tree as a totality is a discrete singular molecular autopoietic unity.

If I speak of an ant colony, I would not like to say that it is a living system, but I would say that an antcolony, as an integrated totality, operates like as an organism. If we say that an ant colony is a living system, the nature of its being integrated by autonomous ants, and its manner of integration, is obscured.

We may say that the earth cortex with the many different kinds of organisms that exist in it integrating many different networks of ecological organism-niche unities operates as an organism that we call Gaia. Yet, if we say that Gaia is a living system, we obscure its planetary nature suggesting that Gaia is a molecular autopoietic system, is it?

Under no circumstance one could say that there are ‘‘extended molecular autopoietic systems.’’ Molecular autopoiesis occurs as a network of recursive processes of molecular transformation and production which determines its own extension as it closes upon itself through the continuous generation of a molecular border whose components are at the same time dynamic elements of its intimate individual realization. There are other systems that also have dynamic borders like a tornado but are not molecular autopoietic systems because they do not consist in a closed recursive network of molecular productions.

With the expression ecological organism-niche unity, X.D.Y. and I refer to the operational integration of an organism and the ecological niche in which it realizes its molecular autopoiesis. At the same time, we say that since the spontaneous appearance of the first molecular autopoietic systems must have necessarily happened integrating an ecological organism-niche unity, the origin of life was indeed the origin of molecular autopoiesis in the form of an ecological organism-niche unity that involved the world that made them possible. But we cannot properly say that the possibility for their occurrence was already preexisting in the medium, even though we may think so a posteriori. Notion of existence or preexistence appears as reflections of the observer and is not a feature of the worlds that appear when we explain what we do.

The evolutionary history of living begun with the spontaneous trans-generational conservation of the molecular autopoiesis and its ecological niche in the sequential systemic production of the ecological organism-niche unities that arose with them in the moment of their origin. In the systemic reproduction of the ecological organism-niche unity, the limited extension of the organism as a discrete entity, and the undetermined extension of its niche, is conserved simultaneously in the present of the manner of living of the organism in the moment in which it happens. The undeterminable extension of the niche of an organism may lead, if one is not careful, to the confusion of the domains when talking about a living system as an organism.

A word means different things in the recursive coordinations of our feelings, doings, and relations according to the way we listen to it and . . . wish to use it. In general terms, the way an observer listens will determine not only what he or she understands, but also the sensory, operational, and relational domain that appears with his or her distinctions at every circumstance of his or her changing present.

Well, . . . but in the end of my commentaries, I still have a question: what do the authors of this article mean about life and living for themselves?

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

About the Author

Humberto Maturana Romesín is a biologist and philosopher. He has a PhD in Biology from Harvard University and has worked at MIT. He founded Matríztica together with Ximena Dávila, an organization oriented to reflect about the biological and cultural nature of human existence.

Escuela Matríztica, Santiago, Chile
Corresponding author:
Humberto Maturana Romesín, Escuela Matríztica, Ricardo Lyon 1096.
depto 203. Providencia, Santiago 7510505, Chile.