Are Human Social Systems Autopoietic?

To explore the appropriateness of the notion of living enterprises (or living human social systems) we turn to the theory of autopoiesis, as advanced by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.  No discussion that claims to address living systems at any level can afford to ignore this bold attempt to define life itself, as declared by the following statement, “… the notion of autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems.”[17]  This means, according to Maturana and Varela, that all living systems are autopoietic, and all autopoietic systems are living.

The formal definition of autopoiesis is:

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.[18]

Some interesting and controversial assertions of autopoietic theory include:

  • Autopoietic systems are autonomous, and totally self-referential.
  • Autopoietic systems are not open systems in an environment.
  • Autopoietic systems do not have purpose, because purpose is referential, not self-referential.
  • The nervous system is a closed, self-referential system.
  • The nervous system gives rise to an observer (particularly in the case of human beings), which exists in a domain of descriptions.

If autopoietic systems have no input or output, and the nervous system is a closed system, there must be something else that is open, at least in the sense that overrides the second law of thermodynamics.[19]  Fritjof Capra points out the distinction that Maturana and Varela make between the pattern of organization and the structure of a system.  The former is the ”configuration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics,” while the latter “involves describing the system’s actual physical components”.[20] Autopoiesis is the self-referential, closed pattern of organization, while the structure of physical components of an actual living system provides the dissipative structure that is far from equilibrium.[21]

The question at issue is whether social organizations are autopoietic systems.  There seems to be a fair amount of literature that says they are[22] (even though Maturana and Varela themselves have been divided on this question).  Stafford Beer declares himself to be on the positive side of this question in his preface to the 1973 essay "Autopoiesis, The Organization of the Living" which constitutes the second half of the 1980 book Autopoiesis and Cognition.  In essence, the definition says that an autopoietic system produces the components that make up the system, and that the interactions of the components in turn constitute the system.  Is a human social system actually a system that creates its own components, and whose components in turn create it?  This question hinges on what the components of a social system actually are.