Components of the Human Social System

The first part of the formal definition of autopoiesis states that the system is continuously created by the interactions among a set of components.  So what are the components of a human social system?  The obvious intuitive answer is that a component of a human social system is a person.  Is this the case?

In the case of biological systems the cells are fully contained, completely dedicated components of an organism, while mitochondria are fully contained, completely dedicated components of a cell.  Maturana states:  “The society of bees … is an example of a third order self-referring system”[23].  Is this a model of a human social organization as a living system?  Not really.  Bees don’t divide their time among the hive, a job, the PTA, and the Rotary Club in the way a people hold memberships in multiple organizations at the same time.  This points to a fundamental discontinuity between physical, biological systems and human social systems.  This discontinuity suggests that complete individual human beings should not be regarded as the components of human social systems.

The other half of the formal definition of autopoiesis supports this conclusion.  It says that the autopoietic system creates its own components.  It is hard to make that case for human social systems, if we think the components of such systems are human beings.  It is relatively meaningful to say that the family, as a social system, might create the human beings that could be seen as its components.  But a corporation does not create human beings.  Nor does the church, the military, the government, the university, or any other human social system.

Clearly if we want to assert that human social systems are living, which is to say in some true sense autopoietic, we will have to look elsewhere for their components.  One thing we can do is turn to another voice.  In his book The Image, Kenneth Boulding proposes the following:  “An organization might almost be defined as a structure of roles tied together with lines of communication.  The cellular units of organization are not men, but, as it were, parts of men, men acting in a certain role.”[24]  This has the sound of an intuition that is in need of more formal specification.  Notice the words “might almost be,” and “as it were.”  Informal intuition as it might have been, this idea of roles as the components of human social systems is right on the mark.

A role implies a set of responsibilities, and is characterized by abilities that enable it to be matched with potential role-players who possess those characteristics.[25]  At the heart of the notion of a role is a relationship (commitment, agreement, contract, etc.) between one human being and other human beings, or between one social system and other social systems.  The fundamental kernel of a role, then, is something we could call a social “pact” among individuals.

We are going to take this assertion as the basis for developing a more formal definition of the human social system that corresponds to the terms of the definition of autopoiesis.  In order to do that, we need to introduce one further concept: the meme.
The meme is one of two kinds of replicators that execute the evolutionary algorithm of universal Darwinism (large numbers of replicators that, over time, produce more offspring than can survive, the survivors and reproducers being better adapted to the environment).[26]  Richard Dawkins first introduced the idea of the meme in his book The Selfish Gene.[27]  Dawkins’s thesis is that the gene is the basic unit of evolution, and the propagator of change and variation.  The successful gene is the one that has characteristics (fidelity, fecundity and longevity) that allow it to be successful in the competition to replicate.  Memes are ideas or behaviors that also have the ability to replicate themselves, to change over time and to reproduce the changed forms in a kind of cultural evolution.  Memes are based on the ability to imitate, which is nearly unique to human beings.[28]

In Figure 1 we bring together autopoietic and memetic ideas.  We see a dissipative system, far from equilibrium, which correspond to the structure of an actual living system (e.g., a human being) as an open system.  The closed, autopoietic, self-referential system provides the pattern of organization, which in turn gives rise to the observer.  The ability to express and imitate memes must be a function of the observer, because “anything said is said by an observer”[29].


Figure 1

Figure 1 introduces a particular kind of meme that we will call a “commeme”.  A commeme carries a unit of commitment on the part of one person to another person or to some human social system.  The commeme by itself is merely mental intent, or maybe even an illusion of commitment.  It is powerless unless it is externalized in some way: verbally, physically in the form of text, electronically in the form of computer records, or even as a meaningful glance or gesture.  Textual and electronic representations of commemes provide fidelity and longevity, which are two of the characteristics of successful replicators.

As the figure shows, when the commeme is externalized it is in the form of a “pactette”.  The pactette is the expression of an atomic unit of human social commitment.  It is a tiny agreement, one of the terms of a potential contract.  In short, it is a miniature pact, hence its name.

Examples of pactettes are a person asking a stranger for a favor, or the eye contact and subtle movement of head or hand that lets another motorist merge in traffic.  Other examples include individual terms and conditions of business contracts, verbal commitments, and clauses in laws and regulations.

Figure 1 also shows that this atomic unit of social organization always involves some part of the external world - that is, some “thing” of interest to the parties whose commemes participate in the pactette.  In other words, this thing would answer the question, "What is this commitment about?”  It’s your suitcase that I’ve committed to watch while you go get a cup of coffee in the airport, or the space in the flow of traffic that invite you to occupy in front of me.

The combination of some related meme(s) of commitment, mentally held by two or more human minds and externally expressed in relationship to some external thing(s) of interest, is the atomic version of a social integration unit (SIU).  The SIU is the component of the human social system that we’ve been looking for.  We will see how a collection of SIUs becomes, through their interaction, the autopoietic social organization.  We will also see how, through the replicating power of the meme and a certain essential architecture common to the cognitive enterprise, the human social system creates its components, the SIUs.


Figure 2

Pactettes as simple units of commitment, or agreement, naturally build up into complexes that are related in various ways.  Such a complex of externalized commitments might be called a “pactplex.”  A pactplex has the property of attracting or generating new pactettes.  This is driven by the replicating nature of memes, and in the case of commemes each additional increment of commitment reinforces and justifies the claim of the existing complex on the mindshare of the hosts of its corresponding commemes.  This is a set of commitments that forms a nucleus of a human social system.  Figure 2 shows a more complex SIU that is formed around a pactplex.  It is composed of the relationships among the SIUs corresponding to the participating pactettes.

Like pactettes, the pactplex generally forms around a thing or class of things in the world, like a pearl forms around the irritant particle.  Part number 3746 can instigate a pactplex that involves individuals playing design roles, engineering roles, etc.

When a pactplex exists between two individuals we think of it as a “relationship”.  This complex of agreements forms from all the incrementally adopted pactettes between these individuals: “I’m the one who takes out the garbage”.

A common business pactplex is the set of conditions of employment.  For example, the agreement might be that you can’t work here and simultaneously work for another company.  Or you can, but never for a competitor.  This particular meme has replicated throughout the corporate world, helping each host corporate SIU to more effectively assert itself over the entire employer/employee pactplex.

Figure 3 shows how these concepts help formalize the notion of a role.  From the point of view of the social entity (person or organization) the set of commemes that bind it to a pactplex constitutes a role for that entity.

Figure 3

Social integration units form the basis for autopoiesis of human social systems as the components of the system that are created by the system.  Once the commeme of an agreement exists, it increases its survival potential if it does two things:  1. brings additional parties into the agreement, and 2. expands the set of related agreements in the pactplex so as to dominate more of the attention of the parties to the agreement.  SIUs perpetuate themselves by spawning further agreements involving new participants and/or involving new conditions on existing participants.

What is the mechanism that causes this replication ability (the fecundity of the SIU)?  The foundation of any agreement is some human motivation, which can be a survival mechanism, coercion, pursuit of pleasure, etc.  Shared motivation forms the basis for agreements, from the pactette on up.  SIUs compete with each other for mindshare of their human hosts, which are subject to finite time and the whole variety of time demands on the human organism.

As a social integration unit becomes more complex, involving common commemes held by an increasing number of people, it eventually passes a threshold where it becomes a human social system.  Following the definition of autopoiesis, this threshold is passed when it becomes a recognizable “unity”, formed by the interrelationship among participating SIUs, which it continuously creates.

Figure 4 shows a full-blown, autopoietic human social system.  A number of interlocking SIUs have given rise to the level of interrelated components that can sustain itself in a self-referential manner indefinitely.  The SIUs create the organization, and the organization creates SIUs through the replication mechanism we’ve discussed.

The human social system follows the same pattern as the biological system. We see a dissipative system, far from equilibrium, which corresponds to the structure of an actual living system (e.g., a human being) as an open system.  The closed, autopoietic, self-referential system provides its the pattern of organization.

Figure 4

Full-fledged autopoietic human social systems can enter into agreements with each other.  This is a recursion of the commeme, pactette, pactplex, SIU structure at a higher level of organization and complexity.  When an SIU that involves two or more organizations reaches a level of density and complexity of interaction, it can hive off and become a human social system in its own right.  Families spawn businesses as a matter of course, for instance.  They do this by forming pactplexes with other entities around the issue of sustenance, and eventually a viable human social system beyond the family is formed.

This discussion has provided a meme-based mechanism whereby we can assert that human social systems indeed can be considered living systems, even by the exacting standards of the tests for autopoiesis.  We now turn to a consideration of the higher-level structure for these organizations as cognitive systems.