Autopoiesis

The human body is about 70% water. More specifically, it is about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10 % hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.4% calcium, 1.1% phosphorous, and a host of others that fall below .25%. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composition_of_the_human_body) Most people have heard this fact in some form, but have you ever stopped to really think about what that really means? Rocks could be made up of the same elements, or ocean water, or dead trees, or soil. What happens at the elemental level that allows carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen to rise to the level where they create an organism that experiences love, and creates beauty in the world? It is a profound question, because we literally are the earth, yet we all know that living things are somehow different than rocks and air.

According to Fritjof Capra, in his book, “The Web of Life,” there are 3 key criteria for life to exist. I am going to briefly describe the first, which is “pattern of organization.” All of them overlap and are incomplete in themselves, so please bear with me as I work to get all of them described in future posts. Also, conciousness and self awareness is a further study beyond these descriptions, so don’t get to hung up on that. We’re just talking about the composition of life.

Autopoiesis is a term that simply means “self-making.” According to Capra, autopoiesis means that, “the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network. In this way the entire network continually “makes itself.” It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components. In a living system, the product of its operation is its own organization.”

All life exists as networks of complex relationships. Each organism is a network of hundreds of living systems. Let’s consider a mammal. A mammal is a system comprised many hundreds of individual living systems, including circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and reproductive systems as well as many others. These are all systems that are alive and contribute directly to the wellbeing of the larger mammal. If we were to look at one of these systems, the circulatory system, we would find that it is comprised of individual living components, like the heart, or the blood vessels. If we take one of those components, the heart, we see that it is also a system in itself, comprised of cardiac tissue, nerve tissue, and blood tissue. Looking at only the cardiac tissue, we find that it is also a living system that has some unique characteristics, including a large number of mitochondria, which are also living systems in themselves. This process can ultimately take us down to the elemental levels of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and the others. Each are individual systems, constantly recreating themselves through the endless input (and expulsion) of energy and materials.

In exactly the same way that mammal’s subsystems are supportive of its well being, a mammal is an important piece of the many larger living systems that it lives within. In the way that a mammal cannot survive without its internal systems, the larger living ecosystem cannot survive without its healthy internal systems as well. The network of subsystems in an ecosystem need to be operating in a balanced, mutually beneficial way for the larger system to be healthy. Some people believe that all of the major ecosystems come together to create a single organism that we have named Earth, and that Earth is a single living system, playing its unique role in the universe. It is called the Gaia Theory, and I’ll write about it in future posts.

Each component, be it a human, a heart, or the mitochondria, have a unique role to play. They are individuals within themselves, with clearly defined boundaries, and defined purposes (purpose in the sense that they are simply doing what they are self organizing to do). In all cases, the components, at any scale, exists simply to create itself. As long as it is alive, the larger organism will survive. The form and composition of the living component will remain constant as energy and material flows through it. Think of your own body, and the energy and food that flows in and out of it, while you exist in the same form. In the natural world these energy and material flows move between components among a network, allowing the individual components to constantly create themselves, relatively unchanged. It is a very complex, integrated, and beautiful dance.

One must stop to consider what role the toxic pollution of the modern age has in this autopoietic network. It is difficult to not think of it as a cancer, or something of the like, because it is not a material or energy flow that contributes to the health of the overall organism that we are an integral part of.  We are creating man made materials that cannot flow through the networks and contribute to the ability of other organisms to recreate themselves. It is effectively cutting off the relationships that we have with the other living components of the earth, because our material flow with them is poison. In all design fields we must consider where our objects fit into this complex web of life, understand what material and energy flows we are exploiting, and which ones we will need to contribute to, in order to keep the larger ecosystems healthy. We must find our place in the network of living systems.

Finally, the next time that you look at that homeless person on the street, or that super scary insect, take care to consider what they truly are. They are nothing short of millions of living systems who have figured out a way to self organize themselves in such a way that oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus can rise to the level of love and beauty. They are an absolute walking miracle!

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