4. From a Single Cell to Human Awareness and the Self

Biology also shows us that we can expand our cognitive domain. This arises through a novel experience brought forth through reasoning, through the encounter with a stranger, or, more directly, through the expression of a biological interpersonal congruence that lets us see the other person and open up for him room for existence beside us. This act is called love, or, if we prefer a milder expression, the acceptance of the other person beside us in our daily living. This is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness.

— Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge

The idea that life is a system property, a certain form of organization that is self-causing and self-organizing, has a name in biology: “autopoiesis.” That word, which literally means “self-making,” was coined in the 1970’s by two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who have been very influential in systems thinking. They identified autopoiesis and the organism’s autonomy as the defining features of life, and their vision started a scientific conversation that continues today.

From Maturana and Varela’s point of view, it’s almost impossible to overstate how important autonomy – the separateness of the organism – is to all life, from a single-celled creature to human beings. Obviously an organism must have a membrane separating it from its environment, otherwise it would spill its insides out into the surroundings and cease to exist. But that’s only the beginning of autonomy; less obviously, the processes happening inside the organism are happening with reference only to themselves at all times. The organism does not internalize a copy or representation of the outside environment; when something impinges from without, what happens inside the organism is a constant process of restoring equilibrium on the organism’s own terms. It has operational closure, meaning it is its own little self-contained world that runs by its own rules, which are dictated by its own structure. The challenge is for this separate, operationally closed being to maintain its separateness – which equals its identity, its integrity as a creature – and also survive in the environment. It sounds like an almost impossible feat: how can an organism behave in an adaptive way if it doesn’t take into itself some representation of the reality around it? What makes this possible is evolution, which has produced “structural coupling.” If the organism had not kept on being adapted to an environment which has varied considerably over time, and if it didn’t keep on being able to re-create itself constantly, it wouldn’t be alive today. There must be sufficient congruence between organism and environment; if there were not, the organism would not survive. But congruence is a condition of adaptation plus separateness; it does not in any way diminish the organism’s radical autonomy.

The startling consequence of this vision is that there is no need, biologically, to posit that human beings “know” or “internalize” their environment any more than an amoeba does. We too have evolved to a place of congruence, and there is no need for a representation of the outer world within a person’s head – a position which recent neuroscience confirms (I’ll return to this in chapter 8). Rather, the environment causes perturbations of our nervous system, which lead to internal neural processes. The nervous system has operational closure, dictated by its own structure and that of the body as a whole, and its operation is always aimed at restoring harmony within that internal system. Even though our nervous system doesn’t directly or transparently translate the world around us, even though no copy of the outside world exists within us, this doesn’t mean we operate in a solipsistic, arbitrary world where anything is possible. There is a world out there, and we function successfully in it. After all these millions of years of evolution, humans and the environment are structurally coupled, so though the events in our nervous system that constitute perception are based entirely on our own structure as organisms, we act in such a way as to survive. We are congruent, but separate and autonomous beings. Though we are in our own little world, this “own little world” of ours is, as a result of evolution, beautifully attuned to our environment, this attunement being what “structural coupling” means.

Maturana and Varela’s influential vision, then, is one that says we have the capability to live on this earth, but we can’t know anything directly about it as it actually is. It doesn’t matter if we perceive the world “accurately,” whatever that might be, as long as we remain adapted to it. Our perception, instead of being a window on the world, is an invention of our nervous system. This notion that there is no need for a correspondence between the “out there” and the “in here,” as long as the interaction works, is about the least sentimental version of a relationship with nature that I can imagine. It seems to say that we exist in an isolation so profound we don’t even know that’s what it is. And yet this vision doesn’t leave out humanness, nor does it turn life into a mere concatenation of mechanisms.

Besides leaving us structurally coupled to the environment, yet separate from it, our evolutionary history has also given us an internal structure that has made us capable of language. We are social beings, and our particular humanness is that we use language together to create consensus meanings, otherwise known as culture. Our reality rests on a consensus with others; the activity of language creates the world that people in any given culture conceive themselves to be surrounded by.

Language is crucial to our adaptation; through its infinitely recombinant power, we can create and live by meanings that are not tethered to the particulars of our current circumstances. Language enables us to remember, plan, hypothesize, and imagine far more powerfully than we could without it. Using this potent tool every culture creates, among other things, an enormous instruction manual for how to survive in a given environment. But this doesn’t mean that the instruction manual is perfect, or that it is good for all time. Because we are always grounding ourselves within a narrative of our own creation, language can be at the root of our failure to adapt, as well. The burning question now seems to be whether we are still congruent with life on Earth. It appears we may be in the process of becoming something that is not sustainable within this environment; that would seem paradoxical in the context of evolution, were it not for language, which makes us even more self-creating than other living creatures. We can lead and mislead ourselves in any number of directions, for better and for worse.

Seeing human life this way turns intuitive assumptions on their heads. We don’t have awareness first, then talk about it and realize we share the same awareness; rather, we talk together about the world around us and this creates our awareness. We don’t “pick up information” from the world around us and then cobble it together into meanings; instead, this thing we call “the world” that we perceive around us is created through meanings we bring forth in language with others. Even our own self, our private inwardness and our experience of being aware, is created as part of that consensus and would not exist without that consensus, as for example in the rare case of feral children.

We humans constantly create meaning and coherence, through language and its product, culture: coherence of the world around us, social unity, coherence of the self. We do these things because coherence is our survival. Yet though I am constantly creating a coherent “I,” this “I” is not some essence to be revealed; rather I am always on the cusp of coming into being in my language transactions with other human beings. We are always creating what we “are” and imagining that this identity is stable, but in fact it is in constant transformation via language and other social actions.


This biological vision has major implications for the situation we find ourselves in today. If we accept that our moment-by-moment perception is not a representation of external reality, and that we create our reality together through language, then any way we make sense of the world around us (including all of our science) is our own construction. “Nature” is always a fiction, because the outside world is always a fiction. The notion of nature is nested within the larger collective fiction of our culture, upon which we depend for our survival. We can’t easily step outside of it, even into another culture, and as for stepping outside of culture altogether, as far as I can see, that’s impossible. We need to be in consensus with some other people, or we’re unable to function. There isn’t some absolute, extra-cultural, objective and complete knowledge of the natural world available to us. It appears that since the Enlightenment, we in the West have operated on the fiction that there was such knowledge available, that we had it (or close enough to make incredibly bold decisions), and that it gave us mastery and control. Throughout the world, people with enormous power continue to operate on this fiction, but the consensus on it seems to be breaking down. There is serious feedback from the environment telling us that our knowledge is incomplete, our actions can have unforeseeable consequences, and not every problem has a technical fix. An alternative picture seems to be in the process of emerging; a high-stakes contest of fictions is going on, in science, in history, in politics, in policy-making.

The autopoietic vision is ultimately a statement of how we can know anything – an epistemology – and it is a hopeful one because if what we call the “world” is constantly being brought forth, constantly beginning, then a margin of play always exists. Possibility is never extinguished. We are always constituting a “reality” that we then find ourselves living in, not on our own, but together with others, and for this reason every action (including every language action) has an ethical dimension. Our knowing is contextual rather than universal, it is not ethically neutral, and it is not passive. We have an active responsibility for the way we contribute to the formation of our culture’s evolving consensus – a responsibility I am trying to carry out by writing this.

The story I’m telling is that we live in a world where more than material and efficient (i.e., mechanical) causes are at work. Even if the entropy of the entire universe is steadily increasing, on the local scale of our experience order can create itself. The Newtonian vision of particles pushed around by forces is not, after all, the universal explanation it once seemed. It has taken a very long time for this to become a statement one could make seriously, because the physical sciences have long added up to a compelling and coherent world-view, and there certainly is not yet a consensus on altering that picture.

For three-plus centuries, physics has been thought of as the ultimate science, the most basic, the most general; everything else, including biology, has been seen as a special case of physics. The emerging understanding is that that’s backwards – that Newtonian mechanics is a special case, or what Rosen calls “an artificial human limitation on reality.” The problem for the imagination lies in using the Newtonian system as a metaphor and then forgetting that it is figurative use of language. A metaphor says that something “is” what it is not: “my daughter is a garden in May.” Not “my daughter is like a garden,” which would be a simile; in a metaphor she flat-out “is” one. Of course we know better than to imagine she’s made up of dirt and flowering plants. But there is that moment when the mind makes the short but powerful leap: ah, it’s figurative. It’s asking me to create the bridge between daughter and garden. So what is there about that plot of land in May that she, in her own way, “is”? It’s blooming, it’s growing, it hasn’t reached its full growth yet, something new happens in it every day if you look closely . . .

What, then, if we say that the Newtonian vision of particles, propelled by forces, interacting in a linear, mechanistic way, “is” the way the world works? Not just the mechanical parts of the world, but all of it, including the living beings? Put the “is” in quotation marks and it’s still a metaphor; we can still ask ourselves both how that’s true and how that’s not true. But if we lose the quotation marks and forget that it’s a metaphor – which is what Western culture seems to have done – if we start taking this sentence to be a statement of fact, now we’re bringing forth a world. We use language to create the world we find ourselves facing. Then the consequences are drastic. A mechanistic world denies the possibility of the very qualities that constitute aliveness. If we adopt a mechanistic quote-unquote “reality,” this blocks the possibility of even perceiving the role of formal cause or self-organizing systems, and it presents nature to us as something we can dominate and control.

The particle piece of the metaphor is influential in itself: the consequence of it is that the true causes of events here on earth are assumed to occur at the microscopic level of atoms or molecules. Thus we now tend to assume that the key to causation in living things must be DNA. More sweepingly, whatever we experience with our unaided senses, at the macro scale, is thought to be determined elsewhere, microscopically; when we look around us through such a lens we find no causes, only effects. Thinking this way undermines the value of our human-scale perceptions, to say nothing of our intuitions. It privileges observation by intermediary instruments which are thought of as the only truthful, reliable sources of information.

Once the Newtonian world-view becomes a universal explanation, there’s no way out. A world of “state at time T entails state at time T+1, and so on in unbroken succession” is, in the end, a world that is determined, and that determinism would necessarily include us. It was most absolutely stated in the form known as Laplace’s demon, after the mathematician Pierre Laplace. In the early 19th century, he posited that if some superhuman intelligence – the so-called “demon” – could know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at a given moment, and all the forces acting upon them, then by applying Newton’s physics this super-intellect could predict all their interactions and therefore predict every event in the future. Since time in the Newtonian system is reversible, the “demon” could also work backwards and specify every past event back to the beginning of time. There’s no room for human liberty or sovereignty in such a vision; we too would be particles pushed by forces. Even psychologically, we would be nothing but mechanism, as classical behaviorism imagined us.

The Newtonian world-view has created a bizarre, self-contradictory cultural situation. A mechanistic explanation of the reality we live in confers tremendous power on humans to control nature; this we can be sure of by seeing all that has happened since the Industrial Revolution. Less obviously, but just as powerfully, a mechanistic world-view undermines the agency of the humans themselves. On its face, possession of this kind of knowledge creates domination and its consequence, arrogance; but on the flip side its implication is powerlessness. From the beginning, the knowers thought they could exclude themselves from being determined, yet the content of what they knew was determinism. This fundamental contradiction was ignored, or could be dealt with by religious conviction (we were unique in the Creation, another order of being from everything else on earth, we were charged by God with dominion over the earth). Maybe, simply enough, one could be saved from determinism by compartmentalization: create a sort of bulkhead between one’s personal humanness and one’s explanation of everything else, and hope for the best. Result, what C.P. Snow called the “two cultures.” But it looks as though in the twenty-first century, finally, an alternative world-view is emerging from within science which might mean that that bulkhead, which is a tenuous protection in any case, will no longer be necessary.

One thought on “4. From a Single Cell to Human Awareness and the Self

  1. I’ve read your work before, and I’m very interested in the unfolding of your ideas. I wonder if a reader new to this kind of critical thinking, however, needs more of a transition from what s/he knows to what you are introducing, esp. regarding M & V and autopoesis. That this chapter begins with an assertion and description of an organism being “operationally closed” is in conflict with the elementary school knowledge we all have of our 5 senses and the skin as a big organ. Furthermore, we feel ourselves to be in direct physical contact with the world, and that the direct physical contact transmits messages to our brain, kind of like roads in. Perhaps you might consider starting here by explicitly tackling a reader’s assumptions, and then unraveling them by introducing M & V’s ideas.

    I got to this line shortly after I became aware of wanting you to make some sort of personal statement that brought you into a more direct relationship with the reader. Until this moment, your stance was more detached, philosophical. I like how this says, in a way: I live here, too, with you.: “Our knowing is contextual rather than universal, it is not ethically neutral, and it is not passive. We have an active responsibility for the way we contribute to the formation of our culture’s evolving consensus – a responsibility I am trying to carry out by writing this.” As reader, I really feel the full presence of the author here, and that is a good thing to be occasionally reminded of in the more theoretical chapters.

    Reading your passage about science as a metaphor, too, I thought about how scientists I have met are very cautious about their analysis of results from their own investigations, and use hedging words constantly. We also teach undergraduate scientists never to use words like “prove.” And yet our culture’s view of science is as a kind of fact-making engine. Bench scientists don’t experience it that way. Even climatologists would admit that their findings are based, in large part, on models — valid models, yet still constructions. I don’t have an answer to this, but I do wonder how science could make its way into the larger culture as a more nuanced undertaking, rather than a binary one.

    In the last paragraph, I follow your argument through “its implication is powerlessness.” After that, I feel as though the writing is a shorthand for what *you* understand, but what hasn’t quite yet been brought home to the reader: this tension between human confidence in Newtonian physics and our impotence in our participation in it.

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