This paper examines two questions related to autopoiesis as a theory for minimal life: (i) the relation between autopoiesis and cognition; and (ii) the question as to whether autopoiesis is the necessary and sufficient condition for life. First, we consider the concept of cognition in the spirit of Maturana and Varela: in contradistinction to the representationalistic point of view, cognition is construed as interaction between and mutual definition of a living unit and its environment. The most direct form of cognition for a cell is thus metabolism itself, which necessarily implies exchange with the environment and therefore a simultaneous coming to being for the organism and for the environment. A second level of cognition is recognized in the adaptation of the living unit to new foreign molecules, by way of a change in its metabolic pattern. We draw here an analogy with the ideas developed by Piaget, who recognizes in cognition the two distinct steps of assimilation and accommodation. While assimilation is the equivalent of uptake and exchange of usual metabolites, accommodation corresponds to biological adaptation, which in turn is the basis for evolution. By comparing a micro-organism with a vesicle that uptakes a precursor for its own self-reproduction, we arrive at the conclusion that (a) the very lowest level of cognition is the condition for life, and (b) the lowest level of cognition does not reduce to the lowest level of autopoiesis. As a consequence, autopoiesis alone is only a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for life. The broader consequences of this analysis of cognition for minimal living systems are considered.
In this paper we develop the autopoietic approach to the definition of the living developed by Maturana and Varela in the Seventies. Starting from very simple observations concerning the phenomenology of life, we propose a reformulation of the autopoietic original definition of life which integrates some of the contemporary criticism to it. Our definitional proposal, aiming to stimulate the further development of the autopoietic approach, expresses what remains implicit in the definition of the living originally given by Maturana and Varela: life, as self-production, is a process of cognitive coupling with the environment.
The concept of autopoiesis was proposed 40 years ago as a definition of a living being, with the aim of providing a unifying concept for biology. The concept has also been extended to the theory of knowledge and to different areas of the social and behavioral sciences. Given some ambiguities of the original definitions of autopoiesis, the concept has been criticized and has been interpreted in diverse and even contradictory ways, which has prevented its integration into the biological sciences where it originated. Here I present a critical review and conceptual analysis of the definition of autopoiesis, and propose a new definition that is more precise, clear, and concise than the original ones. I argue that the difficulty in understanding the term lies in its refined conceptual subtlety and not, as has been claimed by some authors, because it is a vacuous, trivial or very complex concept. I also relate the concept of autopoiesis to the concepts of closed systems, boundaries, homeostasis, self-reproduction, causal circularity, organization and multicellularity. I show that under my proposed definition the concept of a molecular autopoietic system is a good demarcation criterion of a living being, allowing its general integration into the biological sciences and enhancing its interdisciplinary use.
I review here my personal and scientific interactions with Francisco Varela, starting from our meeting in 1983 in Alpbach, Austria, a momentous meeting, which was also the place where the Mind and Life Institute and independently the Cortona week were conceived. Later on, the scientific cooperation focussed on autopoiesis and permitted to arrive at the experimental autopoiesis on the basis of the self-reproduction of micelles and vesicles. I then briefly describe how Francisco, based on the complementary notion of cognition, was able to draw the bridge between biology and cognitive sciences. The main keywords here are enaction and embodied mind. From here, and towards the end of his life, Francisco focussed mostly on neurobiology, where he introduced the notion of neurophenomenology centred on first-person reports. However, his seminal work on autopoiesis was instrumental to conceive the new field of research on the minimal cells, which is briefly described. I conclude with an overview of the meaning of the work of Francisco for life sciences at large.
Reverse micelles hosting the internal production of the surfactant are proposed as experimentally feasible models of simple (or ‘minimal’) autopoietic systems. We describe the conditions under which these may be formed and their possible biological implications. The micellar systems considered here turn out also to exhibit a capacity for self-reproduction through fragmentation under plausible conditions, thus constituting also a minimal experimental model for prebiotic self-reproduction.