CEPA eprint 3955

It’s not mine and it’s not a dictum

Fleischaker G. R. (1992) It’s not mine and it’s not a dictum. International Journal of General Systems 21(2): 257–258. Available at http://cepa.info/3955
Commentary on Zeleny M. & Hufford K. D. (1992) The application of autopoiesis in systems analysis: Are autopoietic systems also social systems? International Journal of General Systems 21(2): 145–160. http://cepa.info/1207
In the opening paper of this forum, the focal authors stated their “… intention to propose, demonstrate, and argue that Varela et al.’s criteria as they are applied to a biological (living) system can be applied to other systems that we currently do not consider living,[Note 1] and that this may have a profound effect on the way we as scientists should view and/or define the phrase ‘living organization.’ “‘ How is it, then, that in their response paper[Note 2] Zeleny and Hufford now fault the rejoining authors for having taken that task seriously, i.e., for discussing the criteria in detail or for scrutinizing their application? How is it that the focal authors now deride us for not questioning “the sacred ‘Test’ of the auto-forefathers”? And how can these same focal authors, having introduced the Varela et al. criteria to the discussion in the first place, now complain that those criteria are “simplifying fallacies” or “dogmatic pronouncements” (p. 241), are neither “necessary or thoughtfully formulated” (p. 243), are “‘black-and-white’ dogmas” (p. 246)?
In arguing against the necessity of an autopoietic boundary, the authors state that “it is grossly inappropriate to import the sciences of the artificial into the study of natural forms” (p. 240) [a statement with which l most certainly agree[Note 3] ]. Yet having asserted the inappropriateness of the artificial, how can the authors then base their argument on what “countless [numerous] computer simulations of autopoietic systems have shown” (p. 241 [p. 247])?
It must be said that the focal authors’ peculiar assertions against activity in membranes as autopoietic boundaries, far from being “obvious to most biologists” (p. 240), can come only from ignorance of biology: membranes are electrochemically dynamic, and membrane components (phospholipids) are catabolized, turning over at a high rate with half-times measured in hours.[Note 4]
I did not claim that “individual partridges are not autonomous but individual humans are” (p. 243). My point in speaking of partridges at all concerned behaviors at different system levels, that is, to characterize the autonomous behavior of a whole system (e.g., a covey of partridges) as compared to the non-autonomous behavior of its component parts (e. g., individual partridges).
In their response, Zeleny and Hufford refer to the equivalence[Note 5] of living systems with autopoietic systems in the physical space as “the unfortunate Fleischaker dictum” (p. 247): I must point out first that the equivalence is hardly mine, and second, that it is not a dictum but a definition: the term ‘autopoiesis’ was itself coined to identify and characterize the living. To insist on the equivalence between living systems and physical autopoietic systems is not simply some perverse ‘rigidity’ on my part but a literal reading of that definition.
I rejoined the focal authors’ claim that Leduc’s osmotic systems were autopoietic in the conviction that the exercise was a genuine one, that is, that in applying the criteria of autopoiesis to an uncontestedly non-living system, we could press how far the criteria of autopoiesis would go toward distinguishing between the living and the non-living.[Note 6] I had expected that we could do this both critically and without rancor, but in this I was disappointed. So in what follows I shall leave aside the formalism of autopoiesis and counter instead with a phenomenological basis for contending that living systems and osmotic systems are not analogous. (My ‘minimal understanding of osmotic [systems]’ is derived from Leduc’s own descriptions of such systems, and it’s his words I shall quote[Note 7] to make my case here.) Microscopically, an autopoietic boundary structure (biological membrane) is constituted by molecular components in solid-state relationships which are produced by the system’s internal network of production, whereas an osmotic boundary structure is a colloid, as Zeleny and Hufford confirm (p. 244), formed by outward diffusion of the calcium salt and aggregated as a structure, as Leduc writes, “where it comes to contact with the [phosphate] solution.” Macroscopically, biological membranes exhibit structural integrity, whereas (I contend, contra Zeleny and Hufford) osmotic boundary structures rupture: writes Leduc, “The spherical membrane is extended by osmotic pressure, … it will break down, and an aperture will occur through which the interior liquid oozes out, forming in its turn a new membraneous covering for itself” [my emphasis].
Finally, as they assert that to distinguish between physical, biological, and social is “of no great importance at all” (p. 250), Zeleny and Hufford miss the (epistemological) point of drawing system distinctions and ignore the (ontological) point that there are differences to be distinguished among systems levels. Both enterprises, the epistemological and the ontological, are proper to the system sciences wherein these same distinctions are neither novel nor contentious. For system scientists to refuse to see such distinctions seems to me fatal to their entire undertaking.
Endnotes
1
M. Zeleny and K. D. Hufford, “The application of autopoiesis in systems analysis: Are autopoietic systems also social systems?” International Journal of General Systems, 21, 1992, p. 147. http://cepa.info/1207
2
M. Zeleny and K. D. Hufford, “The ordering of the unknown by causing it to order itself.” International Journal of General Systems, 21, 1991, p. 239-253. http://cepa.info/3932
3
Yet since I did not once mention ‘the sciences of the artificial’ in my paper, I am at a loss to understand why this response statement should be directed to me.
4
And while primary metabolic sources of amino acids and energy substrates (e.g., glucose) are not membraneous, membrane phospholipids “are the source of substrate for certain reactions, such as prostaglandin synthesis and the inositol* Iris-phosphate second-messenger pathway” [personal communication: Professor David W. Deamer. Department of Zoology, University of California at Davis] *Inositol, present in the vitamin-B complex and widely distributed in plants, is an essential growth factor for animal life.
5
I read the focal authors’ graphic [a double-ended arrow] as a biconditional connective or equivalence between “living systems” and “autopoietic systems.” Thus the statement of equivalence may be read equally “systems are ‘living’ if and only if they are ‘autopoietic’” or its converse, “systems are ‘autopoietic’ if and only if they are ‘living’.” Because living systems are physical and because the defining criteria of autopoiesis are physical, the equivalence between living and autopoietic necessarily limits autopoietic systems to physical systems.
6
I am in full agreement, of course, with the focal authors’ reason for giving the osmotic story an O. Henry ending, yet to make a knowing choice of endings is not my “fear” but precisely the chief point of my rejoinder: “…if non-biological systems such as Leduc’s osmotic systems can be shown
7
S. Leduc. The Mechanism of Life. Rebman, London, 1911, pp. 124-125 as cited in G. J. Klir, K. D. Hufford, and M. Zeleny, “Osmotic growths: A challenge to systems science.” International Journal of General Systems, 14, 1988, p. 8.
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