Insights Series: Humberto Maturana, A Memorial


The Insights Series is an eclectic and learned collection of monthly events on the 4th Tuesday of each month. There will be lectures, seminars, conversations, debates, participation, all advancing our knowledge of cybernetics and its applications to real world needs.

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In gratitude to Humberto Maturana.

A Memorial Conversation and Presentation by Dr Pille Bunnell FCybS

Humberto Maturana HonFCybS scheduled to speak on this day. He sadly died on May 6, 2021. He was a special man, a co-founder of Autopoiesis with Dr Francisco Varela, and more. This session celebrates aspects of his work.

We are grateful to Dr Pille Bunnell, Secretary of the ASC, for stepping in with a memorial lecture that reflects her work with him. Following her introduction, there will be time for reflections and questions from others on his work and its meaning.

Love is fundamental to the evolution of humanness.

This is a key theme of the book with its mature considerations that Humberto Maturana wrote* — and which Pille Bunnell had the good fortune to edit. Its thesis is intellectually and scientifically challenging as well as culturally important because it offers a different way of seeing evolution and humanness. It is based on a lifetime of coherent biological research — and thinking. Language is itself key. It draws on his lifetime of research into cognition, autopoieis, and evolution.

If you are new to autopoiesis and his work some of the language and description, which have technical detail behind them, may seem strange. But exploration of these forms finds that they let thinking explore and enter the insights and working relationships themselves. He was less interested in making his text simple than in making it not just meaningful but generative. In this, language itself has significance. Dr Bunnell is noted for her graceful presentations on this complex subject.

Love is the Fundament: Reflections in a Confluence of Meanings.

Dr Pille Bunnell FCybS

I have been invited to step into the time for a talk left by Humberto’s absence. For nearly half a century he has been one of the major figures in the cybernetic community. Though I can speak at this time, I cannot fill the space. I feel inarticulate, yet I wish to speak in gratitude for the immense contributions gifted to the world by my deeply beloved friend and mentor, Humberto Maturana.

Maturana’s work, in a life of deep reflection and loving conversations, is vast. He has touched many lives in ways that opens a path of recursive generative reflections that people have experienced as a fundamental change in their lives. Most recently his work with his colleagues in Matriztica has expanded both the richness of this network of ideas and their reach.

In this presentation I cannot speak to the whole systemic dynamic relationally embedded network of living and human living I perceive in his life-work. I have chosen to speak of how, in working with him and his body of work, I have come to understand love as the fundament in a confluence of different senses or meanings. I do not presume to represent or interpret what Maturana and his colleagues in Matriztica offer. I speak only my own understanding.

The Evolution of Humanness

Love is fundamental to the evolution of humanness. We could not have arisen as languaging beings if we had not lived predominantly in loving relations. Love is even more fundamental than the grounding of our own evolution as humans. Love is fundamental to the biosphere, for the possibility of all relationships as these evolved along a conservation of adaptation in the organism niche unity. Clearly, I do not mean love as a sentiment, nor does love require a self-aware declaration. I see it as the orientation of living systems engaging with their medium in a manner that enables a drift along the coherences of conserved relationships. Through this the network of relations that is the biosphere arises.

As Maturana has said “love is the domain of relational behaviours in which the other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself”. This is implicit in all our experiences of loving relationships with others. It is also the basic relationship in the biosphere as it does not question legitimacy, it does not have any expectations or demand. Groping for words I have spoken of my experience of “the loving indifference of nature” as I move in a forest, meadow, desert or other ecosystem.

Living in Language

In the last several years I have followed a path of reflection engendered by the notions of us humans living in language and thus in a cultural matrix of relations as well as in ecological relations. We live in a biocultural niche. I express this here in language. I reflect in language. We humans live our epistemological existence in language. Over a decade ago Humberto drew me a paper napkin diagram of how the cerebral cortex is in structural coupling with the more ancient structures in the brain such that what people refert to as the “reptilian brain” is not the same as the brain of a reptile. In the same way, our languaging existence is in a recursive relationship with our systemic existence.

We live in an ongoing dance between the rich ambiguities of a multisensorial systemic existence and the world of our recursive consensual co-ordinations in language. If we ignore the systemic we run the risk of hubris of treating our distinctions as Reality. In love, in systemic acceptance of our own systemic existence, we can embrace our heritage as Homo sapiens amans, and we become indeed Homo sapiens amans-amans.

Pille Bunnell FCybS

Pille Bunnell is a systems ecologist and second order cybenetician with a passion for education as her contribution to the sustainability of earth. She is particularly interested in the implications of thinking and acting based in a constitutive ontology and epistemology, and thus continues to explore the ramifications of reflections as they alter how we humans see ourselves and how we relate to each other and the world around us.

Pille earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley following her BSc in Honors Zoology at the University of British Columbia. She began her professional life participating in the Tundra Biome studies of the International Biological Program. She continued with a Research Associateship with the Institute of Animal Resource Ecology at UBC with Dr. C.S. Holling. This led to nearly two decades as an international environmental consultant working in adaptive environmental assessment and management with ESSA Technologies. Within that company she became the Director of Environmental Literacy. After an early retirement to accommodate care of a family elder, she engaged with the American Society of Cybernetics and served as President 1991-2001 and currently holds the position of Secretary. She has organized several conferences for the Society.

Pille is the recipient of the Norbert Weiner Award for contributions to second order cybernetics (ASC), and the Kelly Award for outstanding teaching (RRU).

Some recent publications include Reflections on the Ontology of Observing (2005), Dancing with Ambiguity (2015), ASC 1999-2001 (2015), An Invitation to Creative Refection (2017), Reflections on Languaging (2020) in Cybernetics and Human Knowing as well as Reflections on Learning and Designing (2017) and The Soul of Resilience (2018) in Kybernetes.

Notes from the original posting

Maturana was associeted with the Macy conferences and came to prominence with one of the most influential papers in the history of science co-authored with Lettvin, McCulloch, and Pitts: "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain." (Proceedings of the IRE 47, no. 11 (1959): 1940-1951). In 1974, he and Varela published their first major paper on autopoiesis with R Uribe: "Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, Its Characterization and a Model." In 1978, he published Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living with Varela. In recent decades, Humberto Maturana has collaborated extensively with others.

Angus Jenkinson FCybS wrote: I remember reading with huge excitement Maturana and Varela's 1987 landmark text, The Tree Of Knowledge: the Biological Roots of Human Understanding. The original edition was developed and published in a closed edition in 1985 by Maturana, Varela, and Rolf Behnke, a member of the Chilean government, who had conceived and funded a project to provide an alternative view of life to the Organisation of American States (OAS). As Varela explains, they wanted to put an alternative epistemology into the world of biological science and did so by what could be called the 'cheeky method' of pretending that it was a basic textbook. The naive reader could read it as such while the professional would see a stark contrast to the standard textbooks. Why was it so exciting? It proposed another view of life, of intelligence, and an inversion of the standard model of competition. For many like myself who are profoundly uncomfortable with the Darwinian struggle for existence model and the neo-Darwinian selfish gene, it was a wonderful, provocative, and profoundly thoughtful presentation of another way of understanding life itself and life’s understanding of itself.

The fundamental concept — a complete self-referential architecture of thought — that he initiated was “autopoiesis” of course, a fully interactional analysis of the co-dynamic of cognition and life of any kind. Organisms maintain their own identity (by what I have called active causation) through circular organization, which

constitutes a homeostatic system whose function is to produce and maintain this very same circular organization by determining that the components that specify it be those whose synthesis or maintenance it secures.

While to an observer, this is “structurally coupled” to their environment, each living organism lives life within its own cognitive world — the "Leibnizian Gap" of disconnect between mentality, nervous system, and world. It is a position that benefited from his reading of von Euxküll. Along with and embedded in this are other key ideas: the co-evoluton of species and their ecosystems; the biology of love, constructivism; fundamental relativity (a notion that upsets many scientific apple carts); and the biological basis of cognition, and the work he is engaging on now that he will speak of. Cognition and learning are then a fundamental input into evolution.

He is then a precisely creative mind and a giant of cybernetics whose ideas controversial or mainstream must be engaged with. In particular they have great responsance for understanding not merely living organisms but social forms.

In Maturana's early fundamental paper of 1975, The Organization of the Living: A Theory of the Living Organization (International journal of man-machine studies 7, no. 3 (1975): 313-33), he proposed: The fundamental feature that characterizes living systems is autonomy, and any account of their organization as systems that can exist as individual unities must show what autonomy is as a phenomenon proper to them, and how it arises in their operation as such unities. Accordingly the following is proposed.

(1) That autonomy in living systems is a feature of self-production (autopoiesis), and that a living system is properly characterized only as a network of processes of production of components that is continuously, and recursively, generated and realized as a concrete entity (unity) in the physical space, by the interactions of the same components that it produces as such a network. This organization I call the autopoietic organization, and any system that exhibits it is an autopoietic system in the space in which its components exist; in this sense living systems are autopoietic systems in the physical space.
(2) That the basic consequence of the autopoietic organization is that everything that takes place in an autopoietic system is subordinated to the realization of its autopoiesis, otherwise it disintegrates.
(3) That the fundamental feature that characterizes the nervous system is that it is a closed network of interacting neurons in which every state of neuronal activity generates other states of neuronal activity. Since the nervous system is a component subsystem in an autopoietic unity, it operates by generating states of relative neuronal activity that participate in the realization of the autopoiesis of the organism which it integrates.
(4) That the autopoietic states that an organism adopts are determined by its structure (the structure of the nervous system included), and that the structure of the organism (including its nervous system) is at any instant the result of its evolutionary and ontogenic structural coupling with the medium in which it is autopoietic, obtained while the autopoiesis is realized.
(5) That language arises as phenomenon proper to living systems from the reciprocal structural coupling of at least two organisms with nervous systems, and that self-consciousness arises as an individual phenomenon from the recursive structural coupling of an organism with language with its own structure through recursive self-description.

Humberto Maturana Romesin HonFCybS

Born September 14, 1928, Dr Maturana is a Chilean biologist and philosopher, co-developer of autopoiesis as the biology of cognition and life, with affiliations to second-order cybernetics. He has collaborated with many, including particularly Francisco Varela, Ricardo B. Uribe, Ximena Dávilahis, Rolf Behnke, Gregory Bateson, Gerda Verden-Zöller (on the Biology of Love), Walter Pitts, and Oliver Lettvin. In 1954, after his first qualifications at the University of Chile, he was awarded a scholarship by the Rockefeller Foundation to study anatomy and neurophysiology at University College, London. He obtained a PhD in biology from Harvard University in 1958. In 1994 he received Chile's National Prize for Natural Sciences. His work influenced Niklas Luhmann, Fernando Flores and Julio Olalla, and many others, not all of whom Maturana has agreed with. Gregory Bateson, asked who would continue his work, replied, “A man by the name of Humberto Maturana out of Santiago, Chile. He has been doing some very interesting research that compliments my work.” (Ruiz, 1997)

Biologist Jakob von Uexküll's Umwelt was one of Maturana's own inspirations. During a period of illness, he reflected and realized:

"...that what was peculiar to living systems was that they were discrete autonomous entities such that all the processes that they lived, they lived in reference to themselves ... whether a dog bites me or doesn't bite me, it is doing something that has to do with itself."

We are very grateful to Sebastián Gaggero for joining this meeting as a co-presenter also supporting any translation requirements. He is the present operational leader of Matritizica, which was co-founded by Humberto Maturana and Ximena Dávilahis to humanize organization in Chilean corporations. Matríztica is also interested in developing the phenomenon of learning. This involves experiencing what moves us emotionally, what triggers curiosity, in processes of self-transformation while engaging with others. It aims to provide programmes of inspiration and learning with a reflexive attitude, with awareness of our observing and acting in our co-existence… within organizations, family, schools, etc.

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