Autopoiesis refers to a system that is capable of creating,
maintaining and reproducing itself. Autopoietic mechanisms
can operate as self-generating feedback systems.
The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana
and Francisco Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry
of living cells. Since then the concept has been also applied to
the fields of systems theory and sociology.
Autopoiesis was originally presented as a system description that
was said to define and explain the nature of living systems. A
canonical example of an autopoietic system is the biological
cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various
biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is
organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus,
various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These
structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy,
produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the
organized bounded structure that gives rise to these
An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic
system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials
(components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is
something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system
is extended from the factory to include components in the
factory's 'environment', such as supply chains, plant /
equipment, workers, dealerships, customers, contracts,
competitors, cars, spare parts and so on, then as a total viable
system it could be considered to be autopoietic. Thus, an
autopoietic system is a closed topological space that
continuously generates and specifies its own organization.
It maintains this through its operation as a system of
production of its own components, and does this in an endless
turnover of components. Autopoietic systems are thus
distinguished from allopoietic systems, which have as the product
of their functioning something different from themselves.
A theory of how autopoietic systems operate is named
Practopoiesis (praxis + poiesis, meaning creation of actions).
The theory presumes that, although the system as a whole is
autopoietic, the components of that system may have allopoietic
relations. For example, the genome combined with the operations
of the gene expression mechanisms create proteins, but not the
other way around; proteins do not create genomes. In that case
poiesis occurs only in one direction. Practopoietic theory
presumes such one-directional relationships of creation to take
place also at other levels of system organisation.
Many scientists have often used the term autopoiesis as a synonym
for self-organization. An autopoietic system is autonomous and
operationally closed, in the sense that there are sufficient
processes within it to maintain the whole. Autopoietic systems
are "structurally coupled" with their medium, embedded in a
dynamic of changes that can be recalled as sensory-motor
coupling. This continuous dynamic is considered as a rudimentary
form of knowledge or cognition and can be observed throughout
life-forms. Autopoiesis would be the process of the emergence of
necessary features out of chaotic contingency, causing
contingency's gradual self-organisation, thus leading to the
gradual rise of order out of chaos.
The term Autopoiesis is derived from ancient Greek words
auto- (αὐτo-) meaning "self", and poiesis
(ποίησις), meaning "creation" or "production".
Book: Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1992). The tree of
knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding.