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Chilean biologist Maturana defined a biological entity as system of components and processes in line with general system theory.

The original definition (in Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living - 1st edition 1973, 2nd 1980) is very slightly simplified below.

An autopoietic machine is: “organized as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of

components which through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of

processes (relations) that produced them; and constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they

[the components] exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.”


Maturana and Varela defined life forms to be peculiar systems in that they are self-sustaining.

They used the term “autopoiesis” for the process by which organic components maintain themselves, taking as input only simple proteins.

Life forms are, of course, also peculiar in that they are encoded in genomes.

In the triangle below, “idealise” can be read as “encode properties embodied in”.

Life forms


<create and use>               <idealise>

Organic components <sustain> Organic components


Don’t confuse autopoiesis or self-sustaining in organic systems with self-organising in social systems.


(Read “Maturana’s Autopoietic Social Systems” for why enterprises cannot be regarded as autopoietic.)



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