14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2010
This small volume is a seminal work. It is made up of four papers, each of which can be read in its own right: Humberto Maturana wrote the Introduction and the essay 'Biology of Cognition' (1970); while together with Francisco Varela he co-authored 'Autopoeisis: the organization of the living' (1973). Stafford Beer contributes an enthusiastic and clear Preface for the joint paper, in which he described its historical importance.
The significance of this book has not lessened since the time of its first publication in 1980. In all this time, there have been no substantive refutations as to the authors' claims, that autopoiesis represents a ground shift in our understanding of the molecular dynamics which realise living. Many readers might be reading this review from the context of other disciplines than biology: such as cognitive science, A.I. artificial life, social theory, philosophy, law, family therapy, in all of which this work has had a major impact over the past forty years. The reader from neurophysiology and biology is likely to have a somewhat different experience, in that the authors describe a radically new approach to living, one which has important statements about the biological bases for the evolutionary emergence of so-called higher human functions such as cognition, mind, and language.
The original investigations described here provided a key component for the development of reflexive approaches whether in the arts, philosophy or psychotherapy.
The long term implications of this new paradigm are still to be decided, but this foundational work is enormously relevant to the contemporary debate concerning sustainability and the emergence (or not) of a truly global community.
This is not an easy book, nor should it be. But it is fascinating and enormously rewarding for the serious reader in whatever the domain. It explains the theoretical grounding for recent studies concerning the origins of humanness in the biology of love, by Gerda Verden Zoller and Maturana.
Both Maturana and Varela in somewhat different ways, were to go on to indicate reasons to seriously question the notion of genetic determinism and any biological bases for inequality in human affairs, demonstrating how and why humanness itself in its more benevolent aspects can be shown to emerges from the biological autonomy of organisms, which when braided in their recurrent coordinations of actions to other autonomous individuals through the mechanisms they describe, realise an ethics of personal responsibility and love.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2012
I can honestly say that there have been few books I have read that are so ambitious as Maturana and Varela's. Moreover, there are even fewer works of such ambition that aren't considered failures. This work is one of such intrigue, originality, and ambition, and it's framework so fascinating in its plausibility, that I have to consider this book a worthy read for anyone interested in philosophy, especially philosophy of science (or, more specifically, philosophy of mind), biology, or cognitive science. My understanding is that this work has been very influential is the dynamical systems approach to cognitive science, and it doesn't surprise me. The work appears to be influenced deeply by cybernetics and, quite possibly (though I cannot say for sure) Immanuel Kant.
That this book can be consider a success, in the sense of its intrigue, is largely due to the authors' competent attempt to describe the organism in every way that we understand it, and with an eye to resolve every philosophical problem that arises therein --thus the label of "ambitious." The reader is taken through the biological and cognitive ins-and-outs of general cognitive function, how it arises by way of autopoiesis, and explores just about every subset handled by the cognitive sciences: thinking, natural language, memory, learning, and so on. The views on evolution seemed a bit murky, but have yielded much discussion for me. The work is as philosophical as it is scientific, even in discussions of neurophysiology, which was particularly refreshing aspect of the book, even if one does not agree with much of what is said. Furthermore, I must include that there are a number of pragmatic issues that are handled, which may interest the slightly more general reader, such as whether purposiveness is truly exhibited in autopoietic system (e.g., organisms), or what our stance should be about regarding individuals and collectives (a discussion that takes one's mind to political-economic arguments based on evolution, or other themes like that of E. O. Wilson's "Socio-biology," to name a couple.)
Though dated, certainly not antiquated, this work serves as an influence (probably an influence for David Chalmers) and, at the very least, a source of stimulation for thought; and there are very few books which I can list as being more fascinating than this. The one downside that some readers might see in the book is that it, at times, feels like you being fed a bunch of koans or some kind of Eastern mysticism. That is, through a large swathe of the text, the reader is being told "what autopoiesis is not"; very Taoist, was the sentiment I had.
A point should be made regarding the difficult of the text, especially for the more general reader or scientist without much philosophy background. The text is incredibly tortuous on the mind, because, as with all uniquely and original texts, it is next to impossible to understand what the authors mean to say on the first reading without some primer or extensive knowledge of how to treat abstruse philosophical texts. In fact, Maturana says so much in his introduction to the entire monograph, suggesting that the reader read the entire text before trying to understand it all. Only once the reader has run the course once can he or she have a feel and a basis for understanding the text. This is one of those books, not unlike Hegel, where you have to read quickly, get a sense, and then reread.
I definitely recommend this book, if your interests are among those I have listed.