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Humberto R. Maturana – Francisco J.

Varela:
The Tree of Knowledge.
The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.

Notes
Maturana, H.R., Varela, F.J., 1992. The Tree of Knowledge. Shambhala, Boston.

CHAPTER 1. KNOWING HOW WE KNOW.................................................................2

CHAPTER 2. THE ORGANIZATION OF LIVING THINGS..........................................2

CHAPTER 3. HISTORY: REPRODUCTION AND HEREDITY.....................................4

CHAPTER 4. THE LIFE OF METACELLULARS.........................................................5

CHAPTER 5. THE NATURAL DRIFT OF LIVING BEINGS.........................................6

CHAPTER 6. BEHAVIORAL DOMAINS......................................................................8

CHAPTER 7. THE NERVOUS SYSTEM AND COGNITION........................................9

CHAPTER 8. SOCIAL PHENOMENA........................................................................11

CHAPTER 9. LINGUISTIC DOMAINS AND HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS...............12

CHAPTER 10. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE...........................................................13


Chapter 1. Knowing How We Know
What the book is about. Main lines of the argument.
A theory of knowledge which shows how knowing generates the explanation of knowing.

Chapter 2. The Organization of Living Things


“the biological roots of knowing cannot be understood only through examining the nervous
system; we believe it is necessary to understand how these processes are rooted in the living
being as a whole.” p. 34.

To understand the materiality of living beings and knowledge, the apparition of living beings
is presented, from the creation of stars and our solar system inside the Milky Way.

Unity – Distinction (in frame, p. 40.)

“A unity (entity, object) is brought forth by an act of distinction. Conversely, each time we
refer to a unity in our descriptions, we are implying the operation of distinction that defines
it and makes it possible.”

“The act of indicating any being, object, thing or unity involves making an act of distinction
which distinguishes what has been indicated as separate from its background. Each time we
refer to anything explicitly or implicitly, we are specifying a criterion of distinction, which
indicates what we are talking about and specifies its properties as being, unity or object.”

What is a living being? How do I know it is living?


“Our proposition is that living beings are characterized in that, literally, they are continually
self-producing. We indicate this process when we call the organization that defines them an
autopoietic organization. Basically, this organization comes from certain relations that we
shall outline and view more easily on the cellular level.” p. 43

The logic of what is called cell metabolism is presented:


„First, the molecular components of a cellular autopoietic unity must be dynamically related
in a network of ongoing interactions. [...] Now what is distinctive about this cellular dynamics
compared with any other collection of molecular transformations in natural processes?
Interestingly, this cell metabolism produces components which make up the network of
transformations that produced them. Some of these components form a boundary, a limit
to this network of transformations. In morphologic terms, the structure that makes this
cleavage in space possible is called a membrane. [...] this membrane not only limits the
extension of the transformation network that produced its own components but it participates
in this network. If it did not have this spatial arrangement, cell metabolism would disintegrate
in a molecular mess that would spread out all over and would not constitute a discrete unity
such as a cell.” p. 44.

“What we have, then, is a unique situation as regards relations of chemical transformations:


on the one hand, we see a network of dynamic transformations that produces its own
components and that is essential for a boundary; on the other hand we see a boundary that is
essential for the operation of the network of transformations which produced it as a unity:

p. 46.

“these are not sequential processes, but two different aspects of the same unitary
phenomenon. It is not that first there is a boundary, then a dynamics, then a boundary, and so
forth.” p. 46.

Organization and Structure (in frame p. 47.)


Organization denotes those relations that must exist between the components of a system for
it to be a member of a specific class. Structure denotes the components and relations that
actually constitute a particular unity and make its organization real.

Living beings are autonomous unities: “a system is autonomous if it can specify its own
laws, what is proper to it.” p. 48.

Living beings: “their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no
separation between producer and product.” p. 49.
Chapter 3. History: Reproduction and Heredity

Historical phenomenon (in frame p. 57.)


“Each time in a system that a state arises as a modification of a previous state, we have a
historical phenomenon.”

Heredity (in frame p. 68.)


“Heredity means the transgenerational conservation of any structural aspect in a lineage of
historically connected unities.”

Replication
Copy and Copy with replacement of model (slight changes)
Fracture: results in the same unities.

Mitosis=Reproduction by fracture.

Why it is wrong to say that Genes and DNA contain the information that specifies the
living being? (in frame p. 69.)
“when we say that DNA contains what is necessary to specify a living being, we divest
these components (part of the autopoietic network) of their interrelation with the rest of the
network.”
Chapter 4. The Life of Metacellulars
“Ontogeny is the history of structural change in a unity without loss of organization in that
unity. This ongoing structural change occurs in the unity from moment to moment, either as a
change triggered by interactions coming from the environment in which it exists or as a result
of its internal dynamics. As regards its continuous interactions with the environment, the cell
unity classifies them and sees them in accordance with its structure at every instant.” p. 74.

“Two or more autopoietic unities can undergo coupled ontogenies when their interactions
take on a recurrent or more stable nature.” p. 75.

In the interactions of a unity with the environment, „the environment only triggers structural
changes in the autopoietic unities (it does not specify or direct them)”. p. 75.

Two autopoetic unities coupled act to each other as an environment. „The result will be a
history of mutual congruent structural changes as long as the autopoietic unity and its
containing environment do not disintegrate: there will be a structural coupling.” p. 75.

Structural coupling (in frame p. 75.)


“We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions
leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.”

Also: structural coupling with the environment as a condition of existence of the cells.

Metacellulars are second-order autopoietic systems. But are some metacellulars autopoietic
unities? We do not yet know the answer to this question. All we can say is that they have
operational closure: “their identity is specified by a network of dynamic processes whose
effects do not leave the network.” p. 89.
Chapter 5. The Natural Drift of Living Beings
How the environment triggers an effect in the cells of a living being?
“the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are
brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed
system.”

Four domains or classes, with reference to the structure of the unity:


1. Domain of changes of state: “all those structural changes that a unity can undergo without
a change in its organization”.
2. Domain of destructive changes: “all those structural changes that a unity can undergo with
loss of organization” and “loss of class identity”. p. 97.

3. Domain of perturbations: “all those interactions that trigger changes of state”.


4. Domain of destructive interactions: “all those perturbations that result in a destructive
change”. p. 98.

BK: This is a difficult point, since it refers to identity. But a multicellular goes through a
variety of stages from embryo to newborn to adult, in which its identity may well be
relativized. We can also imagine (as a thought experiment) that a human living being becomes
a vampire being – there are structural changes, but the continuity of its existence is
maintained.
Something similar happens when a cell is overtaken by a virus.
This is a good point for critique, but only shows in my opinion where Maturana and Varela’s
theory should be further specified, and it is not a major flaw which undermines their point
about autopoiesis as the logic of living.

“when we as observers speak of what happens to an organism in a specific interaction, we are


in a peculiar situation. On the one hand, we have access to the structure of the environment
and, on the other hand, to the structure of the organism; and we can consider the many ways
in which both could have changed in their encounter, if the interactions had been different
from those which actually occurred.” p. 100.

“From this perspective [that of the outside observer], the structural changes that occur in a
unity appear as “selected” by the environment through a continuous chain of interactions.
Consequently, the environment can be seen as an ongoing “selector” of structural changes that
the organism undergoes in its ontogeny.
In a strict sense, the same could be said about the environment. […] Structural coupling is
always mutual.” p. 100-102.

“If we turn our attention to the maintenance of the organisms as dynamic systems in their
environment, this maintenance will appear to us as centered on a compatibility of the
organisms with their environment which we call adaptation. […]
every ontogeny as an individual history of structural change is a structural drift that occurs
with conservation of organization and adaptation.” p. 102-103.

“the ontogenic structural change of a living being in an environment always occurs as a


structural drift congruent with the structural drift of the environment.” p. 103.
“Evolution is a natural drift, a product of the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation.”
p. 117. “structural drift under ongoing phylogenic selection” p. 115.
Biological lineages – from either types of reproduction – allow the bifurcation of the
structural drift and the formation of species.

More or less well adapted? The wrong way to look at the problem (framed, p. 114.)
“Can we say that those organisms that consume less oxygen are more efficient and better
adapted? Certainly not, because as long as they are alive, they have all met the requirements
for an uninterrupted ontogeny. Comparisons about efficiency belong to the realm of the
observer’s descriptions; they are not directly related to what happens in the individual
histories of conservation of adaptation.”

Evolution – a process where living beings optimize their use of the environment? This view is
false. There is no progress or optimization of the use of the environment in evolution. p. 115.
Chapter 6. Behavioral Domains
Predictability is not always possible. A system may be structurally determined, but we do not
have the means as observers to describe in a way that would allow us to make predictions
about its future states. p. 123.

Current popular representation of the nervous system: “an instrument whereby the organism
gets information from the environment which it then uses to build a representation of the
world that it uses to compute behaviour adequate for its survival in the world.” p. 131.

The example of the frog and the fly: when the frog sees a fly it pushes out its tongue and
catches the fly – this is a behaviour as seen by an outside observer. However, the frog has no
representation of the environment, its nervous system makes a direct link between “the
image” of the fly and the movement. When the nervous system is manipulated so that the frog
sees what is behind its back, it will still push out its tongue in front.

However, this view is false when we consider that the environment cannot determine what
happens in the nervous system, only trigger changes. The nervous system is autonomous.
Chapter 7. The Nervous System and Cognition
It is in relation to beings capable of movement / motility that the nervous system becomes
important.

A protozoan’s movement:
“the flagellum bends as it hits an obstacle. This bending triggers changes in the flagellum’s
base that is embedded in the cell. This cell, in turn, triggers changes in the cytoplasm that
slightly rotate it, so that when the beating begins again, it moves the cell in a different
direction.”
“what is happening here is that a certain internal correlation is being maintained between a
structure capable of admitting certain perturbations (sensory surface) and a structure capable
of generating movement (motor surface). The interesting thing about this example is that
both the sensory surface and the motor surface are the same; therefore, their coupling is
immediate.” p. 148.

Next level example: hydra


“a sensory surface (in this case, sensory cells), a motor surface (in this case, muscle and
secretory cells), and a system of coordination between both surfaces (the neuronal
network)” p. 153.

Neurons couple, in many different ways, cellular groups which otherwise could be coupled
only through the general circulation of internal substances of the organism. – Synapses are the
effective structures that enable the nervous system to carry reciprocal influences between
distant cell groups.
Sensory surface includes the external receptors capable of being perturbed by the
environment, but also internal receptors which are perturbed by the organism itself –
including the neuronal network.
The nervous system is characterized by operational closure – it is an autonomous unity „in
which every state of activity leads to another state of activity in the same unity”. p. 166.

The nervous system expands behaviour dramatically. It couples points in the sensory
surfaces with points in the motor surfaces. „Thus, with a network of neurons coming between
this coupling, the field of possible sensorimotor correlations of the organism is increased and
the realm of behaviour [behaviour being the interaction with the environment as seen by an
outside observer] is expanded.” p. 163.

“all knowing is doing as sensory-effector correlations in the realms of structural coupling in


which the nervous system exists” p. 166.

“the nervous system is a system in continuous structural change, that is, it has plasticity” p.
166.

“Between the fertilized zygote an dthe adult, in the process of development and cell
differentiation, as the neurons multiply they begin to branch out and connect according to an
architecture proper to the species. Exactly how this occurs by processes of exclusive local
determination is one of the most interesing puzzles of modern biology.” p. 167.)
“Now, the structural change of the nervous system does not normally occur as something
radical in its broad lines of connectivity. These, on the whole, are invariant and generally
they are the same for all individuals of one species. [...]
Where do structural changes occur, therefore, if not in the broad lines of connectivity? The
answer is that they occur, not in the connections that unite groups of neurons, but in the local
characteristics of those connections. ... in the final ramifications and in the synapses.
[...]
The plasticity of the nervous system lies in the fact that neurons are not connected as though
they were cables with their respective plugs. The points of interaction between the cells are
zones of delicate dynamic balance modulated by a great number of elements that trigger local
structural changes, and that are produced as a result of the activity of those cells and of other
cells whose products are released into the blood flow and wash the neurons.” p. 167-168.

“The plastic splendour of the nervous system does not lie in its production of ’engrams’ or
representations of things in the world; rather, it lies in its continuous transformation in line
with transformations of the environment as a result of how each interaction affects it. From
the observer’s standpoint, this is seen as proportionate learning.” p. 170.

„all behavior is a relational phenomenon that we, as observers, witness between


organisms and environment. An organism’s range of possible behavior, however, is
determined by its structure. This structure specifies its realms of interaction.” p. 171.

“every time in the organisms of one species certain structures develop independently of their
histories of interaction, it is said that those structures are genetically determined and that
the behavior they make possible (if any) is instinctive. [...]
But if the structures that make possible a certain behavior in members of one species develop
only if there is a particular history of interactions, it is said that the structures are ontogenic
and the behavior is learned.” p. 171.

“learning as an expression of structural coupling, which always maintains compatibility


betweeen operation of the organism and its environment.” p. 172.

“The nervous system participates in cognitive phenomena in two complementary ways. These
have to do with its particular mode of operation as neuronal network with operational closing
as part of a metacellular system.
The first, most obvious, is through expanding the realm of possible states of the organism that
arises from the great diversity of sensorimotor patterns which the nervous system allows for
and which is the key to its participation in the operation of the organism.
The second is through opening new dimensions of structural coupling for the organism, by
making possible in the organism the association of many different internal states with the
different interactions in which the organism is involved.” p. 175.
Chapter 8. Social phenomena
What happens when an organism with a nervous system enters into structural coupling with
other organisms?
From the standpoint of the internal dynamics of the organism, the other represents a source of
perturbations indistinguishable from the environment.

“It is possible, however, for these interactions between organisms to acquire in the course of
their ontogeny a recurrent nature. This will necessarily result in their consequent structural
drifts: co-ontogenies with mutual involvement through their reciprocal structural
coupling, each one conserving its adaptation and organization [these are third-order
couplings, also called social life].” p. 180.

Sexual and rearing behavioral couplings – transitory


Social insects

The mechanism of structural coupling among most social insects takes place through the
interchange of substances; it is called trophallaxis.

Social life allows organisms to participate in relations and activities that arise as coordinations
of behaviors between otherwise independent organisms. It can take place through any form of
interaction: chemical, visual, auditory and so on.

Social systems are the systems constituted by third-order couplings.


The individual ontogenies of all the participating organisms occur fundamentally as part of
the network of co-ontogenies that they bring about in constituting third-order unities.

BK: Are these unities? Are these really systems? Why?


BK: Ez azt jelenti, hogy függetlenül a társas együttéléstől, akár már állatok közt, vagy
különböző fajok együttélésénél, megjelenik az, amit közös ontogenezisnek nevez Maturana.

“We call communication the coordinated behaviors mutually triggered among the
members of a social unity. [...] As with all behaviors, if we can distinguish the instinctive or
learned nature of social behavior, we can distinguish also between phylogenetic and
ontogenetic forms of communication” p. 193.

Communication is not distinct because it results from a mechanism different from other
behaviors, but because it takes place as a social behavior.

Communication is behavior related to an observer.


Communicative behaviors are those which occur in social coupling, and communication
is their result.

Imitation is different from communication

Cultural behavior: the transgenerational stability of behavioral patterns acquired in the


dynamics of a social environment.
Chapter 9. Linguistic Domains and Human Consciousness
Acquired, learned communicative behavior is linguistic behavior: such behaviors form the
basis for language, though they are not yet identical with it. Linguistic behavior is ontogenic
communicative behavior.
Linguistic domain is the domain of all linguistic behaviors of an organism.
Linguistic domains arise as a cultural drift, with no preestablished design.

“To an observer, linguistic coordinations of actions appear as distinctions, linguistic


distinctions. They describe objects in the environment of those who operate in a linguistic
domain.” p. 211.
???? What ????

“With language arises also the observer as a languaging entity” p. 211.

A description in semantic terms refers to meaning. When an observer describes the


interactions betwen two or more organisms in terms of meanings, he makes a semantic
description.

Human social life and its linguistic coupling results in the phenomenon of mind or
consciousness.

“since we exist in language, the domains of discourse that we generate become part of our
domain of existence and constitute part of the environment in which we conserve identity and
adaptation.” p. 234.
Chapter 10. The Tree of Knowledge
The theory of autopoiesis allows a middle way between the Charybdis of representationism
and the Scylla of solipsism or relativism.

We are continuously immersed in a network of interactions with the environment, whose


result depend on (ontogenic) history. “Through this ongoing recursiveness, every world
brought forth necessarily hides its origins.” “We exist in the present. Past and future are
manners of being now.” “The business of living keeps no records concerning origins. All we
can do is generate explanations, through language, that reveal the mechanism of bringing
forth a world.” p. 242.

“By existing, we generate cognitive “blind spots” that can be cleared only through generating
new blind spots in other domains. We do not see what we do not see, and what we do not see
does not exist.” p. 242.

Knowing is action.

“the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others. It
compels us to see that the world will be different only if we live differently.” p. 245.

Human-centered ethics: “A conflict can go away only if we move to another domain where
coexistence takes place.” p. 246.