Let’s look at the world we are living in, which is full of 106 elements, tremendous gradients of energy ranging from what’s going on inside pulsars and quasars to what is going on inside viruses and cells. Tremendous organizational capacity at the atomic level, at the molecular level, at the level of molecular polymerization, at the level of membranes and gels, at the level of cells and organelles, organisms, societies, so forth and so on. In other words, the universe—at this moment—is a tremendously complicated, integrated, multi-leveled, dynamic thing. And every passing moment it becomes more so. This is what evolution, history, compression of time—what all these things are attempting to indicate is the increase in complexity of reality.

Terence McKenna

Metamorphosis

1989

Autopoiesis

Self-organization

Autopoiesis, a concept introduced by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s, refers to the self-maintenance and self-reproduction characteristic of living systems. It emphasizes the dynamic processes through which living organisms continuously create and recreate themselves. At its core, autopoiesis proposes that living systems are defined by their ability to autonomously produce and sustain their own organization and identity. This concept underscores the self-referential nature of living systems, highlighting their capacity to regulate and maintain their internal structures despite changes in their environment. Autopoiesis has been influential not only in biology but also in fields such as cognitive science, psychology, and sociology, where it has been applied to understand the self-organizing principles underlying complex systems and phenomena.

Central to the concept of autopoiesis is the idea of “structural coupling,” which describes the ongoing relationship between a living system and its environment. Through structural coupling, living organisms interact with and adapt to their surroundings while simultaneously preserving their internal organization. This perspective challenges traditional views of organisms as passive entities responding to external stimuli, instead emphasizing their active role in shaping and constraining their interactions with the environment. By focusing on the recursive processes of self-production and self-maintenance, autopoiesis provides a framework for understanding the emergence of autonomy, identity, and cognition in living systems. It continues to inspire interdisciplinary research and philosophical discussions on the nature of life, cognition, and agency.

Documents

Stuart Kauffman   (1996)

At Home in the Universe

The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity

Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe unveils a scientific revolution centered on spontaneous order in complex systems. Kauffman argues that complexity itself triggers self-organization, revealing life as a natural outcome rather than a chance event. From cell development to cultural evolution, he explores how this principle shapes diverse phenomena. Praised as a visionary by Stephen Jay Gould and Philip Anderson, Kauffman’s work extends Darwin’s theory and offers profound insights into the essence of life.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela   (1972)

Autopoiesis and Cognition

The Realization of the Living

What makes a living system a living system? What kind of biological phenomenon is the phenomenon of cognition? These two questions have been frequently considered, but, in this volume, the authors consider them as concrete biological questions. Their analysis is bold and provocative, for the authors have constructed a systematic theoretical biology which attempts to define living systems not as objects of observation and description, nor even as interacting systems, but as self-contained unities whose only reference is to themselves. the consequence of their investigations and of their living systems as self-making, self-referring autonomous unities, is that they discovered that the two questions have a common answer: living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. The result of their investigations is a completely new perspective of biological (human) phenomena. During the investigations, it was found that a complete linguistic description pertaining to the "organization of the living" was lacking and, in fact, was hampering the reporting of results. Hence, the authors have coined the word "autopoiesis" to replace the expression "circular organization." Autopoiesis conveys, by itself, the central feature of the organization of the living, which is autonomy.

Cadell Last   (2015)

Human Metasystem Transition (HMST) Theory

This article proposes a theory of human evolution termed Human Metasystem Transition (HMST), suggesting that major transitions in human organization have been facilitated by the emergence of new information media and energy sources. It posits that the current convergence of the Internet and renewable energy could catalyze a fourth metasystem transition, leading to a global superorganism with compressed spatial and temporal dimensions of human interaction.

Stuart Kauffman   (2024)

Is the Emergence of Life an Expected Phase Transition in the Evolving Universe?

This article proposes a new definition of life as chemical systems that achieve catalytic closure, constraint closure, and spatial closure. It argues that the emergence of such living systems is an expected phase transition in the evolving universe. However, the ever-creative evolution of life thereafter cannot be explained by physics alone, showing the limits of reductionism. Life is a double miracle—expected yet unexplainable.

Heinz von Förster   (1959)

On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments

An adaptation of an address given at The Interdisciplinary Symposium on Self-Organizing Systems in Chicago, Illinois. Von Förster argues self-organizing systems don't exist in isolation but require an environment to draw energy and order from. He defines measures of order and mechanisms whereby order arises, including via internal "demons" that decrease system entropy and external "demons" that increase maximum possible entropy. Overall, some noise helps systems remain adaptable.

Ilya Prigogine   (1976)

Order Through Fluctuation

Self-Organization and Social System

A thorough mathematical analysis of the spontaneous arising of new order in a fluctuating system, and how insights from dissipative chemical systems may be applied to large-scale social contexts.

Terence McKenna   (1997)

Our Cyberspiritual Future

Terence holds court on our civilization's journey toward the eschaton at this weekend Esalen gathering. He riffs on topics from psychedelic states and alien intelligences to time travel and VR. McKenna argues we're evolving toward an unimaginable state of accelerating novelty, propelled by advancing technology. A mind-expanding ride for the open-minded psychonaut or armchair traveler, guided by one of the twentieth century's most eclectic thinkers.

Kevin Kelly   (1992)

Out of Control

The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World

Out of Control is a summary of what we know about self-sustaining systems, both living ones such as a tropical wetland, or an artificial one, such as a computer simulation of our planet. The last chapter of the book, “The Nine Laws of God,” is a distillation of the nine common principles that all life-like systems share.

Vladimir Vernadsky   (1926)

The Biosphere

Long unknown in the West, The Biosphere established the field of biogeochemistry and is one of the classic founding documents of what later became known as Gaia theory. It is the first sustained expression of the idea that living matter is a geological force that can shape Earth’s evolution, changing its landforms, climate, and atmosphere. This groundbreaking work sheds light on the interconnectedness of life and geology, offering profound insights into the Earth's ecological balance and the impact of human activities on the planet.

Michael Levin   (2019)

The Computational Boundary of a “Self”

Developmental Bioelectricity Drives Multicellularity and Scale-Free Cognition

All epistemic agents physically consist of parts that must somehow comprise an integrated cognitive self. Biological individuals consist of subunits (organs, cells, and molecular networks) that are themselves complex and competent in their own native contexts. How do coherent biological Individuals result from the activity of smaller sub-agents?

Francis Heylighen   (2002)

The Global Superorganism

An Evolutionary-Cybernetic Model of the Emerging Network Society

The organismic view of society is updated by incorporating concepts from cybernetics, evolutionary theory, and complex adaptive systems. Global society can be seen as an autopoietic network of self-producing components, and therefore as a living system or “superorganism”.

Neil Theise   (2019)

The Inherent Compassion of a Self-Organizing Universe

Buddhism teaches the emptiness of inherent existence: "everything is not a thing." Contemporary physics, chemistry, and biology—seen through the simplifying lens of complexity theory—shows us that the non-dual realm is in complementarity with all of duality, that the presence/absence of boundaries, of separation, is dependent on perspective. "Wisdom" is seeing the world without delusion, and science is one means to washing delusion from one's mind. In doing so, the inherent compassionate nature of the universe and of every being within and of that universe is revealed.

Humberto Maturana   (1974)

The Organization of the Living

A Theory of the Living Organization

What makes something alive? This bold theory argues living systems are like machines that build themselves. Called “autopoietic,” they constantly churn out parts that self-assemble into a whole. Likewise, the nervous system loops activity back into more activity. We don't compute information, but structurally couple to the world. Cognition emerges from how our nervous system meshes with reality, not from complex symbol manipulation as commonly believed.

Erich Jantsch   (1980)

The Self-Organizing Universe

Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution

The evolution of the universe—ranging from cosmic and biological to sociocultural evolution—is viewed in terms of the unifying paradigm of self-organization. The contours of this paradigm emerge from the synthesis of a number of important concepts, and provide a scientific foundation to a new world-view which emphasizes process over structure, nonequilibrium over equilibrium, evolution over permanency, and individual creativity over collective stabilization. The book, with its emphasis on the interaction of microstructures with the entire biosphere, ecosystems etc., and on how micro- and macrocosmos mutually create the conditions for their further evolution, provides a comprehensive framework for a deeper understanding of human creativity in a time of transition.

Fritjof Capra   (1996)

The Web of Life

A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems

During the past twenty-five years, scientists have challenged conventional views of evolution and the organization of living systems and have developed new theories with revolutionary philosophical and social implications. Fritjof Capra has been at the forefront of this revolution. In The Web of Life, Capra offers a brilliant synthesis of such recent scientific breakthroughs as the theory of complexity, Gaia theory, chaos theory, and other explanations of the properties of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Capra's surprising findings stand in stark contrast to accepted paradigms of mechanism and Darwinism and provide an extraordinary new foundation for ecological policies that will allow us to build and sustain communities without diminishing the opportunities for future generations.

Fritjof Capra   (2018)

The World is a Network

In this discussion, Fritjof Capra discusses systems thinking, the cognitive dimension of life, nonlinear causality, emergence of novelty in living systems, ethics, world problems and solutions, transformative learning, and the importance of community. He covers the systems view of life from his book and emphasizes relationships, interconnectedness, and sustainability.

David Sloan Wilson   (2019)

This View of Life

Completing the Darwinian Revolution

It is widely understood that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution completely revolutionized the study of biology. Yet, according to David Sloan Wilson, the Darwinian revolution won’t be truly complete until it is applied more broadly—to everything associated with the words “human,” “culture,” and “policy.” In a series of engaging and insightful examples—from the breeding of hens to the timing of cataract surgeries to the organization of an automobile plant—Wilson shows how an evolutionary worldview provides a practical tool kit for understanding not only genetic evolution but also the fast-paced changes that are having an impact on our world and ourselves. What emerges is an incredibly empowering argument: If we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes, we can solve the problems of our age at all scales—from the efficacy of our groups to our well-being as individuals to our stewardship of the planet Earth.

Erwin Schrödinger   (1944)

What Is Life?

The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell

This book was based on a course of public lectures delivered by Schrödinger in February 1943, under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. The lectures attracted an audience of about 400, who were warned "that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized." Schrödinger's lecture focused on one important question: How can the events in space and time—which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism—be accounted for by physics and chemistry?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin   (1950)

What is Life?

Teilhard says life is not an anomaly, but a universal cosmic force that builds up complexity. He sees it complementing entropy, and the riddle to be solved lies in how they ultimately balance out.