Autopoiesis literally means "self-production" (from the Greek: auto for self- and poiesis for creation or production) and expresses a fundamental complementarity between structure and function. The term was originally introduced by Chilean biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana in the early 1970s. More precisely, the term refers to the dynamics of non-equilibrium structures; that is, organised states (sometimes also called dissipative structures) that remain stable for long periods of time despite matter and energy continually flowing through them.

A vivid example of a non-equilibrium structure is the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, which is essentially a gigantic whirlpool of gases in Jupiter's upper atmosphere. This vortex has persisted for a much longer time (on the order of centuries) than the average amount of time any one-gas molecule has spent within it.

The canonical example of an autopoietic system, and one of the entities that motivated Varela and Maturana to define autopoiesis, is the biological cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organised 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 organised bounded structure that gives rise to these components. 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 organised structure) which is something other than itself (a factory).

An application of the concept to sociology can be found in Luhmanns systems theory.

See also: Robert Rosen - systems theory


  • Francisco J. Varela, Humberto R. Maturana, and R. Uribe "Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model", Biosystems, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 187-196. One of the original papers on the concept of 'autopoiesis'.
  • Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (eds. Cohen, Robert S., and Marx W. Wartofsky), Vol. 42, Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co ISBN 9027710155 (hardback) ISBN 9027710163 (paper). The main published reference on autopoiesis.
  • Fritjof Capra (1997) The Web of Life, Random House ISBN 0385476760. General introduction to the ideas behind autopoiesis.
  • John Mingers (1994) Self-Producing Systems, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers ISBN 0306447975. A book on the autopoiesis concept in many different areas.
  • Pier L. Luisi "Autopoiesis: a review and a reappraisal", Naturwissenschaften, Vol. 90 (2003) , pp. 49-59. Biologist view of autopoiesis

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