Developmental systems theory and autopoiesis
Yesterday many of us had the great pleasure to listen to Susan Oyama give a talk about her work on developmental systems theory (DST) as part of the 8th Epigenetic Robotics conference held at Sussex University. Of particular interest was her attempt to compare and contrast DST with the autopoietic tradition started by Maturana and Varela.
Since Susan’s talk led to many heated discussions afterwards, I thought it might be a good idea to try to draw out some of these ideas in a more principled manner. So here are some questions that I think are important to consider:
1. Does DST need autopoietic theory?
From what I heard in the talk, I think it does. What the autopoietic tradition offers is a definition of life (e.g. “a system that self-constitutes an identity under precarious conditions”) that can at the same time also be used as the foundation for a biological grounding of normativity. Such a (living) system, i.e. one whose being is due to its own continuous activities, and which could thus become a different kind of system at any time (living or non-living), we can say to have some kind of concern for its existence. Of course, this claim regarding normativity does not follow as a logical necessity from autopoiesis, but it does lend a certain coherence to the life/mind continuity thesis.
I have to admit that I’m much more familiar with autopoietic theory rather than DST, so I’m just curious to know: how does DST distinguish the living from the non-living? This is where autopoiesis might help, especially because it introduces an important asymmetry into the developmental system. Since a living system self-produces its identity (within a domain of necessary conditions/processes), it also establishes its domain of possible interactions at the same time. Without this locus of activity it is hard (if not impossible) to account for a living system’s intentional directedness toward its world.
2. Does autopoietic theory need DST?
Again, I would agree with Susan that this is also the case. Indeed, the notion of autopoiesis has often been used in the context of a radically individualist constructivism, while completely ignoring the material/energetic flow that necessarily opens the autopoietic system onto a world. And as DST shows so well, it’s not just a matter of physics either! The necessary conditions for life extend well beyond the demands of organic matter all the way to the social domain.
While the autopoietic tradition has acknowledged the role of external factors to some extent in such notions as structural coupling and, in a more historical sense, structural drift, it could greatly benefit from DST which has spent a considerable amount of effort to better understand this web of involvement and interdependent relationships.
3. Are the current forms of DST and autopoietic theory compatible?
I think that DST and autopoietic theory are actually quite compatible. If we wanted to understand them as complementary aspects that could be incorporated into a more encompassing theoretical framework, then there might be at least two ways to go about this, depending on whether you start from DST or autopoiesis.
On the one hand, from the point of view of DST, the autopoietic tradition could be of help to define exactly what is the living system within the developmental systemic whole. Susan said: “A developmental system is a causal system. It contains the entity it produces but is not coextensive with it”. What is that entity? It is what is being produced by the developmental process. But it is also part of that process that produces it (though, of course, not co-extensive). When we distinguish that entity, might it not then appear to be self-producing, that is, autopoietic?
On the other hand, from the point of view of autopoietic theory, in the literature there is a considerable lack of attention to the complex network of relations that a living system is involved in, many of which are also necessary conditions for its existence. However, the recent development in enactive cognitive science toward using autopoiesis as a way to ground normativity is starting to expose this lack quite clearly: we’ve started to talk about meaning, but what kind of meaning is there for the organism? What differentiates it? On what does it depend? Here DST appears to me to be able to provide an appropriate context which could enable us to better structure the space of meaning for a living organism.
Accordingly, the two traditions might be able to meet each other in their respective blindspots and move the debate to a meta-level where each of them appears as a necessary complement to the other.
I would be very happy to hear in what way you agree/disagree with these comments.