The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Seminar #38: Developmental systems, autopoietic theory, and boundary issues

Posted in Seminars by Tom Froese on August 13, 2008

There will be a Life and Mind seminar on Tuesday, the 19th of August, 16:30-18:00, in Room Pev1 2A11.

The aim of this seminar will be to hold a discussion on some of the issues that have recently been raised on this blog. In particular, we will try to clarify two topics that may or may not be related, namely (i) the role of the boundary in autopoietic theory, and (ii) the relationship between autopoietic theory and developmental systems theory.

In terms of the latter, Susan Oyama has kindly agreed for the transcript of her talk at the recent Epigenetic Robotics conference at Sussex University to be made publicly available. This will enable us to discuss the relationship between autopoietic and developmental systems theory in more detail. Please find the abstract and paper of her talk below:

Development Without Roof, Without Walls, Without Floor

Susan Oyama

8th Int. Conf. on Epigenetic Robotics
Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics
University of Sussex, UK
July 30-31, 2008

A remark about Francisco Varela provides the occasion for some thoughts about the usefulness of history in understanding differences between kindred theoretical approaches, in this case Varela’s and Maturana’s work on autopoiesis and my own on developmental systems. The roof, walls and floors of the title stand in for the various kinds of boundaries that so often distinguish such approaches. At the same time, these architectural features invoke the metaphor of construction, highlighting the dynamic nature of developmental and evolutionary processes. A brief overview of Developmental Systems Theory’s treatment of those processes leads, finally, to some speculations on representations in science.

The full paper can be downloaded here. And Susan’s (2006) paper “Speaking of Nature”, which she mentioned in her latest comment, can be found here.

Please do not distribute these documents beyond this discussion group!

All welcome!


3 Responses

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  1. Nathaniel Virgo said, on August 14, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Just a note to readers that as part of this discussion I’ve temporarily put the first chapter of Maturana and Varela’s book ‘Autopoiesis: the Organization of the Living’ online at — see my recent post on this blog for a pointer to some relevant parts of this text.

  2. tomfroese said, on August 15, 2008 at 10:01 am

    This is just to let everyone know that I’ve updated the transcript PDF of Susan Oyama’s talk. Also, her recent paper “Speaking of Nature” is now available here.

  3. Tom Froese said, on September 17, 2008 at 10:30 am

    This is a comment in response to Susan and for anyone else who is interested in a quick summary of what happened in this seminar.

    In effect, the debate about the relationship between DST and autopoietic theory did not move beyond what was already discussed online. As far as I could tell, the general consensus was that the relationship was one of compatibility: a developmental system is a larger system that, in the case of living systems, includes the autopoietic system as a part of its process and is its product at the same time.

    The rest of the discussion focused on the concept of ‘boundary’, especially in relation to its potential relevance to a definition of autopoiesis. Does the boundary have to be an identifiable physical structure? Or can it be purely organizational? Matt’s recent post on “Autopoiesis and the System Boundary” continues this theme.

    This is, of course, just my personal impression of the seminar. If anyone has something to add/dispute/clarify regarding my interpretation, please post a comment!

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