13. The Chilean Biologists
This is what happens when you let the research do itself: in my wanderings among various half-understood ideas, I’ve kept on running into this term “autopoiesis.” It interests me. For whatever reason, I’m intrigued by the whole notion of things creating themselves (which is what “autopoiesis” literally means: self-making), order spontaneously arising out of disorder, systems that pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, phenomena that emerge somehow from a cloud of simultaneous interactions without any one particular agent being clearly responsible for them. The stuff that is sometimes known as “chaos theory” (a misnomer because it’s more about order than chaos), or, I’m guessing now, “systems theory,” “systems thinking” . . . somewhere out there are scientists who entertain the idea that this is how reality actually works. Not a metaphor. It’s there and they can point to it. This is, anyway, what I vaguely think I’ve heard. I have this persistent feeling, an intuition anchored to nothing in particular, that one day I’m going to find THE book that tells me what an actual very smart person is really thinking about this, and it will have a major effect on my whole point of view.
So I keep noticing “autopoiesis.” And this term is always credited to two guys I’ve never heard of, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who wrote a book called The Tree of Knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding. Eventually it’s inevitable, I’ve got to read their book.
Now this book is no pushover. It’s a textbook-like object of a particular unusual sort, which the authors call an “advanced introduction.” It is supposed to “require no previous knowledge on the part of the reader but . . . convey some fundamental and novel ideas even to the professional. The only way to accomplish these apparently opposing goals was to pretend that we were writing an elementary textbook, while knowing that the book . . . could only be fully appreciated if read in the context of the standard textbooks.” (251) Well, I never read the standard textbook, because I never took biology in college, not even the most introductory level. I did take the nurses’ physiology course at Moo U., and when I was in high school, one summer, I took a genetics course for fun, in which we bred fruit flies and confirmed that Mendel’s laws of heredity did in fact work. That’s it for my academic background in biology. Nonetheless, whatever, I plunge in.
If I expected to find a protracted argument for why autopoiesis is the defining characteristic of life, too bad. It isn’t there. The term comes up early on in Maturana and Varela’s argument, in chapter 2, basically as an axiom that they hand the reader in a take-it-or-leave-it way: “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.” (43) Self-producing doesn’t mean reproduction; autopoiesis means the internal repair and re-creation that goes on 24 hours a day, the whole time the organism is alive. (Interestingly, reproduction is not part of their definition of life; as they say, it is only necessary to think of a mule to know that a creature can be alive without being able to reproduce.)
M&V are nothing if not ambitious: all they want to do is start from the origin of life on earth and work their way up to consciousness and the self – biologically. If this isn’t challenging enough, they write in this abstract language that leaves my brain more than a little numb. “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.” Um . . . what the hell does that mean, in real life? And not only is that sentence obscure, it’s obviously a crucial concept. It’s sitting in a little outlined box with a red background, totally textbook-style, so the student will know it’s important. Even if he doesn’t know what it means.
The abstract language is punctuated by examples involving micro-organisms, or fungi, or frogs. It’s a long march through evolution to get to human awareness, and sometimes I despair of ever arriving. Nonetheless, I persevere and eventually read the book twice. Because I am a real grind as a student, I type out 17 pages of notes and very eventually, I start to think I understand some of what they’re saying. Even though I’m well aware that I can only begin to glimpse the implications.
But when it comes to writing a Cliff Note about this book, I have to throw in the towel. It is already the shortest possible digest of a whole shelf of articles and books, a 250-page Cliff Note on their life’s work. Besides, a Cliff Note exists because supposedly its author thoroughly understands the book he’s saving you the trouble of reading, and this I am definitely not going to claim about The Tree of Knowledge. The best I can do is more like what I say to my students when they start to discuss a piece of writing in class: “What really stuck out for you?”
Then the real question will follow: and what are you going to do with it? But before I can get there, I’ll have to jump in and see what happens.
One thing that really sticks out for me in M&V’s world-view, or “logical accounting” as they would call it, is the separateness of the organism. Any organism, from a single-celled creature up to human beings. It seems trivial at first to say that an organism must have a membrane separating it from its environment. Of course it has to have a boundary, otherwise it would spill its insides out into the surroundings and cease to exist. So far that seems almost tautological, but M&V go to great lengths to demonstrate that the processes happening inside the organism (I think of the regulation of blood pressure again) are happening with reference to themselves at all times. They are adamant about saying that the organism does not “know” or “internalize” the environment. It has “operational closure,” it is truly self-contained, it is its own little world that runs by its own rules, which are dictated by its own structure. The challenge is for this separate, operationally closed being to maintain its separateness (= its identity, its integrity as a creature) and also survive in the environment. And what makes this possible is “structural coupling” – hence the sentence in the red box: “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.”
When M&V refer to “a history of recurrent interactions” they mean, among other things, all of evolution. The organism as it exists today is a result of “structural drift” under shifting environmental conditions. Evolution is about “conservation of adaptation and autopoiesis.” If the organism didn’t keep on being adapted to its environment, and keep being able to re-create itself constantly, it wouldn’t be alive. This condition of separateness plus adaptation is what M&V call “congruence.” If there were not congruence between organism and environment, the organism would not survive. By definition.
So far so logical, mostly. But it’s one thing to say an amoeba doesn’t “know” or “internalize” its environment, and another to say that about a human being. Or is it? As far as M&V are concerned, no, humans are in exactly the same position. There is no representation of the outer world within a person’s head (of course I want to rebel at this point, since as a writer I deal in representations). Rather, the environment causes perturbations of our nervous system, which lead to internal neural processes. The nervous system has operational closure, dictated by its own structure and that of the body, and its operation is always aimed at restoring harmony within that system. It constantly alters and regulates and maintains the interactions within the organism (this includes the nervous system regulating itself). It maintains “sensory-effector correlations,” which to an outside observer are behaviors, actions that are more or less effective. But if we could observe from “inside the submarine” (within the boundary of the human organism), we would see that the nervous system is operating autonomously on its own terms. Even though our nervous system doesn’t directly or transparently translate the world around us, even though no copy or “engram” of the outside world exists within us, this doesn’t mean we operate in a solipsistic, arbitrary world where anything is possible. There is a world out there, and we function successfully in it. How can that be, without internalizing it? Because after all these millions of years of evolution, humans and the environment are structurally coupled, so though the events in our nervous system that constitute perception are based entirely on our own structure as organisms, we act in such a way as to survive. We are congruent BUT WE ARE SEPARATE and autonomous beings.
All this is their way of “walking the razor’s edge,” as they say again and again, between representationalism on the one hand and solipsism on the other. We are in our own little world, yet this “own little world” of ours is, as a result of evolution, beautifully attuned to our environment, this attunement being what “structural coupling” means.
Suppose the thorn of a rose bush scratches my hand and I pull my hand back. From the point of view of the environment, the organism (me) is a black box. Whatever’s going on in there is not relevant and is not known. The thorn doesn’t tell my nervous system what to do when it scratches my hand. From the point of view of my nervous system, the environment – this is much harder for me to conceive – is a black box, or a black surround, as well. What’s known about the environment from inside me is the perturbation of the nervous system that occurs when the thorn pokes me. To get rid of that perturbation, which registers as pain, the nervous system sends certain signals to motor neurons that cause muscles in my arm to contract and move my hand away.
In Maturana and Varela’s logical accounting of this interaction, there is no need for awareness of the outside world to mediate between me and the rose bush. Consciousness may be happening alongside this little event, but is not in any way necessary to an understanding of what happens when the thorn pokes my thumb and I move my hand away. Rather, in their view, there is “structural coupling” at work.
What can be said to “couple” in this relationship called “structural coupling”? Why is there a relationship at all? The answer is that both I and the rose are products of a long evolution. Presumably the rose has thorns because roses with thorns don’t get trampled and broken as much as they would without thorns. Presumably mobile creatures like me have the experience of pain because there’s survival value in not getting injured. If roses were mobile, they might avoid pain the way I do, and if I were stationary, I might have thorns. Animals and plants have been bumping into each other in this world for an unimaginable length of time, and here we see one result of that history of interaction.
I find it hard to get my head around this radical displacement of consciousness from the center of the human organism, and around how totally pragmatic their view of things really is. It doesn’t matter if we perceive the world “accurately,” whatever that might be, as long as we remain adapted to it. If it works, it passes the test. Thinking that way, M&V can say that cognition is not about objects; rather, it is “effective action” in that it enables us to be in our environment successfully. It is an action because cognition is the ground of all our concrete physical actions. If we operated with an inherently non-adaptive conception of the world, e.g., the case of someone whose nervous system cannot feel pain, we would endanger ourselves and be less likely to survive.
One thing’s for certain: this book is emphatically not a triumphal story about how evolution finally progressed to us. Evolution has no goal in view, and it makes no progress; it is “natural drift.” Period. There is no such thing as better or worse adaptation to the environment, there is just adaptation; an organism survives or it doesn’t. This endless process is not going anywhere. The only way existing beings and the environment could be is “structurally coupled,” because if they weren’t, the organisms would die.
Now this, it seems to me, is about the least sentimental version of man’s relationship with nature that could be imagined. No communing with the spirit of a place, being one with the natural world, etc., in this logical accounting by a couple of hard-headed scientists. And as for what this says about the relationships we humans have with each other . . . I’ve always thought of myself as writing about human aloneness, but I seem only to have scratched the surface compared to aloneness like this. According to Maturana and Varela we exist in an isolation so profound we don’t even know that’s what it is. And yet, somehow, their accounting doesn’t leave out humanness and turn life into a mere concatenation of mechanisms; rather, humanness is the very thing they try to account for in the end.
The crucial added element that they would say enables the constitution of our distinctive humanness is language. Which of course makes me a happier camper right there, because as a writer I am a language guy all the way. Language, in the words of M&V, is our domain of being (though interestingly, they don’t say it’s an exclusively human attribute). Which means . . . well, of course it gets difficult. Their definition of language, like everything else they talk about, is based on observables and is entirely pragmatic. For them, language, like cognition, is an action; its function is to conserve adaptation to the environment. “Words are ontogenically established coordinations of behavior.” If I have the right end of the stick, “ontogenically established” means words are the result of the history of the cultural group the individual is part of. People require social unity to survive, and this social unity, otherwise known as a culture, is made possible by language.
Language is, in the strange terminology of M&V, “the linguistic distinction of linguistic distinctions,” which I finally conclude means something like this: a “linguistic distinction” is fundamentally a word, let’s say a noun that distinguishes one entity from everything else by naming it. But a language is not just a glossary, a list of words. You don’t have language until one word can operate upon another (“linguistic distinction of linguistic distinctions”), that is, until you have a grammar and can form sentences.
After all this, it’s not too surprising that for M&V communication is not an exchange of a “thing communicated” which, as it were, goes in a tube at one person’s end and comes out at another’s. In fact, in their world, it appears that we don’t know what’s in the mind of another person, any more than we know the environment around us. Instead they say “We call communication the coordinated behaviors mutually triggered among the members of a social unity.” Again the key is what’s observable, the actions people take and the visible coordination among them. “The phenomenon of communication depends on not what is transmitted, but on what happens to the person who receives it.” Which, interestingly enough, is exactly what I believe, as a novelist, about that mythical creature called “the reader.” It took me a long time to give up the dream of a more reliable intimacy with the reader, but experience has taught me differently. [For more on this, see “Novels for No One,” at http://www.lowrypei.com/onWriting/novelsForNoOne.htm.]
The unity, the coordination of behaviors in a human social group is indispensable to our successful adaptation to the environment. That coordination is made possible by language and more specifically by the “key feature” of language: it “enables those who operate in it to describe themselves and their circumstances.” Recursiveness begins to become more and more prominent in their argument. “As we know how we know, we bring forth ourselves.” Language exists when words can operate upon words. Its key feature is that it enables the speaker of language to describe herself. Language is “a domain of descriptions of descriptions.” Again, if I get what that means, it’s like this: first we call something a “table,” which places it in a category (gives it a linguistically created identity), and thus describes it. We could then go on to describe this “table” further, or talk about what we’re going to do with it, which would be in a sense a “description of descriptions.” But we can also go to a level well beyond this; we’re able to talk about our own language activity. We can say something like: “The word ‘table’ is an arbitrary sign for that thing that is holding up my coffee cup.”
The point, however, is not that the word is an arbitrary sign; the point is that it successfully coordinates social interactions, which are essential to our survival. And it does something much closer to home:
With language arises also the observer as a languaging entity; by operating in language with other observers, this entity generates the self and its circumstances.
On the second time through, I know Maturana and Varela well enough to know that when they say things like that, they actually mean them. They are saying it is a biological fact that the activity of language creates the self and the circumstances the self conceives itself to be surrounded by.
Try to think about that, I tell myself. No self before language. A thought that intuitively appeals to a language artist, even though the notion of language being that powerful makes me somewhat queasy, too. Does that mean there is no pre-existing essence? No self in a baby who can’t talk yet? Or does it mean there might be some essence, but it could never be this thing we call a self until the baby acquires language? How the hell can you even think about that successfully? How do you think about self-before-language, if language is what you use to think with?
This notion that language creates the self and its circumstances harks back to the fundamental property of the organism’s being autonomous, being surrounded by a membrane that sets it off from its environment, being “operationally closed.” Our evolutionary history has left us structurally coupled to the environment, yet separate from it. Our own structure has made us capable of language, and language is crucial to our adaptation. We don’t actually “know” the world around us, or “pick up information” from it, rather it impinges upon our nervous system and causes internal activities that try to restore balance within the organism. So when we think of ourselves as “the observer,” this doesn’t mean anything like what it naively sounds like. To “observe,” biologically speaking, is to create what we think of as the world around us. It is an action which consists, for us, in generating a structure of words. Among the things that the observer creates is the observer.
I’m usually averse to exclamation points, but I am sorely tempted to use a few of them in my notes when I finally get this through my head. What they are saying is a different version of two things I’ve often said from a completely different point of view:
1. Human awareness is awareness of being aware.
2. The first thing the imagination must create is itself.
I got there by writing novels and trying to teach students to make art works. M&V got there by doing science in the most logical way they possibly could, starting from single cells and evolution. And it’s the same place.
“In this way, meaning arises as a relationship of linguistic distinctions. And meaning becomes part of our domain of conservation of adaptation.” So, despite the fact that we derive solely from “natural drift,” there is no shortage of meaning; we create it all the time, as a tool that vastly expands our ability to survive.
They make what strikes me as a most amazing point about this creation of the self by describing an experiment with a certain fifteen-year-old named Paul. Paul was one of the rare people who had their corpus callosum – the structure connecting the right and left sides of the brain – surgically severed (an operation done as a last resort to prevent devastating seizures). Now usually in such cases, after the operation, the person can only understand language through the left hemisphere of the brain, because that’s where language function is localized in most people. Thus if you present a written question visible only on the left side of the visual field – which connects only to the right side of the brain – the person can’t answer it because the right brain can’t read. This has given rise to a whole series of split-brain experiments about cognition, which is why we talk about “left brain” and “right brain” attributes now in everyday conversation.
Paul was still more unusual: in his brain, language function was not localized in the left hemisphere. The two sides of his brain, no longer being connected, were functioning independently, and both were capable of language. So the experimenters presented a written command (“Scratch!”) to Paul’s right brain. The right brain read it, and he scratched. Then they presented to the left brain (which had not seen the command, because it couldn’t) the question “Why did you scratch?” This was the left brain’s answer: “Because it itches.”
“Why are you smiling?”
What M&V draw out of this experiment makes me feel that an unexpected light is going on. Their inference is that “our experiences flow according to coherences in the operation of our nervous system to which we have no access as observers but which necessarily occur as part of our ontogenic drift as living systems. No incoherence can occur in Paul’s linguistic domain. Therefore, when asked for a reflection on something that arose in it, he must answer with an expression of that coherence: ‘You’re funny’ or ‘It itches.’”
no incoherence can occur
he must answer with an expression of that coherence
and they mean what they’re saying.
This goes way beyond asserting that we are meaning-making creatures. This is as much as to say that for biologically determined reasons, we can’t not make meaning. We have to create coherence – why? Because coherence is our survival.
When Left Brain Paul says “It itches” – which is equivalent to “I feel an itch” – that “I” is, in the words of M&V, “the operational intersection” between the human body and the use of language to describe/create an experience. From the point of view of the outside observer, there was no itch, there was only a command to scratch. The “I” of Left Brain Paul, who had to create coherence in his description of his experience, necessarily became an “I” who itched.
In a funny way, the experience of teaching writing seems to confirm this. I know from classroom life that most students, given a piece of someone else’s writing, will talk about how “it flows,” how it makes some kind of sense. Much of the time they’ll be too generous in saying it all hangs together. I take for granted that part of the reason for this is that they want to get along with their peers; but maybe part of it also is, this is what humans do. Maybe the students in a classroom are even a microcosm of how a culture generates its own kind of coherence.
“The living system, at every level, is organized to generate internal regularities. The same occurs in the social coupling through language in the network of conversations which language generates and which . . . constitute the unity of a particular human society. This new dimension of operational coherence of our languaging together is what we experience as consciousness and ‘our’ mind and self.”
Maybe, just maybe, it adds up like this:
coherence of the organism
+ coherence of the nervous system
+ coherence of a particular human society
= consciousness and the self
= coherence of our experience and of the “I” because our experience
is these things
Coherence is inevitable because without it, the organism (or the society) would not exist; its very existence demonstrates its coherence; its existence is the act of cohering. Thus to be, to live, to exist apparently equals constantly re-creating coherence. Which takes it full circle back to autopoiesis.
The first person pronoun, then, is the sign of coherence. By being singular, it is operationally, by definition, coherent. As Walker Percy would put it, it coincides with itself.
If our domain of being is the domain of language, which is what M&V are saying, then by speaking of “I,” we project a world in which there is a coherent “I.” If “I” (the pronoun) conserves our adaptation, this is the same thing as saying it ensures our survival. Without “I,” then, biologically we would be out of luck; we’d be extinct. “I” not only means our adaptation, it perpetuates our adaptation.
Is that what this says?
If it is and if they’re right, then no matter how we may attack the notion of a unitary subject on theoretical grounds, we will continue to use “I” and depend on it for our survival. It doesn’t matter if the self is an illusion (so much for Buddhism?): we will always keep on harboring it as long as we are surviving in this form. We will only be able to stop saying “I,” believing in “I,” if we drift naturally to a new kind of adaptation that hasn’t been seen yet.
The question of illusion is not neglected in this vision of what it is to be human. The murkiness and mystery of human relationships that forms my stock in trade as a novelist appears here in a different form and language. “We work out our lives in a mutual linguistic coupling, not because language permits us to reveal ourselves but because we are constituted in language in a continuous becoming that we bring forth with others.” We are “an ongoing transformation in the becoming of the linguistic world that we build with other human beings.”
Attempt to rephrase: we don’t already exist as some essence to be revealed, rather we are constantly on the cusp of coming into being in our language [trans]actions with other human beings. And this is the sort of thing that I am implicitly wrestling with in my novels about Love and Loss. If girl says to boy “I love you,” what does she love? Can she know him in the first place, or is loving him something she does within herself? My most recent novel has to do with exactly that.
It would appear that in Maturana and Varela’s accounting, what another person “is” equals what that person says and does, and especially whatever the other and the “I” do or say together. Whether we ever “know” another person is a moot point, though the answer is probably no. But it doesn’t matter that we can’t know another person’s “essence” (should there even be such a thing, which by this account there isn’t) because what does matter, and apparently all that matters, is what we do that impinges on each other, especially through language. We are always creating what we “are” and imagining that this identity is stable. But its origin is concealed. It is in fact in constant transformation via language and other social actions.
“The business of living keeps no records concerning origins.” “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. Biologically there is no way we can put in front of us what happened to us in obtaining the regularities we have grown accustomed to: from values or preferences to color qualities and smells.” Or, I might add, the “regularity” that is the person Vaughn is for me today, and the person I am for Vaughn.
Perhaps this is one reason we like novels, or depth psychology: they at least pretend to give us a “record concerning origins.” And yet, the more I write novels, the less inclined I am to explain a character, to write as if there is a knowable reason for everything someone does. What seems artistically more satisfying is to accept that there is no getting to the bottom of character. But it’s one thing to put that in a novel, and another to live it from day to day.
This book, to say the least, feels like radical stuff. And it is, strange to say, remarkably hopeful stuff, in that if what we call the “world” is constantly being brought forth, constantly beginning, then a margin of play always exists. Possibility is never extinguished. We are not free to bring it forth on our own, but we are forever bringing it forth together. Therefore, and this is possibly the most surprising thing in this whole surprising book, Maturana and Varela’s biology has a major ethical consequence.
Biology also shows us that we can expand our cognitive domain. This arises through a novel experience brought forth through reasoning, through the encounter with a stranger, or, more directly, through the expression of a biological interpersonal congruence that lets us see the other person and open up for him room for existence beside us. This act is called love, or, if we prefer a milder expression, the acceptance of the other person beside us in our daily living. This is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness. . . . If we still live together that way, we are living indifference and negation under a pretence of love.
Never in a hundred years would I have imagined that was where this book was going to end up. It turns out that the Chilean biologists believe love is a functional component of the ecosystem.
I heave a sigh and try to get to the bottom line of all this, so far as I can make it out.
The most fundamental thing this book is telling me seems to be that you can arrive biologically at an understanding that human awareness is an autopoiesis. Awareness pulls itself up by its own bootstraps; it creates itself. The book is about the mechanisms by which human awareness is created, including the history (evolutionary, cultural) that lies behind it. The content of this awareness is a fiction, to use a word that I’m at home with but M&V might not like; that is, we don’t know the world in a direct, transparent way. Our particular humanness is that we use language, together, to create a fiction, a culture, that is shared. This shared fiction is what makes possible or constitutes our experience of consciousness and the self. Our world is a consensus with others, and even our own self, our private inwardness, is part of that consensus. We therefore must love or accept others living beside us, so that we can be in this social, linguistic process without which we don’t have our being as humans. “The world” is that which we bring forth with others, and this is the only world we have. Just try to imagine what this means about teaching and learning. If they’re right, we go into the classroom, form a microcosm of a society, and create consciousness and the self.
If we understand that every daily action we perform, no matter how ordinary, “help[s] bring forth and validate the world wherein we become what we become with others,” then every action has an ethical dimension. We are always constituting a “reality” that we then find ourselves living in, and this isn’t a metaphor or an exaggeration. Their point is that this is actually, biologically, how it is.
Hence, “the world will be different only if we live differently.”
The key problem, then, from their point of view, is epistemological: “at the core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing.” By not understanding how our world is constituted, by not understanding our own cognition, we act, often destructively, on the basis of ignorance and fail to grasp the ethical imperative inherent in the way we are structured as organisms.
Such would seem to be the message from Messrs. Maturana and Varela. Or to put a bit finer point on it, I believe I’ve managed to hear this much of what they’re saying. It will take a long time for this all to sink in and do whatever it does to my mental ecology. Some of what they’re saying, I’ve already thought in different forms, and some of it, no doubt, I haven’t understood at all. It’s the in-between stuff, the ideas that I neither recognize as familiar, nor totally fail to grasp, that may create lasting change. There’s nothing to do but wait and see.