XX.3 May + June 2013
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Systemic and meta-systemic laws

Ximena Yáñez, Humberto Romesín

This essay is the result of our reflections over the course of many recursive conversations in the space of our collaboration at the Matriztic Institute in Santiago, Chile on the interplay of biology and culture on human living.

We propose these Systemic and Meta-Systemic Laws (or Laws of Conservation) well aware that what we are saying with them also applies to the entire cosmos (from everyday living, to biology, to quantum physics and cosmology), which arises through the operational distinctions we make as human beings in our operating as observers explaining our living in the course of our living.

Basic Systemic Laws

The following systemic laws we call basic systemic laws because they are abstractions of the basic experiential conditions that constitute the basis of the unconscious operations of our thinking and rational explanation.

0. The possibility of knowing. All possibility of human knowing, understanding, and explaining [comes through our experience of living].

If we do not acknowledge (1) the experience of observing as the act of distinguishing something as if it were independent from the observer who is distinguishing; (2) the question of how the observer operates in his or her observing; and (3) the realization that the observer can explain how observing occurs only by demonstrating a configuration of processes that, if they were to happen, would give rise to an observer operating in observing; then it would not be possible to comprehend [the processes of] knowing, observing, or explaining biological-cultural aspects of human living in consensual closed worlds that constitute our living as Homo sapiens-amans amans, without seeking support in a supposedly transcendent reality. The operating condition of human existence is that everything [we know] arises through human living and living together.

1. Observing. Everything that is said is said by an observer (a human being) to another observer, who may be himself or herself [the original observer].

2. Neither randomness nor chaos. All that an observer does as a living being and human being arises in his or her doings according to regularities and operational coherences that are conserved in all instances and circumstances of his or her operating in the flow of the realization of his or her life. There is no randomness in the act of living.

3. The observer and observing. The observer arises with his or her reflexive distinction of his or her own operations in observing. The observer does not exist prior to his or her own reflexive distinction.

4. Recursive flow of observing. The act of reflection occurs in the operating of the observer in the conversation that distinguishes his or her own operation, and [reflection] occurs as a living process that leads to the continued conservation of recursive expansion of comprehending one’s living, one’s self-consciousness, and the actions at hand in the flow of living in the constantly changing present that the same recursive reflection generates, and [reflection] occurs in the act of letting go of the certainty that we know what we think we know.

5. Illusion or perception. Everything we live we live as valid at the moment in which we live it. However, we do not know in the very experience of living that we live as valid, if later we will confirm it as a perception or invalidate it as an illusion with relation to another experience the validity of which we do not doubt at that moment; this is, however, subject to these same conditions.

6. Generation of worlds. The world we live in every moment is the realm of all the distinctions that we make, that we think we can make, that we thought we would make, or that we thought we could not make as human beings in the course of our living as beings who exist in our reflexive operating as observers who live in conversation.

7. Evolutionary drift. The course of evolutionary drift of living beings in general, and humans in particular, in the succession of generations that constitute their respective lineages, arises moment to moment in the flow of their living guided by their preferences, tastes, and desires, in the realization and conservation of their well-being in living. Thus if we want to know how the present manner of living came to be for any class of organisms, we must look to the relational feelings of its ancestors, which transgenerational conservation has shaped into its current relational living. So, if we look at our current relational living as human beings that are born loving beings, we can say that the configuration of relational feelings, whose transgenerational conservation in the living together of our ancestors gave rise to us as Homo sapiens-amans amans, must have been loving.

General Systemic Laws

These systemic laws are abstractions we make as observers in the realm of the coherences of our operating as living beings in the domain of molecular existence, and they evoke the regularities of the structural dynamics of our operating as such.

8. Conservation and change. Every time a set of elements begins to conserve certain relationships, it opens space for everything to change around the relationships that are conserved.

9. Structural determinism. Whenever an observer distinguishes a composite unit such that everything that occurs with it at every moment occurs in the realization of operational and relational coherences of its components in the domain of its composition, whatever the operational field in which the components arise to be distinguished, we say that the observer has distinguished a composite unit determined by its structure.

10. Simple and compound units. As observers, we distinguish simple units and composite units or systems. The simple units arise in the distinction made by the observer as totalities in which he or she does not separate components. The composite units arise in the distinction made by the observer as totalities he or she then breaks down into components that operate according to the properties with which they arise when being distinguished as such in the operating of the observer.

11. Components and composition. The components of a composite unit are not components in themselves or by themselves; they are elements that arise as components when an observer distinguishes their participation in the relationships of the composition of a composite unit that he or she has distinguished as such.

12. Identity and change. The configuration of relationships between the components of a composite unit that remains invariant in the flow of structural changes and defines its class of identity as a whole constitutes what an observer distinguishes as the organization of the composite unit.

The components and the relationships between them that express a particular composite unit as a particular case of a certain class constitute what an observer distinguishes as the structure of the composite unit.

13. Structural coupling. A composite unit exists in the conservation of its identity as a single class that includes the medium with which it interacts; it triggers only structural changes that result in conserving its organization. We call this relationship structural coupling, and we call the particularly dynamic area where the composite unit meets the environment the niche.

14. Domains of existence. A composite unit exists and operates in two separate spheres or domains of existence: that is, in the sphere or domain of its operating components and in the sphere or domain of their operations as a whole in interactions with the environment that contains it [the composite unit].

15. Continuously changing present. A composite unit (or system) operates in its internal dynamics at each instant according to its structural coherence at that instant, in a flow of change without alternatives, and in a structural dynamic that occurs as a continuously changing present in which there is neither past nor future. Living beings exist in a continuously changing present; it is the cosmos itself as it arises from the operational coherences explaining the living of the observer, which occurs as a continuously changing present in a continuous evanescent flow.

16. Closed systems. Each time an observer distinguishes a composite unit made entirely as a set of elements that interact with each other so that when one acts on one of them, one acts on all, we call this a closed dynamic system. This method of composition of a composite unit constitutes a closed system organization.

Biological Systemic Laws

The systemic laws that follow, like all systemic laws, reveal the systemic relational flow of any system in any domain. However, we want to speak here particularly about systemic laws in the field of biology in order to note that when we mention them our attention is drawn to what happens to living beings in their constitution, realization, and conservation.

17. Spontaneity of living. When at a molecular level a set of molecules arises that interact with each other forming a closed network of molecular productions that produces the same kinds of molecules that compose it, molecules that in their interactions recursively generate the same network of molecular productions that produced them, while performing within its boundaries as a molecular system that operates as a discrete unit that produces and specifies its own extension, and in addition all this happens with molecules continuously flowing through it, a molecular autopoietic system arises. That is, a living being arises.

18. Organization and identity. A composite unit exists as a totality only as the organization that defines its class identity is conserved via structural changes that occur within itself as a result of its internal dynamics or triggered as a result of its interactions with elements in the environment that contains it. The organization that defines the class identity of a living being is autopoiesis [self-producing]. A living being lives only as long as it conserves its autopoiesis, and as long as it conserves its autopoiesis, a living being lives. We call this condition the law of conservation of autopoeisis.

19. Adaptation. A composite unit exists as a composite unit of a certain class only as its interactions in the environment in which it operates as a totality are like an organism, triggering in itself structural changes through which it conserves the organization that defines the identity of its class. Unless this happens, the composite unit disintegrates and something different appears in its place. The conservation of operational congruence between organism and environment that occurs in the flow of conservation of living is the relationship of adaptation between organism and environment. The conservation of the relationship of adaptation between the living being and the environment, in its operation as an organism, is a necessary condition for the realization and conservation of living. We call this condition the law of conservation of adaptation or the law of conservation of structural coupling.

20. Structural determinism in living. Living beings as autopoietic molecular entities operate and are conserved in their operations as structurally determined entities, and all that happens with them occurs in the course of their structural changes in the realization of their molecular autopoiesis while their molecular autopoiesis is conserved via those structural changes.

21. Non-time. As structurally determined systems, living beings exist in non-time, in a continuous present in continuous structural change in which each new moment of the present arises as a modification of the present moment that is lived. Time is an imaginary explanatory notion created to connect events that the observer lives in a successive occurring, before and after a flow of transformations. Everything that happens happens in a continuously changing present in non-time.

22. What happens, happens. A living being, as a structurally determined system, does in each moment the only thing it can do in that moment according to its structural coherences of that moment that continuously arise in a continuously changing present. Human beings and the cosmos that we bring to hand through our distinctions and explanations exist in a continuously changing present.

Meta-Systemic Laws

As such, meta-systemic laws describe the spontaneous dynamics of systemic occurrences in the realm of living of the observer in observing.

23. History and desires. The course followed by the history of living beings in general, and the history of human beings in particular, arises moment by moment defined by the desires and preferences that determine from moment to moment what the living being or human being does and conserves or does and neglects in his or her relational living, not by what we usually call resources or opportunities as if they are in themselves resources or opportunities. Something is a resource or an opportunity only if you want or desire it.

24. The center of the cosmos. Every living being in its living operates at all times as the center of the cosmos, or what is the same, it operates as the center of a relational matrix that gives it life and that arises with its living and that in human living will be the biological-cultural matrix of their existence. Only a living being that operates as an observer of his or her existence in languaging, as we humans, can consciously operate as the center of the cosmos that arises in explaining his or her living.

25. Living beings and the environment. A living being and the environment that contains it change together in a congruent manner as the spontaneous result of their recursive interactions only if these interactions trigger in both a flow of structural changes, such that the living being conserves its autopoiesis and its relationship of adaptation to the environment that is its niche. If this fails to happen the living being dies, and if it does not die, its life becomes a search for relational well-being in its relationship with the environment.

26. We always do what we want. Human beings always do what we want to do, even when we say we do not want to do what we do. When we do what we say we do not want to do, we do it because when we do it we hope to conserve something that belongs to a domain different from the one in which we do what we say we do not want to do.

27. The present. The unfolding of living of a living being occurs in the realization of its autopoiesis in a course without alternatives, without past or future in a continuously changing present. Every living being operates at each moment of the unfolding of its living in the only way that it can operate in that moment according to its structural coherences in its continuously changing present.

28. Autopoiesis. Everything that occurs in the flow of living of a living being occurs as a continuous result in the continuously changing present of the continued realization of its autopoiesis under its particular way of living as an organism in the relational environment (niche) in which it operates as a whole. In the case of human beings our particular manner of living is to converse, that is, to live together in the coordinations of coordinations of doings and emotions, and everything that humans do happens in networks of conversations.

29. Results and resulting. The result of a process is not nor can it be a factor in the course of the process that gives rise to it. The result of a process does not operate nor can it operate as a factor in the initiation of the process that gives rise to it. The result and the process that gives rise to it belong to disjointed domains that cannot be reduced to one another. Nothing occurs in the course of living or the processes that constitute the realization of living of living beings, or in the course of the cosmos that the observer brings forth in his or her operations of distinction when explaining his or her living, because the result of that course is necessary or desirable for this occurrence.

The systemic and meta-systemic laws that we have presented in this work are not based on any ontological assumptions. They are abstractions that we make as observers of the operational coherences of our living and living together as human beings existing as Homo sapiens-amans amans living in languaging and conscious conversation that can talk about only what arises from our operations of distinction in the biological-cultural worlds we create in our consensual living together.

Translated by Marco Huerta and Hugh Dubberly. Excerpted from Habitar Humano en seis ensayos de Biología-Cultural (Human Living: Six Essays on Cultural Biology).


I would like to thank the Matríztica team for their support in developing this piece, particularly Sebastián Gaggero, Simón Ramírez, and Patricio Garcia. I also thank Rajiv Mehta and Gabriel Acosta-Mikulasek for their help. —HD


Ximena Dávila Yáñez studied human and family relations, specializing in work relations at the Instituto Profesional Carlos Casanueva (IPCC) in Chile. She also studied experimental epistemology with Humberto Maturana. Her preoccupation has been to understand how relational pain and suffering arise, and how a person can come out of it. She is the creator of Liberating Conversation, and co-founder, with Maturana, of Matríztica de Santiago, where she works as researcher and professor. With him, she is co-author of The Tree of Living: Toward a Cultural Transformation, now in press.

Humberto Maturana Romesín is a Chilean biologist and epistemologist. Along with Francisco Varela, he developed the concept of autopoiesis. He is also the author (with Varela) of The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Maturana received a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard and worked with Jerome Lettvin at MIT. He is co-founder, with Ximena Dávila Yáñez, of Matríztica de Santiago. With her, he is the co-author of The Tree of Living: Toward a Cultural Transformation, now in press.


With the publication of The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Humberto Maturana established himself as an important figure in the history of systems thinking. His essay “Metadesign” is a strong argument against technological determinism and points to our responsibility for the world we create; it should be required reading for all design students:

Over the past several years, Maturana (now 84) has collaborated with Ximena Dávila to produce a set of essays on “human living,” which have not been translated into English. At the heart of the book are 30 “laws” that summarize much of their thinking about biological and cultural systems. These laws provide insights for managers, designers, teachers, and students grappling with challenges in a world in which all forms of design (and especially software and service design) increasingly require systems thinking. Everyone interested in systems thinking should study these laws.

Hugh Dubberly, Editor

Copyright held by author/owner

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2013 ACM, Inc.


Post Comment

No Comments Found