Natural Forests: Autopoiesis or Sympoiesis?  Gary Beluzo
  October 07, 2007

TOPIC: Natural Forests: Autopoiesis or Sympoiesis? 

== 1 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, Oct 7 2007 3:13 pm
From: Gary A. Beluzo

I'd like to start a new thread exploring the heuristics of AUTOPOIESIS and SYMPOIESIS. I'll kick it off with some formal definitions and then my interpretation and application to forest ecology.

The Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the late 1970s introduced the term "autopoiesis":

To establish what they believed to be the essential quality that differentiates living systems from non-living
systems, Maturana and Varela (1980, Varela et al. 1974) pointed to the self-producing capacity of living
systems, conceptualizing what they called autopoietic systems:

A dynamic system that is defined as a composite unity as a network of productions of
components that, a) through their interactions recursively regenerate the network of productions
that produced them, and b) realize this network as a unity in the space in which
they exist by constituting and specifying its boundaries as surfaces of cleavage from the
background through their preferential interactions within the network, is an autopoietic

This organization that defines an autopoietic system as a composite unity is the autopoietic
organization, and we claim that an autopoietic system in the physical space, that is, an
autopoietic system realized as a composite unity by components that define the physical
space by satisfying the thermodynamic requirements of physical phenomena, is a living
system (Maturana 1980: 29).


Beth Dempster from the University of Waterloo in Ontario introduced the term "sympoiesis" several years ago.

I propose the conceptualization of boundaryless systems and have constructed the term sympoiesis, from
the Greek words for collective and production, to describe such systems (Dempster 1995, 1998a). In
contrast to autopoietic systems, they are characterized by cooperative, amorphous qualities. Sympoietic
systems recurringly produce a self-similar pattern of relations through continued complex interactions
among their many different components. Rather than delineating boundaries, interactions among components 
and the self-organizing capabilities of a system are recognized as the defining qualities. 'Systemhood'
does not depend on production of boundaries, but on the continuing complex and dynamic relations
among components and other influences. The concept emphasizes linkages, feedback, cooperation, and
synergistic behaviour rather than boundaries.


Gary A. Beluzo
Professor of Environmental Science
Division of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Avenue
Holyoke, MA 01040

== 3 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, Oct 7 2007 4:38 pm
From: "Joseph Zorzin"

Yikes, Gary- those items are a mouthful. I have the following questions:

a.. What do they mean?
b.. Whatever they mean- is it speculative philosophy or solid science?
c.. If solid science, what does such thinking offer mankind in its relationship to the rest of the Earth?
d.. The sense of those items reminds me of "The Phenomenon of Man" by Teilhard de Chardin which I read recently- for those of you not familiar with him, he was a brilliant Jesuit paleontologist of several generations back. He wrote that book in mid twentieth century. If I'm not mistaken he influenced many of the best modern evolutionists- probably to some degree the 3 biologists Gary quotes. So, Gary, is there a relationship?
e.. Can such stuff be understood by state foresters? <big grin>
This is what I like to see- SERIOUS mind blowing discussions - on the really big picture that attempts to reconnect the naked apes with the rest of nature.

"Now when sufficient elements have sufficiently agglomerated, this essentially convergent movement will attain such intensity and such quality that mankind, taken as a whole, will be obliged - as happened to the individual forces of instinct - to reflect upon itself at a single point; that is to say, in this case, to abandon its organo-planetary foothold so as to pivot itself on the transcendent centre of its increasing concentration. This will be the end of the fulfilment of the spirit of the Earth". (from "The Phenomenon of Man")

== 4 of 4 ==
Date: Sun, Oct 7 2007 7:40 pm
From: Josh


To respond to point c: "If solid science, what does such thinking
offer mankind in its relationship to the rest of the Earth?"

I think that the ideas of Autopoiesis and Sympoiesis are typical of
other writings on the subject of community ecology. The citations
within such articles often refer to the ideas of others, rather than
quantitative data. As such, community ecology is a theoretical
construct, and is constantly being refined. There is plenty of
quantitative science going on within community ecology, but
theoretical science is strong in that discipline as well.

As for the relevance of community ecology, despite its continual flux
and often theoretical nature, I can't think of any dicipline more
relevent to the human animal. I'm confident that native people
recognized natural community without much effort. Doing so is
essential to know where and when to find a desired resource; my
favorite place to search for hen-of-the woods is in my area is in High
Elevation Red Oak Forest, for instance.

As for the merits of Auto and Sym - poiesis, I think I need to
cogitate on that a bit more. On first reading, I think that
Sympoiesis rings more true in that distinct boundaries in natural
communities are often elusive. I look forward to having those more
learned than I explore these concepts.


== 1 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, Oct 8 2007 5:43 am
From: "Gary A. Beluzo"


Thanks for reposting, for some reason I couldn't change the font in
my MAIL program and I wanted to provide ENTS with a verbatim starting

Think of the first post as a logical place to start: with the
original ideas of Mataurna/Varela in Chile and then Dempster in
Canada. I posted the formal defintions but did not continue the
discussion with my own ideas including WHAT IT ALL MEANS and WHAT IT

I promise to do that this afternoon-evenng and hopefully that will be
a good jumping off point for those ents that want to be involved in
this discussion. I also realize that there are some ents that may
not be interested in this theoretical, heuristic discussion.....for
those folks there is always the DELETE key. I don't necessarily
follow all of the topics on the list, depending upon my time and

Getta got out to the field to check the herp traps....later dudes!


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, Oct 8 2007 8:29 am
From: dbhguru


This discussion is important. It is the high end of the science topics. I encourage you to lead ud in a discussion that gets above the simple approaches that we usually take when taking about a forest, such as surface characeristics and short term system responses.


== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Mon, Oct 8 2007 10:44 am
From: "Chris Morris"

On 10/8/07, Gary A. Beluzo <> wrote:

> Think of the first post as a logical place to start: with the original ideas
> of Mataurna/Varela in Chile and then Dempster in Canada. I posted the
> formal defintions but did not continue the discussion with my own ideas

I am not sure where people want to take this, but here are a few
thoughts I have. These may already answered (as much as something can
be) by ecologists or may asked from an odd prospective (mine is of a
geomorphologist), but perhaps they will be of some use. Some
questions have been brought up on this list before (I am not claiming
any of them as creations of me).

How will (or have) forest change to loss of certain species. Assuming
a continuing loss of Hemlocks, how will this affect self organization
of forests or emergence of "old growth characteristics"? How will a
forest, that is currently young, organize itself with the absence of
Hemlocks versus and "old growth" forest that will lose Hemlocks?

If we need a new type of forestry (a separate question altogether)
that is ecological in viewpoint, what about forest
convergence/divergence? Should such forests be managed by converging
on some sort of species composition (this is going to be a white pine
dominated forest so I will leave more pines when I cut) or should they
focus on divergence (this forest is currently mostly tulip popular, so
I will clear them out to increase species variation)?

Can old growth forest be better described using systems than species
composition, tree age, or tree size?

Just a few thoughts...


TOPIC: Natural Forests: Autopoiesis or Sympoiesis?

== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Sun, Oct 28 2007 8:17 am
From: "Joseph Zorzin"

Gary- I just googled "AUTOPOIETIC FOREST" and found many links. I'm still trying to get a grip on this subject- it's clearly highly abstract. What's needed is this abstraction to be connected to more real world examples so those of us not trained in cybernetics and systems methodologies can grasp the subject.

A point I'd like to make is that when you refer to MANaged systems- there are gradations, some of which may be a lot closer to "autopoietic forest" than you might imagine. MANaged systems are, according to what you say below: "living but regulation cybernetic".

A MANaged system, such as a monoculture planted forest or a city park is very different from a MANaged system where a forester attempts to work as much as possible with the natural forces on the site. Let's say that the forester actually understands the meaning of autopoietic forest and tries to "manage" with a light touch then such MANagement must be clearly distinguished from the monoculture plantation or city park. After all, people are just fancy apes with oversized frontal lobes. If humans are thought of as being outside the "natural world" then their MANagement of nature can be seen as automatically and always un-natural. But, if humans are seen as part of nature, then their activities can be seen as natural too- though often destructive, like a disease. If most of the creative potential is seized for the benefit of the humans, then clearly that's not a "natural forest"- but if only some of creative energy is thus appropriated (this is starting to sound Marxist)- then such a system is not "regulation cybernetic".

Whatever---- it's an interesting subject and needs further discussion and how it can contribute to forest policy decisions. Unfortunately, forest policy making is done, generally, at such a low level of intellectuality as to be considered little more than which Mafia racket is tough enough to rule the 'hood for the moment. Moving forest policy making to such a high level of thought is unlikely any time soon.

Perhaps you could offer a course to licensed foresters on this subject. Few would attend, having had little exposure to profound thinking in their education and training, but little by little these ideas may penetrate the darkness of forestry policy making.


TOPIC: Natural Forests: Autopoiesis or Sympoiesis?

== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Wed, Nov 14 2007 7:41 am
From: ZundapMan

Lets not let this thread die...

IMHO there are concepts in "General Systems Theory" which tie these
two perspectives together. James G. Miller in his life work on
"Living Systems" talks about "system levels" and "boundary processes"
which need to be considered when we try to make sense of any living
system. For those somewhat unfamiliar with the context of this
discussion, I just reviewed the Wikapedia article on "systems theory"
and found no mention of Miller.

== 2 of 2 ==
Date: Wed, Nov 14 2007 11:02 am

I meant to comment before! Regarding
"heuristics of AUTOPOIESIS and SYMPOIESIS",
could you elaborate a little...I'm not sure I could
provide much of a definition of each word,
individually, let alone the concept...:>)