By: Angus Jenkinson FCybS
The aim of the Aspects section is to provide an entry for those exploring cybernetics from different points of view or interested in different aspects. The Life ‘aspect’ is a metatag or category for a wide field of interests related to the processes of living, understanding life and living organisms — biology, botany, zoology, ethology, biochemistry, autocatalysis, photosynthesis, evolution, systems biology & morphology, genome and physionome studies, ecology and ecosystems, niches… and so on. Then there are the special cybernetic fields such as autopoiesis and perceptual control theory.
Inevitably ‘life’ is a somewhat artificial divide. In particular, living is bound up with knowing. For example, consider how interesting fungal and mould growth has become in botany, as in this preprint on Physarum polycephalum, “Slime mould: the fundamental mechanisms of biological cognition.” Or, take one role of aspases (a protease catalyst): when themselves so signalled, they process pro-inflammatory cytokines such as pro-IL1β, which are signalling molecules that allow recruitment of immune cells to an infected cell or tissue. The literature might not tag this cybernetic, but it is, of course. The cytokine acts as a meaningful information signal (see this on active information), which in cybernetics is classified as negative feedback. To the immune cell this means that a response must be triggered. Stated like this, it seems anthropomorphic, but the importance of meaning and cognition in biology is growing increasingly important, as Prof Michael Levin and Daniel Dennett argue in: Cognition all the way down: Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones). Responding to a signal meaningful for the active agent is the core principle of cybernetics. Now that epigenetic versions of DNA coding are becoming prevalent, the cybernetic strategies of life should become ever more prevalent. This also forms a link to what might be called the social dimensions of life.
For the human, life and evolutionary success is closely bound with social life. Maturana and Varela (among others) showed how true this was also for all forms of life. An organism is a community of living things talking with each other. They might talk in electrical gradients or protein texts, but communicate they do. The British Society for Immunology tells us, “In order to mount and coordinate an effective immune response, a mechanism by which lymphocytes, inflammatory cells and haematopoietic cells can communicate with each other is required. Cytokines perform this function.”
Both of the two citations that use ‘mechanism’ in the previous two paragraphs can be questioned for the imputation that living things are machines (in the ordinary sense). It is of course a technical word much as “man” and “men” were used as technical words. But it was found that at least one effect of this was to blind us to the potential of women. We should not make the same mistake with life. Indeed, I argue with others (such as Gerard de Zeeuw FCybS) that the methodology of science needs amplification to deal withe the difference between a machine mechanism and its biological equivalent, between which there is a difference that makes a difference. But here, it is well to note that in the scientific understanding we are not dealing with popular or even 20th century scientific ideas of machine. As Levin also writes (with Joshua Bongard), Living Things Are Not (20th Century) Machines. The 20th Century emphasis in the title is important (an example of how the parenthetical can be emphasised. They update metaphors of mechanism in the light of new findings in machine behaviour and offer new definitions. It is a paper worth considering.
“An organism is a community of living things talking with each other. They might talk in electrical gradients or protein texts, but communicate they do.”
Cybernetics is fundamentally connected to life and the living because the paradigm case for cybernetic behaviour is any living organism. Machines replicate aspects of this when they are designed to do so by humans is a result of biomimicry. The early cyberneticians were fascinated by brains, how do they work, what did they do? While they made physical replicas of highly simplified (toy models) of neurological function, and root cybernetics was less interested in the materiality and more interested in the process and information dynamics of the living.
“Responding to a signal meaningful for the active agent is the core principle of cybernetics.”
The way this constitutes a kind of alchemical series of mutations in the situation is an amazing feature of cybernetic life. The aspase is signalled. Its situation is instantly different: it now produces a response. They process pro-inflammatory cytokines. Those immediately mutate the situation of immune cells. They act in response to bring the present situation back to its proper state. A situation simply flips from being this too that.
The field is interesting to the philosopher and scientific theorist as well as the experimenter and practitioner (doctors, ecologists…). New ideas and discoveries on classic questions that date to Aristotle or earlier, such as persistence and change, individuation and speciation, healing and morphology, even context and feedback, have been developed by leading 20th and 21st-century scientists, not all of whom have labelled themselves cybernetic. It is arguably a useful task to see the cybernetic in various discoveries for no other purpose than to appreciate the depths and potential of this transdisciplinary science.
Cybernetics offers another area of relevance to the life sciences through its tools and insights about design, including the design of research itself. Not only does cybernetics modify some of the basic principles necessary for the understanding of life, and therefore the design of research activities, but it also introduces methods to improve the processes of the scientific project and the evaluation of scientific work. It therefore contributes from multiple angles to the life sciences. Elsewhere, it’s been suggested that cybernetics has the essential principles that would have enabled several decades of development in gene science to be accelerated through its understanding of the contextual relationship of genes to their contextual environment.1
The paradigm case for cybernetic behaviour is any living organism.
Life as the mystery of our time?
The Classical Greeks were deeply puzzled by the riddle of death — it appears very often in their questions and musing. Today, in our time, it has been suggested that the riddle is life.
The list of aspects of life about which modern science is still unsure is surprisingly considerable. They range from its evolutionary beginnings to its processes to the differentiation of species and more. Cybernetics offers several important perspectives in exploring and researching life. They vary from its organization (eg in autopoiesis) to its working (and the differentiated causal orders this implies).
What connects cybernetics so fundamentally to the living is that in order to live an organism has to maintain itself in its own order in profound connection to its environment and yet in some sense discreetly. It has to be closely coupled and yet independently ‘boundaried’. A particular term that is developed for this is organizational closure. It assumes flows of ‘energy’ (for example by feeding or absorbing sunlight) and also flows of ‘information’, for example the predator has to perceive the prey while prey learn to perceive their predators and try to take evading action. The development of sensory organization is fundamental to the development of life. In the working of this sensory organism is at its root cybernetic: it is detecting and responding to an environment.
Cybernetics introduces the concept of active causality, that is the organism acting out of itself towards its own goals, whether these are the relatively simple goals of bacteria or the relatively complex goals of the scientist or artist, or indeed child. This active causality maintains life, takes care of internal conditions in the body, maintains immune responsiveness, and a thousand other homeostatic categories (resolved in steady states).
Much of biology has been highly influenced by physics and chemistry — rightly so to a certain extent, but some of their concepts have not been helpful because they have not taken account of this interior organisation is a process of generating specific order by cancelling or negating external forces.
Much fertile cocreation could be done between the more orthodox approaches and those developed within cybernetics. But a brief introduction to one of the developmental areas of cybernetics, autopoiesis, may introduce the difference and the scope. All biology is complex, all life is complex and deeply interconnected, so this is no more than a sketch.
Dr Humberto Maturana (1928 – 2021) was an Honorary Fellow of the Society. A Chileanh he studied first medicine then biology before in 1954 gaining a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study anatomy and neurophysiology at University College London. His PhD in biology was from Harvard in 1958 before returning to neuroscience in Chile, where he also triggered other developments such as those by Fernando Flores and Julio Olall. He was an active member of the founding group for cybernetics, working with many others, and in particular in later years with von he was a co-author of one of the most significant biological papers, examining “what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain”.2 He went on to develop the theory of autopoiesis, in conjunction also with Francisco Varela.
BBC: What is life?
HM: The basic question I asked myself was what is living and what dies, or what has to be happening inside an entity so that, looking at it from the outside, I can say that it is a living being.
—BBC interview, January 2019
Autonomy: Autopoiesis is what makes living beings autonomous. An organism is autonomous ‘if it can specify its own laws’. It is a unity which regenerates the network of interactions which produced them. That is, an autonomous system is not generated, or regenerated by a factor external to itself but by itself. (This has some similarity with the views developed by the French complexity scientist, Edgar Morin (1992).)
Organization and Structure
Maturana’s approach includes key concepts that many find difficult to understand because their mode of thinking conflicts with what he is proposing. It’s necessary to rethink the process of self-organization in the living to accommodate both circular logic and a type of activity not characterised by the normal causal force field that scientists have been schooled in. It is not an external force but an internal activity — organization — that produces its own structural elements. Organization is the specific and unique processual form of relation between elements of the organism. Structure is the material element. Bear in mind that process produces material, which is anyway always in process, and the relationships are between elements with material characteristics. Scholars of the history of biology will relate these to the form and material elements of Aristotle’s biology (Physics II, 3). Aristotle’s form may be translated as being-at-work, morphe. Because form is active in the process of forming (shaping) and maintaining structure and relationship, it is the organism that maintains its own set of relationships, which in modern parlance might be called virtual, hence his statement that sense perception is a reception of form without material. Similarly, Maturana sees organization as the dynamic that produces its own content, which is nevertheless necessary for its process.
In 1994 Maturana received Chile’s National Prize for Natural Sciences. In 2000, Maturana established his own reflection and research centre, the Instituto de Formación Matriztica.
A story about an aspect of the living that matters to cybernetics
The following is an illustration of the idea not an attempt to redefine either art or biology. There is a famous story concerning JW W Turner. He arrived at the annual Royal Academy Exhibition where his work was being displayed along with those of others. He routinely finished his painting — like others — while it was on the wall. It was a showman’s flourish. But on this occasion his painting was hung next to a splendid Constable, who was adding vermilion to give more intensity. Turner stood behind Constable comparing the paintings and after some time added a daub about the size of a shilling to his otherwise muted painting. Constable saw his own fine painting suddenly muted, a proof of context. An addition of material substance, pigmented oil, now lay in the structure of the painting. But it’s not in this that the painting was transformed but rather by its dynamic effect. The very element that is discounted in the routine of the scientific method, quality of colour (which cannot be reduced to material substance), transformed the aesthetic dynamic of the painting as a whole. Redr radiates an organizational transformation throughout the painting. Without labouring the point, the decisive element in Turner’s activity is his control, not the controlled structural/material substance of his body. Yet without the bodily and paint structures, nothing would have happened.
Look out for the worldwide Events Programme expected to run roughly from 2021 to 2023 or 2024 celebrating various aspects of Maturana’s work.
1 Noble, Denis. “Neo-Darwinism, the Modern Synthesis and Selfish Genes: Are They of Use in Physiology?” The Journal of Physiology 589, no. 5 (2011): doi:https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2010.201384.
2 Lettvin, J. Y., Maturana, H. R., McCulloch, W. S., & Pitts, W. H. (1959). What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain. Proceedings of the IRE, 47(11), 1940-1951.
—Author: Angus Jenkinson FCybS, 2021