1 Introduction

The concept of autopoiesis was originally formulated by the Chilean biologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana as being ``necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems'' (Maturana & Varela, 1973, p. 82). They conceived of autopoiesis as specifying an organization which might be realizable with a variety of material components--not just the specific biochemical molecular species that happen to be characteristic of life on Earth. Indeed, to illustrate this, they described a model system, implemented as a computer program, where autopoietic organization could be realized with just three distinct kinds of component (Varela et al., 1974).1

The notion of autopoiesis has been extended and applied in a wide variety of domains, including linguistics, social organization, and family therapy. However, my own interest in the theory is strictly concerned with its original ``molecular'' formulation, as a description of the characteristic autonomy of even the simplest living organisms, conceived as a special category of essentially chemical system. The discussion here will be strictly limited to this ``molecular'' or ``chemical'' autopoiesis.

To the extent that autopoiesis correctly captures something like a minimum condition for living phenomenology, it has an obvious connection to discussions of the origin of life. Indeed, in the autopoietic framework, the origin of life is essentially identical with the origin of molecular autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1973, pp. 93-95).

Much more recently, the concept of a ``collectively autocatalysis'' has been presented by Stuart Kauffman as being critically involved in, if not identical with, the origin of life (Kauffman, 1993). However, Kauffman makes no explicit reference to autopoiesis.

My purpose here then is primarily to attempt such an explicit comparison between the notions of autopoiesis and collective autocatalysis.

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Timestamp: 2003-03-28