Making Autopoiesis and Functional Attributions Compatible




Autopoiesis, functional attributions, causal roles, fitness, adaptation


When structuring their comprehension about living beings as autopoietic machines, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela repeatedly weave criticisms to the application of the notions of function and fitness then established in scientific theories. Such criticisms are presented in two main fronts: the authors say that functional attributions are causally inert, what reduces them to mere non-operational explanatory artifices; on the other hand, they defend that every organism, as long as it is not destroyed in its interactions with the medium, conserves its fitness, which is constitutive of living beings and, therefore, invariable. However, as Gustavo Caponi defends, we can understand that attributing functions means nothing more than highlighting causal roles they play in certain reference processes, so that the comparison between structures that perform the same function enable the measurement of different degrees of efficiency in its performance. In the field of biology, this conceptual structure is translated into the biological functions, performed by different organismic subsystems that relates to life cycle maintenance, as well as into fitness, understood as the efficiency in the operation of such functions and determinative of the evolutionary process. We argue that Caponi's proposal is immune to both attacks made by the Chilean authors, as it incorporates an operational and contextual content into functional attributions and enables the reference to fitness, whose evolutionary importance can be measured from time to time. Such an approach seems to be, moreover, a very opportune addition to the theory of autopoiesis, equipping it with a much pertinent conception of functional attributions.


Amundson, R. & Lauder, G.V. 1998. Function without purpose: The uses of casual rose function in evolutionary biology. In Biology and Philosophy 9: 443–469.

Brandon, R.N. 2013. A General Case for Functional Pluralism. In: P. Huneman (ed.), Functions: Selection and Mechanisms, p.97–104.

Caponi, G. 2020. The Darwinian Naturalization of Teleology. In: L. Baravalle & L. Zaterka (ed.), Life & Evolution: Latin American Essays on the History and Philosophy of Biology 26: 121-142. Switzerland: Springer.

Coddington, J. 1994. Homology and convergence in studies of adaptation. In: P. Eggleton & R. Vane-Wright (Ed.). Phylogenetics and ecology: 53-78. London: Linnean Society.

Cummins, R. 1975. Functional analysis. In Journal of Philosophy 72(20): 741-765.

Cummins, R. 2002. Neo-teleology. In A. Ariew; R. Cummins; M. Perlman (Ed.), Functions: New essays in the Philosophy of Psychology and Biology: 164–174. Oxford: OUP.

Futuyma, D. 2005. Evolution. Sunderland: Sinauer.

Hirata, C. 2010. A causalidade em Hobbes: necessidade e inteligibilidade. In Cadernos Espinosanos 23: 33-58.

Maturana, H. 1982. Aprendizaje o deriva ontogénica. Arch. Biol. Med. Exp. 15.

Maturana, H. 1988a. Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self consciousness and the physical domain of existence. In Conference workbook for “Texts in cybernetic theory”: 1-53. California: The American Society for Cybernetics.

Maturana, H. 1988b. Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. In The Irish Journal of Psycology 9: 25-82.

Maturana, H. 2006. Veinte años después: Prefacio de Humberto Maturana R. a la segunda edición. In H. Maturana & F. Varela, De Máquinas y Seres Vivos: Autopoiesis, la organización de lo vivo. Buenos Aires: Lumen.

Maturana, H. & Mpodozis, J. 1992. Origen de las Especies por Medio de la Deriva Natural. Santiago: Editorial Universitária S.A., 1992.

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. 2006. De Máquinas y Seres Vivos: Autopoiesis, la organización de lo vivo. Buenos Aires: Lumen.

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. 2003. El árbol del conocimiento: Las bases biológicas del entendimiento humano. Buenos Aires: Lumen.

Mingers, J. 1995. Self-producting systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis. New York: Plenum Press.

Moreno, A. & Mossio, M. 2015. Biological autonomy: A philosophical and theoretical enquiry. Dordrecht: Springer.

Sober, E. 1984. The nature of selection. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Varela, F.G. et al. 1974. Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. In BioSystems 5: 187-196. Amsterdã: North-Holland Publishing Company.

Varela, F. 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

Varela, F. 1991. Evolutionary Path Making and Natural Drift. In E. Rosch; E. Thompson; F.J. Varela. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Massachussets: MIT Press.

Varela, F. & Weber A. 2002. Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. In Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1: 97-125. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.





Special Issue: Models and Modeling in the Sciences