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Artificial Life

Summer 2004, Vol. 10, No. 3, Pages 235-259
(doi: 10.1162/1064546041255584)
© 2004 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Basic Autonomy as a Fundamental Step in the Synthesis of Life
Article PDF (178.53 KB)

In the search for the primary roots of autonomy (a pivotal concept in Varela's comprehensive understanding of living beings), the theory of autopoiesis provided an explicit criterion to define minimal life in universal terms, and was taken as a guideline in the research program for the artificial synthesis of biological systems. Acknowledging the invaluable contribution of the autopoietic school to present biological thinking, we offer an alternative way of conceiving the most basic forms of autonomy. We give a bottom-up account of the origins of “self-production” (or self-construction, as we propose to call it), pointing out which are the minimal material and energetic requirements for the constitution of basic autonomous systems. This account is, indeed, committed to the project of developing a general theory of biology, but well grounded in the universal laws of physics and chemistry. We consider that the autopoietic theory was formulated in highly abstract terms and, in order to advance in the implementation of minimal autonomous systems (and, at the same time, make major progress in exploring the origins of life), a more specific characterization of minimal autonomous systems is required. Such a characterization will not be drawn from a review of the autopoietic criteria and terminology (à la Fleischaker) but demands a whole reformulation of the question: a proper naturalization of the concept of autonomy. Finally, we also discuss why basic autonomy, according to our account, is necessary but not sufficient for life, in contrast with Varela's idea that autopoiesis was a necessary and sufficient condition for it.