Pathways to Autopoiesis
: A Computational Study of the Emergent Properties of Self-Producing Systems

  • Rich Carter

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

The theory of autopoiesis (auto - self, poiesis - producing) suggests that a living system distinguishes itself from non-living matter by its ability to generate and maintain itself. With the increase in systems thinking and complexity science at the turn of the twenty-first century, this idea has been steadily gaining traction in fields as diverse as biology, the social sciences, law and architecture. The theory has been adopted most widely in the field of synthetic biology and chemistry where it provides a conceptual framework within which to understand the organisational logic of minimal living cells (protocells). The potential of autopoiesis to inform protocell research is dependent on a greater understanding of the organisational pathways that may lead to the formation of the most basic autopoietic systems. A computational study into the formation and persistence of proto-autopoietic organisations from simple, unstructured beginnings is reported here.

Computer simulations show that unstructured populations of interacting finite state automata self-organise under different environmental conditions to robust, self-producing structures called niches. The criteria for an autopoietic system remains a contested issue in the field and, as such, these niches could not be deemed to be fully autopoietic although they did routinely demonstrate the critical processes of self-production and adaptation. Competition at the individual, networked and niche level operated on such processes and was responsible for the continuous transformation of the population's structure in response to changes in the environment. Such structural coupling ensured the maintenance of the organisational identity of the proto-autopoietic system - the hallmark of autopoiesis - which was enabled by the emergence of hierarchical, strongly connected and dynamically stable networks that proved resilient to major environmental perturbations.

This work has tested the hypothesis that autopoietic systems can emerge from simple, unstructured beginnings. The research findings uphold this hypothesis, and several important features and properties of proto-autopoietic systems have also been reported. This research has shown that proto-autopoietic organisations are generated and maintained through competitive production processes and protocell researchers may wish to consider this in the design of their experimental strategies.
Date of Award23 Jan 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorStephen Mann (Supervisor)

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