Biological regulation is what allows an organism to handle the effects of a perturbation, modulating its own constitutive dynamics in response to particular changes in internal and external conditions. With the central focus of analysis on the case of minimal living systems, we argue that regulation consists in a specific form of second-order control, exerted over the core (constitutive) regime of production and maintenance of the components that actually put together the organism. The main argument is that regulation requires a distinctive architecture of functional relationships, and specifically the action of a dedicated subsystem whose activity is dynamically decoupled from that of the constitutive regime. We distinguish between two major ways in which control mechanisms contribute to the maintenance of a biological organisation in response to internal and external perturbations: dynamic stability and regulation. Based on this distinction an explicit definition and a set of organisational requirements for regulation are provided, and thoroughly illustrated through the examples of bacterial chemotaxis and the lac-operon. The analysis enables us to mark out the differences between regulation and closely related concepts such as feedback, robustness and homeostasis.
Bruni J. (2014) Expanding the self-referential paradox: The Macy conferences and the second wave of cybernetic thinking. In: Arnold D. P. (ed.) Traditions of systems theory: Major figures and contemporary developments. Routledge, New York: 78–83. https://cepa.info/2327
According to the American Society for Cybernetics (2012), there is no unified comprehensive account of a far-reaching narrative that takes into account all of the Macy Conferences and what was discussed and accomplished at these meetings. This chapter will thus propose how group dialogues on concepts such as information and feedback allowed the Macy Conferences to act as a catalyst for second-order systems theory, when fi rstorder, steady-state models of homeostasis became supplanted by those of self-reference in observing systems. I will trace how such a development transpired through a conferences-wide interdisciplinary mindset that promoted the idea of refl exivity. According to N. Katherine Hayles, the conferences’ singular achievement was to create a “new paradigm” for “looking at human beings … as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines,” by routing Claude Shannon’s information theory through Warren McCulloch’s “model of neural functioning” and John von Neumann’s work in “biological systems” and then capitalizing on Norbert Wiener’s “visionary” talent for disseminating the “larger implications” of such a paradigm shift. From this perspective, the most crucial work would achieve its fruition after the end of the Macy conferences. Yet the foundations for such work were, perforce, cast during the discussions at the conferences that epitomize science in the making and, as such, warrant our careful attention.
Dell P. F. (1982) Beyond homeostasis: Toward a concept of coherence. Family Process 21: 21–41. https://cepa.info/5319
The concept of homeostasis has served as a major building block, if not the cornerstone, of family theory and family therapy. Designed to account for the perceived stability of systems (and symptoms), homeostasis is an epistemologically flawed concept that has repetitively been used in the service of dualistic, animistic, and vitalistic interpretations of systems. Accordingly, homeostasis has led to quirky clinical formulations and a great deal of fuzzy theorizing. This paper contends that the notion of homeostasis is fundamentally inconsistent with systemic epistemology and should be replaced with the more compatible concept of coherence. Whereas homeostasis is a heuristic concept that is not part of a more encompassing theory, the concept of coherence is inseparable from the epistemology in which it is embedded
Di Paolo E. A. (2009) Overcoming autopoiesis: An enactive detour on the way from life to society. In: Magalhães R. & Sanchez R. (eds.) Autopoiesis in organization theory and practice. Emerald, Bingley UK: 43–68. https://cepa.info/2366
Modern organic metaphors for society have run parallel to the very idea of sociology as a science, starting with Comte and Spencer’s use of the term “social organism” (Comte, 1830–42; Spencer, 1897). These metaphors provide a self-renewing source of debate, analogies, and disanalogies. Processes of social regulation, conservation, growth, and reproduction provoke an irresistible epistemic resonance and make us lose little time in offering explanations resembling those of biological regulation, conservation, growth, and reproduction. The phenomenon has not been restricted to metaphor-hungry social scientists: the final chapter of W. B. Cannon’s The wisdom of the body (1932) is called “Relations of biological and social homeostasis.” Attempts to apply a modern theory of living organisms – the theory of autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980) – to social systems are but the latest installment in this saga. Despite the appeal of the organic metaphor, there are good reasons to remain skeptical of these parallels. “Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede,” says G. K. Chesterton (1910) ironically in his essay against the medical fallacy. Doctors may disagree on the diagnosis of an illness, he says, but they know what is the state they are trying to restore: that of a healthy organism (implying, admittedly, a rather unproblematic concept of health). In social systems, a “social illness” confronts us with precisely the opposite situation: the disagreement is about what the healthy state should be.
Elkaïm M. (2005) Observing systems and psychotherapy. What I owe to Heinz von Foerster. Kybernetes 34(3–4): 385–392. https://cepa.info/7478
Purpose: To consider how the approach and work of Heinz von Foerster, among others, can aid psychotherapists. Design/methodology/approach – A family therapist, as every therapist, is caught in the dilemma that (s)he cannot separate what (s)he sees from who (s)he is. One possibility to understand what happens in a therapeutic system is by means of the model of resonance. The therapist observes himself or herself and regards these thoughts and emotions as part of the therapeutic system. (S)he takes part in the reciprocal double binds, i.e. the strategy how each member of a human system s(he) is part of is protecting the worldview of the others by acting in a way, which is reinforcing their worldviews. Thus, a homeostasis is maintained. Findings: Proposes a new systemic approach closer to Ilya Prigogine’s work on systems far from equilibrium where chance plays a role helping members of human systems to leave a world of predictability and to enter a universe of freedom and responsibility. Also uses the teachings of Heinz von Foerster about being part of the world and not separated observers. The viewpoint of constructed realities entails freedom and responsibility and is a highly ethical position. Originality/value – Provides help in understanding how the teachings of Heinz von Foerster, among others, can aid psychotherapists.
Finley M. A. (2019) Autopoiesis in family systems theory. In: Lebow J. L., Chambers A. L. & Breunlin D. C. (eds.) Encyclopedia of couple and family therapy. Springer, Cham: 199–202. https://cepa.info/6569
Excerpt: In the early development of family therapy, general systems theory offered a mechanistic view for explaining interactions among family members (Bateson 1972) Early family therapy work also was based on first-order cybernetics, which viewed families as self-stabilizing systems by employing homeostasis and feedback (Jackson 1957; Weiner 1948) These ideas focused on how family systems stabilize and organize. Family therapy underwent further refinement through the inclusion of second cybernetics, which focuses on processes such as positive feedback and deviation-amplification to explain how family systems are dynamic (Maruyama 1963) Autopoiesis originated in biology and was then adapted to other fields including family therapy (Mingers 1995) Family therapy theorists Dell (1982a, b, 1985), Keeney (1982), and Watzlawick (1984) brought the concept of autopoiesis to family therapy, which underscored a.…
Foerster H. von (1995) Cybernetics of cybernetics. Second edition. Future Systems Inc., Minneapolis.
Context: W. R. Ashby’s work on homeostasis as the basic mechanism underlying all kinds of physiological as well as cognitive functions has aroused renewed interest in cognitive science and related disciplines. Researchers have successfully incorporated some of Ashby’s technical results, such as ultrastability, into modern frameworks (e.g., CTRNN networks). Problem: The recovery of Ashby’s technical contributions has left in the background Ashby’s far more controversial non-technical views, according to which homeostatic adaptation to the environment governs all aspects of all forms of life. This thesis entails that life is fundamentally “heteronomous” and it is conceptually at odds with the autopoiesis framework adopted by Ashby’s recent defenders as well as with the primacy of autonomy in human life that most of the Western philosophical tradition upholds. The paper argues that the use of computer simulations focused on the more conceptual aspects of Ashby’s thought may help us recover, extend and consequently assess an overall view of life as heteronomy. Method: The paper discusses some computer simulations of Ashby’s original electro-mechanical device (the homeostat) that implement his techniques (double-feedback loops and random parameter-switching). Results: First simulation results show that even though Ashby’s claims about homeostatic adaptivity need to be slightly weakened, his overall results are confirmed, thereby suggesting that an extension to virtual robots engaged in minimal cognitive tasks may be successful. Implications: The paper shows that a fuller incorporation of Ashby’s original results into recent cognitive science research may trigger a philosophical and technical reevaluation of the traditional distinction between heteronomous and autonomous behavior. Constructivist content: The research outlined in the paper supports an extended constructionist perspective in which agency as autonomy plays a more limited role.
Franchi S. (2016) General homeostasis, passive life, and the challenge to autonomy. In: Müller V. C. (ed.) Fundamental issues of artificial intelligence. Springer, Cham: 285–300. https://cepa.info/5718
The paper argues that the conception of life as generalized homeostasis developed by W. R. Ashby in Design for a Brain and his other writings is orthogonal to the traditional distinction between autonomy and heteronomy that underlies much recent work in cellular biology, evolutionary robotics, ALife, and general AI. The distinction is well-entrenched in the Western philosophical canon but it fails to do justice to Ashby’s conception of life. We can assess the philosophical and technical viability of the general homeostasis thesis Ashby advocated, the paper argues, through the construction of virtual cognitive agents (i.e. simulated robots in a physically plausible environment) that replicate the architecture of Ashby’s original homeostat through a Ctrnn-like network architecture, whose outline implementation is then discussed.
The second order cybernetics rests on the promise that the system definition includes the observer/researcher as a key element. While the first order cybernetics is mainly directed towards problems of control and homeostasis relating to physical and engineering systems, the second order cybernetics (SOC) also considers problems of growth and morphogenesis in biological, economic and social systems. This paper gives an exposition of SOC and its applications.