Principles of Biological Autonomy - Francisco J. Varela

This book represents the first in-depth investigation into the mechanisms of biological autonomy, a subject long neglected in spite of its importance for an understanding of all natural systems. The basic characteristics of autonomy, the processes of cellular self-construction, are examined in a detailed analysis and lead to a generalization of recursive processes present throughout natural systems. Dr. Varela provides an explicit definition of what autonomy and autonomous systems are, describes formal tools to represent them, and applies this mode of analysis to the immune and nervous systems and their cognitive processes. This foundational work incorporates a number of results from many disciplines into a new approach to biological and cognitive mechanisms.

Issues involving descriptive complementarity and representations of autonomy are discussed in a detailed, formal framework. The representations are presented at the foundational level through the introduction of some novel algebraic methods.

The resulting framework is a powerful one to study the most essential aspect of biological autonomy – its cognitive mechanisms. The book discusses, in its final part, how the close relation between autonomy and cognition is established in the concrete cases of the immune and nervous systems – the two great cognitive networks of higher animals and man.

This first presentation of a systematic and rigorous study of autonomy has a number of significant consequences for our current understanding of systems theory, biology, and cognitive science.

Francisco J. Varela is Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Chile, Santiago and Adjunct Researcher at The Brain Research Laboratories at New York University Medical Center. Dr. Varela received his Ph.D. at Harvard University. In addition to the present work, he has published books and articles in the areas of neurobiology, cybernetics, and the philosophy of science.