noun au·to·poi·e·sis \ ˌȯ-tō-ˌpȯi-ˈē-səs \

Definition of autopoiesis

plural autopoieses play \ˌȯ-tō-ˌpȯi-ˈē-ˌsēz\
:the property of a living system (such as a bacterial cell or a multicellular organism) that allows it to maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries
  • The notion of autopoiesis is at the core of a shift in perspective about biological phenomena: it expresses that the mechanisms of self-production are the key to understand both the diversity and the uniqueness of the living.
  • —Francisco J. Varela, in Self-Organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach1981
  • All living beings, from bacterial speck to congressional committee member, evolved from the ancient common ancestor which evolved autopoiesis and thus became the first living cell.
  • —Lynn Margulis and Dorion SaganWhat is Life?2000


play \ˌȯ-tō-ˌpȯi-ˈe-tik\ adjective
    • Some things that reproduce, such as viruses, are not autopoietic, because they are too simple to maintain themselves biochemically.
    • —Charles MannScience19 Apr. 1991
    • Autopoietic structures have definite boundaries, such as a semipermeable membrane, but the boundaries are open and connect the system with almost unimaginable complexity to the world around it.
    • —John Briggs and F. David PeatTurbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness1989

There's more!

Love words? You must — there are over 200,000 words in our free online dictionary, but you are looking for one that’s only in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

Start your free trial today and get unlimited access to America's largest dictionary, with:

  • More than 250,000 words that aren't in our free dictionary
  • Expanded definitions, etymologies, and usage notes
  • Advanced search features
  • Ad free!
Already a subscriber? Log in.

Origin and Etymology of autopoiesis

1auto- +-poiesis (in part after Spanish autopoiesis)
Note: The biological sense of the word was initiated by the Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana Romesín (*1928) and his co-author, Chilean biologist Francisco J. Varela García (1946-2001). The words autopoiesis and autopoiético appear in Spanish in the authors’ De máquinas y seres vivos: una teoría sobre la organización biológia (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1973), though Maturana and Varela, in separately written prefaces to the second edition (Santiago, 1995), clarify that the original text was written in English, having been completed toward the end of 1971. They were unable to find a publisher and had the book translated into Spanish in 1972; it was printed in April, 1973. The original English text was not published until 1980, as pp. 73-134 (“Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”) of Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel). A paper with a shorter presentation of the authors’ ideas, written about the same time as the book, was published in a revised form in 1974 (F.G. Varela, H.R. Maturana, R. Uribe, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, its Characterization and a Model, ” Biosystems, vol. 5, no. 4, May, 1974, pp. 187–196). In the above-mentioned preface (p. 17), Maturana gives an account of the coinage of autopoiesis, from which the following is extracted: “Así, un día que yo visitaba a un amigo, José María Bulnes, filósofo, mientras él me hablaba del dilema del caballero Quejana (después Quijote de la Mancha) en la duda de si seguir el camino de las armas, esto es el camino de la praxis, o el camino de las letras, eso es el camino de la poiesis, me percaté de que la palabra que necesitaba era autopoiesis si lo que quería era una expresión que captase plenamente lo que yo connotaba cuando hablaba de la organización circular de lo vivo … Al día siguiente se la propuse a Francisco a quién le gustó, y comenzamos a hablar de autopoiesis para referirnos a la organización de los seres vivos” (“And so one day during a visit to a friend, the philosopher José María Bulnes, when he was speaking to me of the dilemma of the knight Quejana (later Don Quixote de la Mancha)—in doubt whether he should follow the path of arms, that is, the path of praxis, or the path of letters, that is, the path of poiesis—I became aware that the word which was needed was autopoesis, if what I desired was an expression that captured fully what I implied when I spoke of the circular organization of the living being … .The following day I suggested it to Francisco, who liked it, and we began to speak of autopoiesis to refer to the organization of living beings”). Maturana does not date this event, though Varela, in his preface (p. 43-44) states that “en mayo de 1971 il término autopoiesis figura en mis notas como resultado de la inspiración de nuestro amigo José M. Bulnes, quien acababa de publicar una tesis sobre el Quijote donde se utilizaba la distinción entre praxis y poesis” (“ … in May of 1971 the term autopoiesis appear in my notes as a result of the inspiration of our friend José M. Bulnes, who was completing a thesis on the Quixote in which the distinction between praxis and poesis was utilized”).

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up autopoiesis? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!


serious difficulty or misfortune

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

The Exceptions Quiz III

  • one-green-toy-robot-amidst-many-red-toy-robots
  • Which of these words does not mean "nonsense"?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Bee Cubed

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!