Book review: The Tree of Knowledge

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

“The Tree of Knowledge,” By Humberto R. Maturana & Francisco J. Varela takes us on a journey of knowing how we know. From our earliest beginnings as organic compounds, to multicellular creatures, in order to know we have to abandon certainty and walk the razor's edge between representationalism (objectivism) and idealism (solipsism). Ultimately, if we accept the thesis, we are no more important than any other life on the planet, and our consciousness of self is a reference point created by language. The world that we live in is one brought forth by other humans and language is our tool for coordination of enacting that world. In the end, knowing is brought about by how we act in the world. How we act in the world is a coordination with other humans who are also taking their cues from how others act. This circular act of knowing leaves room for endless possibilities since with our invention of language we can create infinite political, cultural, and artistic creations. The authors root all of their thesis in our biology which is the essential feature of how we as humans know what we know.


Definitions and terms

autopoiesis - n. Self creation; self organization.

ontogeny - n. The development or course of development especially of an individual organism

phenomenology - n. The study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy.

phylogeny - n. The evolutionary history of a kind of organism.




Chapter 1 – Knowing How We Know

Phenomenology is bound to the physical structure of the organism.

Our nervous system fills in blanks and distorts things.

Using our own structure to understand how we know is a circular, dizzying process.

We can’t access an “objective” world, only the worlds our structures bring forth.

“All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing.”

“Everything said is said by someone.”

Knowing is effective action – it happens in the totality of a being not within a mind.

Language is the tool of humans to pursue cognition.


Chapter 2 – The Organization of Living Things

Studying the nervous system isn’t enough, tracing the history of the organism is a prerequisite.

All that is living came from basic molecules of the universe.

Distinction is necessary to discuss unities.

Unities are things like individual humans.

Living beings have the distinction of having autopoietic organization.

Autopoietic beings are similar in organization but differ in structure.

Autopoietic beings are enclosed in a membrane that contains dynamic systems.

Autopoietic beings can arise in varying conditions and in varying ways.

The processes within an autopoietic organism must satisfy physical laws.

The phenomenology of an autopoietic organism isn’t based upon purely the properties of the molecules that the organism takes in, but is based upon the structure of the organism.


Chapter 3 – History: Reproduction and Heredity

Living beings are descendants of a history of reproduction.

Reproduction isn’t a requirement for living beings since the original unity was not a product of reproduction.

Replication (i.e. unities from a factory) have no historical system.

Copies made from copies do have a historical succession and drift.

Reproduction can happen from fracture (a bunch of grapes being split in two)

Cell reproduction is a type of fracture, but no outside force is used. Dynamic processes create the fracture from within.

Heredity is when structures are present in the successive unities.

Variation can occur in a lineage of historically connected unities.


Chapter 4 -The Life of Multicellulars

Structures are coupled to their environment

Environments perturb organisms but do not direct them or specify their reactions.

The unique history of every species must be traced to understand the current structural coupling of each cell. Each species has a unique sequence of historical environment perturbations and organismic responses. This also includes interactions with other cells in an organism.

Many unities have remained unicellular, so multicellular unities aren’t necessary.

The beginnings of every multicellular organism trace back to one cell so multicellular and unicellular organisms have no difference in how they are established.

Sexual reproduction results in a large amount of variation.

Each of these variations represents a unique way of being in the world since phenomenology is based upon the structure of an organism and not exclusively on the properties of what enters the organism from the environment.

Multicellular organisms have operational closure in that each contains a network of dynamic processes that do not leave the organism.


Chapter 5 – The Natural Drift of Human Beings

There is congruence between living beings and their particular environment otherwise it would cease to exist.

The environment that acts on an organism doesn’t determine changes; the structure of the being that is acted upon determines the outcome (a bullet hitting a person changes that structure differently than a bullet hitting a grizzly bear).

A structure may change state internally, may destruct internally, may be perturbed in a way that changes state, or be perturbed in a way that destroys it.

Unities and environments that remain congruent are “structurally coupled.”

An ongoing process of structural coupling can be seen metaphorically by examining how the creation of cars changed cities and changes in cities then resulted in changes in cars.

The environment doesn’t “select” for certain properties in an organism. Conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation in the history of a lineage’s structural coupling create the appearance of selection to the observer.

The only way to understand the history of an organism’s lineage would be to know every environmental perturbation and structural and state change of every organism in a historical lineage.

Evolution is like standing at the top of a high mountain and splashing water down. Changes happen randomly, not only because of random variations in wind, terrain, but also the existence of previous drops of water. By the time water has traversed a route to the bottom, it will have taken a very distinct path from many other paths.

Organisms and environment vary independently.

During natural drift there will be many extinctions, surprising forms that do arise, and unimaginable potential forms that do not arise.

It isn’t changes in the environment that determine the evolutionary path of a lineage, but the conservation of structural coupling.

Evolution isn’t progress or optimization. It’s drift. At any point in time, all living beings are equivalent. It is only when a lineage doesn’t reproduce before being destroyed that it is no longer a candidate for evolution.

When one aspect of an organism changes, many other aspects of an organism also change as a result.

There is no outside force guiding evolution. Natural drift is a product of the conservation of autopoiesis and adaptation.


Chapter 6 – Behavioral domains

All living beings with or without a nervous system operate in the present moment. The past and future is irrelevant.

An experiment of rotating a frog eye 180 degrees demonstrates that for that animal, there is no up and down, front and back in reference to an objective world, there is only the world that its structure, or nervous system presents internally.

Removing a lamb from a mother for a few hours changes its nervous system so that it has different behavioral options available to it than other lambs.

A girl literally raised by wolves, ran on all fours and could not speak. She preferred to be with dogs and wolves over humans after being found. She became very depressed when separated from them. She never spoke and would revert to running on all fours when pressed.

A popular view of the nervous system is that it provides an organism with a representation of the outside world.

The nervous system neither provides representations nor does it function in a vacuum (solipsism).

From the perspective of the internal dynamics of a nervous system, the outside world doesn’t exist. From the perspective of an observer of the organism that contains a nervous system, the internal dynamics do not exist. (See submarine metaphor.)

A man has lived inside a submarine his whole life. He has only navigated it with the instruments inside. He surfaces one day and people outside the submarine compliment him on navigating all the reefs and obstacles. He states that all he did was pull some levers and push some buttons and has no idea what they mean about reefs and beaches.

Behavior isn’t something that a living being does (it only experiences internal structural changes). Its just something observers point to.

The success or failure of a behavior is defined by expectations of an observer (i.e., someone watching you read these words in the middle of a desert).

Behavior isn’t the invention of the nervous system—it only expands the number of behavioral options (as described by observers) available to the organism. (See next chapter)

If carefully reading, one might start freaking out a little after this chapter.


Chapter 7 – The Nervous System and Cognition

In single-cell organisms, behavior is based on a very specific correlation between sensory surfaces and motor surfaces.

A hydra is a simple multicellular organism with the most basic type of nervous system that connects sensory cells with motor cells. Its behavioral options are a product.

Neurons connect with almost every type of cell. Synapse connect neurons and allow them to communicate across the network.

The human nervous system is similar to that of the hydra, but only more complex in scale with many billions of neurons connecting to each other to create astronomical numbers of combinations.

Since there is a practically unlimited number of state changes possible within this network, there are also a practically unlimited number of behaviors possible.

Outside observers confuse environmental factors as causing changes to an organism, but these perturbations can only modulate the internal balances of a sensorimotor system. It is the sensorimotor system that creates the behavior.

Visual information isn’t linear. The areas of the brain responsible for vision are connected to many other areas. “Vision” is like one voice among many, not a one-way signal.

Operational closure is the quality of a nervous system where every change within the nervous system leads to further changes of relations of activity. It is a closed network.

Every process of cognition is based upon an organism as a unity and on the operational closure of its nervous system. This is what is meant by all knowing is doing (as sensorimotor correlations in the domain of structural coupling where the particular nervous system is housed.) (One might start freaking out a little more now. Think “The Matrix.”)

We human beings are modified physically by every experience even if it isn’t noticeably visible.

The nervous system isn’t solipsistic because it participates in interaction with the environment it is coupled with. It isn’t representational because the nervous system isn't constructing internally what is in the outside world, it is only prodcing "a world" defined by the structure of that particular organism.

For our nervous system (and subsequently our phenomenological experience) there is no outside or inside, only maintenance of correlations of constant sensorimotor change.

The nervous system isn’t representational because it doesn’t take in inputs and produce outputs like a computer. It brings forth a world by specifying what patterns in the environment perturb the system (our nervous system doesn’t sense infrared light as a perturbation where other animals’ nervous systems do).

It is wrong to use the metaphor of the brain as a computer.

Sensorimotor systems, the integrated organism, and the environment interacted with are coupled structurally and the organism “drifts” until structural changes occur that lead to the destruction of the organism. There is no “learning” just drift.

All behavior is a relational phenomenon between organism and environment and the structure of a particular nervous system determines the range of possible behaviors.

To determine if a behavior is learned or innate (suckling & memory are innate, talking & using money is learned) we have to be able to observe the history of an organism. We can’t know it by examining the current state of a sensorimotor system.

Knowledge is defined by adequate behavior in a given context. “To live is to know.”


Chapter 8 – Social Phenomena

Complex phenomenological domains arise when complex organisms structurally couple within environments (third-order structural couplings).

There are no mammals where the male breast-feeds (which is why its natural for mothers to be care-givers and men to be protectors.) This is not the case for other classes such as with some birds and fish.

In third-order structural couplings of humans, the behavioral possibilities can create endless roles.

In ant colonies, roles are defined by literal structural differences of individual ants. Many females are barren and work while males stay inside and breed with the queen. Any one ant would die if outside the colony for long. If the queen is removed, hormones signal to the workers to feed a new larva in a way so that it becomes a queen. In an ant colony, the ontogeny of each individual is contingent on the ontogenies of the others.

The ant colony stays together through trophallaxis, a sharing of chemical secretions.

Exoskeletons limit the size of nervous systems of ants but creatures with skeletons are not so limited in size and can develop larger nervous systems.

Other primates such as baboons and chimpanzees have complex third-order structural couplings. Some have more rigid hierarchies (baboons) where others are more fluid (chimpanzees). Within the groups there are mare varied behavioral tendencies in individuals (aggression, seduction, etc.).

Communication is the coordinated behaviors mutually triggered among members of a social unity.

Vertebrates have an essential and unique capacity to imitate each other (blue titmice learned to break though foil milk covers and this behavior spread across the British Isles).

Information isn’t transmitted in communication, perturbations are. The structure of the receiving organism determines what is received.

Cultural behaviors are learned and have become somewhat stable over successive generations (money, language, dress, etc.)

I.F. Older organisms tend to learn newly acquired behaviors the slowest. It might explain why older people are more conservative. They want to maintain the environment they are familiar with. To lose it might mean no longer being able to successfully couple with the environment.

Altruism can be described as behaviors that are beneficial to the group.

Individualistic views of animal behavior are wrong. Altruistic behaviors in groups are practically universal. Also, the benefit of an individual doesn’t require the detriment of another.

An antelope that plays the role of lookout is being “selfishly altruistic” because it is coupled to the group and not just interested in its survival as an individual because it cannot survive without the group coupling.

Human social systems create unities around language. Where language boundaries exist, so do the unities of social organization.

Restricting the behavioral dimensions of a society depersonalizes it and makes it more like an organism (more rigid and less flexible).


Chapter 9 – Linguistic Domains and Human Consciousness

To operate in language is to operate in a domain of congruent, co-ontogenic structural coupling.

Insects live in a world of communication based around “trophallaxis” whereas humans exist in a world of communication based around “linguallaxis.”

Because we have language there is no limit to what we can describe which creates the conditions that bring forth no limit to our politics, art, attitudes, and more.

Other animals can “language” but not to the extent of humans.

Walking on two feet allowed early hominids to carry food back to others in the group which resulted in cultivating a richer social life. This was the foundational change that led to increasingly complex languaging abilities.

If we asked a monkey how it felt and then developed them so that they had the capacity to respond, they would no longer be a monkey but rather some new structure of organism.

Knocking out a gorilla and painting a dot on his forehead led to the ape touching his forehead when presented with his reflection in a mirror. Other primates would not react that way.

When the corpus collosum is cut, people tend to have multiple senses of self that are unaware of each other. Essentially there are now more than one unity cognitively within one organism. An experiment with someone with a cut corpus callosum was asked to pick out a visual drawing of a spoon and could do so. However, when the right side of their brain was shown the word “spoon” they could not “see anything.” If a pornographic image is shown to the right hemisphere, the person may blush and become embarrassed, but they will be unable to explain why.

There is no consciousness of self without language. Since language is purely social, our sense of self only exists within the social domain.

What we say reflects what we live (our phenomenology) not what happens from the perspective of an independent observer.

We maintain an ongoing descriptive recursion which we call ‘I.’ It enables us to conserve our linguistic operational coherence and our adaptation in the domain of language.

Living systems at every level have organized to generate internal regularities. The consciousness of a mind and self is one more process for maintaining our linguistic coordination of social behaviors.

It’s only when some part of the internal regularities breaks down that we see how much we take for granted. The coordination of behaviors and language within society is so intricate that we easily take it for granted until we try to penetrate a different society that speaks a different language and has a different culture.

The mind isn’t something in the brain, it exists in the third-order structural couplings of society.

Language was never invented by anyone to take in the outside world; therefore, it can’t be used as a tool to reveal that world. Rather, it is through languaging that we bring forth a world in the social domain (third-order structural coupling.)

We are constituted in language in a continuous becoming that we bring forth with others. We don’t have a pre-existing self as a reference point but rather are the ontegenic transformations that we build with other human beings.


Chapter 10 – The Tree of Knowledge

Everything we do is a world brought forth with other people.

There are no certainties. Our knowledge only comes through our behavior which is brought forth with others in our culture. There’s no fixed reference point for ourselves.

We must walk the razor’s edge between objectivism (representationalism) and idealism (solipsism)

Effective action leads to effective action. To not act effectively is to be destroyed.

The business of living keeps no records concerning origins.

By existing we generate blind spots that can only be cleared by generating new blind spots in another domain. (I.F. This is an argument for why we should appreciate liberal and conservative views since each can reveal the others' blind spots).

All that we have in common as human beings is a biological tradition. It began with reproduction of autopoietic systems and a cultural tradition that began a few million years ago with hominids.

Knowing how we know isn’t a linear path from a starting point but rather a recursive cycle of understanding.

The world everyone sees is not the world but a world that we all bring forth together.

The world will be different only if we live differently.

Without acceptance of those who are different than us there can be no social progress and therefore no humanness.

At the core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing. It's not knowledge, but the knowledge of how we know that compels us.

Blind to the transparency of our actions, we confuse the image of ourselves that we want to project with the actual being that we want to bring forth.

12 views0 comments