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Humberto Maturana: 2 History
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Biosphere, Homosphere, and Robosphere: what has that to do with Business?
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Pille Bunnell
 
History

We belong to a history that runs in the present. This is a fantastic thing! We belong to a history that runs in a continuous changing present. Yesterday is not now, tomorrow is not now, but we exist in a continuous NOW... we human beings, all living beings, the whole biosphere. Everything that we do, occurs now. Although human beings can speak about the past and the future, and live in the ideas of past and future, humans exist in the present. We live in the past and the future, but we exist in the present.

We can claim that everything began with the Big Bang. But notice that this Big Bang is an invention of a history to explain the present. We use the coherences of the present to invent a Big Bang such that if it had taken place, then the present that we live now would be the case.
 
I would like to suggest an image to convey this notion of inventing a history to explain the present. Consider what happens when we drop a pebble in a still pool and a wave begins to expand. Where does the wavefront occur? On the wavefront! The expanding wavefront is a continuous "now". If we select a couple of points on the wavefront, we can invent an origin, but the wavefront itself exists now. Similarly we can invent an origin for the universe from observations we make now. The same with the biosphere. When we propose an origin for the living systems on earth, what we are proposing is the origin of the historical wavefront of living beings that is the biosphere now.
 

Figure 1 The expanding wavefront made by a pebble dropped into a pool represents the present moment. If we see a picture of such a wave, we can invent an origin. Further, all the floating leaves encountered by the wave move coherently; either because they are all connected to the same history - in this case of a pebble dropping (a, b and c), or because they are touching each other (c and d). This image can become rich as one expands it with the notion of intersecting wavefronts (e).

What is interesting in such a situation is that we do find coherences which are adequate for inventing an origin in a way that remains consistent with other observations we make now. The image of the little pool helps explain this too. Consider various bits - leaves, little sticks, seeds - floating here and there on the surface of the water, some of them touching each other. If we look at the movements of these floating bits we shall find that they have two kinds of coherences, some of which are historical, others which have to do with nearness, and still others that have to do with other influences. When the pebble makes a wave, all the little bits that the wave encounters move simultaneously. They are coherent because the movements on the wavefront have to do with the history of the wavefront -- in the sense that the wavefront has a coherence that has to do with its history. Other coherences have to do with nearness, for example when one leaf touches another. Still other coherences have to do with other wavefronts that intercross the main one. Imagine, for example, what would happen if the wavefront from the pebble triggered a floating seed to pop so it started a new wavefront.

What we have in this image of a pool is not only a metaphor of our existence in the present, but also an image of the coherences among ourselves, and in the world in which we exist. Some coherences are of a historical nature - that is they are there because we belong to the same history. Others are there because we are making this history of a changing present through the interactions we have with what we encounter, that is, through nearness.

Now that I have specified what a history is, I will propose a history of living things and humans. What I will say is an explanation from the coherences of the present to invent an origin and a progression of happenings from that origin. I will propose a history of what must have happened for us to be as we now are.

My explanation began with a question that a student asked me in 1960 when I was lecturing in a biology course. I was speaking about the origin of living systems, and a student said to me "Sir, you say that living systems began some 3,800 million years ago. What began 3,800 million years ago such that you can say now that living systems began then?" And there I was, a young man who believed I could answer all questions, and I did not know what to say! (All of us like to believe that we can answer any question, and indeed we can make up an answer for anything, but sometimes we suddenly find ourselves having to re-think our answers.) I blushed and said that I didn't know, and then I said that if he came again next year I would propose an answer.

This is a general question: how can we ever say now, that things began then. Of course we make a computation according to the coherences of the present. We propose what happened such that this is so. We propose a history. And what is history? History is a process of transformation through conservation. History is a process of transformation that is continually arising on what is being conserved. This is interesting to notice because we usually do not pay attention to what is conserved, but only to what changes. For example if we look at modern biology, we will find a lot of work concerned with evolution, and indeed this is a very fundamental aspect of biology. Most of the emphasis in evolution is on what has changed, but what is central in evolution or any history is not what has changed, rather what has been conserved.

We can speak about anything being a history precisely because it is a story of conservation. If conservation stops, history ends. If we want to make a historical connection through a change, we have to show that something has been conserved through the hiatus in which something ended. We may wish to say that a process, an idea, or a relation was conserved, such that although something ended, something fundamental was conserved. There has to be a continuity in the story. This is exactly what we find in the history of living systems: some life forms disappear but living systems go on. And what is conserved? Living.

So the history of living things is a history of the conservation of living, with many changes in form, each of which conserves living. We are one of these millions of forms that comprise the biosphere; a biosphere which is the present of a history of the conservation of living. We are part of the biosphere, the natural landscape has to do with us. We look at the biosphere and find it beautiful because we are coherent with it. We are coherent with it because we belong to the same history - as well as to the local coherences we may have generated.

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