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Humberto Maturana: 10 Identity
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Biosphere, Homosphere, and Robosphere: what has that to do with Business?
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Pille Bunnell
 
Identity

I would like to say a few things that pertain to the notion of a robosphere, but first I would like to say a few things about us, about our human identity.

We began the second morning of this meeting with a slide show of human faces. Isn't it interesting that this show of faces, of people we do not know and will never meet, is important to us! You might say, "of course", simply accepting that humans are interesting to humans - but why is this so? I think it is because they tell us about us, we find ourselves in the others, we discover our own existence in the existence of the other. If we don't have strong prejudices we can find ourselves in every animal. If we see couple of dogs copulating, we react, because it has to do with us. A mother might tell her child "Don't look at them!" precisely because she feels this has to do with us humans.

Human identity is a systemic phenomenon. There are two things I want to say about this. First, we are not genetically determined. Let me explain. There is a distinction between structural determinism, and pre-determinism. We are structurally determined molecular systems that exist in the present. We exist in a flow of existence without alternatives in the flow of existence, but we are not pre-determined. Genetical determinism implies pre-determinism.

Our genetic constitution, including the DNA, the RNA, the cytoplasm, its inclusions, indeed the whole structure of the fertilized egg, defines a starting point. The total structure of the beginning organism constitutes a starting point, and whatever happens along arises as an emerging path which we can later describe as its life history. What happens arises moment by moment in the interplay between the realization of the living and the circumstance in which the living takes place. It happens in a process called epigenesis. I don't use this word because I am a biologist and want you to know biological words, but because the word says what it means: epi "on top of" and genesis "the beginning" - so on top of the beginning, whatever the beginning is. As soon as something begins, its history begins to take place, and whatever takes place arises moment after moment, on top of each moment as a new beginning place, in an ongoing interplay between the living system and the circumstances. In this sense nothing is predetermined, nothing can be predetermined, not even genetically.

It is true that if one changes some features of the genetic system, one changes the structural characteristics of the beginning, and the history of interactions will be different so the structure of the organism is different. But for those changes to have one character or another, the circumstances must also have one character or another, because whatever happens will arise in the process of epigenesis, which is a temporal dynamic.

The same thing happens when you make a cutting from a plant, and the new piece is rooted and begins to grow. Whatever structure is there, is the beginning. Whatever the conditions are, determine what happens. Twin fawns separated at weaning and fed a diet that corresponds to the climate in British Columbia or to the one in California will develop the body form that corresponds to the northern or southern subspecies. In us mammals there is a "standardization" of the medium in which early development takes place; the uterus is a very uniform environment. Nevertheless there are differences even there. It has been shown that the nervous system develops one way or another depending on the circumstances that the mother lives. Some of these transformations may be so subtle, and so fluidly a part of our living, that we do not notice them, yet they exist. For example a new born baby, one hour after birth, can distinguish the voice of his or her mother. This shows us that there is a transformation of the brain that has to do with hearing in the womb.

You can see the influence of both initial conditions and medium in homozygotic twins. They begin with essentially the same genome, and the medium of uterus is fundamentally the same (with minor differences associated with position), and then the human domain in which they live is fundamentally the same, so you get essentially similar beings. Even if the two twins are separated, and one lives in the United States, and the other in Germany or Chile, the human domain is fundamentally the same. Yes, there are differences between the cultures, and those differences will appear in some form.
One the of things that was most surprising for me when I came as a student to Harvard, happened when I went to movies. I didn't laugh at the same moments as all the other students! When I laughed everybody would look at me, and when they laughed, I would look around, bewildered, because I couldn't see what they were laughing at. Humor has to do with the emotioning we learn in our culture, not with words. After I had lived four years in the United States, people back in Chile found me different. Of course I was different! I had been transformed through living in a different cultural medium. I was still more Chilean than American, but not fully Chilean any more -- people in Chile sensed there was something funny about this Chilean.

So epigenesis is happening all the time, but the initial structure is not trivial. Epigenesis takes place over the whole lifetime. We become the way we live, our reacting, emotioning, moving, dressing, doing things, taste for foods -- all, according to how we live. Although epigenesis begins in the womb in the circumstances in which the fetus develops, any moment in our life is a starting point for epigenesis from that moment on. Any moment. If you say "Aha! This is the case!" this becomes your starting point and what will happen from then on will depend on how you flow in your living from then on. You are never determined by the medium, it is always an interplay between you and the medium. Neither the medium nor the structure determines what happens. The manner of living is what leads to whatever results, and the manner of living is an ongoing interaction between the organism and the medium.

And this is epigenesis - a process of historical transformation starting with a particular structure, in a particular medium, in a circumstance in which something is conserved. If you specify the initial structure, and you specify the medium, and there is a way of conserving the changes in the medium over the history of development, you can repeat the history adequately to generate similar beings.

The second thing I wanted to say about identity as a systemic phenomenon is that what conserves an identity is the conservation of the manner of living in which that identity is realized. The identity of a human being has existence as a dynamic process of conservation of a particular manner of living so that we slide in our living in way that this particular manner of living is conserved. If this manner of living is not conserved, then the identity disintegrates.

We can have an identity in various domains, but one of them always has to be our identity as a living system. If that is not conserved, we die, and no other identity is possible, so I refer to this as a carrier identity. We can also have an identity as a husband, as a friend, as a CEO, or a doctor, and each of them is conserved as long as the manner of living which comprises them is conserved. For example I studied medicine, I'm supposed to have a diploma that says I am a physician. But if someone were to ask me, "Doctor, please heal this illness" I would say I am not a doctor. I have not lived as a physician, I have not participated in the systemic dynamics in which I contribute to create the conditions in which my being a physician can take place. To be a physician, one has to slide in the world in a way that one encounter illness as a physician, and illness comes near you so that you can indeed be a physician. Similarly, if a person says "I am a manager" this means that he or she slides in the world conserving the particular systemic dynamic relation that constitutes being a manager in the domain of managing. In the long run we are continuously making the world we live, whether we are aware of doing so or not. Through living we create the conditions that conserve our manner of living.

What is peculiar to human beings is that we can reflect on what we live and say "I don't like it!", and suddenly there we are, going in another direction, and we begin to conserve another manner of living. But, in this reflection we can also say "I don't like it, but if I turn I shall loose something I do like" and hence go on doing what we don't like doing - in one mood or another. I say we always do what we want to do, even when we say we are doing something that we don't want to do. This is so because in the circumstances that we claim we are doing something we don't want to do, we are doing that to conserve something else that we do want. All these complaints "I am doing what I don't want to do" (excuse me) are lies. We are always doing what we want to do because we want to conserve something that matters to us.

Since the human identity is systemic, as we live a particular culture, our identity changes according to the culture we live. Thus too, the domain of existence that we generate in interaction with each other has one character or another according to how we live, according to what we conserve through how we live. If we conserve cooperation, then this is the world that arises, and this is the psychic space that we generate. I could say this is the mind that we generate, or, as Gregory Bateson might have said, this is the soul that we generate. All these expressions refer to dimensions which are not readily apparent, but which belong to the manner of living we generate in our living in the systemic conservation of living in that manner.

We human beings are very strange beings. We can live any culture that does not kill us before it is conserved in the learning of the children. We can live as loving beings or as aggressive beings, we can live in cooperation, or in competition, appropriation or sharing. We can live ANY culture as long as we don't die before our children learn to live in that way. As our children learn to live in that way they conserve the systemic dynamics in which that culture is conserved. The character of the culture doesn't matter, as long as the minimal dynamics for the conservation of the culture are conserved. This is fantastic! This is why there has been, and still is, such a tremendous diversity of cultures.

You can see that the way our children live with us is very fundamental. I often say to people, please do not do anything more than 70 %. Part of what I intend with this is that they will have time to be with their children. I'm not asking that they be kind, or care for them, but simply that they BE with them. We adults create history, our children carry it. We create the present, the children make the history. They will make whatever world they will make according to how they have lived their childhood. And they may live their childhood in awareness, in responsibility, in love, as persons, being listened to, and open to participation - or they may not live any of this. And the world they will generate as adults will arise according to how they have lived.

We don't need special scientific studies to know this. We can see it in our own lives, or we can use episodes from history as case studies. Ghengis Khan made his seven year old child kill prisoners so he would be able to kill others with absolute freedom, that is with no qualms about doing it. He trained his child to be what he thought he had to be, which is a warrior ready to kill immediately.

Our children grow in epigenesis, we do not always see how they grow, we do not see all the dimensions of their niche. Sometimes they are hardly in our own niche. We provide food, gifts, we provide a house, but we do not provide ourselves as persons, as companions, listeners, and participants. We are very busy earning money. I remember myself, when I was holding one of my children in my arms, but my attention was elsewhere. Here I was with my son, who reached up, pulled my cheek so that I was facing him, and said, "Father you are with me now!" He was in my arms, but I was not with him. That the child is there does not mean that you are with him or her, you have to see the child as a legitimate being, and actually BE present. Depending on how we are with our children alters how epigenesis takes place, how human history is goes, and what manner of living is be conserved.

Yet this is not entirely a matter of chance. There is still something in us that brings us back to the quality of living that we value if we make of it an object to reflect on. When we see photographs like the slides that have been shown here, of waterfalls, and skies, of plants and animals, we find that we like them, and this is so even in our modern culture where we live far from these things most of our lives. When we want to rest, to recover ourselves, what do we do? We go back to the biosphere at large, in complete easiness and freedom. We earn lots of money go to the forest or the beach on our holidays. I am not telling you this as a contradiction, rather I think it is a wonderful thing. It tells us we are not yet separated from the long history of living things in which we belong. So we find photos of the natural world beautiful, and we like beauty. We like it because it has to do with us, with our history. It has to do with the fact that we have a particular structure that has arisen in a history in which we are a part of the biosphere. We are a part not only in the sense that we are nourished by elements of the biosphere, but because our structure matches it, and this is so on account of a history of congruent changes. We are congruent with the biosphere, it is our medium. The beauty of a landscape is part of our animalhood.

Some years ago I was in Boulder, Colorado. One summer evening I went up to the mountains to contemplate the landscape in the sunset. I sat down on a rock, and there I was contentedly contemplating the sunset. Then I happened to glance to my left, and there I saw two chipmunks, and then I looked to the right, and there were three more. They were sitting close to me, and closer to each other, in absolute comfort and well being. So there we were, all six of us enjoying the beauty of the sunset! Nice, isn't it! Heinz von Foerster, a very distinguished cybernetician, used to go camping, I think it was in Yellowstone Park. He told me "I discovered something most extraordinary! I discovered that the most beautiful places were those that the elk liked to be in."

So beauty has to do with us and our connectedness with the world in which we have been living, the world that has been changing together with the history of our biological lineage. As I said at the very beginning, this is not a trivial point. It is this sensibility to beauty which shows that we are not yet isolated in a robosphere.
 
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