Humberto Maturana

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Humberto Maturana
Maturana in 2015
Born(1928-09-14)September 14, 1928
DiedMay 6, 2021(2021-05-06) (aged 92)
Santiago, Chile
Alma materUniversity of Chile; University College London; Harvard University
AwardsNational Prize for Natural Sciences
Scientific career
FieldsBiology, philosophy
InstitutionsUniversity of Chile; Instituto de Formación Matríztica
ThesisThe fine structure of the optic nerve and tectum of anurans; an electron microscope study (1959)
Doctoral advisorGeorge B. Chapman
Doctoral studentsRafael E. Núñez
Francisco Varela

Humberto Maturana Romesín (September 14, 1928 – May 6, 2021) was a Chilean biologist and philosopher. Many consider him a member of a group of second-order cybernetics theoreticians such as Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Herbert Brün and Ernst von Glasersfeld, but in fact he was a biologist, scientist.

Maturana, along with Francisco Varela and Ricardo B. Uribe, was known for creating the term "autopoiesis" about the self-generating, self-maintaining structure in living systems, and concepts such as structural determinism and structural coupling.[1] His work was influential in many fields, mainly the field of systems thinking and cybernetics. Overall, his work is concerned with the biology of cognition.[2] Maturana (2002) insisted that autopoiesis exists only in the molecular domain, and he did not agree with the extension into sociology and other fields:

The molecular domain is the only domain of entities that through their interactions give rise to an open ended diversity of entities (with different dynamic architectures) of the same kind in a dynamic that can give rise to an open ended diversity of recursive processes that in their turn give rise to the composition of an open ended diversity of singular dynamic entities.[3]

Life and career[edit]

Maturana was born in Santiago, Chile. After completing secondary school at the Liceo Manuel de Salas in 1947, he enrolled at the University of Chile, studying first medicine in Santiago, then biology in London and Cambridge, Mass. In 1954, he obtained a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study anatomy and neurophysiology with J. Z. Young (who later wrote the foreword to The Tree of Knowledge) at University College London. He obtained a PhD in biology from Harvard University in 1958.[4]

He worked in neuroscience at the University of Chile, in the Biología del Conocer (Biology of Knowing) research center. Maturana's work has been developed and integrated into the work on ontological coaching developed by Fernando Flores and Julio Olalla.

In 1994, he received Chile's National Prize for Natural Sciences.[5]

Maturana established his own reflection and research center, the Instituto de Formación Matriztica. In 2020, he was awarded an honorary fellowship by the Cybernetics Society.

Maturana died in Santiago on May 6, 2021, at age 92, due to pneumonia.[6][7]


Maturana, 2012
A drawing in zero time

Maturana's research interests concern concepts like cognition, autopoiesis, languaging, zero time cybernetics and structurally determined systems. Maturana's work extends to philosophy, cognitive science and even family therapy. He was inspired by the work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll.

His inspiration for his work in cognition came while he was a medical student and became seriously ill with tuberculosis. Confined in a sanatorium with very little to read, he spent time reflecting on his condition and the nature of life. What he came to realize was "that what was peculiar to living systems was that they were discrete autonomous entities such that all the processes that they lived, they lived in reference to themselves ... whether a dog bites me or doesn't bite me, it is doing something that has to do with itself." This paradigm of autonomy formed the basis of his studies and work.[2]

Maturana and his student Francisco Varela were the first to define and employ the concept of "autopoiesis", which was Maturana's original idea. Aside from making important contributions to the field of evolution, Maturana is associated with an epistemology built upon empirical findings in neurobiology. Maturana and Varela wrote "Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with or without a nervous system."[8]

Reflections on life and association with Francisco Varela[edit]

In an article in Constructivist Foundations. Maturana described the origins of the concept of autopoiesis and his collaboration with Varela.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

Maturana influenced — and appears in coded form as a character in the novel Replay by German author Benjamin Stein.[citation needed]


The initial paper which stands as a prelude to all that followed:

  • Biology of Cognition. Humberto R. Maturana. Biological Computer Laboratory Research Report BCL 9.0. Urbana IL: University of Illinois, 1970. As Reprinted in: Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 5–58.


  • 1979 Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living With Francisco Varela. (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science). ISBN 90-277-1015-5.
  • 1984 The tree of knowledge. Biological basis of human understanding. With Francisco Varela Revised edition (92) The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding. ISBN 978-0-87773-642-4
  • 1990 Biology of Cognition and epistemology. Ed Universidad de la Frontera. Temuco, Chile.
  • 1992 Conversations with Humberto Maturana: Questions to biologist Psychotherapist. With K. Ludewig. Ed Universidad de la Frontera. Temuco, Chile. 1992.
  • 1994 Reflections and Conversations. With Kurt Ludewig. Collection Family Institute. FUPALI Ed. Cordova. 1994
  • 1994 Democracy is a Work of Art. Collection Roundtable. Linotype Ed Bogota Bolivar y Cia.
  • 1997 Objectivity - An argument to force. Santiago de Chile: Ed Dolmen.
  • 1997 Machines and living things. Autopoiese to do Organização Vivo. With Francisco Varela Porto Alegre: Medical Arts, 1997.
  • 2004 From Being to Doing, The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. With Bernhard Poerksen. Paperback, 2004
  • 2009 The Origins of humanness in the Biology of Love. With Gerda Verden-Zoller and Pille Bunnell.
  • 2004 From biology to psychology. Paperback.
  • 2009 Sense of humanity. Paperback.
  • 2008 Habitar humano en seis ensayos de biología-cultural. With Ximena Dávila.
  • 2012 The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love. With Gerda Verden-Zöller. Edited by Pille Bunnell. Philosophy Document Center, Charlottesville VA; Exeter UK: Imprint Academic, Imprint Academic.
  • 2015 El árbol del vivir. With Ximena Dávila.
  • 2019 Historia de nuestro vivir cotidiano. With Ximena Dávila.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maturana, Humberto & Varela, Francisco ([1st edition 1973] 1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living, in Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky (Eds.), Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 42. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co. ISBN 90-277-1015-5 (hardback), ISBN 90-277-1016-3 (paper)
  2. ^ a b Magnus Ramage, Karen Shipp (2012) Systems Thinkers
  3. ^ Maturana, H.R. (2002). "Autopoiesis, structural coupling and cognition: A history of these and other notions in the biology of cognition". Cybernetics and Human Knowing. 9: 5–34.
  4. ^ See more biographical details in History: The Biology of Cognition Laboratory of the Universidad de Chile (1960–2006). Juan-Carlos Letelier, Gonzalo Marín & Jorge Mpodozis. Published online at
  5. ^ "Bernabé Santelices recibe el Premio Nacional de Ciencias Naturales" [Bernabé Santelices Receives the National Prize for Natural Sciences]. El Mercurio (in Spanish). Santiago. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  6. ^ "A los 92 años muere el destacado biólogo y escritor chileno Humberto Maturana". (in Spanish). 2021-05-06. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  7. ^ "Familia de Humberto Maturana revela causas de su fallecimiento: "Es un momento de gratitud y luto"". BioBioChile - La Red de Prensa Más Grande de Chile (in Spanish). 2021-05-06. Retrieved 2021-05-06.
  8. ^ Maturana, Humberto R. & Varela, Francisco J. (1980): Autopoiesis and Cognition. The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: Reidel, p. 13.
  9. ^ "Reflections on My Collaboration with Francisco Varela". Constructivist Foundations. 7 (3): 155–163. 2012.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]