The renowned Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana died at the age of 92.
The philosopher and writer was also a National Science Prize winner in 1994 and one of the most influential scientists in his field around the world.
His death is, “without a doubt, a great loss for national and international critical and ontological thinking ,” highlighted the University of Santiago de Chile, from which Maturana was named Doctor Honoris Causa in 2017.
Hoy lamentamos el fallecimiento del filósofo, biólogo, escritor chileno, Premio Nacional de Ciencias (1994) y Dr. Honoris Causa por la @usach (2017) Humberto Maturana
Sin duda, una gran pérdida para el pensamiento crítico y ontológico nacional e internacional pic.twitter.com/8WcXEwxK0i
— Universidad de Santiago de Chile (@usach) May 6, 2021
His theory of life, published in a series of papers since the early 1970s, influenced areas of knowledge as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, computers, literature, and philosophy.
“The basic question I asked myself was what is alive and what dies, or what has to be happening inside an entity so that, looking at it from the outside, I can say that it is a living being,” Maturana explained in an interview with BBC Mundo in 2019.
His theory was “revolutionary because it gave an answer for what there was not before ,” he added.
The “legendary biologist”, in the words of British neuroscientist Anil Seth, received significant international recognition, including from the Dalai Lama, with whom he met in 2014 and had a deep dialogue about life.
The Dalai Lama’s official website then featured the encounter with Maturana saying that he was “the scientist His Holiness often cites as the person who told him that he tries not to stick to his field of research because it spoils objectivity.”
By Ana Pais, journalist specialized in Science at BBC Mundo
What is life?
The question is so old that it seems strange that someone contemporary could give an answer so radically innovative as to influence areas of knowledge as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, computing, literature and philosophy.
That man was the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana and his theory, developed almost 50 years ago in conjunction with his former student and compatriot Francisco Varela, is called “autopoiesis.”
Maturana’s work focuses on a term he coined by combining two Greek words: “auto” (himself) and “poiesis” (creation).
“Living beings are molecular autopoietic systems, that is, molecular systems that we produce ourselves, and the realization of that production of ourselves as molecular systems constitutes living,” said the biologist in 2019.
According to his theory, every living being is a closed system that is continually creating itself and, therefore, repairing, maintaining and modifying itself.
The simplest example may be that of a wound that heals.
The prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica, which lists autopoiesis as one of the six great scientific definitions of life, explains: “Unlike machines, whose governing functions are inserted by human designers, organisms govern themselves.”
“Living beings – he adds – maintain their shape through the continuous exchange and flow of chemical components”, which are created by the system itself.
But Maturana and Varela not only answered what is life, but also what is death.
Autopoiesis, Maturana told BBC Mundo, “has to be happening continuously, because when it stops, we die.”
“Before you asked a biologist what a living being is like and he did not know what to answer,” Maturana told BBC Mundo in 2019.
However, after publishing his theory, “living became explainable.”
“It is a phenomenon of molecular dynamics that constitutes discrete entities that are living beings,” he pointed out.
The scientist and intellectual was born on September 14, 1928, in Santiago. He studied at the Manuel de Salas High School and in 1950 he entered the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Chile. In 1954 he moved to University College London to study anatomy and neurophysiology, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1958 he obtained a Doctorate in Biology from Harvard University, in the United States, reported the newspaper La Tercera.
“Maturana’s words often sounded more like an intellectual reflection on life than a scientific and objective definition of it,” wrote BBC Mundo journalist Ana Pais after her interview with the biologist.
On education, he opined: “The fundamental thing in education is the behavior of adults. Children are transformed in coexistence and it will depend on how the elderly behave with them, not only in the relational, material space but also in the psychic space “.
Of the language, he said that “it is not a system of communication or transmission of information, but a system of coexistence in the coordination of desires, feelings, actions, in any dimension of coexistence that is occurring.”
Maturana aseso organizations through the Institute of Training Matríztica, who co-founded two decades ago by the teacher Ximena Dávila.
“People generate everything that happens in the company and the fundamental thing is that they are doing what they know how to do carefully at the right time. For that to happen,” he explained, “we have to listen to each other because if not, it results in inconsistencies in what we do as a business community. “
Meeting the Dalai Lama
That diversity and combination of knowledge that Maturana faced was what attracted the Dalai Lama, noted journalist Ana Pais.
In 2014, Maturana and Dávila visited the religious and political leader in India, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Maturana and the Dalai Lama talk about topics as varied as the functioning of the brain, language, and feelings in plants and animals, but the biologist remembered, in particular, their dialogue about life.
“The conversation was essentially about how we live, what kind of living we are doing and how we are performing as human beings,” he told BBC Mundo.
“He said that he had learned the topic of detachment from me because at some point we had talked about this letting go .”
Condolences and affectionate farewell messages did not wait when the news of Maturana’s death was known this Thursday.
The Ministry of Science published a video in memory of the outstanding intellectual and stressed that “he will be remembered for his contribution to the theory of knowledge for the understanding of the human, education, communication, and ecology.”
Lamentamos la muerte del Premio Nacional de Ciencias, Humberto Maturana. Doctor en Biología y profesor @uchile. Será recordado por su contribución a la teoría del conocimiento para la comprensión de lo humano, educación, comunicación y ecología.
🎥Por la razón y la ciencia pic.twitter.com/MPuoCK40Ik
— Ministerio de Ciencia (@min_ciencia) May 6, 2021
The Congress of Chile, the deputies paid a minute of silence on his behalf, while citizens from all over the world shared their reflections on social networks, evidencing his great legacy.