Autopoiesis – from the Greek ‘poiesis’ meaning reproduction – means simply self-reproduction. The concept was developed by the evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana to describe a system capable of reproducing itself using only its own elements; elements produced by the system itself. Luhmann redefines the concept so that it is capable of describing self referential systems. In the following short passage he states that autopoietic systems can be identified by:
‘… their ability to reproduce the elements of which they consist by using the elements of which they consist. Autopoietic systems are not only self-organising systems, able to form and change their own structure; they also produce their own elementary units, which the system treats as undecomposable, as consisting of an ultimate “substance”. Hence autopoietic systems are closed systems dependent on themselves for continuing their own operations. They define and specify their own boundaries. The environment, of course, remains a necessary condition for self-organisation and for autopoiesis as well, but it does not specify system states. It interpenetrates as “noise”, as irritation, as perturbation, and may or may not set off internal efforts of interpretation and readaptation. It does not produce inputs that specify the operation of the system.’
Luhmann, N. ‘The Evolutionary Differentiation between Society and Interaction’, in Alexander, J. et al (eds) The Micro-Macro Link (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).