NILES ELDREDGE: I was driving in a car with Francisco in Italy once. I was just starting to watch birds, partly as a hobby and partly because so much evolutionary biology has been done on birds. I said that one neat thing about birds is that you can hear their songs, and you can also see the same color spectrum they do, so you can look at the differences in their feather patterns, and these are precisely the things that birds use to sort each other out. He got very angry and very firmly and quickly corrected me, because he had been doing a lot of research on the physiology of the vision and hearing of birds. He assured me that birds can see and hear in spectra that are way beyond human capabilities. I said I knew that, but on the other hand it was a levels problem. I was more interested in the fact that we tell the difference between birds by the songs of different species and sometimes individuals, just with our own ears, and birds are indeed using that to sort each other out to find the correct mate, and all that.
Francisco was very formal, and impatient with the somewhat sloppy level of discourse I seem to be content with. He's interested in physiology and morphology first, and then the transformation of them, in an evolutionary sense. To me, that's where everybody has always started from, and that's why I walked away from that thirty years ago, and only got back to it tangentially. I've been studying adaptation only obliquely, being concerned mostly with the context of adaptive change. I don't intersect with his mode of thought that strongly.
BRIAN GOODWIN: The first time I ever heard of Francisco Varela was when he sent me an article on autopoiesis. He was still in Chile at the time, and I looked at it and thought it was far too abstract. I was obviously in an antiabstract phase at the time, and I put it to one side and paid no more attention to it. Then I met him.
Francisco is extraordinary in terms of the clarity of his thinking and the quality of his research, because he implements his more abstract ideas in very high-quality research work. He's an exceptional combination of a precise thinker and an imaginative thinker. Since he's in theoretical biology, he's not universally known. Anyone working in immunology will be very aware of his important contributions in that context, but his main contributions are in the realm of theory.
LYNN MARGULIS : I know some of the work of Francisco Varela, but he often talks a language I don't understand at all. I don't know if it's just me, or if he is really obscurantist. His recognition of the importance of autopoiesis, which comes from collaboration with his teacher, Humberto Maturana, involves deep understanding of living systems and how chemical self-maintenance and self- formation intrinsically define life. One part of an organism cannot be privileged over another. DNA can't be more important than membranes, because without either DNA or membranes the cell does not exist. All the components of the living system make and constantly define that system. Autopoietic systems whether cells, organisms, or communities are run from the inside.
Excerpted from The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995) . Copyright © 1995 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.