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Demobilizing immunology : autopoiesis and autonomy in Francisco Varela's theory of immunity Joel, Katie D.


This thesis examines the transformative impact of the immune network theory on theoretical immunology, especially how immunity has been understood and described metaphorically in the scholarship. The immune system had been conventionally couched in warfare rhetoric. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian scientist and pathologist Elie Metchnikoff depicted pathogens as savages in the theory of phagocytosis, which, he postulated, the body must destroy with equal ferocity. Virologist Frank Burnet further affirmed this concept in 1957. In the Clonal Selection Theory, he articulated the model of self and non-self discrimination, thus giving rise to the idea of the immune system as a defense and attack system. In 1979, Francisco Varela and Nelson Vaz proposed that the immune system should be considered instead as a network in “Self and Non-Sense.” At the heart of their theory was the notion of self-determination that emphasized the goal of the immune system was to maintain the autonomy and individuality of the organism. This non-martial interpretation was rooted in the theory of autopoiesis, whose conceptualization was greatly influenced by Varela’s experiences of the political and social chaos in Chile during the Allende regime and the Pinochet dictatorship. I will explore the extent to which Varela’s immune theory was a political critique of the condition of his homeland, and beyond that, the ideological hostility that divided the world between capitalism and communist in the post-1954 era. Further, the importance of the whole of the organism was also reiterated in his theory, and the experimental techniques Varela designed to examine this quality have been applied to research fields such as computer sciences and artificial intelligences. Therefore, the immune network theory is not only creating a paradigm shift in immunology, but also bringing about revolutionary changes in other disciplines.

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