Francisco Javier Varela García (September 7, 1946 – May 28, 2001) was a Chile
, and neuroscientist
who, together with his mentor Humberto Maturana
, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis
to biology, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute
to promote dialog between science and Buddhism
Life and career
Varela was born in 1946 in Santiago
in Chile, the son of Corina María Elena García Tapia and Raúl Andrés Varela Rodríguez. After completing secondary school at the Liceo Alemán del Verbo Divino in Santiago (1951–1963), like his mentor Humberto Maturana
, Varela temporarily studied medicine at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile
and graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Chile
. He later obtained a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University
. His thesis, defended in 1970 and supervised by Torsten Wiesel
, was titled ''Insect Retinas: Information processing in the compound eye''.
After the 1973 military coup
led by Augusto Pinochet
, Varela and his family spent 7 years in exile
in the United States before he returned to Chile to become a professor of biology at the Universidad de Chile.
Varela became familiar, by practice, with Tibetan Buddhism
in the 1970s, initially studying, together with Keun-Tshen Goba
(''né'' Ezequiel Hernandez Urdaneta), with the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
, founder of Vajradhatu
and Shambhala Training
, and later with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
, a Nepalese meditation master of higher tantra
In 1986, he settled in France, where he first taught cognitive science and epistemology at the École Polytechnique
, and later neuroscience at the University of Paris
. From 1988 until his death, he led a research group, as Director of Research at the CNRS
(Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).
In 1987, Varela, along with R. Adam Engle
, founded the Mind and Life Institute
, initially to sponsor a series of dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama
about the relationship between modern science and Buddhism
. The Institute continues today as a major nexus for such dialog as well as promoting and supporting multidisciplinary scientific investigation in mind sciences, contemplative scholarship and practice and related areas in the interface of science with meditation
and other contemplative practices
, especially Buddhist practices
Varela died in 2001 in Paris
of Hepatitis C
after having written an account of his 1998 liver transplant. Varela had four children, including the actress, environmental spokesperson, and model Leonor Varela
Work and legacy
Varela was trained as a biologist, mathematician and philosopher through the influence of different teachers, Humberto Maturana
and Torsten Wiesel
He wrote and edited a number of books and numerous journal articles in biology
, cognitive science
, and philosophy
. He founded, with others, the Integral Institute
, a thinktank
dedicated to the cross-fertilization of ideas and disciplines.
Varela supported embodied philosophy
, viewing human cognition
in terms of the enactive structures
in which they arise. These comprise the body (as a biological system and as personally experienced) and the physical world which it enacts.
Varela's work popularized within the field of neuroscience the concept of neurophenomenology
. This concept combined the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl
and of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
, with "first-person science." Neurophenomenology requires observers to examine their own conscious experience using scientifically verifiable methods.
In the 1996 popular book ''The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems'', physicist Fritjof Capra
makes extensive reference to Varela and Maturana's theory of autopoiesis as part of a new, systems-based
scientific approach for describing the interrelationships and interdependence of psychological, biological, physical, social, and cultural phenomena. Written for a general audience, ''The Web of Life'' helped popularize the work of Varela and Maturana, as well as that of Ilya Prigogine
and Gregory Bateson
Varela's 1991 book ''The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience'', co-authored with Evan Thompson
and Eleanor Rosch
, is considered a classic in the field of cognitive science, offering pioneering phenomenological connections and introducing the Buddhism-informed enactivist
and embodied cognition
approach. A revised edition of ''The Embodied Mind'' was published in 2017, featuring substantive introductions by the surviving authors, as well as a preface by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Varela wrote numerous books and articles:
by Randall Whitaker.
* 1979. ''Principles of Biological Autonomy''. North-Holland.
* 1980 (with Humberto Maturana
). ''Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living''. Boston: Reidel.
* 1987 (rev 1992, 1998) (with Maturana
). ''The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding''. Boston: Shambhala Press.
* 1988. ''Connaître:Les Sciences Cognitives, tendences et perspectivess''. Editions du Seuil, Paris.
* 1991 (rev 2017) (with Evan Thompson
and Eleanor Rosch
). ''The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience''. MIT Press.
* 1992 (with P. Bourgine, eds.). ''Towards a Practice of Autonomous Systems: The First European Conference on Artificial Life''. MIT Press.
* 1992 (with J. Hayward, eds.). ''Gentle Bridges: Dialogues Between the Cognitive Sciences and the Buddhist Tradition''. Boston: Shambhala Press. eprinted, 2014, as ''Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind''.
* 1993 (with W. Stein, eds.). ''Thinking About Biology: An Introduction to Theoretical Biology''. Addison-Wesley, SFI Series on Complexity. eprinted, 2018, as ''Thinking About Biology: An Invitation to Current Theoretical Biology'', CRC Press.
* 1997 (ed.). ''Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama''. Boston: Wisdom Books.
* 1999. ''Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition''. Stanford University Press.
* 1999 (with J. Shear, eds.). ''The View from Within: First-Person Methodologies in the Study of Consciousness''. London: Imprint Academic.
*1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). ''Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science''. Stanford University Press.
* 2002 (with A. Weber). 'Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality'. ''Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences'' I:97–125, 2002.
* Cartesian anxiety
* Molecular Cellular Cognition
& Francisco Varela in conversation: "Ahamkara". In: Florian Dombois
, Ute Meta Bauer, Claudia Mareis, and Michael Schwab, eds. ''Intellectual Birdhouse: Artistic Practice as Research''. London: Koenig, 2011. .
An autobiographical essay written shortly before his death
* Francisco Varela: In memoriam:
*''The Embodied Mind'':
** Daniel Dennett
, 1993,Review of The Embodied Mind
" ''American Journal of Psychology 106'': 121–26.
*Escher, enaction & intersubjectivity.
The Cosmos Letter, Expo'90 Foundation, Japan
* Franz Reichle, 2004Film Monte Grande - What is Life?
Category:People from Santiago
Category:Tibetan Buddhists from Chile
Category:Chilean people of Galician descent
Category:Complex systems scientists
Category:Converts to Buddhism
Category:Consciousness researchers and theorists
Category:Harvard University alumni
Category:Integral theory (Ken Wilber)
Category:Colegio del Verbo Divino alumni
Category:Pontifical Catholic University of Chile alumni
Category:University of Chile alumni
Category:Deaths from hepatitis
Category:20th-century American writers
Category:20th-century Chilean philosophers
Category:Researchers of artificial life