UNESCO Arts, Science & Technology

Francisco Valera

Francisco Varela, biologist, has died in Paris on May 28. Born in Chile in 1946, Ph. D. in Biology at Harvard University, research director at CNRS, this universal spirit belonged to the generation of scientists that have had the privilege to be young during the 60’s, a period of big creativity within the Chilean scientific community.

Since his adolescence, Francisco Varela has had the vocation for intellectual work, mainly in the field of biological sciences. As a young student his first experience was with eminent Chilean scientists, such as Juan Vial and Joaquin Luco, who awakened his interest in neurobiology.

The influence of Humberto Maturana was decisive during his apprenticeship as young researcher. He pursued an education outside of traditional science and entered the universe of thought about the organisation of living systems - autopoiesis. His philosophical thought - inspired by Ortega y Gasset, Sartre, Teilhard de Chardin, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty - enabled him to better understand the experience of life. He approached the social nature of science through the philosophical history of science with Alexandra Koyré, Georges Canguilhem and Gaston Bachelard.

The work of Heinz von Foerster played a fundamental role in the development of his reflections, principally in the understanding of the world of cybernetics - the models and ideas around systems theories.

For all of this thought about the epistemological order Francisco Varela created a universal spirit, becoming one of the most complete biologists. One of his most original fields of reflection concerns the concept of the ‘universal mind’ - or how the ‘mind can relate with the universe’ - resumed by Varela in the metaphor of ‘neuronal synchrony’. He dedicated his life to the studies of a ‘biology of consciousness’, known through a method called ‘magneto-encephalography’, that consists of recording the forms according to which different groups of cerebral neurons become synchronised for fractions of seconds in the moment somebody becomes conscious of something. This work has been published in the journal of Nature in 2000 and has been widely commented.

Finally, to this universal spirit belonged also a profound humanistic thought, resulting from the confrontation with Buddhist philosophy. The originality of his ideas and their implications in the biology of consciousness, as well as in cognitive sciences, epistemology and human sciences leave an incomplete opus to young generations of scientists internationally.