Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

3. About Systems

Characteristics of Systems – in general

Everyone is familiar with the word system. Look around and name as many as you can; in your body, in the room and then in the larger world. What do they have in common? Some characteristics are:

  1. They are made up of parts.
  2. The parts are mutually interdependent
  3. The function of the whole is different from the behavior of the individual parts.
  4. Energy flows through all of them.


As the scientific understanding of nature has increased and deepened, it has become evident that the world is more interconnected than we could have imagined. To some minds the component parts of the universe are so strongly linked together that the line in Francis Nicholson's “The Mistress of Vision” – “Thou cans’t not stir a flower without troubling of a star,” hardly seems an exaggeration.

A more recent and more scientific illustration of interconnectedness and the sensitivity of some systems to small perturbations is the Butterfly Effect. In 1972 Professor Edward Lorenz of MIT presented a paper which discussed how the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. It began the modern study of chaotic systems where small changes in initial conditions can have large scale consequences.

Another illustration of interconnections among systems comes from the science of ecology. By stressing the interlocking relationships among organisms and the reciprocal influence between organisms and their environment, ecology has reinforced the idea that nature consists of systems within systems.


System - a group of parts so linked together by interactions that the group functions as a whole.

Equilibrium - the state in which there are no differences in temperature and the concentration of matter is uniform.

Evolution - the process through which new structures, behaviors or concepts are produced from previous ones. (Evolution in this broad sense goes beyond the biological to include, among others, chemical, cosmic, social and intellectual evolution.)


The fact that the word “system” is so frequently used indicates both the usefulness of the concept and the ubiquity of systems. Increasingly the world is viewed from a systems point of view. Besides biological and astronomical systems we recognize economic, mechanical, legal, political, educational and logical systems, to name a few.

Traditional science has been remarkably successful in finding out how things work by taking them apart and studying the pieces. The process is less successful when the entity examined is complex and the parts interdependent. Focusing on the parts tends to make the interactions disappear. Using concept mapping techniques in studying systems will help conserve the pattern of internal relationships and how the system as a whole behaves.

Characteristics of systems

1. Systems have both structure and behavior. For example, the structure of the human nervous system is an arrangement of nerves, ganglia and brain. Part of its behavior is to make a person aware of changes in the environment. Without the connected structure this behavior would not be possible.

2. The behavior of a system is a product of the properties it exhibits. Using the above example, the neurons which compose the human nervous system have the property of being able to convey electrochemical signals. Without this property there would be no behavior of the system.

3. The parts of a system exhibit mutual dependence. One way to identify the essential parts of a system is to remove the part in question. If the system keeps operating without change, that part was not a vital component of the system.

4. Some systems are more dynamic than others. They all do something. A system as simple as a molecule is dynamic in that it affects its environment with its electrostatic field and consequently has an influence on neighboring molecules. A specific crystal system refracts light in a specific way. A more dynamic system like a hurricane or a tornado severely affects its surroundings and then breaks down.

5. Systems can produce novelty. The properties of the whole system are more than the simple addition of the parts. (A theme throughout this book.) Put electrical resistors, condensers, wires, transistors and a power source together in a certain relationship and a new property emerges - the ability to detect radio waves. This ability is not in any of the parts. It originates in the special relationship among the parts and is usually impossible to predict.

6. Systems produce patterns. As a consequence of their continued existence, systems repeat a sequence of actions which can form patterns. Cardiac rhythms and brain “waves” are examples in the human body. Convection cells and cyclical chemical reactions produce physical patterns, as in the famous clock chemical reactions.

7. There is a tendency for systems to combine to form more complex systems. Hierarchical organizations of nested systems are common in nature. As systems interact they influence and modify each other and their environment. New behaviors and new properties arise out of the interactions. The human body with its various sub-systems is an example.

Some thinkers consider the tendency for systems to combine to be so important as to raise it to the level of a law of nature. The combined systems are often said to be higher level systems. The designation of higher and lower is not meant to be one of value. The distinction of higher and lower is made to identify those that are more complex from those that are simpler.

System energy states

Some systems, like a crystal, are very near equilibrium in that the flow of energy and matter through them have almost ceased and differences in temperature and concentration have been reduced. Other systems, like a hot cup of coffee in a room, are further from equilibrium but will inevitably move toward it as described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

There are, however, many systems that exist far from thermal, chemical or physical equilibrium. The Sun, the weather system, and all living things are examples. Systems far from equilibrium are often critically sensitive to changes around them, and their responses constitute the evolution of those systems. Those responses may produce dramatic changes. A star can become a nova or a brown dwarf. A collision between air masses can produce a storm front. Mutations occur when the genetic structure is altered. By amplifying certain fluctuations, systems far from equilibrium can move into new and radically different configurations. New and unpredictable variations with vastly different and new properties may emerge.

Toward a general theory of systems

The tendency for systems to combine and form new systems that are more complex, have more connections, and produce novelty could be the observational basis for the foundation for a general theory of systems. In the broad view this tendency may be recognized as a fundamental organizing principle of the world. In a narrower perspective it can be used to account for the complexity we see about us.