Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

6. Organizing Principles

Previous mention has been made of organizing principles. Their importance requires a separate section.


Order - a special arrangement in which parts of a whole are in some regular relationship or repeatable pattern as, for example, in a crystal.

Organization - a complex of relationships among components that act in a cooperative, systematic way. As used here it refers to processes rather than structures.

Organizing principles - those forces and processes which shape matter and behavior into patterns and patterned activity, and which are necessary to bring parts together to form systems. Examples; electrostatic attraction is the organizing principle which molds matter into atoms, molecules and compounds; profit making is the organizing principle that makes an economic system work.


The terms order and organization are sometimes used interchangeably; as when someone says that something has poor organization, meaning poor order. The use of the word organization as a noun has confused the meaning even further. It is important to clearly differentiate between order and organization.

Organization and Order

Our language has made the differentiation between order and organization difficult. Organization refers both to an act and to something that has been made into an ordered whole as when a corporation is referred to as an organization. As used here organization is always a process. Order is the result of that organizing process. Crystallization is a organizational process. A crystal lattice is the product

The internal arrangement of an amoeba cannot be called ordered as a crystal is. The amoeba does, however, represent an excellent example of organization in that its messy (unordered) collection of parts does operate in a cooperative, systematic way and produce an organism with the emergent behaviors called life. Much more on emergence in Sections 11 through 14..


Faced with the all pervasiveness of the Second Law of Thermodynamics how can we account for all the order and organization we encounter? If we compare the universe as it was shortly after its beginning with its present form we see systems building upon systems producing increased complexity, a cosmic evolution. We are forced to the view that there is a tendency for parts to spontaneously assemble into systems that have order and organization, (the general principle of self-organization) and for systems to combine. In a universe ever drifting toward decay and disorganization the tendency toward order and organization is a creative current simultaneously flowing in the opposite direction.

The analogy has been drawn to that of a stream or current, ever flowing toward dissolution in the vastness of an ocean which nevertheless forms eddies that move in the opposite direction to the general flow of things and temporarily form all the structures that we know.

Organizing principles

The observation that order and organization are the result of some principle of organization is so familiar that when any pattern is recognized the existence of an underlying principle is assumed. The pattern of properties of the elements led Mendeleev to propose the law on which the Periodic Table of the Elements is based.

The fundamental organizing forces of the universe


Weakest but most extensive of the four great organizing principles is gravity. It is interesting that of all the forces of nature it is the only one that operates over cosmological distances. Within the early fireball, energy congealed into particles with mass and, according to the Einsteinian view, mass has the emergent property or ability to curve space.

Strong nuclear force

Organizing the universe begins with a organizing principle that operates on the smallest of scales. By holding subnuclear particles (quarks) together, the strong nuclear force constructs protons and neutrons and the rest is history. It is the history of an evolving universe of galaxies, stars, planets with oceans and atmospheres and, at least in one case, of living things.

Weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force

At other scales of operation the weak nuclear force and the force of electromagnetism come into play in organization. There is a single theory unifying these two forces which are now identified as one electroweak force. However, the weak nuclear force plays no role in holding structures together and is only responsible for nuclear decay processes. Therefore, the weak nuclear force does not qualify as an organizing principle. The overwhelming importance of the electromagnetic force as an organizer is obvious since among the significant structures resulting from it are atoms and molecules.

Should Einsteins dream of unifying all these fundamental forces by one theory ever be realized, it would then be proper to say that there is one great fundamental organizing principle which manifests itself in the universe in three different ways.

Once these fundamental organizing principles were at work in the universe and different systems of matter were formed by them, other physical organizing principles came into play.

Other organizing forces or principles


The organizing principle called convection is a derivative of gravity since its action is driven by gravity. Convection tends to organize matter according to its density. Its importance is demonstrated by the variety of phenomena it produces such as, the dynamics of stellar interiors, the structure of the planets and the movement of continents, weather systems, ocean currents, volcanic action, and Benard cells in a dish pan which are all brought into existence by convection.

Natural selection

In Darwinian evolution the organizing principle is natural selection. It provides the impetus that, by elimination, favors those structures and behaviors of living things that so elegantly fit them for their particular environments.

Profit motive

In human economic activity the desire toward personal benefit may be seen as the general organizing principle. That desire is made evident in the drive for food, shelter and clothing and for security and comfort. Personal benefit can certainly be extended to kin or group benefit. The ability to possess these goods has become institutionalized by the possession of money. Thus it seems justifiable to call the organizing principle of human economic activity the profit motive. On a large scale what emerges is a self-organized market system.

Organizing principles to be found

Non-physical organizing principles are not well known. What shall we call the principles that organize herds, flocks of birds, and schools of fish? Do they have common characteristics? What principle organizes the six-sided symmetry of a snowflake but allows for such diversity of detail that there is nearly infinite individual variation? Can patriotism be an organizing principle that functions to organize a nation? An interesting organizing principle that enables humans uniquely to form large populations that live cooperatively in cities and even nation states has been proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He suggests that the motive of protecting sacred sites or values is the principle that drives human beings to build systems like cities and national governments.

Naming the principles is insufficient. Their modes of action need to be rigorously explained and perhaps then mathematical formulations may follow as has been the case with many physical principles.

Organizing principles at work

– two examples, one astronomical – one political

Step 1. An organizing principle begins to operate on simple subsystems and a more complex structure is formed.

Astronomical Social
Under the influence of gravity dust particles coalesce. From a featureless dust and gas cloud a central protostar is formed and bands of matter sweep around it. Under the influence of an organizing principle we might call familial attraction, individuals of a small group of ethnically similar people decide to live in close proximity after they move to a strange city.


Step 2. The organizing principle extends its power, brings other subsystems into the system and extends the organization of the material.

The protostar collapses into a star. The bands of matter self-organize into planets. asteroids and moos with complex structures and atmospheres. As people of the same ethnic background move to the city they feel more comfortable living near the original group. An ethnic neighborhood develops.


Step 3. New properties emerge from the more complex systems.

As gravity pulls the star together the concentration of matter becomes sufficient to initiate nuclear reactions. Radiation suddenly rushes outward. The star begins to shine. With the development of cores, crusts, atmospheres planets become increasingly complex systems. They can exhibit new properties of their own as when a planet develops a magnetic field. The old traditional practices may take on a subtly different flavor in the new environmental setting. Under influences from the surrounding culture the old ways are modified until a new ethnic group may appear, i.e. Italian/American, Reformed Jews, Latinos, with new practices.


Step 4. The new complex system is subject to fluctuations produced by the flows of matter and energy in

Gravitational influences between neighboring planets and their stars gravity shape the orbits of the planets. The gravitational attraction of the planets causes bulges in the shape of the star. Asteroids collide with the planets changing them in drastic ways. The ethnic group responds to challenges to their way of life from the surrounding environment. They intensify their traditional celebrations. They choose leaders and representatives who will protect them.


Step 5. When the energy flow that maintained the system far from equilibrium diminishes, the Second Law takes over.

The star dims or collapses and explodes depending on its initial size. As the desire to maintain the old ways diminishes the community disperses. Their beliefs, values and customs are diluted or co-opted by the dominate social group.


As Jacob Bronowski described the action of the Second Law - that which was special becomes unspecial.