Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

18. Societies: Self -Organizing Systems

From the social insects with their hives and nests to flocks, schools and herds nature has been forming systems where individuals acting cooperatively results in the good of all. Human societies are no exception. While a consideration of human societies might seem to belong to the realm of social science rather than science the holistic view proposed in this book extends to include a brief consideration of this topic.


Society - a group of organisms of the same species whose cooperative efforts enhance the survival of the group. A necessary feature is the capability for communication and interaction.


Ants, termites, wasps and bees, emerge from their larva stage knowing how to act. Built-in genetic instructions determine their behavior and that behavior enables the group to survive and prosper. Species other than insects have found social organization an efficient method for survival. A new discovery reported in Science News, June 8, 1996 is that a species of snapping shrimp inhabiting Caribbean coral reefs forms colonies of as many as 200 individuals within local sponges. Genetic analyses suggests that most of the colony members are offspring of a single queen and possibly a single male. All the shrimp fiercely defend their colony against intruders, even other shrimp, but will readily accept members of their own colony.

In advanced societal groups new properties emerge. For example, the specialization of individuals becomes a possibility. The insect queen can be an egg-producing specialist because her food, grooming, housing and infant care requirements are taken care of by other specialists. Societal life permits specialization and specialization enhances the survival of the society. Human societies, for example, function only because of the specialized roles that individuals perform. To survive, pre-agricultural societies not only needed the services of the hunter but also those of the flint knapper, the weaver, tanner and, most importantly, the women gatherers of wild grains, nuts, fruits, and roots who also functioned as food preparers.

In villages of early agricultural society when humans became food producers rather than hunter-gatherers, the specialization of roles increased. Farmers, shepherds, tool makers, homemakers, weavers, educators, health workers, ecclesiastics, traders, story tellers, politicians, soldiers, and others all pursued their individual activities. Out of their interactions the self-organization of a society emerges.


There are three characteristics of societies; specialization, communication, and emergent behavior. The amount of organization among different societies varies. For example, elementary forms of society do not have as much specialization as that of more complex societies. Bird flocks, fish schools, and locust swarms are examples of societies where all the members have similar behavior. In wolf packs and lion prides specialization of action becomes apparent. In human societies, as noted above, specialization is prevalent.

Since each member modifies its own behavior depending on what other members are doing, communication among members is obviously necessary. Communication among the members is the key to societal behavior. This communication may be by pheromones, sound, or body language or, in human societies, speech and its symbolic representation, writing. And, of course, now by smart phones and computers.

It is interesting to note that societal behavior is an emergent. Every member of a society does his or her “own thing.” Whether it is the ant responding to its genes, or martyrs responding to their “call,” individual behavior is always individual. As each person in human society pursues his or her individual goals, the behavior of the group or community emerges. This is especially observable in economic activity.

“The invisible hand” - Economic systems as self-organizing

The early economic theorist Adam Smith (1723-1790) espoused the underlying principle of the self-organization of human society. In his Wealth of Nations (1776) he argues that the selfSocieties: interested actions of individuals promotes the interests of society as a whole. It is through the pursuit of personal gain that an organized market system is produced. Production and exchange of goods are coordinated by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand. The result is the emergence of an economy which will regulate itself if left alone. According to Smith, the capitalist “neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

Examples abound. Assume that an enterprising individual has invented a gadget which makes work easier or life more interesting. He offers this gadget for sale to his neighbors. His motive is not to better the lot of humanity but to make his own economic position more secure. The gadget is sought after by more and more people. The producer, noticing the demand for his product, raises his price. For a while he enjoys large profits. Other entrepreneurs, seeing the benefits that could be theirs start producing the gadget or a similar one. They offer their product at a price below that of the originator. The expanding production tends to reduce the cost. In Adam Smith’s view unbridled competition will benefit society through a selfadjusting process which will provide what people want at prices just above production costs.

Many people feel that markets should be left alone because, as Smith said, “no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient to manage the affairs of such complexity.” But humans, being what they are, continuously try to “improve” on what are essentially selforganizing systems. The failures of the planned economy of the former Soviet Union seem to lend credence to the words of Adam Smith.

Although central planning has proved inadequate to direct human societies toward the general good, unconstrained free markets have also generated evils. They produce uneven distribution of wealth and power for the few. Government tries to adjust the balance by imposing higher income and inheritance taxes on the rich. Some say that such taxes interfere with the free enterprise system. The debate goes on and on with each election.

Human social structure as self-organizing

It is, however, the uneven distribution of wealth which acts as another sort of self-organizing principle. It produces the social structure of human society.

In the past, social position, a pecking order for humans, used to be a product of birth. Certain families were considered to be “special.” In today's industrial society, wealth and the economic power that goes with it, is the organizing principle which produces class structure. Economic power raises individuals above their fellows because those below acquiesce to it. It is the general population in a culture who establish the social structure system by the way they act toward other members of the society. That system is not directed nor planned. It organizes itself out of the individual behaviors.

Human society - a natural progression toward complexity

There is an historical direction in the development of human societies. Hunting-gathering changed to agricultural-pastoral on which was built the industrial and now our technological society. This is a progressive development in the sense that each change incorporates the past.

Within each age technological innovation has sought to increase energy efficiency and the power of human action. From the wheel to the space shuttle; from the digging stick to the tractor and multiple plow; from the whispered word to the thundering Internet – technical innovations have changed human life. With each advance has come increased complexity. With more choices and greater power of action living becomes ever more complicated. While some people long for simplicity and less complication many welcome this progression because, as they see it, with increased alternatives comes increased freedom to choose and an increased range of human possibilities.


These ideas lead to the hypothesis that laws governing the evolution of natural systems may also govern the development of human societies. From a broad perspective human beings are still the natural products of evolution and their cities and all their Earth changing projects are as natural as birds nests and beaver dams.

Perhaps future studies of self-organizing systems will reveal not only the workings of biological systems but help to better understand the development of human social systems.