Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

2. The Systems View


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


The scientific world-view that began with the work of Galileo, Descartes and Newton and extends to the present day has been wonderfully successful. So much knowledge on different aspects of nature has accumulated that it is impossible for one mind to encompass it all. Scientists, of necessity, limit their areas of investigation. The current perception is that any serious scientist must be a specialist.

By definition, specialists limit their studies to phenomena in their field. Looking for causal relationships they fill our scientific journals with more and more detailed information. What is often lost amid the detail is the view of how the part is related to a whole functioning system. When a number of interconnected things are impacted by a number of different influences, who chronicles the result? It is generally agreed that the world is complex and interconnected but studying those interconnections is tough. To understand them we need something more than the specialist's view.


The systems view is one in which the connections and interactions among parts are always present. For example, we arise in the morning in response to a mechanical system whose parts cooperate to make a sound at a pre-set time. We may shower and make use of the plumbing system of the house which is part of a larger public water supply system. Our body itself is a system composed of numerous sub-systems. We feed it with materials brought to us by a vast food supply system. If we enter a bus, train or car we are for a time enveloped in a mechanical system which is part of a larger transportation system. A school is a system in itself with many sub-systems operating within it. The systems may be physical or they may be manifest in the relationships of parts such as the hierarchical system of educational responsibility from principal to teacher's aide. The school is part of the educational system which is, in turn, part of a broad social system.

From the systems point of view we are surrounded by systems nesting within systems. Is there anything which exists on its own without a relationship to other things and which is not, in some way, part of a larger functioning whole? On the most basic level everything that has physical existence has mass and is attracted to everything else. Newton's apple and the Earth form a system; they are both attracted to a common center of gravity.

The systems view identifies parts of integrated wholes, studies their internal connections and their interrelations with other wholes. With multiple influences at work, the relationships can rarely be simple or linear. An important result of the systems view is the discovery of the coordination among parts that enables systems to have structure and to function. System researchers hope to discover common principles which prevail in the development of many different types of systems.

General Systems Theory

As early as 1925 Ludwig von Bertalanffy was advocating an organismic conception in biology. That is, living things are considered to be organized wholes or systems. The discovery of principles of organization was what von Bertalanffy saw as the main objective of biological science. This point of view has been slow to catch on but in recent years some biologists and ecologists have begun to agree with his approach.

In von Bertalanffys view it was obvious that ideas of wholeness and cooperation are vital parts of biological, behavioral and social science. Some sort of general theory of organization seemed necessary.

Part of this general theory, if it could be developed, would be the formulation of principles that would be valid for all kinds of systems. It would also express laws of organization. One example of such a law is the exponential law of growth. Exponential growth holds for phenomena as diverse as bacterial growth in a petri dish and human population increase. It also describes the progress of scientific research when measured by the number of publications produced. The point is that in completely dissimilar fields, with different causal mechanisms, there are similarities in the behavior and organization of systems.

General systems theorists search for properties and principles that pertain to systems in general: characteristics that are common to organized wholes. The questions they ask are intriguing and still unanswered: Is there a pattern of system dynamics that is common to biological, social, cultural and cosmic evolution of systems, or are there many different paths to the organization of systems?


The legacy of the Newtonian world-view has been a mechanical/mathematical description of nature. Although this description is useful, it is incomplete because it breaks down phenomena into parts. What is needed for the study complex interconnected phenomena is a science of organized complexity which will not leave out the relationships among the parts. Teachers can help students appreciate the systems view of the world by frequently asking a couple of simple questions, What is the system involved? What are the parts? How do they work together? What organizes them?