Self-Organizing Systems

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4. Self-Organizing Systems


Self-organizing systems – systems which spontaneously form from the association of compatible parts. The forms and functions of the systems are new and arise from the relationships among parts.

Dissipative systems – systems which disperse energy and/or matter into their environment in the course of their self-organization and self-maintenance. Self-organizing systems far from equilibrium are dissipative systems. All living things are dissipative systems.


Living things could not exist on the molten mass of the very young Earth. Now that it has cooled living organisms exist everywhere on its surface and under parts of its surface in a myriad of forms. The existence of these living organisms demonstrates the emergence of a new kind of organization of matter. According to the scientific view, this new organization emerged from non-living matter without supernatural assistance. Although the process is not yet adequately understood, there is experimental evidence for the selfassembly of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) from inert materials. However, living systems are only one broad category of self-organizing systems. There are the inorganic systems of matter and the cosmological systems.


Self-organizing systems exist on many levels, from selforganized atoms to gigantic clusters of galaxies. We designate the levels by their degree of containment (nesting) or complexity and use the words higher or more complex for those systems that are made up of many lower or simple systems.

Self-organizing systems can also be divided into groups according to their energy use. Some, like atoms, crystals and the planetary system, require no input of energy from the outside to maintain themselves. These systems are close to equilibrium. Other self-organizing systems maintain themselves only through continuous exchanges of energy and matter with their environment. They are not only absorbing matter and energy but are also shedding them.

Characteristics of self-organizing systems

Multiple components

Self-organizing systems are networks of many parts acting coherently. Each part operates according to its own nature but within an environment produced by its interactions with other systems.

Self-initiated interaction

It goes without saying that in a self-organizing system there is no self. But it is important to emphasize that there is no agent or center inside the system forming it. In a self-organizing system like a candle flame billions of molecules cooperatively create the flames pattern and properties. In the self-organized system of a free economic market there is no central command center. The prices of the goods are an outcome of the interaction of the participants and the processes involved.


As a self-organizing system constructs itself the arrangements of it constituent parts is determined by the internal relationships of the parts. The cubic shape of salt crystals, for example, is determined by the lattice formed by the alternating sodium and chlorine ions.

Mutuality of influence - Interdependence

Just as system behavior is produced through the synergistic action of the constituent parts, the behaviors of the parts are influenced by their association within the system.

A consideration of flocking, schooling and herding behavior will make this clearer. The spacing and speed of movement of each animal produces the group behavior. However, the behavior of the group, speeding up or turning to avoid predation for example, will change the individuals behavior.

It is this kind of mutuality of action which makes selforganized systems so difficult to study in the traditional reductionist way of science. Everything is in flux. The system is influenced by the parts and the parts are changing because of the interactions within the system. There are many feedback arrangements at work.

Communication (Information exchange)

Since the action of a self-organizing system is a product of the internal interactions of the parts, there must be some way in which the parts influence each other for the system to function. Should this information exchange fail, the system would cease to operate. How could blind birds form a flock?

Self-maintenance - Adaptation to change

Within limits, a self-organizing system has the ability to preserve its form and to reorganize itself in the face of disruption. The flickering of the candle flame and the sweeping turns of a school of fish are examples. The system is constantly reforming itself as it responds to changes in its environment. It is the many feedback arrangements involved that tend to maintain the system.

A special note on feedback and self-organizing systems

In all self-organizing and self-maintaining systems feedback is, of necessity, an essential element. The notion is imbedded in the concept of interconnectedness of system parts and mutuality of influence. However, explanations using feedback mechanisms become extraordinarily complex when dealing with self-organizing systems.

In a simple feedback system the change in output can be fed back to influence production and link the parts. But when more interconnected parts are added to a system it very quickly becomes impossible to disentangle the feedback circuits. In some cases the feedback may have diverse effects on different parts. For complex systems the concept of simple feedback is usually inadequate.

Some more characteristics of self-organizing systems

Collective new properties are produced

An aggregation of things that coalesce into a self-organizing system becomes something more than a collection. As the parts establish mutual relationships, the system as a whole acquires new collective properties. When enough neurons come together and interconnections are established among them, the property called consciousness comes into being. The collective property is not within any of the parts. It is a product of the interconnections.

Divergent property of dissipative systems

The concept of dissipative systems originated in the work of Ilya Prigogine for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1977. Dissipative systems operate far from equilibrium. They take in and disperse considerable quantities of matter and energy and exhibit instabilities which make their courses impossible to predict. Although the actions of such systems are bounded by the limits of physical laws they have many ways of proceeding within those limits. Examples are the touchdown points and paths of tornados, the branching points of plants, or where the reaction wave will start in the famous Belousov- Zhabotinskii oscillating chemical reaction.

As has been mentioned living organisms are obviously dissipative systems. From the same starting point in a constricting maze the second path of a subject animal is never the same as the first it traveled. Even genetically identical twins have different eye iris patterns and, in time as they interact with their environment, develop other differences. For dissipative systems there are divergent pathways. Many directions, all equally possible, are open to them and, as they move into a particular set of sequences, they create new possibilities that might not be available had they moved differently.

Biological evolution is the result of this divergent property. The path of species development must obey physical laws and environmental constraints but can never be predetermined. Selforganizing makes the future so interesting.


Using the above characteristics self-organizing systems can be described as those systems that have multi components and that initiate their own interactions and configurations. Such systems exhibit an interdependence of parts and there is communication of some sort among the parts. They are able to maintain themselves and adapt to changing environments. Often new properties are produced when they self-assemble and those systems that are far from equilibrium change in very unexpected ways.


The ability of systems to self-organize and spontaneously and unpredictably develop new behaviors or structures brings novelty into the universe. Within the deterministic laws of physics, selforganizing systems bring the unexpected, making the future unknown and unknowable. Through these systems nature is creative.

The second law of thermodynamics describes a universe running down to changeless equilibrium. The development of selforganizing systems shows a universe increasing its levels of complexity and organization, albeit locally, at the expense of entropy increase elsewhere. This is further discussed in Section 19.