Editor's comment

The author presses to understand the varied landscape of organizing principles operating in the world.

They manage to produce the various and wonderful systems that populate our universe.


Golden, Richard Self-Organizing Systems: a resource for teachers 1997 [abridged— 950 words] [abstract— 60 words] — organizing principles of self-organizing systems

Observation of the world around us reveals many instances of order and self-organized systems of great complexity, one nested in another. There must be forces and processes at work to bring them into being.

Order - a special arrangement in which parts of a whole are in some regular relationship or repeatable pattern. It is the result of an organizing process.

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

Organizing principles - those forces and processes that are necessary to bring parts together to form systems. They organize matter and behavior into patterns and patterned activity. They create order. Two examples: the electromagnetic force is the organizing principle that assembles matter into atoms, molecules and compounds; evolution is the organizing process that produces species.

In order to be clear about the concepts of organization and organizing principles that result in self-organized systems, it is useful to differentiate between order and organization. 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 rather than a process has confused the meaning even further. For example, a business corporation is often called an organization. In the study of self-organizing systems it is important to remember that organization is a process rather than a product.

The internal arrangement of an ameba cannot be called ordered as a crystal is. The ameba does, however, represent an excellent example of organization in that its messy (unordered) collection of parts operate in a cooperative, systematic way to produce the whole organism with all its complex behaviors.

Faced with the universal Second Law of Thermodynamics that decrees ever increasing in disorder 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 internal cooperation and there is a tendency for such systems to combine.

In a universe ever drifting toward decay and disorganization the tendency toward order is a creative current simultaneously flowing, for a time, in the opposite direction.

Order in nature is the result of underlying principles of organization. All molecules of a certain substance are identical because of the laws of electromagnetism. Or, as another example, all instances of convection are the result of effect of gravity on different densities of matter. Gravity and electromagnetism can be called organizing principles that arrange matter in different ways.

The fundamental organizing principles of the universe
One of the 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, the property of gravity emerged due to the presence of matter.

Strong nuclear force
Organizing the universe begins with an organizing principle that operates on the smallest of scales. By holding sub-nuclear particles 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.

The electromagnetic force
At another scales of operation the force of electromagnetism comes into play in organization. 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 Einstein’s dream of unifying these fundamental forces by one theory ever be realized, it would then be proper to say that there is only one great fundamental organizing principle which manifests itself in different ways.

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

Some other organizing 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, and volcanic action are all brought into existence by convection.

Natural selection
Within Darwinian evolution the organizing principles are natural selection and differential reproduction. They provide the impetus that, through elimination, favors those structures and behaviors of living things that so elegantly fit them for their particular environments.

Adam Smith’s “Invisible hand”
In human economic activity the desire to nurture life 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. The ability to possess these goods has become institutionalized by the possession of money. Thus the organizing principle of human economic activity can be called the profit motive.

Organizing principles to be found
Nonphysical 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? When human markets form what guides their formation? Is there something at work that can be called the bartering principle? What principle organizes the six-sided symmetry of a snowflake but allows for such diversity of detail that there is nearly infinite individual variation?