How Nature Self-Organizes

Article excerpt

Ants do it. Birds do it. Humans do it.


When ants go out to look for food, they initially do not know where the food is. But somehow they find it, carry it home, and recruit more ants from the nest to join them. Distinctive kinds of trails are formed spontaneously, as shown in FIGURE 1. There is no central planning, no central command. The ants just self-organize and get the job done efficiently. How do they do it?

On telephone wires or building ledges we often see birds sitting side by side, chatting, or so it seems. Do they have a chat group? Or even a chat group leader? No. They just self-organize.

In early human history people self-organized to form groups, and groups self-organized to form societies. More recently, prompted by an external event--the Second World War--countries self-organized to form the United Nations. On a smaller scale, in the city of San Jose (where I teach), everyone (or almost everyone) gets his or her hair cut, in one way or another. The convenient number and locations of the barbershops are not decided by any organization or committee. It just happens, seemingly by a miracle. But it is not a miracle; it is self-organization.

Self-organization does not happen in a vacuum. It depends on the nature of the individuals, the interaction between the participants, and the environment All three of these components mutually influence each other. We have a good understanding of self-organization in some physical systems--for example, thermal convection in a glass of beer.

However, for complex systems like ant or human societies, we know much less. The aim of scientists is to find a unified description of self-organization that covers all complex systems. Exciting headway has been made in the last eight years in describing complex self-organization though a descriptive theory called "active walks."


In the long pursuit to understand the universe, and especially to understand human society, the emphasis has always been to study the universal characteristics or behaviors that are shared by all systems. Erwin Schrodinger noted, in the preface of his 1967 classic What is Life?, that this emphasis is reflected in the selection of the word "university" for our institutions of highest learning. Also one may note that the highest degree of learning conferred by a university is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), irrespective of the subjects studied. (Incidentally, philosophy is a Greek word meaning "love of wisdom"; it is "wisdom" as a method, not any particular subject.)

It is interesting to recall that Aristotle (384-322 BCE) did not focus his attention on just one or two branches of knowledge but studied and contributed significantly to many fields, including biology, psychology, physics, and literary theory, as well as inventing formal logic as a system of thought The fragmentation of learning and the compartmentalization of knowledge into different disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and economics is a rather recent phenomenon, occurring only in the last few centuries. One suspects that this trend is due more to administrative convenience than to the nature of science itself.

Recent attempts to recoup a unified approach to knowledge with a view to finding a common description of both natural and social systems include cybernetics and general systems theory from the 1940s to the 1960s; Ilya Prigogine's dissipative structures and Hermann Haken's synergetics in the 1970s; and the blossoming study of complex systems since the 1980s.


A complex system is one that consists of a large number of simple elements, or "intelligent" agents, interacting with each other and the environment. The elements/agents may or may not evolve over time, and the behavior of the system cannot be learned by the reductive method, meaning that knowledge of the parts is not enough to predict the behavior of the whole system. …