spontaneous organization


“I need some chocolate ice cream!”

How often have you heard people use the phrase “I need” when they really mean “I want”?  We do use this phrase loosely, for emphasis, and if its understood as such, there is no reason to object ... except that it becomes difficult to discern when something is needed in order for what else
to be possible.

That is “need” always implies an “or else.”  
There is an implicit threat to something that is valued; such as for example your life.  In order remain alive, we need oxygen.  Similarly we need food, but we don’t need chocolate, or any other flavour of ice cream to be healthy and happy. 


In everyday conversation we will often tell a group of people to self-organize their interactions, the ground rules of their work or play together for some specific situation.   This instruction implicitly asks them to direct their behaviour towards whatever they will do together in a coordinated fashion; which may entail agreeing on roles, or may simply appear to “happen” given the skills and propensities of the individuals.  Humans can do this socially.

We also use the term self-organization in systems parlance to mean order arising out of local interactions between components - in other words it refers to the spontaneous arising of a system of one kind or another.  Aside from variations determined by the initial conditions, and how these come about or are intentionally set, a system that is the result of the properties of the components may be more robust or resilient than one that requires continuous intervention from outside it.   Namely, all systems, whether spontaneously organized or intentionally created are inherently sensitive to their medium as they interact with their medium as wholes.  If a system is capable of adaptation then it is more resilient, and perhaps more robust.  Not all spontaneously organized systems are either resilient or robust.

“it evolved because it was needed”

Result and process are often confounded - and often in the domain of explaining the evolution of characteristics that an individual, group of species shows.  It makes sense when conscious choices are made “She knew she had to develop this skill in order to get that job.”   But, unless one wishes to propose an omniscient authority, birds do not evolve long curved bills in order to better probe crevices.  Rather, birds that like to probe crevices, or happen to be in a situation where probing crevices is worth while even if difficult, will over a few generations favour those individuals, who within the immense flexibility of a complex genomic system, happen to have longer curved bills.  Thus spontaneously, through interactions with its environment, a population of birds with long bills may develop.

Spontaneous organization always arises in a combination between the dynamic properties of the elements entailed in becoming “organized”  and the dynamics of their medium.

spontaneous organization

Maturana uses the expression spontaneous organization rather than self-organization.  I prefer this expression as well, even though self-organization is the commonly used term.

There are several differences between the nuances implicit in the two terms.  Stressing “spontaneous” make clear that we are not referring to an external determinant or controller for the happening.  Further, the system that becomes the “self” doesn’t exist prior to the organizing dynamics happening.  There isn’t an entity sitting in some cosmic or psychic limbo trying to create itself into existence.  Or rather, I do not favour the explanation that there is such an entity.  Finally, what is spontaneoulsy organized can also become spontaneously disorganized once the conditions for its existence as an entity or phenomenon ceases.  This is obviously the case for the little whirlpools we may see forming and dissipating in a stream, or for that matter snowflakes forming and then melting.

slime molds are often presented as a remarkable example of self organization as the distributed cells coalesce to become the fruiting body.