Self-Organization & Thermodynamics

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Self-organization can be defined as the spontaneous creation of a globally coherent pattern out of local interactions.[1] As such self-organization explores a new approach to understanding the patterns of organization seen in the world around us. Probably the oldest and most fundamental question there is to ask in science is, why and how do we get something instead of nothing, some form of order instead of just randomness? From the formation of galaxies, to the human body, to the structure of snowflakes, or the complex organization within a single biological cell. We live in a world that exhibits an extraordinary order of all kind and on all scales. The real question is why or how do we get things to work together? How do we get global level coordination within a system? And there are two fundamentally different approaches to trying to answer this question. Firstly, this coordination may be imposed by some external entity, or secondly it may be self-generated internally. For thousands of years, many different societies came to the former conclusion, that this organization we see in the world derives from some external divine entity. Religions and spirituality often depict the world in terms of an interplay between supernatural forces of order and chaos. But of course, modern science has always rejected any form of divine intervention, as core to its foundation is the law of the conservation of energy and matter. The First Law of Thermodynamics is an expression of this fundamental conservation, which states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant or conserved. Energy and matter can be neither created nor be destroyed, but simply transformed from one form to another.[2] The conservation of energy is a fundamental assumption and keystone of the scientific enterprise.

Thermodynamic Laws

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the total entropy, which may be understood as disorder, will always increase over time in an isolated system. To understand where this comes from, we might think about how if we have some object heated that heat will always try to spread out to become evenly distributed within its environment. But the reverse never happens, heat will not spontaneously reverse this process to become concentrated again. Likewise, whenever rooms are cleaned they become messy again in the future. People get older as time passes, and not younger. All of these are expressions of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, meaning that a system cannot spontaneously increase its order without external intervention that decreases order elsewhere in another system. For many years, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – that systems tend toward disorder – has generally been accepted. Unfortunately, this does not help in answering the question as to why our universe has in fact developed to produce at least some systems with extraordinarily high levels of organization. In fact, the second law of thermodynamics would predict quite the opposite.


The term “self-organizing” was introduced to contemporary science in 1947 by psychiatrist and engineer W. Ross Ashby. Self-organization as a word and concept was used by those associated with general systems theory in the 1960s, but did not become commonplace in the scientific literature until its adoption by physicists and researchers in the field of complex systems in the 1970s and 1980s.[3] In 1977 the work of Nobel Laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine on dissipative structures was one of the first to show that the Second Law of Thermodynamics may not be true for all systems. Prigogine was studying chemical and physical systems far-from-equilibrium and looking at how small fluctuations could be amplified through feedback loops to create new patterns. For example, when water is heated evenly from below while cooling down evenly at its surface. Since the warm liquid is lighter than the cold liquid, the heated liquid tries to move upwards towards the surface. However, the cool liquid at the surface similarly tries to sink to the bottom. These two opposite movements cannot take place at the same time without some kind of coordination between the two flows of liquid. The liquid tends to self-organize into a pattern of hexagonal cells called convection cells, with an upward flow on one side of the cell and a downward flow on the other side.[4]

Model Of Self-Organization

The theory of self-organization has come to explore a new approach to this age-old question about the emergence of order. Unlike religion and spirituality that simply ascribes it to exogenous supernatural phenomena or tradition reductionist science that posits that order can only come by transferring it from some other external system. With self-organization theory, the organization is instead traced back to the interaction between components, where nonlinear interactions between elements can become amplified by positive feedback loops to create attractors that can result in new patterns of order emerging.[5] However, this process requires the system to be far from its equilibrium so as to have sufficient entropy or disorder for new random fluctuations and noise to gain traction and take hold as emergent patterns form. When the system is far from its equilibrium, it can find a dynamic state between order and chaos that enables it to continue generating novel phenomena and regenerate itself for prolonged periods of time through self-organization.[6] Thus, this new set of theories around self-organization recognizes a complex interplay between order and chaos. Whether we use the more scientific terminology of a system being far-from-equilibrium or the more catchy term of edge-of-chaos, this new vocabulary has built into it a recognition that self-organization, evolution, and novelty, thrive on a dynamic interplay between order and disorder because it is only when there is a sufficiently high enough level of entropy and disorder within the system that a weak fluctuation can be amplified into a new pattern of order. But when the system settles into an equilibrium or stable configuration, this no longer becomes possible.[7]

Self-Organization Theory Today

Today the study of self-organizing systems is a hot topic that is central to understanding the complex systems that make up our world, with interest in how to model, design and manage complex systems coming from many areas such as the social sciences, computer science, business management, robotics and engineering. The theory and interest in the process of self-organization have arisen in tandem with computing resources. Just as we cannot study galaxies without our telescopes or cells without microscopes, we cannot study complex systems without computers. Whereas before it was very difficult to mathematically model systems with many degrees of freedom, the advent of inexpensive and powerful computers made it possible to construct and explore models composed of many entities. Looking at how out of their local interactions global patterns of organization can emerge and this represents one of the few primary methods which we use to study complex systems.

1. (2020). eolss-self-organiz.pdf - Google Search. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

2. Wikiwand. (2020). First law of thermodynamics | Wikiwand. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

3. Wikiwand. (2013). Self-organization | Wikiwand. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

4. Wikiwand. (2013). Self-organization | Wikiwand. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

5. Heylighen, F. (n.d.). THE SCIENCE OF SELF- ORGANIZATION AND ADAPTIVITY. [online] Available at:

6. Google Books. (2010). Complexity. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

7. (2020). Self-Organization in Nonequilibrium Systems: From Dissipative Structures to Order through Fluctuations (9780471024019): Nicolis, Gregoire, Prigogine, Ilya: Books. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].

Systems Innovation

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