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Self-organization is a process where the organization (constraint, redundancy) of a system spontaneously increases, i.e. without this increase being controlled by the environment or an encompassing or otherwise external system

Self-organization is a basically a process of evolution where the effect of the environment is minimal, i.e. where the development of new, complex structures takes place primarily in and through the system itself. As argued in the section on evolutionary theory, self-organization can be understood on the basis of the same variation and natural selection processes as other, environmentally driven processes of evolution. Self-organization is normally triggered by internal variation processes, which are usually called "fluctuations" or "noise". The fact that these processes produce a selective retained ordered configuration has been called the "order from noise" principle by Heinz von Foerster, and the "order through fluctuations" mechanism by Ilya Prigogine. Both are special cases of what I have proposed to call the principle of selective The increase in organization can be measured more objective as a decrease of statistical entropy (see the Principle of Asymmetric Transitions). This is again equivalent to an increase in redundancy, information or constraint: after the self-organization process there is less ambiguity about which state the system is in. A self-organizing system which also decreases its thermodynamical entropy must necessarily (because of the second law of thermodynamics) export ("dissipate") such entropy to its surroundings, as noted by von Foerster and Prigogine. Prigogine called systems which continuously export entropy in order to maintain their organization dissipative structures. Self-organization is usually associated with more complex, non-linear phenomena, rather than with the relatively simple processes of structure maintenance of diffusion. All the intricacies (limit cycles, chaos, sensitivity to initial conditions, dissipative structuration, ...) associated with non-linearity can simply be understood through the interplay of positive and negative feedback cycles: some variations tend to reinforce themselves (see Autocatalytic Growth), others tend to reduce themselves. Both types of feedback fuel natural selection: positive feedback because it increases the number of configurations (up to the point where resources become insufficient), negative feedback because it stabilizes configurations. Either of them provides the configuration with a selective advantage over competing configurations. The interaction between them (variations can be reinforced in some directions while being reduced in others) may create intricate and unpredictable patterns (chaos), which can develop very quickly until they reach a stable configuration (attractor).

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Copyright© 2009 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Sep 22, 2009 (modified)
Jan 27, 1997 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

Evolutionary Theory

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Magnetization and Bénard Rolls: examples of self-organization

Entropy and the Laws of Thermodynamics


Deterministic Chaos

Kauffman's NK Boolean networks

Fitness Landscapes

Order from noise


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