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Emergence: Spontaneous Self Organization and Patterns in Natural Systems

Updated on November 11, 2014

Emergence in a Nutshell

Nature’s ability to create physical and behavioral patterns in every aspect of our world is a constant source of amazement and inspiration. We may take for granted this property of life, but self-organization is instrumental in the proper functioning of our lives and environment; we need it even if we do not know about it. Here are five revelations of phenomenal emergence.

Ice crystals. In fact, all ice is crystallized water.
Ice crystals. In fact, all ice is crystallized water. | Source


Perhaps one of the clearest examples of spontaneous self-organization in nature, crystals play a fundamental role in analyzing a material’s properties. Self-organization begins with the production of the crystal form – based on various environmental conditions. Molecules of the material arrange themselves into an efficient geometric pattern based on molecular properties that are, themselves, testaments of natural organization. Chemistry and materials science aside, these geometric patterns repeat themselves, geometrically, to include surrounding molecules, collectively forming crystals. Consider, for example, one of nature’s most charming crystal creations: the snowflake. Water droplets freeze to form ice molecules (also crystals) in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, which act as aggregates for crystallization. As the crystals grow in size, they gain mass and begin falling through the atmosphere. The differing temperatures and pressures acting on the crystal structure as it falls causes new patterns to emerge systematically that exhibit near-perfect radial symmetry. Turns out your high school chemistry teacher was not so unhinged – well, maybe – snowflakes are quite extraordinary.



Huh? To put it simply, phyllotaxy is the organization of leaves on a plant’s stem; however, for the sake of botany buffs breaking into cold sweat, this extends to the spatial pattern of cactus spines and various other unique botanical extremities. Phyllotaxies are unique to plant families, and are used to differentiate species. Commonly, we observe striking patterns in the arrangement of a plant’s leaves, too commonly, in fact, to consider the patterns coincidence. The purposes of phyllotaxy patterns such as the Fibonacci spiral are mysterious and elusive, but scientists believe that such patterns represent simple, harmonious organization in biological development. Beyond their biological curiosity, these patterns inspire persistent research in computation and mathematics; they were critical in the discovery of the Fibonacci sequence and fractals.


Electricity has had so many great contributions and constantly attracts attention from the scientific community. The major concepts of electricity rely on laws of nature and dictate behavior in almost all aspects of our universe. Electricity is defined by electric charge, which defines our world. How so, you ask? Consider everything around you for a second…. Your brain has just received and analyzed electric pulses from electroreceptors all over your body. It all seems so chaotic, but the fundamental law guiding all of these electric interactions is the simple attraction of opposite and repulsion of similar charges. Among so many important contributors, Benjamin Franklin is responsible for the conventional positive and negative charge system. Nature’s organization of attraction and repulsion of electric charge is responsible for biological functioning, material properties, radiation, etc. (you name it).


Molecular Construction

Have you ever wondered why things stay together, or why they do not? In addition to previously mentioned material properties, molecules and atoms specialize in combining with other molecules and assembling into organized structures of matter. Crystallization, above, is a special form of this phenomenon; however, it can be witnessed in any material, in any state of matter. It would appear that molecules and atoms know, intuitively, to organize themselves. Within a molecule, atoms orient themselves to optimize interactions and form an efficient and effective molecular structure that can easily interact with other molecules. When these other molecules do interact, they have all taken organized steps to readily interact and form an intramolecular structure that reflects the most efficient organization of the available structures. Okay, that was a lot – consider, instead, this analogy: you pack yourself into a crowded stadium with hundreds of thousands of other fans. The stadium contains several hundred seating sections of varying size, and with varying benefits. The stadium does not guarantee a seat for everyone, but you must somehow organize yourselves so that everyone is satisfied. Good luck!


Flocking and Swarming Behavior

Zooming out, nature persists in showing signs of self-organization on a macro scale. Groups of social animals consistently show behavior pointing to their awareness of membership of a larger group. We see this on a daily basis, but might most recognize this animal behavior in flocks and swarms. Birds do not only flock in times of migration, and bees do not only swarm when they are angry. These behaviors are part of a more general set of behavioral organization in the natural world. All this seems relatively straightforward, until you consider the group’s behavior as a unit. As it turns out, when a group partakes in collective activity, they also activate a collective intelligence, where they can act as part of the same entity and convey messages or complex movements and tasks collectively, such as the hypnotic landing routine of flocks of pigeons. Interestingly enough, predators can analyze animal collectives as a single prey, and anticipate collective movements.

Herd Behavior

With a better understanding of group behavior in animals, we can tackle herd behavior. While flocking and swarming define the physical motion of a group, herd behavior rings to the tune of sociology and psychology. While nature’s compulsive organization of some animals is beautifully anal-retentive, we must ask ourselves - why not all animals? Why do housecats not form collective masses and roam about? These questions have no true answers, but scientists look at herding behavior for clues. Some animals, it seems, are hardwired in such a way that they cannot survive independently; they rely on collective intelligence for evolutionary fitness. Not surprisingly, we humans partially follow this pattern. We have set up our own social institutions (including government and language) and must find a place in our sociological network lest we are considered outliers. Of course, it is not trivial in the case of humans, but in the case of most migratory birds, an injured or sick bird gets left behind for dead because of its inability to behave collectively.

Rioting is an example of groupthink
Rioting is an example of groupthink | Source


Even more specific, groupthink is a concept that explores collective thought among groups of people. Groupthink is best observed when a group’s size is arbitrarily large, ranging anywhere from your graduating class to the western hemisphere. You may not want to believe it, but based on relative similarity in lifestyle and upbringing with most people in the country, you collectively share many of the same intrinsic and unconscious schemas, as well as outward principles. However, groupthink is a phenomenon that promotes negative outcomes and faulty behavior. The idea is that we are all imperfect; most of us faulty and secretly unhinged. When we activate collective behavior, we naturally do so in an organized manner, striving for unity and promoting harmony; but since we all exhibit flawed behavior and thought, and we share these principles if we share our background, theoretically, we will eventually conform to each other’s flaws to create a group deviancy. This is easily exemplified in trends and fads (not cat-print sweaters, but cults and hate groups) that would otherwise be unacceptable. In group ethics, this collective, flawed, behavioral shift is uniform, normal, and even upright, but to an outsider, our collective behavior has seen a steady deviation from what was once morally acceptable behavior. In essence, striving for group harmony is like inner-tubing toward the Bermuda Triangle.

Van driving by a large termite mound.
Van driving by a large termite mound. | Source


It’s frightening to discover that our world is partially an organizational, systematic construct of numbers and patterns, but how is it all put together? Generally observed in social insects and organisms, stigmergy is the means by which a message or task can be conveyed by two agents who cannot communicate otherwise. While many forms of sensory and chemical stigmergic behavior have been nominated as information gateways, scientists believe that stigmergic behavior defines all macroscopic interaction. This is observed in small bacteria through their stigmergic use of protein signal transfer in organizing group behavior and group attacks on bacterial prey. Ants and termites, too, have been key players in the discovery of systematic communications because of their organized hierarchic society and lifestyles. Research has proven that ants release certain pheromones as they are exploring, like chemical breadcrumbs, to simultaneously track their path from the nest and mark interesting food gathering landmarks. A termite stigmergically “charges” balls of mud with pheromones to attract other mud-ball-carrying termites to assist in building mounds. Furthermore, the signals to perform these duties are stigmergically conveyed hierarchically from the queen, herself, who has been somehow granted the task of managing the entire colony. Below is a superbly interesting video on the structure of such a stigmergically constructed mound.

Natural Selection and Fitness

By now, we have all developed a fundamental understanding or a searing abhorrence for Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution through natural selection. Whether or not you believe in evolution, you must admit that the process of natural selection is nearly irrefutable. The process by which nature selects the best traits based on fitness of the species or offspring is an undeniable example of how natural self-organization guides our existence and survival. The fact that we have a genome, which expresses your genetic makeup, means that somewhere along the line, life evolved (sorry creationists) to preserve a record of every trait that makes two organisms unique or similar. Moreover, a simple environmental mutation can benefit or hugely detriment an entire lineage. For that reason, the fittest organisms, genetically speaking, have proven the most reproductively attractive within a population. And for that reason, natural selection is a baffling and controversial outlet for natural self-organization.

Cells practicing safe meiosis.
Cells practicing safe meiosis. | Source

Reproduction and DNA

It’s not all about sex. Reproduction occurs on a microscopic level; anything with DNA can reproduce. Of course, we know that sex initiates reproductive processes in a majority of life on Earth. The ins and outs of reproduction, however, exhibit a breathtaking example of natural self-organization. Let’s begin with the zygote: the zygote is a fertilized egg cell. Once fertilized, the zygote receives instructions from DNA to reproduce itself, including its internal DNA. That is to say, DNA is replicating itself, by itself, methodically and compulsively. The cells continue duplicating through the process of mitosis, all the while a multicellular organism is forming. The process is similar for single-cell organisms, except cell duplication is the entire reproductive process. Complex biological self-organization ensues, such as the organism’s symmetrical development, and voila! Life produces life.


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