The essence of living systems is self-organization

In nature and in the world of man-made objects, geometric order evidences the interrelatedness of all things. Using the above image as a model, humanity may be said to consist of a single string within the spacetime continuum. Rather than forming a straight line—the way we experience time—the process of human evolution has been an ever-unfolding and ordering spiral.

For the most part, we have not yet realized or accepted that order, novelty, expansion and complexity are ultimately unifying forces. But even conflicts over diversity can be seen as drivers, urging us to realize and accommodate to the reality that we are one, interrelated and interdependent species.

In the above image, if one string represents a lifetime, we can see how it overlaps and aligns with many others. With a little consideration, we can see the process of ordering at work. And we can see that an individual life is one long and finite string, one that’s shaped by an enfolded and fundamental order—the core, which is characterized by infinite potential, patterning and exquisite beauty. Notice how the mind’s eye sees a star in one place and then another. As in certain geometries considered “sacred,” the pattern in this ball of string is dynamic. It seems to move.

Contemplating Order In Personal And Social Contexts

Socially we find examples of this dynamic in the messy domains of business and politics, where over time conflicting perspectives, goals and methods eventually produce more ordered systems and solutions.

A crowning example of this is the founding of the United States of America. Because the founders—and we today—differ in perception, values, goals and desires there was and will always be conflict, argumentation and debate. In the messy process of sorting things out, an order emerges that overcomes psychic entropy—negative thoughts, ideas and ideologies that, if held long enough by a system’s members, leads to dis-integration and eventually the system’s demise. Order then, along with information, is negentropic. It overcomes entropy, at least temporarily.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “Psychic negentropy refers to an ordered state of energy or knowledge, a state in which work can be carried out with the least waste and effort. A negentropic system, whether physical, informational, or mental, is one in which the parts function together in synergy, with minimal friction or disorder.”

In his book, Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years, co-authored with Reed Larson, Mihali identifies the specific traits that carry the highest negentropic potential. These include positive feelings toward self and others, happiness, friendliness, joy, meaning, a sense of energy, competence and intrinsic motivation to be involved with people moving toward constructive goals. Projected to adults, I can easily see how these would be the forces, among others, that are urging us toward alignment and synergistic engagement. In this way, on each turn of the evolutionary spiral, the invisible hand of Nature winds the string around its core, one that imposes a design that is in process, one we are not yet privileged to see.

Writing about traumatic events experienced by adults—such as occur in family life as well as in business and politics—Csikszentmihalyi goes further to say in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, that the ability to draw order from disorder is what transforms negative experiences into meaningful challenges.

Paul Cézanne famously said it was the artist’s task to become “concentric” with nature, to align with it. I see that happening in the ball of string image. I also see how the center—the core of an object, idea or soul of a person—determines the pattern that will emerge as time goes on. For instance, if the string were wound around a cube or a triangle a very different pattern would result. The same with an idea or ideology. The core of a belief system or worldview shapes thinking, which generates patterns of behavior. It’s the reason for the biblical injunction “By their fruit, you shall recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16). Others know us by what we do, not what we say.

In the above photograph, the winding of a string around a spherical core results in a star pattern with concentric circles. Standing back, it resembles an eye. Computer scientist, Christopher Langton, and others in the field of “artificial life” observe that the essence of living systems is in selforganization, not the involved molecules. It couldn’t be otherwise, because at the atomic level it’s the organization of atoms that determines and discriminates one element from another.

At the heart of the most random or chaotic event lies order, pattern, and causality, if only we can learn to see it in large enough context.

Corinne McLaughlin, Educator

Author, The Practical Visionary: A new world guide to spiritual growth and social change.


It is the natural tendency of life to organize — to seek greater levels of complexity and diversity.

Margaret Wheatley, Management consultant

Author, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering order in a chaotic world


When driven into far-from-equilibrium conditions, systems do not just break down, they generate new structures that pull higher forms of order out of the surrounding chaos. It is as if nature reaches into herself and draws forth structures that reflect the inherent potential of the system for higher orders of self-organization.

Duane Elgin, Media activist

Author, Choosing Earth: Humanity’s journey of initiation



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