Friday, April 10, 2009

The Call to Self-Organization

In an earlier post, I wrote about self-organization, an amazing phenomenon in which order arises spontaneously in a complex system.

An example occurs in an organism known as Dictyostelium discoideum, or slime mold, that starts off life as single-celled amoeba. When food and water become scarce, the amoebae aggregate through the fantastic spiral patterns shown here, bringing the members of the colony together.

The result is remarkable: the amoebae begin to differentiate, form different cell types, and come together into a full-fledged multi-cellular organism: a slug. This slug can travel in search of food, but if it doesn't find any, it will send down a root and cement itself to a flat surface, then send up a stalk which forms a fruiting body and, eventually, produces spores -- in a last-ditch effort for at least some of the cells to travel far and wide in search of food and water.

As I explained in my earlier post, the slime mold self-organizes through the same type of spiral patterns observed in self-organizing chemical reactions that are not alive. The similarity in self-organization pattern between these two systems -- one not alive, the other very much alive -- has been the basis for many thousands of scientific experiments aimed at determining the general features of this intriguing phenomenon.

You might ask: Does self-organization just occur automatically or is their some role for choice or free will? Maybe self-organizing molecules have no free will, but what about more complex systems – like families, business or nations? What about individuals? At what level of organization does free will in a self-organized system play a role?

Perhaps, many millions of years ago, some little single-celled organisms came together just like the slime mold amoebae, forming colonies that gradually, over many more millions of years, became multicellular organisms like fish. What role is played by the individual cells that, at the end of this process, become just cells in a body? If those little cells had any idea what was going to happen to them when they first aggregated into colonies, would they have done it?

The slime mold seem perfectly comfortable with going back and forth between an individual existence and one as a member of a greater whole. Would we be so calm if self-organization were happening to us?

This is an important question – because, for all we know, self-organization just might be happening to us and our world right now.

Just try to imagine the decisions we might be asked to make if we were one of those little cells on the early earth, struggling with the choice of giving up some (or maybe all) of our own individuality for the great unknown of colony membership. Accepting a role as a member of this new and improved “multicellular” form of life would be a very difficult decision to make and I wonder how many of us would go willingly?

To take such a step (if we even have a choice) requires trust in a future that does not yet exist and whose form is so dramatically different from our current reality nobody would be able to predict it.

How would we feel if some of our amoebae friends set off on a journey to the realm of multicellularity? Suppose they became first sponges, then fish and on and on, evolving further, into mammals, people, civilized human beings. Suppose, further, that some of these pioneers had occasionally returned to the amoeba world, telling of strange and wonderful new experiences awaiting on the “other side.”

“Once the call to self-organization has been answered,” they might say, “a new life is born.” I imagine that they might tell fantastic stories, of crawling up out of the water, walking upright over the land, learning to pull together materials and make tools, stories of constructing cities and airplanes and space ships.

They might even tell about the time they had flown that spaceship and walked upon the surface of the moon. If we were still content in our existence as little single-celled organisms, not much bigger than a slime mold amoeba, we wouldn't even know what the moon is! We wouldn’t have a clue what our friends were talking about and might even shrug off their fantastic stories as obvious ravings of lunatics who had somehow gone off the deep end.

Why would anyone want to self-organize if you lose not only your individuality but, apparently, your sanity as well?

More on this next week!


  1. "self-organization just might be happening ... right now" I wonder if we humans are preventing our PCs from self-organizing. Do we let our PCs go out and explore the internet and interact with other PCs? Or do we try to protect them and keep them safe at home unless we are out for a stroll and keeping them on a leash?

    Note: it might just be me, but I could not comment on your blog from FireFox browser (Mac).

  2. Ahh, slime mold. I wonder how many people are fortunate enough to be able to say that just hearing about slime mold brings back wonderful memories?

    Interesting stuff, Raima!!

  3. Thanks, guys.

    Apuleius, I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for slime mold. Glad to hear I'm not alone!

    John, I'm checking the commenting ability using Firefox on my mac...if it works, I guess that means it's your machine! Thx for your comment...amusing image of our PCs self-organizing on the net. And maybe they are... :)