Nature Is A Self Organizing Living System

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“If we could surrender to Earth’s intelligence, we would rise up rooted—like trees.”

~ Rilke

Nature is capable of organizing herself.


As a biologist, nature essayist, and eco-traveler,  I am often depressed and confused over the negative human impact on our Earth. Even though we are a seemingly intelligent race, we are determined to destroy the very environment that sustains human life.  Anyone who can do basic math can calculate that, within only 50 more years, our rapidly growing population will have used every square inch of usable land to grow food for ourselves. We will have run out of resources. Wars and famine will determine our inevitable fate.


While all this is going on, our scientists in their ivory towers as well as ecologists in the field continue to debate about ways in which to conserve our earth. The two popular and competing conservation strategies either prohibit people from occupying “protected” land areas or permit and encourage human involvement in land use. Both strategies have a fatal flaw. That flaw is that human arrogance prevents an acknowledgment that it is impossible for humans to predict or control the future activities of Nature. In addition, humanity fails to embrace the idea that every living thing on earth is inextricably interconnected to every other living being. These key facts are ignored by many workers in the field of conservation. Indeed, it will be the hubris of humanity which will destroy us.


This essay offers a way of thinking that might prevent that destruction. It is a worldview that is held by many modern scientists and philosophers. Ecophilosopher Joanna Rogers Macy and teacher Molly Young Brown, both  scholars of general systems theory and deep ecology, wrote a book that clearly explains, in layman’s language, a worldview that suggests a pathway to human survival. The book, recently revised in 2014,  is entitled  Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives.   In this essay, I offer a paraphrased version of their worldview. 


Earlier in the 20th century, the modern scientific worldview chose to describe both man-made systems and Nature’s ecosystems by identifying and analyzing a system’s parts. The idea was that you could describe how an entire automobile operated by disassembling it, laying the parts on the garage floor, and calculating how each part operated. This practice was called “reductionism”. But, as twentieth century biologists realized with increasing frustration, reductionism cannot explain the self-renewing processes of life.


Instead of breaking a system down into its basic building blocks, scientists began to look at entire processes.  They discovered that these processes such as cells, bodies, ecosystems, or an entire planet, are not just a heap of disjointed parts.  They are dynamically organized and intricately balanced “systems”.  Modern science began to realize that each element is part of a larger pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles.  This fresh worldview has spread throughout the natural and social sciences.


By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scientists made an amazing discovery that was new to the western mind.  They discovered that Nature is capable of organizing itself. Scientists set out to discern the principles by which this self-organization occurs.  They found these principles, sometimes called “systems properties” to be simple and constant throughout the observable universe including sub-organic,  biological, and ecological systems, as well as human-based mental and social systems. Nature’s systems ( also known as ecosystems ) are defined as  “open systems”. Any ecosystem can interact with systems or components external to itself. In the course of these interactions, energy can be both transported and transformed. These processes permit the variety and intelligence of life forms to arise from interactive currents of matter, energy, and information.  There are four  properties:


1.  Each system, whether it be a tiny atom or a huge galaxy, is a whole.  That means that it is not reducible to its components.  Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the dynamic relationships of its parts.  This interplay is synergistic (two plus two equals five), generating “emergent properties” and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts.  For example, wetness could not be predicted from the water formed from the combination of oxygen and hydrogen before the formation occurred.


2.  Thanks to the continual flow-through of matter-energy and information, ecosystems are able to self-stabilize and maintain their equilibrium.   This self stabilization enables ecosystems to self-regulate amidst changing conditions in their environment.  This process, known as feedback, monitors the effects of their own behavior and realigns their behavior with pre-established norms, much like a like a thermostat.


3.  Ecosystems not only maintain their balance amidst the flux of energy and matter, but also evolve in complexity.  When challenges from their environment persist, ecosystems can fall apart or adapt by reorganizing themselves around new, more functional norms.  This is accomplished by feedback. Feedback processes are how ecosystems learn and evolve.  If this feedback process is blocked or ignored, by human or other activity, there is a risk of system collapse.


4.  Every ecosystem is a whole in its own right. It is comprised of subsystems, and simultaneously is an integral part of larger ecosystems.  This results in “nested hierarchies” which are systems within systems, processes within processes.


Each new hierarchical level– say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family– generates new emergent properties that are not reducible to the properties of the separate.  In nested hierarchies,  order tends to arise from below, as well as summoned or inspired by its larger context.


An ecosystem self-generates from adaptive cooperation between its parts for mutual benefit. 


Order and differentiation go hand and hand, components diversifying as they coordinate roles and invent new responses.


The earlier reductionist worldview of reality separated substance from process, self from other, and mind from matter. In the new systems worldview, these dichotomies no longer hold.  What appeared to be separate and self-existent entities are now seen as interdependent and interwoven.  We humans are ecosystems ourselves. We participate by virtue of a constant flow-through of matter and energy transformation in the evolving web of life, giving and receiving the feedback necessary to the web’s integrity and balance. Like all of Nature’s systems, we both transport and transform matter and energy.


None of this systems view of life resonates with current conservation practices which assume that human input will achieve a predictable result. Conservation managers set reference points and targets based on the assumption that equilibrium or a steady state will be achieved. This idea is blatantly false. Indeed, Nature’s ecosystems are dynamic. They are always moving. Equilibrium shifts as Nature’s feedback systems adjust. Human predictability is impossible. Consequently, current conservation practices will ultimately fail.


Worth Your Extra Attention – A Useful Resource List


Thanks for reading this essay. Here is a resource list for further study of the worldview that I introduced in this essay.


Wikipedia Living Systems Theory


Waking Up In An Ecological Age – Molly Young Brown. An EXCELLENT summary of the history of modern systems/holistic thinking in ecology


Introduction to Living Systems — by Molly Young Brown


Living Systems – Joanna Macy and her work. A holistic view of life on earth


Living Systems Theory  An excellent and easily readable summary of livings systems theory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


Energy Flow and Matter Cycle in Living Systems – An excellent high school instruction video


Energy Flow In Living Systems – An excellent summary video designed for a high school class.


A Basic Written Description Of Living Systems Theory


Feedback loops allow living organisms to maintain homeostasis


Earth’s Web of Life – A blog essay


The Web of Life:A New Understanding of Living Systems By Fritjof Capra. This is a good, short summary of his important book


Biodiversity: The Web Of Life. A video


Celebrating The Beauty of Living Systems – Video


The Unity of Living Systems


Energy Powers All Living Systems



Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.


If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.


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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

4 thoughts on “Nature Is A Self Organizing Living System”

  1. Hi Bill, In Toronto, Mute Swans (about the size of the family dog and very intelligent and relate-able) are considered by the conservation agencies to be an invasive alien. Someone goes out in the spring and paints their eggs with oil. That means the pen swans sit on dead eggs all summer, getting very thin as they will not leave to eat. Then, they are in no shape to migrate (if only they could figure out how to do that). Ordinary people love the swans. I wish they’d be left alone to swim with beauty.

    1. Hi Merridy: One of my greatest frustrations as a writer and as a conservation biologist is a humanity that just can’t seem to leave Nature to her own devices. We are always manipulating her to either resolve some human inconvenience or to “manage” her to achieve some ill advised conservation objective that is based on questionable science. I wring my hands knowing that I have no practical solution to these issues EXCEPT, through the children. In the background, I am always legacy building hoping that the next generation will do a better job than the current “me” generation.

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