Life’s Organizing Principles — Part II: Shapes, Structures, and Patterns of Life
This is the second essay in a three-essay series on life’s organizing principles.
I’ve gotten into Marvel superhero movies over the past decade after my husband took me to watch the first Avengers movie in 2012. One thing I’ve picked up on in all the Marvel movies and TV shows is that all the alien characters, from Thanos to Yondu Udonta, are curiously human-like. They are for all intents and purposes humans who happen to have blue and purple skin. This had me wondering why the comic book illustrators’ imagination of alien life forms is so limited and unimaginative when they have a rich reference to pull from in all the different living things that exist right here on earth. Sci-fi storytellers tend to go for three forms for aliens: morally good aliens tend to look like humans, villainous aliens tend to look like insects or reptiles with sharp teeth oozing slime, and alien flora who are morally neutral and function as landscape background. Real living things on earth, however, defy these limited options and their moral associations and come in more shapes and sizes than our human imagination can ever hope to conjure. Humans look nothing like earthworms who look nothing like squirrels who look nothing like trees who look nothing like sea anemones who look nothing like fungi.
The astounding diversity of life forms on earth is not actually what I want to talk about, however. No, I’m here to talk about quite the opposite — the basic shapes, structures, and patterns common to all life. Like the intrinsic qualities of life that I discussed in Part I, these fundamental forms are the organizing principles of life. They shaped life’s first coming into being nearly four billion years ago and continue to mold life’s evolution today.
Our success in practicing ecological design is dependent on our learning to recognize these shapes, structures, and patterns, which are ubiquitous in nature but often hidden, and making use of them in our design process. These forms hold the key to building dynamic, resilient, and regenerative systems.
The shapes, structures, and patterns I discuss in this essay describe the basic architecture, growth, and change pattern of all living things beyond the idiosyncrasies of each species’ biological form. In human design, form can exist purely for aesthetic purposes and does not necessarily follow function. In nature’s design of life, however, form is function. And so it is the case that many of the intrinsic qualities that I discussed in Part I are associated with a particular form in this essay. A living thing has a particular quality because of the form that it takes and conversely the quality gives rise to the associated form.
The forms discussed in the essay represent only my best identification and understanding of them thus far in my life after over a decade of learning about them from science and indigenous knowledge systems as well as my own observation and contemplation. Trying to understand the principles that underpin all life is a lifelong, intergenerational and interdisciplinary endeavor. The list of principles is not exhaustive but rather an ongoing list that I fully expect to continually expand and refine.
Many of us learned in school about circles, squares, and triangles. But do you ever wonder what the shape of a cloud is? Or what the shape of a fern is? Do you ever wonder if social systems like organizations or economies have a shape? If you’re at a loss about how to name the shape of these and other complex things, then you’re going to love fractals.
I start my discussion of the basic shapes, structures, and patterns of life with fractals, because just as self-organization is the most basic organizing principle of the universe, so are fractals the most basic pattern of the universe. A fractal is an object whose overall pattern repeats itself at every scale such that any particular segment of the object, at any scale, looks just like the whole object. This phenomenon in which the part looks just like the whole is called self-similarity. Anything in the universe that branches is a fractal. Rivulets, for example, look like the whole river to which they belong. Branches of lighting look like the whole lightning. Many things that have irregular borders are also fractals. Clouds, for example, have borders that repeat the same pattern at descending scales. Same with coastlines. Mountains are fractals. The rocks and hills that make up a mountain look like smaller mountains.
Fractals of course are also the most basic pattern of living things. Organisms and ecosystems may come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, but look deeper and we see that all living systems exhibit a fractal pattern of networks nested within networks. Many living things in fact display a fractal pattern on the macroscopic level. A tree, for example, is a fractal. Take any branch segment and it looks just like the whole tree. Blood vessels are fractals in the same way rivers are. Ferns are exquisite fractals in which each leaf looks just like the whole plant. A cauliflower, especially Romanesco cauliflower, is a fractal in which each floret looks just like the whole cauliflower.
Fractals are complex but they are rooted in radical simplicity. A simple rule or pattern is repeated over and over and from the repetition emerges beautiful, complex shapes. Fractals for this reason are associated with self-organization and emergence. Living things are fractal in nature because they self-organize by repeating a simple rule or pattern over and over in order to emerge into larger organisms and ecosystems. Fractals are the predominant geometry of the universe. This may come as a surprise since all we were ever taught in school was to think of neat polygons when we talk about geometry. Euclidean shapes play a prominent role in human thinking, but they are actually quite limited and the exception in nature. Most things in the universe take a fractal shape.
Fractals, like self-organization, are ubiquitous and emerge spontaneously whether or not we are aware of it. So many aspects of human society are fractal in nature even if we did not plan for it to be so. Human relationships from the smallest scale of friendships and families to the largest scale of organizations, communities, and whole societies are fractals. Economies are massive fractals built on a simple rule of sell-and-buy. Famed management consultant, Margaret Wheatley, talked about organizations as being fractals in which one can see the same pattern of behavior, e.g., cooperative or competitive behavior, displaying itself at all levels of the organization, which adds up to define an organization’s culture.
We can passively witness fractals emerging all around us or we can learn to harness their power in our ecological design practice to build regenerative and liberatory cultures. Queer Black feminist and Afrofuturist, adrienne maree brown, turns Wheatley’s astute observation into a strategy for change by reminding us that “the large is a reflection of the small” and that if we want to see systemic change, we must first embody the change within ourselves and in our most intimate relationships. Similarly in the physical design of buildings, landscapes, and communities, we need to stop trying to master plan our way to sustainability and embrace the fact that regenerative places are built from the ground up, starting with regenerative relationships on the smallest scale between humans, more-than-human living things, and the land.
You might be asking at this point, how is chaos a shape? How is chaos an organizing principle when it is associated with disorder? I pondered these same questions myself when I first learned about chaos. It wasn’t until I had a deeply personal encounter with chaos that I finally began to see the answers to these questions.
College was the best four years of my life at that point in time. I grew up in an emotionally toxic environment and college was the first time I was intellectually and emotionally nourished by my friends, faculty, and school staff. I felt affirmed and optimistic about my life. I didn’t want to move back home to New York City after graduation because I knew the support systems I had relied on would come to an end and I was moving back to the same unsafe environment in which I grew up. I regrettably moved back anyway to fulfill family obligations. I immediately fell into a deep depression. The depression lasted three years. I reached the lowest point of my depression one day when despair filled my soul and I felt that I could not go on living. In that moment of spiritual agony, a vision of a woman figure in white shimmering light appeared from the heart of darkness. I recognized her as Quan Yin Po Sat, the Chinese goddess of compassion. Quan Yin was a real transgender figure in Chinese history who was anointed godhood after her death due to her filial piety and heroic self-sacrifice. In my vision, Quan Yin shot a curved stream of white light into my heart and told me I had more life to live. My body sprung up as if I were waking from a dream. The experience lasted at most a minute, but it was transformative. The spell of despair was broken. Depression dissipated like a storm cloud and light shone through the cracks and reached my soul. I felt hopeful for the first time in three years. I fell into the depths of chaos and it was there that I found the gift of my renewal.
A great number of creation stories from cultures all around the globe tell of the world being created out of chaos or in darkness. Some cultures even have apocalyptic stories in which a world that had become corrupt or broken needed to return to the abyss of night in order to be made anew. In India, chaos is a power that has been worshiped for thousands of years as Shiva, one of the three supreme deities in Hinduism, known as “The Destroyer”, who represents the cosmic cycle of destruction and creation. These stories all convey the same message: chaos is the source of all creation. And yet those of us who live in industrialized societies are taught to conflate chaos with disorder and subsequently fear it. How do we learn to embrace the creative power of chaos instead of resisting it? Can we remember how to work with chaos in our ecological design practice? To do that, we first need to understand what chaos is.
Chaos describes systems whose behavior seems erratic and unpredictable, because it is, but only when you are looking at them at a single moment in time. Observe a system long enough, however, and particularly from a bird’s-eye view, and a definitive pattern appears. The pattern was previously hidden because of our vantage point but is now suddenly clear as day. Once you see the pattern, you might gasp and chuckle out of wonder because you can finally see that chaos has a shape! The shape is evidence of the inherent orderliness of chaotic systems, which defies the popular notion that chaos describes the disintegration of order.
Scientists consider chaotic systems to be deterministic. At the same time, chaotic systems are rooted in autonomy. You might once again be pondering the apparent contradiction of these two statements. By the way, can we take a moment to admire how chock full of paradoxes chaotic systems are? How can something be pre-determined and act with free will? To understand how both are true, let’s examine each quality one at a time.
Chaotic systems are deterministic in the sense that we can see the shape of a system that starts to emerge if we observe it long enough and therefore determine the overall trajectory of the system. The shape of a chaotic system represents a predictable boundary of behavior the system does not go beyond. We can’t predict or control what the system is doing at any point in time, but we can determine where it’s headed in the long term.
The boundary of behavior is not an external control on the system, however. A chaotic system is in fact creating the boundary that it exhibits. This self-control and self-shaping is what makes chaotic systems autonomous. A chaotic system is operating with free will at all times as it follows its own internal rules. The rules are followed over and over at all levels of the system. What does that remind you of? If you say fractal, you’re right! Chaotic systems are fractals. It should be noted that while all chaotic systems are fractals, not all fractals evolve into chaotic systems. Chaotic systems require the establishment of multidirectional, nonlinear feedback loops that feed information back to the system. So to summarize, the overall trajectory of a chaotic system is predetermined due to an internal logic, but it is this very same logic that allows the system to act with autonomy at any one point in time.
If all of this is too abstract, let’s personalize it by considering how our own lives are chaotic systems. I’ll use myself as an example. In my thirty plus years of life thus far, I have experienced countless twists and turns. I have also made decisions and taken actions that are wildly different from each other. My family and friends have frequently been surprised by my life choices. But despite the great number of different situations that I have found myself in throughout my life and the diversity of choices I have made, they all share something in common: I was always acting in service of my values and what I understood to be my calling in life. And I know that I will continue to act in alignment with my values and mission in the future. So let’s say I live to 80 (I hope I do) and look back on my life, I would see that even though my life in a particular year, month, week, or day seemed chaotic because no one was able to predict the things I did, my life in its entirety had a clear trajectory, a clear shape, and the source of that shape was my values and mission.
Chaos teaches us many ecological design lessons, some of them deeply uncomfortable but no less important. Do not fret over the seemingly disorderly nature of things at a particular moment in time. We must zoom out and take our time to look at the big picture. Start with mission, values, and the smallest scale of relationships, and trust that these elements are the source of internal order. There is no need for you to expend your energy trying to control anyone or anything. Trust also that these elements will lead you to where you want to go, even if you can’t see the final destination, and that wherever you are is where you need to be. There is no need to predict every move. Focus on quality, not quantity.
Someone I know once commented that nature is a blank slate onto which humans can project anything they want to see. Western biologists, coming as they do from competitive and hierarchical societies, look at nature and see those two qualities of their cultures reflected in nature. For a long time, biologists organized the world’s living things into a pyramid in which bacteria and other microbes were at the bottom and moving up the pyramid represented a move up in complexity and intelligence with plants and nonhuman animals representing the middle layers and of course humans occupying the top position. This pyramid was further elaborated with racial and gender bias — White men occupied the top of the pyramid while non-White people and women occupied lower levels. Biologists would illustrate ecological relationships as hierarchical food chains of who-eats-whom. They are always looking for keystone species — the singular, most important species in a particular ecosystem — which to me is reminiscent of their cultural proclivity for assigning a single leader in a hierarchical social structure.
I think, however, that seeing nature as a blank slate is only possible if we are estranged and alienated from nature. A blank slate has no voice of its own. It is a canvas on which someone imposes their will or the passive backdrop against which more important historical events happen. And that is how Western and other colonial societies have treated nature for a long time. But for many indigenous nations and other peoples who maintain an intimate relationship with the more-than-human living world, they know that the earth is full of voice and animacy. The living world is intelligent and has agency. The living world has a symphony of histories, of which human history is just one stream. Ecologically literate cultures observe the living world for how it’s truly structured and participate in that structure by designing their own societies accordingly, rather than the other way around.
How is nature truly structured? Well, if interdependence plays an outsized role in shaping the origins and evolution of life, then the shape that interdependence takes is networks. Living things’ intrinsic desire to connect drives them to self-organize into a network pattern. The connections a living thing has to others shape who they are as an individual. The connections give living things the experience of belonging, joy, and pleasure, and also of course conflict, loss, and heartbreak. The webs of kinship also increase a living thing’s chances of survival and access to safety. The more connections there are in a community, the more the community members are able to weather through tough times together. Redundant connections in a community also increase resilience since if one connection goes down, other connections are there to pick up the slack.
Living things are not just engaging in networks, they are themselves networks. We are all micro-ecosystems enmeshed in larger, landscape ecosystems. Networks are a fractal that is observed at all levels of life. You see the network pattern spanning the entire spectrum of life, connecting the tiniest cell to an entire ecosystem. Connections also matter at the scale of individual organisms. The more in tune we are to ourselves, the more we are able to access information about ourselves, which helps us make better decisions that are aligned with our values and goals. More self-connectedness means more empowerment, more agency, and more resilience. Many things can reduce our connections to ourselves including trauma and growing up in conformity-oriented cultures in which one is taught to deny oneself in order to make others happy. The healing work that many of us have to do is to regrow connections to ourselves.
Self-organizing networks have a reputation for being leaderless and non-hierarchical. But this reputation stems (again) from looking at nature through the cultural lens of colonial and supremacist societies. Nature is replete with hierarchy and leadership, but they look very different from those of colonial and supremacist societies. We have to redefine these concepts in order to understand how they show up in nature. In colonial and supremacist societies, hierarchies are top-down arrangements that concentrate power, wealth and resources in a small group of people at the top and by extension confer worth and prestige upon those people. This historical fact is systematically obscured by the argument that top-down hierarchies ensure accountability and efficiency in decision-making, but we know from abundant examples in history that top-down institutions routinely become corrupt, waste tremendous resources, and fail to be accountable. In top-down institutions, people at lower levels are obliged to follow the “leadership” of people at higher levels. Leadership then is understood as having the power to direct others. I am a leader because I have seized or been given (by democratic processes or otherwise) the power to tell others what to do.
Hierarchy and leadership in nature have a very different quality and purpose. Hierarchy in nature is a lateral pattern of nested networks that living things self-organize into whenever they want to achieve higher levels of complexity and order. That is to say, living things come together to create different layers of networks that help amplify their organizing power and coordinate their actions on a larger scale. For example, single-celled organisms self-organized into multicellular organisms who could display higher levels of order and complexity that single-celled organisms did not. Far from being a tool for oppression and inequitable distribution of power and wealth, hierarchies in nature meet the needs of everyone in an ecosystem and contribute to system health. The key here is self-organization. Hierarchies in nature are self-organized, not imposed.
Leaders exist in these nested networks, but they look very different from the leaders we find in the top-down hierarchies of colonial and supremacist societies. Network leaders are individuals who are highly connected and thus very influential, but their influence does not equate control. All living things within an ecosystem can be influenced by the network leaders, but they ultimately have free will. This is the dance between autonomy and interdependence that I discussed in my Part I essay. Famed Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard describes in her beautiful book, Finding the Mother Tree, the existence of “Mother Trees” who are the much older and subsequently the most connected trees in a forest. The Mother Trees function as leaders and caretakers in their forest ecosystems. Through their connectedness, such trees share their resources with younger trees to increase the latter’s chances of survival and also impart their wisdom to influence the way the younger trees make decisions. But the Mother Trees ultimately do not control the behavior of the younger trees, who are still free to decide for themselves.
Networks are the architecture of life, so what can they teach us about designing bioculturally regenerative systems? The most important lesson networks have to teach us is that if we want to heal ecosystems, we have to restore connectedness. We talk a lot about the many ways industries such as mining, energy generation, agriculture, auto industry, and fashion are polluting our fragile ecosystems with toxic wastes. The pollution of our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses is certainly the biggest threat of our generation. But we don’t talk nearly enough about the fact that industries are also degrading our ecosystems by way of reducing their complexity and connectedness. Toxic contaminants often disrupt ecological relationships that are vital to the health of an ecosystem. Life-extracting industries like logging and fishing extract trees and fish exponentially faster than their respective ecosystems can regenerate them, which means that the critical connections the extracted organisms possess are permanently removed. The permanent loss of connections makes ecosystems less resilient and more susceptible to collapse. Industrial agriculture is notorious for replacing highly complex forest and grassland ecosystems with dangerously simplified monocultures that are reliant on artificial fertilizers and pest control, which make them inherently vulnerable to the dangers posed by climate change. The proper way to heal and regenerate ecosystems is to restore complex connections. The rise of monocultural plantations that corporations are investing in as a way to offset their carbon footprint won’t do. We have to invest in growing real forests. We need to practice site-appropriate polycultures. We need to complexify our oceans again.
The same message applies to the case of healing society and our relationship to the living world. The primary reason we have so much ecological destruction and social injustice is because colonial and supremacist societies are alienated from the more-than-human living world and by extension each other. The spiritual and cultural healing work we have to do is to rekindle our intimacy with the more-than-human world again by living closer to the earth, maintaining naturalist practices, and centering the earth in our cosmologies. We have to help politically polarized and otherwise culturally estranged groups come together to share stories that communicate their values, dreams, and fears. We have to move beyond surface differences and honor our common humanity. We have to implement real accountability practices to repair the harms that colonial and supremacist societies have caused through systems of oppression and abuse so that all of us may finally experience liberation and healing. We have to restore trust, which is the foundation of all relationships.
A dissipative structure does not describe a permanent structure so much as a transitory state when a system is poised to undergo whole systems change. It is an oxymoron coined by Russian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine to describe the peculiar ability of certain complex chemical systems he was studying to abandon their existing form, i.e., dissipate, when faced with instability and very quickly reorganize themselves, often into a more complex structure, to restore stability. Prigogine coined an oxymoron because he wanted to highlight a paradoxical truth about complex and chaotic systems, which is that they change in order to stay true to who they are. It turns out that the concept doesn’t just apply to physio-chemical systems, but all complex and chaotic systems, including living systems! For humans, we can become dissipative structures not just biologically like all other living things, but also in cultural, organizational, and spiritual ways.
Dissipative structures continue life’s penchant for paradox. The orderliness of complex and chaotic systems comes from continual change and not from staying the same. This is the most important lesson that dissipative structures have to teach us. If you remember nothing else about dissipative structures, remember this lesson. All of us human beings experience many moments of dissipative structure when we are compelled to undergo systems change — puberty, college graduation, first sexual experience, getting our first job, marriage, parenthood, menopause, midlife crisis, loss of a loved one, significant illness or injury, retirement, and elderhood. At each moment, we need to abandon our former selves and reorganize internally to develop new selves that are capable of thriving in the present reality. “Growing up” is a figure of speech to describe the fact that all of us change in order to become more of the type of people we want to be. If we refuse to grow up, we betray our own values and vision for ourselves.
In order for living things to enter a state of dissipative structure, they must meet four key criteria. The first is openness, which living things tend to be by their very nature. If you remember from my Part I essay, a living thing is an organizationally closed but energetically open system. It must remain open to a constant exchange of energy and matter (food) as well as information with the outside world. The exchange of information is called learning and is particularly important to us humans for our development. I have been talking about the concept of order and orderliness several times in this essay. Here at this moment, the concept of disorder from psychology may be particularly effective in illustrating the meaning of order. Order means coherence. An orderly system makes sense and functions well. Disorder means incoherence. A disorderly system doesn’t make a lot of sense and has dysfunctions. A human person who remains open to the outside world and is able to take in new information and let the information change them is someone who has internal order. In contrast, a person who is closed to the outside world and incapable of taking in new information for whatever reason would often be characterized as having a mental or learning disorder. Some of the peculiar behavior such individuals exhibit as a result often looks irrational and incoherent to other people.
The second criterion that living things must meet in order to become a dissipative structure is nonequilibrium. A living system relies on a constant input of energy to stay far away from thermal equilibrium. Nonequilibrium, which we might intuitively associate with imbalance, is counterintuitively the source of order. Equilibrium, which we might intuitively associate with balance, actually represents disorder. You might be asking yourself why this is the case. It comes back to the fact that order is maintained by change, not by staying the same. A system in equilibrium has no net positive in energy, so it is unable to change. It is effectively dead. A system in nonequilibrium enjoys a constant flow of energy, which it can use to undergo change. Nonequilibrium teaches us that we humans as cultural beings need a constant flow of information and meaning to thrive and live our best lives. When we stop generating meaning in our lives, we start to experience spiritual decay — spiritual entropy. Whole cultures and societies that become closed off to the rest of the world experience a similar cultural, economic, and intellectual decay, which is why isolationism, borders, and walls are never good policy.
The third criterion is internal fluctuations. Fluctuations describe a deviation from a system’s normal pattern of behavior, a change in how a system usually does things. Fluctuations are triggered by new information that a system receives either from the outside world or internally from itself. The role of meaning comes into play here. We, like all other living systems, are taking in massive amounts of data at all times. We don’t register much of the data because our bodies and brains have evolved the incredible ability to filter out meaningless data and only register, i.e. bring to our conscious awareness, the data that is meaningful to us. If we did not have this ability, we would experience information overload. Data imbued with meaning becomes information and knowledge, which can then trigger a change in us. Such a change in systems science is called a fluctuation. Living things experience fluctuations all the time, but not all fluctuations trigger whole-scale systems change. Most fluctuations peter out over time. Living things need something else to amplify a fluctuation and induce transformation of their entire systems.
The fourth and final criterion for entering a state of dissipative structure is nonlinearity. A system must have enough connections to itself in order to exhibit multidirectional, nonlinear feedback loops. The critical role that nonlinear feedback loops play is that they take small fluctuations and amplify them to the point at which they start to destabilize the system. Instability feels scary, but it is a good thing because it is what allows systemic change to happen. Do you see the connection to chaos here? Instability signals to us that whoever we were no longer makes sense and that we need to abandon it, reorganize, and develop a new sense of self that is meaningful for the new reality we’re living in. The new sense of self will be more complex, more mature, and it is what will restore order and stability to our lives. This systemic change is not possible without self-connectedness, and that is the lesson that nonlinearity has to teach us. The more connections we have to ourselves — to our values and life goals — the more we are capable of transformation and becoming more of who we want to be.
The concept of dissipative structure has many corollaries in other disciplines. The field of psychology has the concept of positive disintegration, coined by psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski, which describes psychological tension and anxiety that people experience that is necessary for psychological growth. In both the arts and business worlds, we’re probably all too familiar with the concept of creative destruction, which dictates that sometimes we need to destroy the old in order to create something new. In the realm of physical design, particularly urban and landscape design, dissipative structures warn us about the limitations of master planning. A landscape or cityscape that is master planned and not allowed to evolve from a designer or planner’s initial vision will inevitably die. Dissipative structures teach us that we need to design places that are open to influence, enjoy a constant flow of energy, matter and information, experience changes, and have enough self-connections to amplify those changes over time to induce whole-scale transformation into the next stage of a place’s evolution. In politics, colonial and supremacist societies fear and hate change as it threatens their grasp on power. Their power relies on the oppressive systems they have built remaining the same. Dissipative structures teach us that all living things, including social systems, must change in order to stay relevant and that resistance to change is futile. The more we try to suppress change, the more violently it will ultimately come about.
More Than Forms
Fractals, chaos, networks, and dissipative structures describe the geometric forms that living systems take and yet who would have guessed that they would carry profound spiritual messages as well as design lessons? The shapes, structures, and patterns of life illustrate the sharpest contrast between how life organizes itself, maintains stability and order, and facilitates change, and how colonial and supremacist societies do such things. Life’s geometric forms, more than other organizing principles of life, remind us that cultures that lean into the dynamic powers of fractals, chaos, networks, and dissipative structures tend to be regenerative and liberatory, whereas cultures that attempt to contradict these principles often cause ecological degradation and systems of oppression that we have witnessed throughout human history.