What Is A Pattern In Nature ?
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Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them. What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.
— Chang Tsai

A friend of mine recently emailed me asking about my definition of a pattern in nature saying: “ I am curious about your definition of patterns. I would define pattern as a repetition of an element. I get the image in my mind of orderliness. I think it would be helpful for the average person, like me, with no education in art or nature to understand your perspective, your definition of patterns.”

The word “pattern” is a term that typically describes repeating visual objects or events. An example is M.C. Escher’s 1938 woodcut entitled “Sky and Water 1”. Here we have a series of repeating fish and birds. Each object is precisely placed by the artist into a static display.

Such fixed and predictable patterns as Escher’s woodcut are, of course, never really found in nature. The design and placement of patterns in nature do not come from an artist’s hand but from the connected and dynamic interactions of natural objects in both space and time. They interact with each other and are all components of yet larger patterns. These systems of interacting patterns that abound in nature are called complex adaptive systems. A developing organism, a tree, a mountain stream, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere are all examples of connected and dynamic systems of patterns in nature.

Fish schools are also examples of patterns in nature. Here the group is formed because of simple rules applied locally by each individual. There is no need for a leader or overseer to dictate to the other fish how fast they must swim and in which direction. Every individual sorts this out for itself — solely by watching its nearest neighbors and adjusting its reaction to theirs. The adjustments are made according to three rules. Rule #1: Move toward the average position of my nearest neighbors. Rule #2: Move in the same direction as my nearest neighbors. Rule #3: Maintain a minimum distance from my nearest neighbors. These rules are applied when an individual fish senses the proximity of its nearest neighbors through the use of its eyes and its lateral lines – pressure sensing organisms that run along the length of its body.

The collective action of individuals (each a pattern in nature) following these rules results in a self organizing super-organism, itself a pattern in nature, with a behavior that is greater than the sum of its component patterns. This phenomenon of pattern emergence is ubiquitous in nature where transient and interconnecting sub-patterns operate.

It is important to note that patterns in nature are both irregular and finite. Escher’s woodcut has both a mathematical regularity and can easily extend beyond the frame onto infinity. A fish school, a honeycomb, and a tree trunk are all organized but are irregular in shape. Their forms also occupy only a finite space.

Escher portrays a pattern that manifests a static order. Patterns in nature, just like the fish school, are manifestations of an underlying dynamic order. Instead of being formed by the hands and soul of an artist, these patterns in nature are dynamically formed according to a set of organizing principles.

Historically, Western science has viewed nature as constructed from a set of fixed laws that can predict almost anything through mathematics. The predictive equations of Newton and Kepler have sent men to the moon and have been powerful models in the fields of physics and chemistry. But, this “reductionist” worldview fails when addressing any complex system of interrelated phenomena and pattern. For example, the reductionist’s worldview of laws and equations cannot predict the complex behavior of biological systems like fish schools, stock market performance, the weather, and other patterns in nature.

The ancient Chinese described patterns in nature as systematic organizing principles instead of mathematical equations. This worldview, known as the Li (pronounced “lee”), has been around for millennia. The Li represents the organizing principles that underlie every aspect of the universe. Jeremy Lent’s blog says that: “Before a thing exists, there first must exist its principles of organization… The concept of the Li fills in a missing dimension to our Western reductionist worldview while bringing us closer to understanding all complex adaptive systems that include patterns in nature.” The idea of the Li is that it emphasizes a holistic understanding of the universe by examining its organizing principles rather than by studying individual behavior through mathematical models. Joseph Needham says “Li is in effect a Great Pattern in which all lesser patterns are included…”

Only in the last few years has modern science begun to embrace a holistic worldview to study interrelated phenomena. What has emerged is the examination of complex adaptive systems, self similarity (fractals), self organization, and chaos theory. These subjects all address the idea of systematic organizing principles. The fish school noted above was described in terms of its organizing principles (the organizational rule set for individual fish) rather than through equations and physical laws. The tool used by Western science to study these organizing principles is computer simulation rather than mathematical equations.

Jeremy Lent goes on to say that “This highlights a fundamental difference between Western mental constructs of the universe, with an external Lawmaker appointing order to the natural world and enforcing it, and the Chinese construct, where order arises from the intrinsic relationship between things in the universe ….. This is the same dynamic being discovered by Western complexity theorists and systems biologists in recent decades, as they investigate the principles of self-organization in the natural world.” This merging of Western and Eastern ideas serves to build a conceptual unity that will ultimately help define the internal dynamics of patterns in nature.

The question: “What is a pattern in nature?”, can be answered by turning to the Li. A pattern in nature is a set of dynamic organizing principles that, when applied, result in an interconnecting organic or inorganic form or process. Put another way, a pattern in nature is a connected set of interrelationships that are manifested in some form or function.

This definition of a pattern in nature by way of the Li is profound. For it describes a connection between all things in our universe. Not just a spiritual connection but also physical connections that are bound by real energy and real function. In thinking about the Li and its approach to defining patterns in nature, one begins to see a unity in nature where all things are somehow connected through their organizing principles. Patterns in nature are dynamic connecting interrelationships between everything. They are the manifestation of the fact that everything is connected.

Please comment with your ideas and views !!!

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.

2 Responses to “What Is A Pattern In Nature ?”

  1. Candace says:

    Hi Bill:
    Your writing is so clear. previously where I saw randomness you saw pattern. The woodcut was an excellent example of the interaction that occurs in nature. I do believe your spiritual nature is that of a mystic. As you say, Patterns a systemizing, organizing principal..a manifestion that of the fact that everything is connected. That is my belief as well.

    I don’t know the words to capture the changes in your photography. The shadows, some of the pictures look 3-d., sharpe, crisp. Really eye appealing..I think of National Geographic. I think you should submit an essay to SOME magazine. The pictures, the writing need a wider readership.

    I admire that you are doing something with your life.

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