Nature’s Organizing Principles
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” …the specific set of particles that comprise my body and brain are completely different from the atoms and molecules that comprised me only a short while ago. … most of our cells are turned over in a matter of weeks. Even those that persist longer (like neurons) nonetheless change their component molecules in a matter of weeks.  So I am a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago. All that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff.” - Ray Kurzweil

A very basic principle that can be both intuitively and logically shown is that all of Nature’s objects, large and small, are connected to other objects in Nature. Ecosystems are a good example. The interconnections of creatures and inanimate objects within ecosystems are what defines a given environment. These connections define how the ecosystem is organized. Put another way, we can say that that Nature is described by the organizing principle that all things are connected.

I recently discovered a wonderful blog by Jeremy Lent that brought everything into focus for me. Jeremy has studied the Ancient Chinese Neo-Confucian concept of “li”. He says that the idea behind li is that Nature can be described in terms of its organizing principles. “Li” is a Chinese word that refers to the underlying intelligence and order of Nature. Jeremy  notes that the li is a set of ‘organizing principles’ that form Nature’s patterns.  He also points out that:

“..modern scientific thinkers are arriving at their own realization of the the importance of the li…they just haven’t found a name for it yet”

So, we can say that connections between things in Nature are the organizing principles, the “patterns of organization”,  that bring together patterns in Nature. In Kurzweil’s illustration, the organizational information is stored in our genetic database.


All of this may seem a bit lofty and philosophical. However, the seemingly spontaneous creation of order that results from Nature’s organizing principles, is present all around us. We see it in bee hives, ant colonies, termite mounds, fish schools, bird flocks, animal herds, and human crowds.


In all cases, the resulting organization does not have an appointed leader. A good example is a fish school which operates using  a set of organizing principles. Each individual fish within the system behaves according to a fixed set of five rules that tell it how to move when its nearest neighbors move.

* Cohesion – Move toward the average position of my nearest neighbors.
* Alignment – Move in the same direction as my nearest neighbors.
* Separation – Maintain a minimum distance from my nearest neighbors.
* Predator Avoidance – If a predator gets too close to me, move away from him.
* Obstacle Avoidance – If I get too close to an obstacle, move away from it.

The result these inbred individual rules is a behavior of the school that an individual acting alone could never accomplish. The school represents a global behavior caused by local interactions of individuals in the system’s population. In the early 1980s, Brian Partridge and others performed studies on fish visual abilities and their pressure sensing lateral lines. They showed that fish do sense and keep a distance from their nearest neighbors.

Connectivity between an individual fish and its nearest neighbors is essential if a school is to exist. In the case of fish schools, the connection between individual fish is the effects of each individual’s sensory organs that define proximity. The phenomena of this emergent behavior in fish schools and other groups is one form of proof that patterns in Nature are connected and that organizing principles suggested by the Neo-Confician li do exist..

In the video shown here we see a living super-organism — a real school of fish constantly changing shape as it responds to the actions of a predator. Yet, the behavior of the school is defined solely by the actions of individual fish who are each following a set of swimming rules that relate only to their nearest neighbors. This video is an example of how the emergent behavior of a system equals more than the sum of the parts.

Now, ask yourself this question. If you are able to look at Nature as a set of connected organizing principles, what will happen if man tampers  with Nature’s organization? What will happen if we block Nature’s rivers and streams with dams? What if our cities draw off the water for human use from Nature’s underground supply? What will happen when we block the sun with our pollutants? Look at these questions in terms of the consequences – how man’s actions will alter or destroy Nature’s connections. How will the destruction of these connections, organized in a specific way by Nature, affect mankind? 

Thanks for reading this blog post. The purpose for these blogs is to develop a dialog between myself and my readers. You are encouraged to offer your comments in the space provided below.

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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.

5 Responses to “Nature’s Organizing Principles”

  1. shannon Jones says:

    Hi Bill,
    I am finished with my copy and would be happy to send it to you.

  2. shannon Jones says:

    Bill, A book you might enjoy.

    Learning to Listen to the Land

    Edited by Bill Willers

    Foreword by David Brower

    • Thanks for the suggestion Shannon. Although highly recommended, It is a 1991 book and seems a bit difficult to get. I will try to buy a copy. Another book with a similar format of interviews (with some of the same people) is “Listening To The Land” by Derrick Jensen. This book is available even on Kindle. I’m thinking about summarizing ideas from this book in future blog posts.

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