Self Organisation

Possibly the first person to recognise the importance of self-organisation was Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, although he did not call it by this name. He was studying complex economic systems, and the laws of supply and demand. His concept of competition implied so many buyers and sellers that no individual buyer or seller need be concerned about the actions of others. He said, in effect, leave the system alone, and let it organise itself, and he used the metaphor of the 'invisible hand'. He recognised very clearly that some government control of the system was necessary in order to prevent corruption, but he believed that this control should be kept to the essential minimum (see 10.3).

Adam Smith also understood that the self-organisation of a complex system involving thousands of people is based on the self-interest of each one of those people. A butcher does not sell meat out of concern for his customers. He sells it in order to earn a living. And if he is a good butcher, he is selling good meat as cheaply as possible, in order to improve his business. Similarly, a customer does not buy meat in order to help the butcher. Every individual in the system is acting out of self-interest, and the sole function of the external control is to ensure that abuses do not occur.

The phenomenon of self-organisation was first recognised as an important factor in scientific phenomena by Ilya Prigogine, a Russian who moved with his parents to Belgium at the age of twelve. He has lived in Belgium ever since, and he was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, on account of his contributions to non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

Complex adaptive systems, such as living systems, are able to adapt because they have this property of self-organisation. Self-organisation, or self-regulation, depends on feedback loops and, more specifically, on negative feedback loops. It also depends on very many feedback loops. This complexity corresponds to the ecological principle that diversity leads to stability.

Democracy is a good example of self-organisation. The checks and balances of a democratic system are the negative feedback that provides homeostasis. Over-control of the social system leads to inflexibility and a loss of self-organisation. Such an over-controlled system is liable to collapse from internal inefficiency. This internal inefficiency was seen repeatedly in the history of states such as ancient Egypt and China, which had hereditary monarchies in which the power of the monarch was absolute. Each dynasty became increasing inefficient from generation to generation of kings, until the social system collapsed entirely. It was then replaced with a new and vigorously efficient dynasty. Both Egypt and China maintained such fluctuating systems for some 3000 years, with the extremes of efficiency and inefficiency repeated every few centuries. This was the basis of the old Chinese curse "May it be you fate to live in interesting times". The social system was clearly unstable, but the instability was not readily apparent as it occurred over a period measured by some 5-10 human generations. In many other over-controlled social systems, the collapse from internal inefficiency was followed by a dark age.

Democracy, on the other hand, shows minor instabilities all the time, but it has long-term flexibility and stability.

Self-organisation is at its most obvious in human systems, such as the Stock Market, the Internet, or the food supply, when as many individuals as possible are providing input to the system. As we shall see, this is true also of crop improvement. When a minority of large institutes, or corporations, have a near-absolute control of the cultivars available to very many farmers, this corresponds to autocracy. Conversely, a wealth of plant breeding clubs, producing quantitative improvements in thousands of competing cultivars, corresponds to democracy. It also leads to both diversity and stability.

Some of the most remarkable examples of self-organisation in plant parasitism are the alternating (i.e., heteroecious) pathosystems described in Chapter Eight.

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