Development through Alternation

3.6 Order through fluctuation: dissipative structures

Anthony Judge

Before considering the possible nature of such "containers", the work of Prigogine on "order through fluctuation" (38, 39) must be examined, especially in the light of Jantsch's efforts to establish its relevance to the self-organizing sociocultural systems central to human and social development.

(a) Non-equilibrium structures

Prigogine obtained the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his investigation of non-equilibrium systems which, in the words of the Nobel Committee, "created theories to bridge the gap between biological and social scientific fields of enquiry". It is evident that the world system is far from being in an equilibrium state or even near it. As Holling notes, for example: "An equilibrium-centred view is essentially static and provides little insight into the transient behaviour of systems that are not near the equilibrium....The present concerns for pollution and endangered species are specific signals that the well-being of the world is not adequately described by concentrating on equilibria or conditions near them." (20, p.73)

Unfortunately the tendency has been to focus on equilibrium research and, in the case of social systems, on visions of desirable societies formulated in equilibrium terms as "peaceful" Utopian end states. This is only realistic when dealing with closed systems exchanging nothing with whatever can be described as an "external" environment. As Jantsch notes "Equilibrium is the equivalent of stagnation or death" (21, p. 10). In the more realistic case of open systems, it is the high degree of non-equilibrium due to the presence of such exchanges which can maintain self-organizing processes that give rise to "dissipative" (non-equilibrium) structures.

(b) Fluctuations

Dissipative structures are associated with an entirely different ordering principle called "order through fluctuation". Such structures can in effect arise from the amplification of fluctuations resulting from instabilities which, in the case of the world system, for example, are perceived as the curse of orderly planetary policy-making and global programme management. Open systems in a state of sufficient non-equilibrium endeavour to maintain their capability for exchange with the environment by switching to a new dynamic regime whenever entropy production becomes stifled in the old regime.

Order may therefore increase, and the response to fluctuations is the less random the more degrees of freedom the system has (20, p. 38-39). Fluctuations on a sufficiently small scale are always damped by the medium. Conversely, once a fluctuation attains a size beyond a critical dimension, it triggers an instability (20, p. 119). There is no longer a consistent macroscopic description (39, p. 141), In the formation of dissipative structures, it is the fluctuations that drive the system to a new average macroscopic state with a different spatio-temporal structure. Instead of being simply a corrective element, the fluctuations become the essential element in the dynamics of such systems (20, pp. 93-96). Dissipative structures can therefore be considered as giant fluctuations whose evolution over time contains an essentially stochastic element (20, p. 93). Fluctuations play this critical role in macroscopic systems in the neighbourhood of bifurcations where the system has to "choose" between alternatives (39, p. 132). Given the situation of the world-system in the face of such alternatives, Prigogine's work merits careful attention.

(c) Unexpected global relations

Prigogine argues that dissipative structures present precisely the global aspect, the aspect of totality, which has been ascribed to the object of the synthetic sciences, including sociology (20, p. 95). This macro view is Important both in the temporal (historical) sense as well as in the usual spatial (structural) sense. As Jantsch notes:

"In a nonequllibriurn world of self-realizing, self-balancing systems, process and structure become complementary aspects of the same overall order of process, or evolution. As interacting processes define temporary structures - comparable to standing wave patterns in physics - so structures define new processes, which in turn give rise to new temporary structures. Where process carries the momentum of energy unfoldment, structure permits the focusing and acting out of energy. Only a macro view is capable of providing a perspective of history, or evolution of space-time structures; our current microscopic paradigms (e.g., quantum mechanics) do not deal with space-time coincidences." (20, p. 39)

Dissipative structures are very sensitive to global and historical characteristics that influence in a decisive way the type of instabilities by which the structures are engendered. For example, the occurrence of dissipative structures generally requires that the system's size exceed some critical value - a complex function of the parameters describing the interaction-diffusion process. Far from equilibrium, therefore, an essentially unexpected relation exists between the dynamics and the space-time structure of such systems. Instabilities near the critical point involve long-range order through which the system acts as a whole in spite of the short-range character of the interactions (39, pp. 103-4). The distribution of interactants is no longer random (39, p. 132). Chaos gives rise to order (39, p. 142), a phenomenon explored by Atlan (17). The oscillation frequency now becomes a well-defined function of the state of the whole system. Any instability then develops over time the periodicity of the limit cycles of fluctuation (39, p. 99). The determining importance of these global and historical dimensions recalls the preconditions for an adequate world-system type analysis (9).

(d) Complementary linkages

In order to be able to take form from instability, a dissipative structure requires a non-linear mechanism to function. It is this mechanism which is responsible for the instability amplification mechanism of the fluctuation. Dissipative structures thus form a bridge between function and structure (20, pp. 95, 39, p. 100) as portrayed by the following triad:

Determinism and fluctuation then play a complementary role in any description. In Jantsch's words, as applied to social systems:

"Process (or function) and structure, deterministic and stochastic features, necessity and chance (or free will), become complementary aspects in the self-organizing dynamics of "order through fluctuation" which may also be graphically depicted as a nonequilibrium system "stumbling forward" and crossing by its own force the ridges separating "valleys" of global stability". (20, p. 72)

Jantsch sees this essentially dualistic description as itself complemented by Rene Thorn's topological model seen as constituting the first rigorously formulated monistic model of life. Here instabilities (catastrophes) are responsible for mutations such that the deterministic and finalistic aspects are understood as complementary links in a temporal feedback cycle. Causality and finality become expressions of a pure topological continuity of self-balancing processes, viewed from opposite directions (40, p.41). In commenting on Abraham's (165) application of Thorn's work, Jantsch notes:

"A complementary approach, the theory of catastrophe..., focuses on the existence of multiple globally stable regimes (called macrons, and equivalent to dissipative structures) and the transitions (catastrophes) between them. Macrons are, at the present stage of the theory, represented by mathematical descriptions of their equilibrium state (attractors). Therefore, catastrophes appear as sudden quantum jumps, as if due to "pushes" by an outside force, comparable to a golf ball being propelled over a ridge by a single stroke. What is of central interest in this approach, is the landscape of new forms, the "epigenetic landscape", beyond the ridge." (20, p. 72)

Such a landscape is of special interest in perceiving the relationship between "answers". Each answer is then a macron (attractant) which determines the flow of attention. Answer domains are thus separated by "ridges", which prevent the effective flow of information from (or to) neighbouring "valleys". (The focus and preoccupation of other valleys is considered "irrelevant".) Answers can then be usefully seen as distributed over the landscape such as to ensure the most economic distribution of attention, or psycho-social tension, in a social system.

(e) Autopoiesis or organizational self-renewal

The basic conditions for the dynamic existence of non-equilibrium structures are therefore:

  • partial openness toward the environment
  • a macroscopic system state far from equilibrium
  • autocatalytic self-reinforcement of certain steps in the process chain.

The dynamics of such a globally stable, but never resting structure has been called "autopoiesis" (12), namely self-renewal regulated in such a way that the integrity of the structure is maintained. It is typical of biological and social organization. According to Jantsch: "Autopoiesis is an expression of the fundamental complementarity of structure and function, that flexibility and plasticity due to dynamic relations, through which self-organization becomes possible." (21, p. 10) According to Zeleny and Pierre:

"Autopoietic organization can be defined as a network of interrelated component-producing processes such that the components, through their interaction, generate recursively the same network of processes which produced them and thus realize the network of processes as an identifiable unity in the space in which the components exist. The product of an autopoietic system is necessarily always the system itself, its organization being continuously realized under permanent turnover of matter and energy." (20, p. 150)

Whereas: "Allopoietic organization, in contrast, can be defined as a network of interrelated component-producing processes such that it does not produce the components and processes which realize it as a unity." (20, p. 150)

Non-equilibirum systems evolve or develop through a sequence of autopoietic structures driven by the internal reinforcement of fluctuations (namely autocatalysis), eventually breaking through critical thresholds, as noted above. For Jantsch:

"In other words, the principle of creative individuality wins over the collective principle in this innovative phase. The collective will always try to damp the fluctuation and depending on the coupling of the subsystems, the life of the old structure may thereby be considerably prolonged. In the phase in which a new structure comes into being, the principle of maximum entropy production holds - no expenses are spared if the issue is the build-up of a new structure. However, it is not predetermined which structure will come into being. At each level of autopoietic existence, a new version of macroscopic indeterminacy comes into play. The future evolution of such a system cannot be predicted in an absolute way; it resembles a decision tree with truly free decision at each branching point. However, already at the level of chemical dissipative structures, such a system keeps the memory of its evolutionary path. If it is forced back, it retreats by the same way it has come through a sequence of autopoietic structures." (21, p. 11)

It would seem that there is much to be learnt from this perspective with reference to human and social development. In Jantsch's words again:

"...human systems with all their tangible and intangible aspects might then perhaps be regarded as dissipative structures, arising from the interaction of strong and highly nonequilibrium flows of ideas and actions. Their spatial organization would then be the result of processes of self-organization, or in other words the forms of periodicity built into human systems. This organization would be physical as well as psychic. Indeed, the borderline between both becomes blurred in the light of the emerging insight that information itself may have a self-organizing capacity, that a seed of information may engender more information and thus more order." (40, p. 60)