Self-Organization in Science and Society


Spring 2012  STSH 4580 Mon-Thurs 12-2, Carnegie 206. Instructor: Ron Eglash.

To contact instructor:
Office Hours: Mon 10:00-12:00 and by appointment, 5502 Sage. Email:, phone: 276-2048. Course webpage:

Self-organization has become an increasingly important phenomenon in both the natural sciences and engineering. Self-assembly of molecular structure is critical to nanotechnology; self-regulating ecosystems are modeled in biology, and so on. But recursive loops in which things govern themselves are also foundational to society: democracy is the people governing the people; social networks on the internet arise by self-assembly, and many indigenous societies use self-organization to create sustainable ways of life. This course will introduce students to models of self-organization in natural science and engineering, and examine their potential application to society, politics, and ethics. No prerequisites are required.

Learning Outcomes

Academic Honesty

While ideas are available to everyone, credit for ideas, and the particular text used to express them, belongs to their originator. Plagiarism occurs when a student attempts to pass the ideas or words of someone else as their own. It is surprisingly easy to do. For example, students who are not writing in their first language will sometimes try to use a sentence from another written text, simply because they are worried about their grammar. Plagiarism also occurs when a quotation is reworded in an attempt to avoid citation—always make sure the sources of your quotations are specifically cited. The internet makes plagiarism particularly tempting, since you can copy and paste from the web to your paper. Recycling your own paper from another course would not be plagiarism, but it would be academic dishonesty and thus subject to the same penalties, which include failing the course (a grade of “F”).

Special Needs
Please contact me if you have special needs such as disability or religious holidays.

Evaluation will be based on the 4 short “reading reflection” papers (10% each), the research project paper (30%), the research project presentation (10%), and class participation (20%). Note that the syllabus tells you the reading that will be discussed for that day. You need to have done the reading before you arrive, and you are required to bring the reading to class so that we can discuss the texts in detail. Many class sessions you will need your laptop as well to play with simulations and other tools.

Short papers and research project:
Short “reading reflection” papers should be about 5 pages (double-spaced, with proper citations); these allow you to demonstrate your understanding of the material. The final research project paper should be 8-10 pages (double-spaced, with proper citations); the instructor will help you find a suitable topic for your research.  Research projects can be done by groups, in which case the paper will be longer, and each individual is responsible for a different section of the paper. Working in a group is a great way to  bring together more than one discipline (eg math and anthropology, or computing and environmentalism). Research project presentations may also be done by the group.


Mitchell, Melanie. Complexity: a Guided Tour. Oxford University Press, 2009

Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing And Indigenous Design. Rutgers University Press1999

Kelly, Kevin. Out of control : the new biology of machines, social systems and the economic world. Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, 1995. Online at

Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Basic Books 2003.

Course Schedule:

Part I: Foundations of Self-Organization


Jan 23:
Lecture: intro to course
NOVA video:
Video discussion
Further examples in video:

Lectures: intro to self-org, history of self-org

Jan 26. Readings: Mitchell ch 1. Couzin, I.D. & Krause, J. (2003) Self-organization and collective behavior in vertebrates. Advances in the Study of Behavior 32, 1-75.

In class: wildebeest migration – start at 1:20 and observe how split evolves over time.
Flocking simulation at; others at

Jan 30
Reading: Mitchell ch 2, Eglash “Cybernetics and American Youth Subculture”: Nonlinear dynamics as low-dimensional self-organization. In-class experiments with:

Feb 2 Reading: Turnbull, D. “Rendering Turbulence Orderly.” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 25 , No. 1, 9-33. Feb., 1995
In class: Video, “The Strange New Science of Chaos.”

Feb 6 Mitchell ch 5, 18

Feb 9 Mitchell ch 7, 12

Feb 13 Mitchell ch 17. In class: Video “Hunting the Hidden Dimension”

Feb 16 Mitchell ch 8-10. In class: experiment with CA at or

Feb 20 – no classes

Part II: Applications in African Studies

Feb 23 --  1st paper due

 using simulations from math (Koch, Peano, etc) and nature (fern, acacia, etc.).

Feb 27

March 1

March 5  


March  8

March 12.  Spring break

March 15 Spring Break

March  19

Part III: Self-organization: from natural to social ecologies

Second paper due
March  22 Out of Control ch 1-4

March 26

March 29

April 2

April 5

In class:

April 9  (Guest lecture from David Banks)

April 12

April 16

April 19

Part V The Politics of Self-Organization

April 23 Third paper due.

April 26

April 30


May 3 Fourth paper due


May 7 Final (research) paper due.


Some texts you might find useful in your research projects for this course:

Politics of self-organization
Haila, Yrjö et al. How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition. Duke University Press 2006.

Chesters, Graeme and Welsh, Ian.  Complexity and Social Movements: Protest at the Edge of Chaos. Routeldge 2006.

Geyer, Robert Complexity, Science and Society, Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing 2007.

Complexity theory
R. Lewin, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1992

Complexity: the Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by Mitchell M. Waldrop 1992

How Nature Works: the Science of Self-organized Criticality by P. Bak

At Home in the Universe : the Search for Laws of Self-organization and Complexity by Stuart Kauffman

Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity by John H. Holland

The Computational Beauty of Nature: Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos, Complex Systems and Adaptation by Gary William Flake

Recursion and self-replication
Hofstadter, D. R., Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, NY: Basic Books, 1979.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004;

Six Degrees : the Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts