Self-Organization in Science and Society


Fall 2007  Course # STSH-4961-01 Mon-Thurs 12-2, Sage 3713. Instructor: Ron Eglash.



Self-organization has become an increasingly important phenomenon in both the natural sciences and engineering. Self-assembly of carbon nanotubes and self-replicating molecules are critical to nanotechnology; self-organizing swarms of insects are modeled in biology and robotics, 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 in both physical life and internet domains arise by self-assembly, and some decentralized indigenous societies build self-similar architecture. 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 math, computing or other prerequisites are required.


To contact instructor:

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



The following requirements and readings constitute the undergraduate syllabus. Graduates are not required to attend all class meetings, but are expected to produce more sophisticated STS analyses and extend readings along the lines of their interests. I will be happy to meet with grads individually or separately to help them meet that goal.


Evaluation will be based on the 4 short 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 papers should be about 3-5 pages (double-spaced, with proper citations), and are only “reflections” about the readings and discussion in class. 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 project papers must be written by individuals, but you are encouraged to work in groups on research projects that require more than one discipline (eg math and social science, or computing and ecology). Research project presentations may also be done by the group.




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.


Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means. Plume books 2003.


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


Part I: Fractals and self-organization in African material culture


August 27: Introduction to Self-Organization. Selections from film “fast cheap and out of control.”


Aug 30.


Sept 3 Labor day no classes


Sept 6


Sept 10


Sept 13  


Sept 17


Sept 20


Part II: Cooperation and Control


Sept 24 1st paper due.  


Sept 27


Oct 1


Oct 4


Oct 9 (tues is mon schedule)


Oct 11


Part III: Complexity


Oct 15 Second paper due.  


Oct 18


Oct 22


Oct 25


Part IV Networks and Social Technologies


Oct 29 Third paper due.

to create an adjacency matrix.


Nov 1


Nov 5


Nov 8  


Nov 12


Nov 15


Part V The Politics of Self-Organization


Nov 19 Fourth paper due.


Nov 22 no class (thanksgiving break)


Nov 26


Nov 29


Dec 3


Dec 6 Final 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