Erich Jantsch

The Theory of Dissipative Structures




This text is taken from Design for Evolution, Chapter 4 : Human Systems and Self-Organization .



The theory of dissipative structures, first conceived in the realm of physics, seems to transcend all boundaries set by the nature of systems and, indeed, constitute a general theory of the dynamics of systems — in the physical as well as in the nonphysical realm, for animate as well as inanimate matter. This is a hypothesis at present, but one which seems to hold the central paradigm that permits the extension of the concept of evolution over all aspects of reality, including humanity and its systems. In a future physical analogue for social science, 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 and free interaction, as would be their temporal organization, or in other words the forms of periodicity built into human systems. This organization would be well 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 (Tobias, 1973)

I am not suggesting here any reductionism of human systems in terms of individual beliefs, ideas, and actions. Rather, I am suggesting an evolutionary process within human systems whose fine structure shows a multiplicity of ideas, initiatives, and relations struggling to life and their selection being governed by an evolutionary law effective in the system in question as a variational principle or in any other form. In times of a widely shared cultural basic, such an evolutionary principle acts in a highly selective, almost deterministic way, whereas in times of cultural flux there is a confusing pluralism of noetic life advancing on a broad front. As humans shape the systems in and through which they live, they are in turn shaped by their human systems.

Understanding human systems in terms of dissipative structures would provide a theoretical basis not only for social and cultural organization (as role playing and multiple membership also do) but for self-organization toward higher states of systems organization. Such a theory would also deal with the effects of introducing, or adding, instability to human systems. It may become capable of explaining cultural mutations that so far have seemed to defy any explanation in terms of energy flow (or the exertion of power). Weak and defeated countries often play out their culture as an element of instability to which the powerful and victorious countries become exposed — with the result of a mutation in the latter. A nonequilibrium social theory (including economic and political aspects) would also find an extremely fruitful field of study in the question of what type of instability ought to be introduced deliberately, and when. The whole value structure embedded in conventional social science and emphasizing stability would become reversed in a new “nonequilibrium social science” geared to the understanding and furthering of self-organization in an evolutionary perspective!

Such a perspective would come natural to human systems which even powerfully enforced religions or ideological models cannot close off for too long a period. In a human system, individual membership changes because people die, and new aspirations and ideas enter continuously from within the system. Human systems have memories which hold not only images from the past but also images of the future which introduce the most powerful fluctuations upsetting any mechanistic stability. These images of the future play an important role in a type of autocatalytic process I shall develop in the following chapters and shall call the human design process. But human systems are quite generally characterized by a large variety of autocatalytic processes, or positive feedback loops, bearing on economic as well as on physical, social, and cultural aspects. Stability is not a notion which might govern human systems over very long periods. This insight is just another expression of the recognition that systems of high complexity trade stability for richness in adaptability (Laszlo, 1972 a). The strong coupling between subsystems (in particular through lively communication) leads to conditions for metastability which become more favorable with higher complexity; human systems may be suspected to be generally in a metastable state (Prigogine, 1974 b) and thus “ready” for mutation once the fluctuations attain critical size.

In fact, the Prigogine principle of “order through fluctuations” may well be empirically discovered in many well-researched aspects of human system dynamics. The basic characteristics are the as in the physical realm: A human system, stifled by high entropy, absorbs energy or information inputs (fluctuations) which cause it to fluctuate and eventually mutate to a new dynamic regime. In the new regime, entropy production is first very high due to internal coordination with the aim of forming a new structure corresponding to the dynamic regime, and subsequently becomes governed by economic criteria — minimum entropy production in an external, Darwinian process of competing with other systems in a shared environment. The graphic representation (see Figure) holds in the same form for physical and human systems.

Figure. "Order through fluctuation." Sufficiently non­equilibrium systems (dissipative structures) mutate toward new dynamic regimes, which may be at a higher state of complexity, if random fluctuations are introduced. The new regime restores the system's capability for entropy production, which is first high and decreases with rising entropy during each dynamic regime.

To illustrate this, I shall consider three examples:

If a city's traffic arteries become clogged, a new freeway introduces a new dynamic regime. When the new freeway opens, much entropy is produced by the restructuring of communication processes, with more people driving into town than before and new patterns of business, service, and leisure activities developing. In not too long a time the new regime will have run into high entropy again and become clogged.

As a second example, I imagine an office in government or business which operates in a dull, bureaucratic spirit, which is the same as saying it operates in a state of high entropy. Into this office breaks a newcomer, a bright and ambitious young man, straight from the university where he has toyed with many ideas he now wants to test in real life. If the office is an equilibrium system, with everybody sharing the wish to operate in a minimal way and to resist change, the young man will be recognized as an intruder and become encapsulated, or transferred at the first occasion. If, however the situation is of a sufficiently nonequilibrium character, with tensions and dissatisfactions smoldering under the surface, the arrival of the young man may easily trigger a jump to a new and more ambitious form of life and work in the office. After an initial exciting period of innovative ideas and the formation of synergistic links among the people, things may settle down again to a new, increasingly dull routine — until the next intruder arrives.

Finally, let us consider a revolution in a country in which the hard grip of power had been felt. Entropy is usually high in a dictatorial political system — it is not the degree of "law and order" which is essential here (a high degree of "law and order" would then suggest low entropy), but the degree to which the creativity of its individual members can unfold and contribute freely to the life of the system. A dictatorial regime is always very narrow in the contributions it is ready to absorb. Thus, entropy is high and the blocked creativity, in the form of rebellious or merely neurotic behavior, introduces fluctuations which eventually lead to a mutation, a revolution. Never is the world so beautiful as on the first morning after a revolution. Everything seems possible, and "everybody" is called upon to contribute to building a new human system of creative processes, with a new dynamic regime as unstructured and open as possible. But much of the initial enthusiasm is subsequently channeled into building specific structures, power builds up in a new configuration, the options and the welcome forms of creative contribution are narrowed down, and entropy builds up again.

The last example suggests an interesting insight into the role of complexity in human systems. If order is considered to be equivalent to the amount of information required to describe it, a mutation in a human system increases order, or complexity, whereas power tends to decrease it. Quite generally, we may recognize here a basic equivalence of power and entropy, which may also be translated into an equivalence of rigid structure and entropy. In this book I shall repeatedly return to the emerging guiding principle of a new approach to the design of human systems, focusing on maximum flexibility and, to the extent possible, on freely interacting processes instead of structure. Such an approach facilitates the self-organization of higher complexity and thus a higher form of life for the system in question. It gives the evolutionary mechanism of "order through fluctuation" an optimal chance.

It also becomes clear from these examples that internal and external factors of evolution form a peculiar bond in the hierarchy of the human systems from individuals to social systems, cultures, and beyond. They are different aspects of the same process. What appears as competition, or external (Darwinian) selection, at the level of individuals, becomes coordination, or internal selection at the next higher level of a social system. External interaction among individuals lays the internal foundation for a new system regime I shall return to this principle and formulate it in a more general way. Here, I wish merely to point out that “order through fluctuation” seems to be a basic mechanism penetrating all hierarchical levels of human systems and responsible for the mutation in organizations, institutions, and cultures as well as in the overall dynamic regimes of mankind at large, which evolved from hunting and fruit collecting to primitive agriculture all the way to our current global system of cooperation.




Tobias, Cornelius A. (1973), Human and Scientific Concepts of Time. Lecture presented at the University of California, Berkeley, March 1973.

Laszlo, Ervin (1972 a) Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought, New York, Gordon and Breach.

Prigogine, Ilya (1974 b) Stability, Fluctuations, and Complexity. Brussels. Manuscript.


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