I just finished reading the book Emergence by Steven Johnson.  It is a work of popular science that gives concrete examples of how small, unsophisticated systems can produce very complicated and adaptive larger systems.  Mr. Johnson writes about how many people believe that swarm insects, like bees and ants, work in a top-down structure where the queen orders around her massive armies to attain group goals but that just the opposite is true.  Ants are deeply independent, performing whatever duties they see fit.  They make their decisions based on the stimuli they come across totally independent of any other ants decision.  But because they all respond to stimuli in the same way a large system develops where all the needs are met.

This is an excellent argument for evolution, it shows us how seemingly too-complicated-to-randomly-emerge could actually emerge.  Scientists have used the same ideas to create computer systems that can evolve new programs and to explain the bizarrely competent behavior of slim molds coalescing in harsh environments.

Its an interesting way to have certain quandaries re-freamed.  It gives a mechanism for the complicated behavior of bird flocks and schools of fish that seemingly act in unison.  Could it describe human behaviors as well?  Mr. Johnson supposed that neighborhoods develop this way, one merchant moving to where similar merchants are.  Once established these neighborhoods seem to perpetuate themselves by continuing to be attractive to individual merchants.  Could this be how certain cities develop their own flavors?  Myself, making individual choices, moved to the Finger Lakes in NY because the people living here, creating the culture, were more like me than the rural Pennsylvanian town I moved from.  If lots of people make decisions like this than this area will continue to become like the people it attracts.

What other kinds of human behaviors could this explain?


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2 Responses to Emergence

  1. Dan says:

    this reminds me of the well-established, and growing, trend towards ‘blue’ areas becoming ‘bluer’ over the last few decades, as with ‘red’ areas. this might also be contributing to the growing political and cultural ‘ghettos’ in this country, and the overall growth in partisanship. i’m not sure that this is a new phenomenon, however: i see it as a very cyclical one. the characters of many of the meta-areas in our country were formed because of the types of areas from which people emigrated, and the types of people who chose to/were forced to move there. i think of the whiskey rebellions in the 1780’s, the long march to Civil War in the first half of the 19th century, the development of jim crow laws in the south which led to the ‘great migration’ of african-americans to the North, and the continuous story of immigration to, and around, our country, leading to great social upheaval..and then the civil rights movement, etc…and i laugh at the portents of doom that people fling about regarding the current divisions in our society. as this book claims, ‘clumping’ is just in our nature.

    although, i have to push back against his effort to make human decision-making as deeply instinctual as other animals/insects/plants/etc. i think that humans feel, at core, comfortable with other people who are like them, but i think that we also make very deliberate choices to associate with people who are like us…and also make very deliberate choices to NOT associate w/others like us. if human decision-making was as overwhelmingly instinctual as ants, for example, we might not be able to overcome it, and we’d be unable to ever truly associate with others not like us. that being said, he’s saying something obvious, and interesting; but so what. we suffer from the mob instinct…yet we also are capable of choosing to push against the mob. am i missing some greater point, or is this just another case of an author pulling a ‘malcolm gladwell’, where someone looks intelligent by saying something that everyone already knows?

    (my christian perspective feels compelled to point out that the evolution of ants towards this amazingly complex structure that just ‘works’ could simply be another example of god doing what god does best: creating the situation where beautiful order could eventually develop out of random chaos. then again, while i am a scientific evolutionist, i am a philosophical intelligent designer. don’t shoot me! 😀 )

    • I don’t think the book makes the claim that people are following interior scripts or demands in the same way ants are, and I didn’t mean to make that claim either. I just meant that very complicated systems can develop from the choices of individuals. Our choices can be entirely free and still help determine a larger pattern – the choices determine the pattern not the pattern the choices. I don’t think this is a malcolm gladwell thing, I hate malcolm gladwell. This was more about the biological patterns found in ants and slime molds and in how those are mirrored in human institutions such as cities and the media. It talks about positive and negative feedback loop which I found very interesting. Maybe it is obvious to some people but I felt it was a nice elocution of ideas I hadn’t really thought of before.

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