Emergence is The New Amazing Field of Science

This fascinating look at complex systems is raising eyebrows

If you have dabbled in philosophy, then perhaps you are already familiar with the term ‘emergence.’ It comes from the idea that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ which many people claim was first derived in the mind of Aristotle.

This exciting and relatively new science focuses on how simple organisms demonstrate an ability to self-organize into complex systems. For instance, when we observe behaviors within birds, fish, ants, and other animals, we see a sense of order emerge from chaos — clearly indicating that the collective sum is smarter and more productive than its individual parts.

Emergence is The New Amazing Field of Science
Slime mold

When slime mold became the trendsetter

One amazing example of emergence in nature is slime mold. It is completely made up of individual single-celled organisms, which move as a mass of individuals rather than an organized team. Even more fascinating is that slime mold has no focal point of authority that governs its hierarchy.

Order in the slime mold community is established from the common need for food. Whenever food becomes scarce, these single entities join together and behave as a single organism. Conversely, when food becomes abundant again, this orderly group becomes single individuals again. Thus, slime mold is a straightforward model for how emergence occurs in nature.

After several decades, scientists discovered that individual slime mold organisms begin secreting a pheromone that conveys messages to other community members when there is an environmental change. The group gradually grows and secretes more pheromone until it is large enough to accomplish the needed tasks.

Emergence is The New Amazing Field of Science
bee swarm

Discovering the principles of emergence

After scientists discover this phenomenon of self-organizing within nature, they started seeing it everywhere. For instance, it was observed in ant colonies, in the formation of suburban communities, the swarming behavior in fish and birds, and also thoughts that form inside the human brain.

Experts first sought to learn the common elements found within these complex systems. While the single building blocks of a complex system are quite simple, when they join together, they demonstrate an ability to overcome challenging obstacles — and they do so without the leadership of a central authority.

This ability is the very foundation of emergence — the creation of complex systems from relatively simple interactions. Whenever we begin with a simple single entity that cannot perform a complex task, logic tells us that adding more of those single entities would only result in more chaos. But in the world of emergence, the exact opposite is taking place.

The two flavors of emergence

The field of emergence comes in two different forms: emergent behaviors or emergent structures. Emergent behaviors pertain to the activity of a group of individuals, like the swarming of birds or fish, and even the work ethic found in a colony of ants. Emergent structures refer to observed patterns, such as how a city neighborhood is laid out, or how a school of fish is shaped, or how an ant colony is structured.

Scientists have just started to learn that emergence can have certain properties. As they come to terms with its sometimes counterintuitive nature, they can sometimes predict complex systems’ behavior, even those that seem to defy all expectations.

Emergence is The New Amazing Field of Science
Depiction of Entropy Increasing

Does emergence violate the second law of thermodynamics?

Many people describe emergent behaviors as spontaneous activities toward a state of order. The second law of thermodynamics claims that systems will always move toward a state of disorder. But when we observe single-celled organisms like slime mold join together and function as an organized unit, this appears to contradict this law completely.

This is not the first time that biological systems have challenged the second law of thermodynamics. As life evolves to changing conditions to survive, it poses a challenge to this law.

But in this case, defenders of the second law argue that while it does state that the order of a system must decrease, it doesn’t say when, where, and how. They then point out that emergent communities like slime mold become disordered again after achieving its objective as a collective group. Therefore, it is not defying the second law — not everyone agrees.

Required ingredients of emergence

To observe emergence in nature, certain requirements must be in place. To begin with, there must be a sufficient quantity of individual units. A handful of individuals usually don’t show emergent patterns, but thousands of them do. The whole system has to be observed to witness a pattern or structure of emergence.

Interestingly, the simple nature of the individual units is essential in the emergent world. In fact, the more ignorant they are, the better. Consider how computers are built using the basic binary system of ones and zeros. If any of its components become too smart, they will make decisions based on their own needs and not the system’s needs.

Emergence is also dependent on random encounters and actions. Much like the sampling methods that statisticians use in their studies, if their samples are not random, then biases will be introduced into their results. Emergent behavior relies heavily on these haphazard interactions; otherwise, its biases might refuse to recognize needs or dangers to the group.

Finally, local information gathered from individual units eventually becomes wisdom for the entire community. It begins with single units sharing data with one another, rather than with a community leader, and the network gradually begins to act for the common good of the entire group.

Emergence is The New Amazing Field of Science
Ants busy at work

Ant colonies

We often view humans as the most productive and most successful of all earthly creatures, but many argue that ants would fiercely disagree with that assessment. While we humans can speak, write, and read, ants have mastered a chemical language that tells them about food sources, assignment of tasks, and even when it is time to bury one of their dead friends.

Ant colonies can be massive, reaching populations of around 20 million individual ants. While we can easily kill one single ant, they are not defenseless at all when they unite.

Their colonies are often better organized than most of our cities, as they have strategically planned out their cemeteries, the locations of their trash heaps, and there’s even an underground bunker for the protection of their queen.

The moniker of the queen ant is somewhat of a myth. Unlike a traditional human monarchy, she has very little power over her subjects. She cannot tell them what to do, organize their activities, and has no influence at all on their behavior. The queen is only there to give birth to new ants — other than this; she is at the mercy of the entire colony.

The amazing ant colony has managed to function in a complex and organized environment without a central leader. No one member of the colony can make decisions or guide the colony, but each of them understands the language of pheromones. Some 10 or 20 chemical signals tell ants things like who must forage, where the food is located, or when danger is present. These chemical signals are not only present on their bodies, but they are also found on the trails the ants leave behind as they go about their daily work.