When I first started writing this piece a few months ago, I thought I'd write up a straightforward essay on an idea that I've read about and recently have come to appreciate on a deeper level through observation of some of the natural systems in place here. However, several months later, I find myself still trying to reconcile this essay with some kind of linear narrative. This essay is not that; instead it's become more of a Terence McKenna-style meditation that meanders all over the place but eventually comes to a conclusion, possibly a rewarding one. With that said, I hope you'll read on.
This idea that keeps coming up everywhere I turn these days is emergence--whether in relation to permaculture or artificial intelligence or climate change. Strictly speaking, emergence is, according to Wikipedia, "a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties." But the conceptual implications of emergence encompass much more than this definition.
Emergence is a phenomenon whereby the whole of a thing is greater than the sum of its parts, where the behavior of things cannot be explained when the parts are observed separately from the whole. It is the ghost in the machine, the animating and organizing principle that defines life itself, but which defies explanation by the categories of Cartesian dualism on which empiricism and science are founded. Yet emergence, natural intelligence, or complex adaptive systems, as some have characterized it, is the thing that drives evolution. Emergence is the operating system that Nature runs on and it's inherent in the logic of quantum physics, where observation of a system changes that system. Emergence, finally, is the last nail in the coffin of the anthropocentric worldview that has run for 400 years or so only to crash land amidst the detritus of our current Cartesian-Newtonian-econometric civilization.
I first became fascinated by the idea after reading Fritjof Capra's books, "The Web of Life" and "The Hidden Connections" a number of years ago. In his first book, "The Tao of Physics," Capra, a high-energy physicist by training, establishes parallels and connections between quantum physics and the eastern philosophies of Hindu thought, Taoism and Zen Buddhism. This laid the groundwork for his later investigations into the emergent systems and schools of thought dedicated to their research in "The Web of Life." In this book, Capra discusses the history of scientific and philosophical approaches dedicated to understanding "life at all levels of living systems--organisms, social systems, and ecosystems," beginning with the Romantics' rejection of Cartesian-Newtonian thought and encompassing discussions of cybernetics, systems theory, chaos theory, Lynn Margulis' work on evolutionary biology, James Lovelock's Gaia Theory, and the work of Santiago School cognitive scientists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana.
The common thread that binds geochemists, mathematicians, computer scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and cognitive scientists together is emergence. Again and again, we see how systems like our planetary atmosphere have "evolved" through a series of self-regulating feedback loops to optimally support life on earth (Gaia Theory); or how the body's immune system represents a sort of conscious network that learns from experience and evolves to fight threats to it (neuroimmunology); or how systems theory is being applied on the frontiers of artificial intelligence (machine learning).
While there are many paradigms of emergence in sci-fl literature and movies (think Skynet in the Terminator series), one of my favorites comes from Darren Aronofsky's debut "Pi." The film charts a mathematician's obsession with researching the number represented by Pi and his subsequent descent into insanity. The stark black-and-white cinematography of the film with its repetutive phrasing and harsh electronic soundtrack form a sort of narrative spiral, a Yeatsian gyre of expansion and ultimate collapse. Visually, this is represented throughout the film by the number Phi, or the Golden Ratio, the geometric and conceptual complement to the numeric infinity of Pi. Phi is represented visually throughout the film and is overtly discussed at one point with reference to the Fibonacci sequence.
Max Cohen, the film's protagonist, is subject to violent migraine headaches and lives in seclusion in a dingy New York apartment, where he conducts numbers research using a homemade computer called Euclid. His only social interaction is through visits to his mentor, mathematician Sol Robeson, where the two play the Asian game of Go, a game like chess but infinitely more complex in terms of possible outcomes. Interestingly, Go, with its black and white glass beads on a grid shaped board, has been used to demonstrate emergent concepts like cellular automata and the game of life, and has its own internal binary logic.
Cohen uses the stock market as a model his numbers reasearch and programs Euclid to make predictions. Euclid outputs a 216 digit number and a stock market pick before crashing (and bleeding out a white silicon goo). Max initially dismisses the significance of the number, but later realizes the number is the key to solving his own research, and implicitly to understanding all complex, emergent systems. Over the course of the rest of the movie, he is hounded for the number by a cult of Hasidic Jews and stock market investment houses, where his paranoia and obsession culminate with a self-administered lobotomy involving a power drill.
As visually brutal and disturbing as the narrative spiral of the movie is, there is an equally powerful poetic and artistic representation of the quest for understanding the underlying apparatus of reality, in this case through the dramatization and necessary simplification of a technician's approach using his chosen method of inquiry (mathematics). The film might just as easily have featured a biologist, or a physicist or a philosopher, like the obsessive genius portrayed in Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance."
The filmmaker Bernt Capra applied such an approach in the quieter and subtler but no less insightful "Mindwalk," based on his brother Fritjof's book "The Turning Point." In the film, a physicist, a poet, and a politician spend a day walking through the grounds of the medieval abbey of Mont St. Michel in France, which is the background for wide-ranging discussion on a number of topics, including systems theory. The film, through the varying perspectives of its three main characters, is representative of Fritjof Capra's hope for systems theory and its conceptual manifestation through emergent phenomena to become an interdisciplinary tool to unify and explain various fields of human inquiry.
The pre-eminent American biologist E.O. Wilson has covered similar territory in his book "Consilience" and some of his other works. Wilson argues that there is an epigenetic principle to human and animal social behavior. This behavior has a hereditary basis and supersedes the influence of culture on individual behavior, particularly to the extent that the individual represents on part of a much greater whole. Although my familiarity with Wilson's work is limited, his focus on the holistic basis of societies and culture as a culmination of evolutionary traits expressed at the the individual level suggests a type of emergent system.
The British scientist Richard Dawkins, in his first book "The Selfish Gene," covers similar territory to Wilson's, in his discussion of the evolutionary function of the individual within societies or species. One of the most fascinating concepts of Dawkins' is his peculiar "gene's eye view" of the world, in which human beings are not so much free agents as temporary containers for genetic material. Our impulses, decisions, elective actions, and even lofty notions like altruism, are not the products of free choice, but rather the biological imperatives of our genes, which are really in the driver's seat of human agency in the world.
More fascinating is Dawkins' discussion of the meme, a concept he popularized to describe self-propagating ideas or symbols. The meme is an abstraction and intellectualization of the physical function of a gene. Whereas a gene is a blueprint made out of DNA--a representative language of nucleotide combinations--which describe proteins, which form cells, which in turn form living organisms, the meme is an idea or a pattern which propagates itself virally through its relative appeal to its transmission vector (human consciousness).
Memes can range from trivial (the joke everyone is suddenly repeating), to epic ideas which advance the course of civilizations (world religions, the idea of the arch in building, the wheel, etc). The recognition of the meme as a unit of cultural reproduction analogous to the gene's role in nature suggests that ideas can evolve through the same mechanism that living organisms can.
This notion has powerful implications: For one, memes may represent a sort of counterweight to the role that genes play in human culture. While our genes and the evolutionary change log they carry with them may account for all the behaviors which kept homo sapiens alive and thriving till now, it is these behaviors that are now a liability to our future and that of many other species on this planet. Memes are ideas that affect our consciousness and its corresponding role in determining our agency in the world, sometimes as viscerally and powerfully as the genes that make up our biology.
On the flip side of this, there is what the computer scientist, futurist, and present head of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, calls "The Singularity," an inflection point in human history "where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans' ability to comprehend it." He envisions advances in computing technology, genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence as leading to a jumping off point, when humans transcend biology and where human consciousness will somehow live on forever as pure data.
As ridiculous and repellent as this idea seems to me, it represents another facet of emergence, albeit a black comedy version, where we're finally and totally owned by our stuff, the stuff humanity is bent on destroying the planet, our only habitat, to acquire. Of course, we'll have destroyed or used up all the things that make us human in the quest to transcend our own mortality.
The human experience, particularly the integration of the human project as we'll call it, and its own product, culture, with the rest of nature, is what defines the human experience. Humanity is iteslf an emergent phenomenon, as is our culture, but we cannot exist outside the context of nature and the ecological conditions that we've evolved from. The more we abstract ourselves from our engagement with the natural, sensual world that we are an integral part of, the less human we become.
Recently, I've watched in wonder as our bees work to build geometrically perfect honeycomb and transmit through body language the directions to food sources miles distant. I've puzzled over the mysteries of living soil, where plants, fungi, bacteria, and minerals form a network with its own intelligence that is far more than the sum of its parts. I've come to understand how transcendentalists and romantics like Emerson and Thoreau and Goethe could advocate for nature and the natural as a religion in its own right.
To borrow a phrase from the French philosopher Henri Bergson, emergence is the elan vital, the binding force in nature that ties the universe together. For better or worse, the universe (and everything in it) is greater than the sum of its parts.
Subscribe via RSS