Emergence is the process of complex pattern formation from simpler rules. This can be a dynamic process (occurring over time), such as the evolution of the human brain over thousands of successive generations; or emergence can happen over disparate size scales, such as the interactions between a macroscopic number of neurons producing a human brain capable of thought (even though the constituent neurons are not themselves conscious). For a phenomenon to be termed emergent it should generally be unexpected and unpredictable from a lower level description. Usually the phenomenon does not exist at all or only in trace amounts at the very lowest level. Thus, a straightforward phenomenon such as the probability of finding a raisin in a slice of cake growing with the portion-size does not generally require a theory of emergence to explain. It may however be profitable to consider the emergence of the texture of the cake as a relatively complex result of the baking process and the mixture of ingredients.

There is no consensus amongst scientists as to how much emergence should be relied upon as an explanation. It does not appear possible to unambiguously decide whether a phenomenon should be classified as emergent, and even in the cases where classification is agreed upon it rarely helps to explain the phenomena in any deep way. In fact, calling a phenomenon emergent is sometimes used in lieu of any better explanation.

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The Principle of Emergence

Emergent properties

An emergent behaviour or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective. The property itself is often unpredictable and unprecedented, and represents a new level of the system's evolution. The complex behaviour or properties are not a property of any single such entity, nor can they easily be predicted or deduced from behaviour in the lower-level entities. The shape and behaviour of a flock of birds or school of fish are good examples.

One reason why emergent behaviour occurs is that the number of interactions between components of a system increases combinatorially with the number of components, thus potentially allowing for many new and subtle types of behaviour to emerge. For example, the possible interactions between groups of molecules grows enormously with the number of molecules such that it is impossible for a computer to even count the number of arrangements for a system as small as 20 molecules.

On the other hand, merely having a large number of interactions is not enough by itself to guarantee emergent behaviour; many of the interactions may be negligible or irrelevant, or may cancel each other out. In some cases, a large number of interactions can in fact work against the emergence of interesting behaviour, by creating a lot of "noise" to drown out any emerging "signal"; the emergent behaviour may need to be temporarily isolated from other interactions before it reaches enough critical mass to be self-supporting. Thus it is not just the sheer number of connections between components which encourages emergence; it is also how these connections are organised. A hierarchical organisation is one example which can generate emergent behaviour (a bureaucracy may behave in a way quite different to that of the individual humans in that bureaucracy); but perhaps more interestingly, emergent behaviour can also arise from more decentralized organisational structures, such as a marketplace. In some cases, the system has to reach a combined threshold of diversity, organisation, and connectivity before emergent behaviour appears.

Systems with emergent properties or emergent structures may appear to defy entropic principles and the second law of thermodynamics, because they form and increase order despite the lack of command and central control. This is possible because open systems can extract information and order out of the environment.

Emergence helps to explain why the fallacy of division is a fallacy. According to an emergent perspective, intelligence emerges from the connections between neurons, and from this perspective it is not necessary to propose a "soul" to account for the fact that brains can be intelligent, even though the individual neurons of which they are made are not.

Emergent behavior is also important in games and game design. For example, the game of poker, especially in no limit forms without a rigid betting structure, is largely driven by emergent behavior. For example, no rule requires that any player should fold, but usually many players do. Because the game is driven by emergent behavior, play at one poker table might be radically different from that at another, while the rules of the game are exactly the same. Variations of games that develop are examples of emergent metaplay, the predominant catalyst of the evolution of new games.

Emergent structures in Nature

Emergent structures are patterns not created by a single event or rule. There is nothing that commands the system to form a pattern, but instead the interactions of each part to its immediate surroundings causes a complex process which leads to order. One might conclude that emergent structures are more than the sum of their parts because the emergent order will not arise if the various parts are simply coexisting; the interaction of these parts is central.

A biological example is an ant colony. The queen does not give direct orders and does not tell the ants what to do. Instead, each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scent from larvae, other ants, intruders, food and build up of waste, and leaves behind a chemical trail, which, in turn, provides a stimulus to other ants. Here each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant. Despite the lack of centralized decision making, ant colonies exhibit complex behavior and have even been able to demonstrate the ability to solve geometric problems. For example, the ant colonies routinely find the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies.

Besides emergence in ant colonies, which is like other emergent structures in social insects mainly based on pheromones and chemical scents, emergence can be observed in swarms and flocks. Flocking is a well-known behavior in many animal species from swarming locusts to fish and birds. Emergent structures are a favorite strategy found in many animal groups: colonies of ants, piles of termites, swarms of bees, flocks of birds, herds of mammals, shoals/schools of fish, and packs of wolves.

Emergent structures can be found in many natural phenomena, from the physical to the biological domain. The spatial structure and shape of galaxies is an emergent property, which characterizes the large-scale distribution of energy and matter in the universe. Weather phenomena with a similar form such as hurricanes are emergent properties, too. Many speculate that consciousness and life itself are emergent properties of a network of many interacting neurons and complex molecules, respectively.

Life is a major source of complexity, and evolution is the major principle or driving force behind life. In this view, evolution is the main reason for the growth of complexity in the natural world.

There is also a view that the beginning and development of evolution itself can be regarded as an emergent property of the laws of physics in our universe.

Emergent systems in Culture and Engineering

Emergent processes or behaviours can be seen in many places, from any multicellular biological organism to traffic patterns, cities or organizational phenomena in computer simulations and cellular automata. The stock market is an example of emergence on a grand scale. As a whole it precisely regulates the relative prices of companies across the world, yet it has no leader; there is no one entity which controls the workings of the entire market. Each agent, or investor, has knowledge of only a limited number of companies within their portfolio, and must follow the regulatory rules of the market. Through the interactions of individual investors the complexity of the stock market as a whole emerges.

Popular examples for emergence are Linux and other open source projects, the World Wide Web (WWW), and the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Emergence is, besides the efforts of the Wikipedia founders Jim Wales and Larry Sanger, the major reason for the great success of Wikipedia. All of these decentralized and distributed projects are not possible without a huge number of participants and volunteers. No participant alone knows the whole structure, everyone knows and edits only a part, although everybody has the feeling of participating in something larger than themselves. The top-down feedback increases motivation and unity, the bottom-up contributions increase variety and diversity. This unity in diversity causes the complexity of emergent structures.

Emergent structures appear at many different levels of organization. Emergent self-organization appears frequently in cities where no planning or zoning entity predetermined the layout of the city. The interdisciplinary study of emergent behaviours is not generally considered a homogeneous field, but divided across its application or problem domains.

Emergence in physics

In physics, emergence is used to describe a property, law, or phenomenon which occurs at macroscopic scales (in space or time) but not at microscopic scales, despite the fact that a macroscopic system can be viewed as a very large ensemble of microscopic systems. Some examples include:

  1. Color. Elementary particles such as protons or electrons have no color; it is only when they are arranged in atoms that they absorb or emit specific wavelengths of light and thus be said to have a color. (Note that while quarks have a characteristic which has been labeled color charge by physicists, this terminology is merely figurative and has no actual relation with the everyday concept of color.)
  2. Friction. Elementary particles are frictionless, or more precisely the forces between these particles are conservative. However, friction emerges when considering more complex structures of matter, whose surfaces can absorb energy when rubbed against each other. Similar considerations apply to other emergent concepts in continuum mechanics such as viscosity, elasticity, tensile strength, etc.
  3. Classical mechanics. The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses. This may be thought of as puzzling, because quantum mechanics is generally thought of as more complicated than classical mechanics- whereas lower level rules are generally less complicated (or at least less complex) than the emergent properties.
  4. Statistical Mechanics. Statistical Mechanics was initially derived using the concept of a large enough ensemble that fluctuations about the most likely distribution can be all but ignored. Consequently, some concepts have to be modified or abandoned entirely for microscopic systems in which fluctuations become (relatively) sizable and important for a true description of the systems. For instance, small clusters do not exhibit sharp first order phase transitions such as melting, and at the boundary it is not possible to completely categorize the cluster as a liquid or solid, since these concepts are (without extra definitions) only applicable to macroscopic systems.

Temperature is sometimes used as an example of an emergent macroscopic behavior. In classical dynamics,. a snapshot of the instantaneous momenta of a large number of particles at equilibrium is sufficient to find the average kinetic energy per degree of freedom which is proportional to the temperature. For a small number of particles the instantaneous momenta at a given time are not statistically sufficient to determine the temperature of the system. However, using the ergodic hypothesis, the temperature can still be obtained to arbitrary precision by further averaging the momenta over a long enough time. Also, the (constant temperature) canonical distribution is perfectly well defined even for one particle.

In some theories of particle physics, even such basic structures as mass, space, and time are viewed as emergent phenomena, arising from more fundamental concepts such as the Higgs boson or strings. In some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the perception of a deterministic reality, in which all objects have a definite position, momentum, and so forth, is actually an emergent phenomenon, with the true state of matter being described instead by a wavefunction which need not have a single position or momentum.

In distinction to the behavioural sciences, an emergent property need not be more complicated than the underlying non-emergent properties which generate it. For instance, the laws of thermodynamics are remarkably simple, even if the laws which govern the interactions between component particles are complex. The term emergence in physics is thus used not to signify complexity, but rather to distinguish which laws and concepts apply to macroscopic scales, and which ones apply to microscopic scales.

It should be emphasized that in each of these cases, while an emergent phenomenon at the macroscopic scale does not directly exist at the microscopic scale, its existence at macroscopic scales can still be explained (perhaps after a substantial amount of rigorous or semi-rigorous mathematical analysis) by the laws of physics at microscopic scales, taking into account the interactions between all the microscopic components of a macroscopic object. Thus, emergent phenomena can demonstrate why a reductionistic physical theory, viewing all matter in terms of its component parts, which in turn obey a relatively small number of laws, can hope to model complex objects such as living beings. However, by the same token, emergent phenomena serve to caution against greedy reductionism, because the microscopic explanation of an emergent phenomenon may be too complicated or "low-level" to be of any practical use. For instance, if chemistry is explainable as emergent from interactions in particle physics, cell biology as emergent from interactions in chemistry, humans as emergent from interactions in cell biology, civilizations as emergent from interactions of humans, and human history as emergent from interactions between civilizations, this does not imply that it is particularly easy or desirable to try to explain human history in terms of the laws of particle physics. (This has not dissuaded some people from hypothesizing that highly complex, emergent phenomena such as human history can be described in terms of simpler laws which are more commonly associated to more fundamental theories. See for instance the theory of Kondratiev waves, or the fictional science of psychohistory.

See also


Complex Adaptive System


  • Harold J. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex (2002) Oxford University Press, ISBN 019513513X
  • Armand Delsemme, Our Cosmic Origins: From the Big Bang to the Emergence of Life and Intelligence (1998) Cambridge University Press
  • John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, The Major Transitions in Evolution (1997) Oxford University Press, ISBN 019850294X

External links

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