Emergence – How Stupid Things Become Smart Together

An ant is pretty stupid. She has no big brain, no will, no plans, and yet many ants together become intelligent. An ant colony can build complex structures. Some colonies have mushroom farms, others raise aphids. They can also declare wars or defend themselves.

How is it possible ? How can a bunch of silly little things do smart things together? 

This phenomenon is called "emergence", and it’s one of the most fascinating and mysterious features of our universe. In short, it describes how little things form bigger things that have different properties than the sum of their original components. Emergence is the complexity arising from simplicity, and emergence is absolutely everywhere Water has very different properties from the molecules that compose it, like the concept of humidity. Take for example a wet garment. If you zoom in enough, there’s no humidity. There are only molecules placed between the atoms of the tissue. Humidity is an emerging property of water. A new property, created by multiple individual interactions between water molecules. And that's about it.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Many elements interact according to a set of rules, creating something more complex. But the phenomenon does not stop there. This new property is itself a new thing and can combine with other new things to repeat the process. We can imagine this phenomenon as a stack of several layers, where each new layer would be more complex than the previous one. Atoms form molecules. Molecules form proteins, and proteins form cells. Cells form organs. Organs make up people. People form societies.

But how can something be more than the sum of its components?

 How do ants form the kind of nebulous entity that is a colony? By following rules that create order out of chaos. Let's look for example at how an ant colony distributes tasks. Suppose a colony must have 25% workers, 25% nurses, 25% female warriors and 25% female gatherers. Ants communicate their work with chemicals. For example, worker ants constantly secrete substances that mean, "I am a worker." When an ant encounters another ant, they feel each other to exchange information, indicate their work and what they are doing. Both will remember who they have met before. Now imagine that an anteater kills most pickers. If the problem is not resolved quickly, the colony will starve. Many worker ants need to change jobs.

But how do you tell the thousands of others? 

It's simple: don't do it. Our worker will always meet and smell other ants, but she will hardly meet any picker. She will have too few pickers until she reaches a critical point, which will cause her to change jobs. The worker becomes a picker. The other ants will do the same until there are enough pickers. Balance is restored by itself. The actions and interactions of an individual are random. You cannot predict who will meet whom. But a simple set of rulers is so elegant that the operations of a colony emerge naturally. On an even more fundamental level, hundreds of millions of complicated molecules interact to maintain a robust and incredible structure. A being emerges, with properties vastly different than the sum of its dead components. The smallest living unit: the cell. We still don't really know what life is, we just know that it comes out of dead things. Cells combine and cooperate. They specialize and communicate with each other, and in the long run, we develop into complex organisms, with remarkable capacities. Your arms, legs and heart are incredibly complex systems, made up of trillions of silly things. … And yet we breathe, digest and watch YouTube videos.

How do our cells know what to do? 

Take the cardiomyocytes in your heart.Billions of them have to send a dead pulse at the right time to collectively generate a heartbeat. Our cells exchange chemical information with their neighbors to find out what they are doing, and decide accordingly. If enough cells do the same thing, it also starts doing it, and synchronizes with them. There is no central controller who gives orders. Just individual units, communicating with their neighbors, and acting accordingly. What about the most important part of ourselves? What raises these kinds of questions?

Is our consciousness an emerging property of our brain cells?

This question is too delicate and important, it deserves a post all by itself. Some emerging things are hard to define. You cannot touch an ant colony, only its components. She has no brain, no face, no body. And yet the colony interacts with the world. Just as colonies emerge from ants, things emerge from humans, like nations.

 What is a nation, its population?

Is it its institutions, its symbols like its flag, its colors or its hymn? The physical elements that it makes like cities, the territory that it occupies? All of these things are fluid. Populations change and are replaced. Institutions come and go, cities can be built and abandoned. Borders have changed throughout history, and symbols are replaced by new symbols. A nation has no face, no brain, no body.

Yet aren't the nations real? 

Of course, if, like the ant colonies, nations interact with the world. They can change the landscape, wage wars, grow and decline, and they can disappear. But they exist because many humans interact together. But not only the nations. All the complex structures around us emerge from us. Even if we don't realize it, we are constantly creating. Communities, companies, cities, societies. All of these things are entities with fundamentally different properties than the silly monkeys from which they emerged. We do not know why this is happening. We just observe it, and it seems to be a fundamental property of our universe. Without doubt it is even the most beautiful and the most marvelous property of our universe.

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