Emergence is the manifestation of a property by the system not previously a property of the system or any of its elements or sub-systems. It is a single word to encapsulate the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The emergent property disappears if any part of the system is disrupted or removed. One of the emergent qualities that Type 4 systems exhibit is inertia to disruption; the ability to respond to disruptions and recover from them.
The emergent property is not a simple sum or aggregate of the system parts, but a new property created by the wholeness of the system.
So a bunch of birds is just a bunch of birds until they form a coherent flock – an emergent phenomenon – which is not just the sum of a lot of birds, and is not something inside any one particular bird in the bunch. Emergence was first described by biologists and can be illustrated by the hierarchy of:
- Biochemistry out of which a single cell emerges
- Basic organisms that emerge out of aggregated systems of single cells
- The emergence of specialized organs within an organism
- The emergence of social structures such as swarms, flocks, herds, families, and tribes
- The emergence of motility, sight, chemotaxic sensitivity to certain chemicals which evolve into taste and smell as specialization continues
- The emergence of animal life able to actively respond to environmental challenges in order to survive
- The emergence of self-awareness in humans
It is interesting to note how at each level more internal specialization within the system gives more variety of response possibilities and therefore less requirement for specially suited environmental conditions.
This principle – that greater internal system diversity gives greater capacity and capability to cope with external perturbations – is critical to understanding the importance of Systems Theory.
More internal variety in the system response possibilities means that there need be less specialization in terms of the external environment in which the system can thrive. The system is, therefore, more robust and adaptable because it has the requisite variety of response options for a greater range of perturbations or challenges from the environment that it is exposed to.
In every Complex Adaptive System, the emergent phenomenon is:
- Not found in the components of the system
- Will disappear if the system is broken up into its constituent parts or if a component of the system is removed
- Bestows a quality upon the whole of the system not previously existent.
Emergence can also apply to non-living systems:
- Interactions between air movement, humidity, evaporation and condensation are ubiquitous, yet a hurricane can be spontaneously produced as an emergent phenomenon of such interactions
- The “invisible hand” of the economy described by Adam Smith is an emergent quality of free markets
- A termite mound is an inanimate physical structure that emerges in a similar way to a flock of birds, though a termite has no more conscious idea of how to build a termite mound than a bird knows how to rally and lead a flock.
Reducing something to its constituent parts very seldom gives us much insight into how any natural phenomenon such as an organization, a weather system or the human body does what it does through “emergence”. For instance, how much does it really help a doctor to know that the human body can ultimately be reduced to:
- 76% oxygen
- 18.5% carbon
- 9.5% hydrogen
- 3.2% nitrogen
- 1.5% calcium
- 1% phosphorus
- 0.4% potassium
Yet the way we are typically taught to “analyze” a problem and “engineer” a solution is by reducing it to its constituent parts in the misguided belief that this will elucidate the emergent magic and mystery of the whole.
This reductionist analysis is the serial deletion of “emergence” as we work backward, breaking up and negating each level of emergent system structure and value as we go.
The secret to life lies not in deconstructing matter to discover smaller and smaller discrete energy “particle” constructs, but in understanding how these entities interact and self- organize to achieve higher and higher levels of emergence by forming more complex, more adaptive, more enduring Type 4 Systems such as ecosystems, self-aware creatures and cognitively intelligent beings.
It is fascinating to realize that the universe and every living thing in it has developed from “first principles” under the influence of just four fundamental Attractors; gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, and strong nuclear force upon just a few discrete sub-atomic energy “particles” – it is all just serial emergence after that!