Tornadoes don’t touch down in Meadow Creek Valley. We’re narrow enough that tornadoes just skip over us. Tornadoes have, a couple of times, passed over and dropped twisted roofing tin torn off barns miles away.
Tornadoes, and their tropical cousins, hurricanes, cause so much damage and fear that societies have invested billions trying to understand and model them. No one has succeeded. That’s because tornadoes are an example of emergence.
We all are familiar with emergent phenomena, but the concept is seldom taught in schools. I went through all the course work for two Ph.D.s and never encountered it. I learned it walking down a street in Washington, D.C. pestering a systems researcher who’d used the term at a conference. I’ll never forget that moment.
You may have had better schools and courses and learned it already. I hope so. If not: emergence is a self-organizing process which gives a system patterns and qualities not possessed by any of its parts. Water and wind don’t possess the properties of tornadoes. These properties emerge when conditions are right.
Your eyes, consciousness, walking are all examples of emergence. None of the single cells of your body show the properties of any of these, but under the right conditions, they arise.
Surface tension of pools of water and ice crystals forming on a window pane show emergence on a much smaller scale. Individual water molecules don’t have these qualities. The new qualities only appear when water molecules come together under the right conditions to enable creation of a new system.
Science and engineering are great at building things from smaller units whose properties we can understand and control. Skyscrapers, cars, airplanes all have qualities not present in their components. The engineer plans and builds complex structures based on qualities he knows exist in the building blocks.
When most scientists and engineers encounter a phenomena, they try to explain it through the properties of its components. If they can’t, they sometimes say it doesn’t exist. Some scientists contend consciousness and the mind do not exist, for example.
Some non-scientists also have a hard time with emergent phenomena. Anti-evolutionists sometimes say there must have been a creator for us to have eyes and all our other complex organs. They can’t accept self-organizing emergence. Or maybe they’ve just never heard of it.
Researchers will never succeed in understanding tornadoes by examining the qualities of the water molecules which make up a tornado. Progress is only being made in predicting tornadoes when researchers focus on the self-organizing phase. When temperature, wind and rain reach certain tipping points, they organize a new system with new properties: the tornado.
Ecological systems are all self-organized at tipping points. An ecological system emerges when conditions change and reach a tipping point. Over-harvesting one species, such as cod, may cause a tipping point which creates a new system where seals dominate and the cod of New England never reach their previous abundance.
Eliminating wolves in an ecosystem causes deer to multiply and destroy vegetation causing erosion of streams. Introduction of sagebrush led to an ecosystem dominated by sage and sage-grouse but with bare ground between sage plants and erosion leading to spectacular canyons. Cheatgrass introduced into the same system leads to more extensive fires, reduction of sage and sage-grouse, less erosion, and room for a variety of other species.
In animals, the rise of social groups often leads to larger brains which enables the species to adapt to many new ecosystems. In some cases the larger brains have led to the emergence of consciousness.
Some distinguish three forms of emergent structures. A first-order emergent structure occurs as a result of shape interactions (for example, hydrogen bonds in water molecules lead to surface tension). A second-order emergent structure involves shape interactions played out sequentially over time (for example, changing atmospheric conditions as a snowflake falls to the ground build upon and alter its form).
A third-order emergent structure is a consequence of shape, time, and heritable instructions. For example, an organism’s genetic code sets boundary conditions on the interaction of biological systems in space and time. At least until different sets of genes self-organize into a new structure, such as wings, and flying is suddenly a reality.
Some even say a phenomenon we refer to as god might arise from the self-organization of a big brained species. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Certainly, the advanced social organization enabled by higher intelligence helps the less physically strong survive and thrive. Neaderthals were stronger and had bigger brains, but who won out?
Ecological system researchers often show that living systems cannot be reduced to underlying laws of physics, chemistry, or even biology. These rules, or laws, mainly describe regularities and consistent relationships at one scale. These patterns may be very illuminating and important, but the underlying causal agencies often cannot be specified because they depend on emergent phenomena that arise at a higher scale.
So, tornadoes, lightning, and other weather patterns are immune to prediction and control by the laws of physics and chemistry. Emergent phenomena are like that. They self-organize when the requisite constituent parts reach a tipping point.
Someday soon, someone will apply the lessons from tornadoes to social organization and consciousness. Won’t that be fun?
There’s way too much about emergence to explore in one essay, but you can read more, if you like, in our free on-line book available at this link.