29 June 2010

Emergence: It's not just about ants, but sperm, and cities, and flowers, and computer programming and...

I don't often ponder theology, especially not publicly.  But my obsession with social insects has led me to start reading about a phenomenon that I find, well, somewhat divine.  And yet at the same time this phenomenon is utterly mundane--the epitome of designerlessness.  It's called "emergence."

Emergence is the invisible hand described by Adam Smith, at work not only in free markets, but in the organization of almost everything in the natural world.  (I highly recommend  the book Emergence by Steven Johnson.  He lays out several fascinating examples of emergence in nature, and talks about how the phenomenon will apply to our technology in the future.  The book was written before social networking and Wikipedia, so it could use a second edition, but it is fascinating nonetheless.)

Emergence guides the development of a fetus, dictates when the cherry blossoms appear, and creates thoughts from electrical impulses.  And, of course, emergence is at the heart of why ants are so darn cool.  Enduring systems of positive and negative feedback on a very local scale will inevitably create structure on very large scales, and that's it.  The system itself is the designer, with each component doing his (or more likely her) part.  The power of creation is not outside of nature, but within it.

01 June 2010

How I poisoned four people (and other musings on the epistemology of science)

I borrowed my grandmother's wildflower book for the Skyline to the Sea hike yesterday, and we managed to identify some pretty cool plants.  We found Red Clintonia, Globe Lilies (see photo on right), Giant Wake Robin, and Hairy Star Tulips, among dozens of others.   I think I may have been more excited about the names than the flowers.  My favorite name was Rattlesnake Plantain, which the book explained was "named for it's discoverer, John Goodyear."  What?  Was his real name John Rattlesnake Plantain Goodyear?  And what do desert reptiles and jungle fruits have to do with the redwood forest?  I have yet to figure this one out.

It was fun to put names to flowers, but the futility of it was always in the back of my mind.  Humans love to assign vocabulary words to things, to taxonimize, categorize, classify. But does a Fetid Adder's Tongue by any other name not smell as fetid?