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.

The "watchmaker" metaphor is a famous argument for the existence of a great designer.  It was famously articulated by William Paley in 1802 in the following passage:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

            – William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

Here Paley reasons that a watch cannot simply appear on its own, so why would we expect anything complex to just appear on its own?  This is essentially the same gut reaction that has propagated the myth of the "ant queen" in popular culture.  Just look at the fascist ant dictator in DreamWork's 1998 film Antz.  But an ant colony has no leader.  The ants make decisions not in reaction to orders from on high, but based on chemical signals and local interactions, just like the neurons in our brains.  Unlike the ejaculation scene in Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, our body does not follow the orders of central command, but rather each cell reacts to its neighbors and the signals it receives to create order from chaos.

The reason we have had so much trouble discarding the idea that the ant queen is in fact in charge, or that a command center truly yells out orders to sperm that look like Woody Allen, or that nature needs a designer, is that we are still struggling to comprehend the difference between these phenomenon and the complexity of the watch.  That difference is scale.  Emergence depends on enormous size and time scales that our puny human minds simply cannot wrap themselves around.  If you look at a single ant, she is not a designer.  She is an idiot.  She blindly reacts to chemical signals despite any evidence that her actions might be misguided.  For example, a live ant smothered in the "I'm dead" pheromone will continually be carried off squirming to the ant graveyard until she has managed to clean herself off.  Or two ants reaction to the "Push this" pheromone will push the same piece of food back and forth for hours without moving it an inch.  However, with hundreds of ants pushing at the same pile of food, the majority of it is bound to get back to the nest.  And with millions of ants making tiny decisions over twenty years (the lifespan of a colony), not only does structure emerge, but the colony as a whole takes on stronger, smarter organizational structures, and makes wiser decisions about what to do and when.  The colony learns.

Don't believe me?  Look at the work of Deborah Gordon at Stanford University.

I could talk about emergence for days, so expect more.  Right now I am in DC, supposedly running errands and starting work.  So I best get back to that for now.